Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Dark Side Of Karl Rove

In a prior post I discussed an article by Joshua Green, which appears in the latest edition of the Atlantic Monthly, the subject of which is the career of Republican political strategist, and Bush campaign guru, Karl Rove. In that post, I discussed Rove's more conventional strengths (and there are many) and weaknesses (regrettably few) as a political operative and campaign manager. What I left out of that discussion is the five hundred pound gorilla lurking in the corner of every room that Rove occupies. To put it in plain English, Karl Rove is the most underhanded, nasty, and downright dirty political mind in the modern era of American politics. Furthermore, Rove has been remarkably consistent in returning to the same dubious tactics and themes in campaign after campaign. The current presidential contest is no exception to the rule. This race has been vintage Karl Rove, which makes some of the recent events which have garnered substantial media attention that much more suspect.

To his credit, Rove has been as adept at keeping the reality of his reputation obscured from the public's eye, as he has been at winning elections - and in doing so, often taking the "by any means necessary" credo to its most extreme and destructive conclusions. By way of introduction, I rely on the words of Joshua Green:

This summer, with the presidential race looking as if it would be every bit as close as the one in 2000, I spent several months examining the narrowest races in Karl Rove's career to better understand the tendencies and tactics of the man who will arguably have more influence than anyone else over how this election unfolds. Rove has already generated a remarkable body of literature, including several notable books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. I spoke to many of Rove's former candidates and their opponents; to his past and present colleagues and the people who faced off against them; and to political insiders and journalists-primarily in Texas and Alabama, where Rove has done the majority of his campaign work. I learned much about Rove that hasn't made it into the public sphere.

...How Rove has conducted himself while winning campaigns is a subject of no small controversy in political circles. It is frequently said of him, in hushed tones when political folks are doing the talking, that he leaves a trail of damage in his wake-a reference to the substantial number of people who have been hurt, politically and personally, through their encounters with him. Rove's reputation for winning is eclipsed only by his reputation for ruthlessness, and examples abound of his apparent willingness to cross moral and ethical lines.
Media Manipulation

One of Rove's most valuable assets is his ability to manipulate the media in order to achieve the desired result. Through a careful study of the patterns of reporting, Rove has distilled a few core principles. First, because of the media's over-reaction to charges of bias, the press will treat every story in a he said/she said manner - merely reporting what each side of an issue has to say with minimal, if any, determination of what the objective truth is.

Second, Rove relies on the fact that the media prefers to cover a controversy, so even if truth is not on your side, the he said/she said dynamic will be enough to create a controversy which in turn will breathe life into even the most scurrilous of rumors and innuendo in a self sustaining cycle. Rove has incorporated these theories into all facets of government, especially in the realm of marketing policy to the public. A post on
Legal Fiction discusses, in depth, this political technique vis a vis the Spinsanity book. Here is an excerpt from the book via Legal Fiction:

Bush has made dishonest PR tactics his standard method for marketing policies to the press and public. Whether on offense or defense, whether the issue is foreign or domestic, the answer is almost always the same - more deceptive spin. For all of his personal and scandal-related dishonesty, Clinton did not promote his policies in such a continually misleading fashion, nor did Reagan use them as systematically or consistently. (p. 238-39)
The examples of this dishonesty in action, and the reliance on the media to dutifully report the administration's talking points with an uncritical eye, are too numerous to list - especially for the purposes of this discussion. Refer to the post on Legal Fiction for the details.

The relevance to this discussion, however, is how Rove uses his knowledge of gaming the media in the context of political campaigns. Green tells of this story from an Alabama judicial race involving one of Rove's candidates:

One particularly damaging ad run by the Hooper campaign [Rove's client] was a fictionalized scene featuring a lawyer receiving an unwanted telephone solicitation from an unseen Chief Justice Hornsby, before whom, viewers were given to understand, the lawyer had a case pending. The ad, and the unseemly practices on which it was based, drew national attention from Tom Brokaw and NBC's Nightly News.

The attacks began to have the desired effect. Judicial races that no one had expected to be competitive suddenly narrowed, and media attention-especially to Hooper's race after the "dialing for dollars" ad-became widespread. [emphasis added]
Think about that for a moment. Rove created a "fictionalized" scene, played it off as fact, and then rode the wave of media attention surrounding the controversy to its full potential. This one ad generated more coverage and exposure than he could have ever hoped to achieve through expensive media buys alone - and the best part is, it was almost entirely free. The message reached the voters, and the media stayed above the fray, refusing to sully its hands with the unsavory task of actually debunking the untruths.

Sound familiar? It should. That is precisely the strategy Rove employed with the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads - point by point. Through surrogates (another trademark Rove tactic), the Bush campaign spread "fictionalized" accounts of Kerry's service in Vietnam, and then cashed in as the media provided a windfall of free coverage, without assessing the veracity of the claims (or only doing so half-heartedly). It was extremely successful. Rove effectively shut down the momentum Kerry had built up emerging from the Democratic Convention and was able to turn an issue that was a much touted Kerry strength (perhaps too much so), his decorated Vietnam service, into a negative. After the damage was done, few in the electorate were left with the impression that Kerry's service was an unmitigated positive. The media did too little too late to undo the harm.

It should come as no surprise that someone who is this attuned to media patterns of coverage is also very knowledgeable of the motivations and weaknesses of the individual members of the press. Rove has used threats of restricted access and career ending bans to de-fang the Washington press corp. For years, they were as sycophantic a bunch as had ever before been seen on Capitol Hill. He even banished veteran correspondent, and elder statesperson, Helen Thomas to the back row never to be called on again because she showed the temerity to give the President a tough question and a related follow up. Only now has the media begun to rediscover its role, and not a moment too soon. This partially explains Rove's ability to elude media scrutiny of his disreputable record, despite the fact that it is the worst kept secret in the Beltway.

In the opening pages of Bush's Brain, Wayne Slater describes an encounter with Rove while covering the 2000 campaign for the Dallas Morning News. Slater had written an article for that day's paper detailing Rove's history of dirty tricks, including a 1973 conference he had organized for young Republicans on how to orchestrate them. Rove was furious. "You're trying to ruin me!" Slater recalls him shouting. The anecdote points up one of the paradoxes of Rove's career. Articles like Slater's are surprisingly few, yet as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics - some of them breathtaking - as a matter of course.
Negative Campaigning

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the current campaign that Rove's most notable tendency in close races has been to go negative against his opponent, early and often.
Negative campaigning is nothing new. It has been a staple of politics since the dawn of time. Karl Rove did not invent the stuff, and thus this affliction should not be laid at his doorstep. What can be said of Rove, though, is that he has repeatedly taken this aspect of campaigning to new depths, beyond the pale of decency, even for the rough and tumble world of American politics.

Some of Rove's darker tactics cut even closer to the bone. One constant throughout his career is the prevalence of whisper campaigns against opponents. The 2000 primary campaign, for example, featured a widely disseminated rumor that John McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had betrayed his country under interrogation and been rendered mentally unfit for office.
Ponder that for a moment. Rove was running a candidate who, although in theory had supported the Vietnam War, had used his father's connections to avoid service. He then proceeded to question the heroic service of John McCain, who himself could have used his family's connections to avoid combat but opted against it - going as far as to label him, of all things, a traitor. The veteran is the traitor, and the draft dodger is the patriot. Rove's audacity knows no bounds, but the same message has been trumpeted in Rove's attacks on Kerry's distinguished service. He has shown a willingness do disregard the patriotism and service of veterans in the interest of victory at the polls.

McCain actually refused early release from a POW camp because it was won through the influence of his father, himself an Admiral in the US Navy. McCain chose to stay in a POW camp rather than enjoy the benefits of privilege that his fellow prisoners did not enjoy. Is there a starker contrast to Bush who did not hesitate to use his father's connections to avoid the draft, and to his advantage in almost every other aspect of his adult life? Rove, nevertheless, used the very fact that McCain was in a POW camp for 5 1/2 years against him. I guess the concept of supporting the troops does not apply when you are an opponent of Karl Rove.

But it didn't end there for McCain. Rove also distorted McCain's record to actually claim that McCain had consistently voted against veteran's benefits, a charge particularly insidious for someone with McCain's resume. Still, despite the nastiness of these two attacks, Rove's lowest point came with the whisper campaign, supported by cold calls by surrogates in South Carolina, that suggested that McCain had fathered an African American child out of wedlock. This was particularly despicable because McCain and his wife had the generosity of spirit to adopt an impoverished Bangladeshi orphan years earlier. Rove relied on the dark complexion of McCain's adopted child to give the rumor its strength.

The treatment McCain received drove him to challenge Bush in a debate about the tactics employed, to which Bush replied, "It's just politics." McCain responded, "Not everything is politics George." McCain's naivete shined through. For Karl Rove, there is nothing else.

The Homosexual Card

I discussed in my prior post about Rove that he has deliberately made homosexuality a topic of discussion in this election, more than any other election in the nation's history, through his frequent utilization of the wedge issue of affording marriage rights to homosexuals, and the related Constitutional amendment to outlaw such a practice. It turns out that homosexuality is a bit of a preoccupation for Karl Rove, and a frequent line of attack to levy against his political adversaries. This is a cynical line of attacks that are not only dishonest, but suggest that there is something wrong with being a homosexual in the first place.

More often a Rove campaign questions an opponent's sexual orientation. Bush's 1994 race against Ann Richards featured a rumor that she was a lesbian, along with a rare instance of such a tactic's making it into the public record-when a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for "appointing avowed homosexual activists" to state jobs.
But Rove does not reserve these types of accusations for electoral opponents alone:

Another example of Rove's methods involves a former ally of Rove's from Texas, John Weaver, who, coincidentally, managed McCain's bid in 2000. Many Republican operatives in Texas tell the story of another close race of sorts: a competition in the 1980s to become the dominant Republican consultant in Texas. In 1986 Weaver and Rove both worked on Bill Clements's successful campaign for governor, after which Weaver was named executive director of the state Republican Party. Both were emerging as leading consultants, but Weaver's star seemed to be rising faster. The details vary slightly according to which insider tells the story, but the main point is always the same: after Weaver went into business for himself and lured away one of Rove's top employees, Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function. Weaver won't reply to the smear, but those close to him told me of their outrage at the nearly two-decades-old lie. Weaver was first made unwelcome in some Texas Republican circles, and eventually, following McCain's 2000 campaign, he left the Republican Party altogether. He has continued an active and successful career as a political consultant - in Texas and Alabama, among other states - and is currently working for McCain as a Democrat. [emphasis added]
Anyone familiar with the meme's that have been circulating through the right wing punditry will recognize Rove's fetishistic use of the homosexuality card against Kerry. From the onset, Kerry has been called effete, effeminate, French looking, foppish, etc. There have also been many insinuations about the relationship of Kerry and Edwards based on Edwards' comely appearance and there physical contact at campaign events. Perhaps motivated by the tightening polls, Rove has leaned more vigorously on the homosexual angle. Consider these events as reported on Legal Fiction:

Fox News Reporter Carl Cameron - who covered Bush in 2000 while his wife was campaigning for Bush - included the following quotes which Kerry was credited with saying, even though he didn't say any of them. Now, I've never been to journalism school, but I suspect they teach you not to do this. Anyway, the following quotes appeared on the Fox News website, before they jerked it down.

Rallying supporters in Tampa Friday, Kerry played up his performance in Thursday night's debate, in which many observers agreed the Massachusetts senator outperformed the president.

"Didn't my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate!" Kerry said Friday.
. . .

"It's about the Supreme Court. Women should like me! I do manicures," Kerry said.
. . .

"I'm metrosexual - he's a cowboy," the Democratic candidate said of himself and his opponent.

A "metrosexual" is defined as an urbane male with a strong aesthetic sense who spends a great deal of time and money on his appearance and lifestyle. [emphasis added throughout]
If history is any indicator, I expect Rove to ramp up the innuendo and rumor in the coming weeks regarding the sexual orientation of his Democratic rivals. The fact that this is even considered and effective attack in the first place is a testament to how much further America needs to progress on the issue of homosexuality. The fact that Rove frequently returns to this line of attack, reinforcing the notion that it is in fact an attack in the first place, is astoundingly ugly.

Rove's Lowest Low

Deciding on which moment in particular marks the nadir of Rove's dubious ethical record is not an easy task. Still, there is something about this anecdote that seems to stand out against the tawdry backdrop of Rove's career (again, note how Rove uses surrogates to accomplish his goals - and the undercurrent of homosexuality).

But no other example of Rove's extreme tactics that I encountered quite compares to what occurred during another 1994 judicial campaign in Alabama. In that year Harold See first ran for the supreme court, becoming the rare Rove client to lose a close race. His opponent, Mark Kennedy, an incumbent Democratic justice and, as George Wallace's son-in-law, a member in good standing of Alabama's first family of politics, was no stranger to hardball politics. "The Wallace family history and what they all went through, that's pretty rough politics," says Joe Perkins, who managed Kennedy's campaign. "But it was a whole new dimension with Rove."

...When his term on the court ended, he chose not to run for re-election. I later learned another reason why. Kennedy had spent years on the bench as a juvenile and family-court judge, during which time he had developed a strong interest in aiding abused children. In the early 1980s he had helped to start the Children's Trust Fund of Alabama, and he later established the Corporate Foundation for Children, a private, nonprofit organization. At the time of the race he had just served a term as president of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. One of Rove's signature tactics is to attack an opponent on the very front that seems unassailable. Kennedy was no exception.

Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children. "We were trying to counter the positives from that ad," a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile. "It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information," the staffer went on. "That was a major device we used for the transmission of this stuff. The students at the law school are from all over the state, and that's one of the ways that Karl got the information out-he knew the law students would take it back to their home towns and it would get out." This would create the impression that the lie was in fact common knowledge across the state. "What Rove does," says Joe Perkins, "is try to make something so bad for a family that the candidate will not subject the family to the hardship. Mark is not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin', tobacco-chewin', pickup-drivin' kind of guy. He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man, and what they tried to do was make him look like a homosexual pedophile. That was really, really hard to take." [emphasis added]
I think that speaks for itself. He actually started a rumor that a man who dedicated his life to public service in the interest of children's issues was a homosexual pedophile, driving that man out of a career of good works. If that is not scorched Earth campaigning, I do not know what is.

The Faux Attack

Above all things, Rove is a creature of habit. He has a successful formula for winning elections, and he repeats it time and again. In my prior post, I outlined his considerable logistical, organizational and technical talents that have been an asset to Rove over the past twenty-plus years. I also pointed out that his history might be a hindrance in this election because there is a changing dynamic in the nation, while Rove is less flexible in his outlook - opting instead to run this election as he has so many others in the insular markets of Texas and Alabama by appealing to the core conservative base.

One thing that is also clear, is that Rove uses almost identical tactics in every close race he is in, including and especially the current one: he manipulates the media to get free exposure for fictitious claims (Swifties), goes negative early and often attacking his opponents on their perceived strengths - showing no reluctance to assault the service of veterans (Swifties, flip-flopper, "liberal", etc.), he will cast his opponents as homosexuals (effete, French looking, Fox News quotes, etc.) and he will use surrogates to do most of the dirty work (all of the above). This takes me to the final tactic employed by Rove: he feigns an outrageous attack on his own candidate in order to paint his opponent in a negative light and/or distract the electorate from a pertinent topic in the news.

A typical instance occurred in the hard-fought 1996 race for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court between Rove's client, Harold See, then a University of Alabama law professor, and the Democratic incumbent, Kenneth Ingram. According to someone who worked for him, Rove, dissatisfied with the campaign's progress, had flyers printed up-absent any trace of who was behind them-viciously attacking See and his family. "We were trying to craft a message to reach some of the blue-collar, lower-middle-class people," the staffer says. "You'd roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and paperboy it at houses late at night. I was told, 'Do not hand it to anybody, do not tell anybody who you're with, and if you can, borrow a car that doesn't have your tags.' So I borrowed a buddy's car [and drove] down the middle of the street - I had Hefty bags stuffed full of these rolled-up pamphlets, and I'd cruise the designated neighborhoods, throwing these things out with both hands and literally driving with my knees." The ploy left Rove's opponent at a loss. Ingram's staff realized that it would be fruitless to try to persuade the public that the See campaign was attacking its own candidate in order "to create a backlash against the Democrat," as Joe Perkins, who worked for Ingram, put it to me. Presumably the public would believe that Democrats were spreading terrible rumors about See and his family. "They just beat you down to your knees," Ingram said of being on the receiving end of Rove's attacks. See won the race.
So Karl Rove initiated a campaign to attack his own candidate in order to discredit his opponent. Shocking? Yes. A one time affair? Not exactly. Rove also partook in a similar bit of chicanery during the closely contested 1986 Texas governor's race, "in which his candidate and mentor, the Republican oilman Bill Clements, sought to oust the Democratic incumbent Mark White." During this infamous chapter of Rovian campaigning, Rove bugged his office (though he has never acknowledged the fact) and then announced, innocently enough, that his office was bugged on the same day as "an evening debate in which his candidate was expected to fare poorly." Rove made White's camp look unethical, as if they were guilty of bugging his offices, and then used the revelation of such a "crime" to obscure the events of that night - which would have hurt his own candidate's prospects. Needless to say, Rove's candidate won.

Having seen Rove's penchant for pattern and repetition, does this tactic look familiar? While I have no proof to this effect, and what I am about to say is pure speculation (albeit based on Rove's extensive record), I think there is a good chance that the forged memos that CBS quoted from in a piece on Bush's National Guard service originated from Karl Rove. Before you dismiss this as the wild ravings of a conspiracy theorist, consider a few points.

First of all, it should be asked if Rove is capable of something like this. I think his record speaks for itself. If his career proves one thing, it is that he is capable of anything. What's worse, he has actually engaged in similar tactics before, using an attack on his own candidate to undermine his opponent, and Rove is known for repeating a successful formula.

Further, consider who this helped. It clearly helped Bush. Just when the media was turning its attention to Bush's controversial record in the Texas Air National Guard, as a sort of quid pro quo for giving so much attention to the Swift Boat Vets, that whole line of inquiry was cut off completely. No news organization will touch the topic with a proverbial ten foot pole for fear of appearing biased. In fact, CBS scuttled a whole program on the Iraq war that was set to air this month out of concern of appearing to harbor an anti-Bush agenda.

In addition, consider the nature of the memos. They didn't actually contain any new or particularly damaging information about Bush's record that wasn't also available in records released by the White House and Pentagon. The secretary of the alleged author of the memos, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, said that while they were forgeries, the content was an accurate depiction of her bosses sentiments. To think that CBS or a Kerry supporter would forge memos in order to parrot information that was available in the public record is beyond strategically unwise. They would have nothing to gain, and everything to lose - whereas Rove stood to gain tremendously.

An article appearing in the
Air Force Times summarizes the real record of Bush, and discusses the fact that for every substantive claim, there is corroboration outside of the forged memos. Here is one example:

"Lt. Bush is an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot," wrote his commanding officer in the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Houston, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Bush performed in an outstanding manner...a natural leader."

But from there, Bush's performance slipped. The descent began when Bush apparently did not follow an order to report for his annual flight physical in May 1972, which got him grounded.

The grounding was noted in one of the four documents unveiled by CBS - which were given to the White House, which released them to the rest of the media. It appears to be an order signed by Killian suspending Bush from flight status "due to failure to perform to USAF/TexANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination (flight) as ordered."

Handwriting experts hired by many media organizations as well as other critics contend the document, and possibly all four, are forgeries. However, Killian's order is confirmed by two documents that were not part of the CBS papers. The first is a White House-released letter from the commander of the 147th Fighter Group, Col. Bobby W. Hodges, to its Texas higher command dated Sept. 5, 1972, with a subject line of "Suspension From Flying Status."

The letter documents the missed flight physical and the suspension, "effective 1 Aug 1972." A Sept. 29 order from the National Guard Bureau further confirms the missed physical and the suspension.
For the record, I am not absolving CBS's role in all of this. They should never have aired the forged memos, no matter what the source. Simple journalistic scrutiny would have revealed the fact that they were forgeries, and the lack of these measures is inexcusable. That being said, they have suffered enough.

Whether or not the CBS memo scandal eventually gets traced back to Karl Rove or not remains to be seen. It is certainly possible that Rove had nothing to do with it, and I reiterate my lack of certainty, but it is Rove's record itself which leads many to suspect his hand in this matter. At the very least, it has been a serendipitous turn of events for Bush. Regardless, Rove's record is shameful enough to warrant widespread condemnation and attention. The fact that he has been able to avoid such deserved scorn is a confounding reality.

I will leave the conclusion to Joshua Green:

If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element. He seems to understand - indeed, to count on-the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.

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