Jonathan Chait

Karl Rove Outdoes Himself

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I've written before about Karl Rove's hilarious tendency to project his own flaws onto others, a tendency that has pushed far beyond mere hypocrisy and well into pathology. A wonderful example comes in today's Wall Street Journal op-ed column, in which the former Bush advisor assails Democrats for nasty, vicious personal attacks:

Personal attacks generally don't work unless they're seen as fair, credible and pertinent. Voters must think the character shortcomings are both persistent and relevant. If not, the assaults will fail, even backfire.

The Democrats' reliance on this strategy may rescue a few otherwise lost campaigns. But it will further besmirch the reputations of the Democratic Party and its leader, Mr. Obama. The man who complained on the night of his election about the "pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long" is complicit as candidate after candidate in his party adds arsenic to the nation's political well.

While Rove retires to his fainting couch, let me excerpt Josh Green's memorable 2004 Atlantic article describing Rove's political methods:

[A]s I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tacticssome of them breathtakingas a matter of course.

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 upabsent any trace of who was behind themviciously 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.

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. 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 recordwhen a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for "appointing avowed homosexual activists" to state jobs.

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 consultantin Texas and Alabama, among other statesand is currently working for McCain as a Democrat.

But no other example of Rove's extreme tactics that I encountered quite compares to what occurred during another 1994 judicial campaign in Alabama.

If you haven't read Green account of the 1994 Alabama judicial race, you really must. The short story is that Rove's candidate was running against a judge known for helping troubled youth. Rove turned that apparent virtue into a liability by spreading rumors that the opponent was a pedophile. He is quite a specimen.

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