Killing Two Birds With One Stone
How “King Karl” Rove Played John Cornyn Against Tom Pauken and Dan Morales
The following article is an excerpt from Boy Genius:
Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush, ©2003 by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon. Used by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Not every conservative Christian was as enthusiastic and effusive about George W. Bush as was Marvin Olasky, the avatar of compassionate conservatism. In fact, there was one high-profile Christian in the Texas Republican Party leadership whom Rove would gladly have banished to a Trappist monastery, where a code of silence is strictly enforced.
Karl Rove’s fight with Tom Pauken began in 1994. It involved the one faction in the party Rove had underestimated: the evangelical Christians who had come into the Republican fold with Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Nowhere had their strength been more evident than at the 1994 Republican state convention in Fort Worth. Christian Right delegates filled the convention center two blocks from the hotel where John Kennedy spent the night of November 21, 1963. Prayer breakfasts drew bigger crowds than hospitality suites. The virtuous William Bennett came in first in the presidential straw vote. Texas Senator Phil Gramm won only 8 percent of the pool because he was soft on defense of the unborn. Every
winning candidate (and most losing candidates) for party office praised God and excoriated abortion. And U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was booed when she stood up to address the convention. Not because of anything she said in her speech, but because she openly supported women’s reproductive rights.
Rove could count.
He knew he had lost control of the party. But with his new candidate, George W. Bush, then starting a race for the governorship against an incumbent with approval ratings in the 60s and 70s, Rove had to control the party chairmanship. The new evangelical majority had already thrown out Fred Meyer, George H. W. Bush’s hand-picked chairman, and were backing Tom Pauken, a Dallas lawyer who had run the ACTION volunteers program for Ronald Reagan. Pauken was a stout, pugilistic conservative who had run two bruising if losing campaigns against Jim Mattox, a liberal Democratic congressman from Dallas. He was backed by an uncompromising faction Rove couldn’t control. So Rove recruited his own candidate: Dallas-area Congressman Joe Barton, who spent three days campaigning under the rubric “Pro-Life Joe.” Barton–one of Rove’s first clients when he ran for the U.S. House race in 1984–showed up with an impressive list of supporters: Senators Gramm and Hutchison, both elected to office under the guidance of Karl Rove; most of the Republican delegation in the U.S. House; and the party’s new marquee star, the son of the President of the United States, George W. Bush.
The Christian delegates weren’t impressed.
The fight for the state chair was a rare miscalculation for Rove. Even if he was fighting within the confines of the party, the pragmatist known for picking winning candidates had picked a fight he couldn’t win. It was over before the first “Grand Old Prayer Session” drew 3,500 delegates on the opening day of the convention. But Rove and Barton wouldn’t let it go. The vote was set for Saturday. By early Friday evening the beleaguered Congressman Barton was barking at his operatives: “I’m tired of hearing what I can’t do. I want to see their cards. I want them to prove they can do it.” Rove continued to beat the dead horse on which he had bet $100,000 in campaign cash and the political future of George W. Bush.
When Barton finally saw the Christian delegates’ cards, he folded. Tom Pauken held 3,076 commitments to Joe Barton’s 2,162. Instead of a floor fight on the final day of the convention, delegates embraced a platform that supported constitutional rights for the unborn, the repeal of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, the end of the state’s authority to compel children to attend school, a repeal of the minimum wage, and a return to the gold standard. Eight years later, only the quaint monetary policy seems extreme in the context of a Congress led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Yet Bush immediately distanced himself from his party’s platform.
Rove and Bush came to an important strategic conclusion in Fort Worth. To govern on behalf of the corporate right, they would have to appease the Christian right. Both Rove and Bush were pragmatic economic conservatives. Rove would say he had no great abiding faith, and only when Bush began his campaign for the presidency would he begin to speak more openly about his religious beliefs. Neither of the men were Pat Robertson Republicans. But the 1994 convention taught them a valuable lesson. The party’s economic conservatives and social conservatives had to be kept in harness.
What was learned in Fort Worth was evident in Bush’s accommodation of the Christian conservatives’ agenda and his zealous pursuit of the business
community’s agenda after he became governor. It was also evident when Rove retained the services of Ralph Reed, who had served as executive director of the Christian Coalition, as Bush prepared to enter the Republican presidential primaries.
They also concluded that Tom Pauken had to go.
Yet Pauken had fallen in line (more or less), coming to the same conclusion reached by Rove and Bush. The marriage of the Christian conservatives and the economic conservatives had to be made to work if the party was to work. This marriage, after all, defines the modern Republican Party. Pauken sparred with Rove but was well behaved during Bush’s first legislative session in 1995. As Bush’s second biennial session got underway in 1997, though, Pauken appeared to be testing the limits of his uneasy domestic relationship with Bush and Rove. And he was doing so at a time when Bush was preparing to use his success in managing the Texas Legislature to quietly begin his campaign for the presidency.
In January of that year, Pauken entered the race to succeed Mississippi lobbyist Haley Barbour as chairman of the national Republican Party. Rove would have been happy to see Pauken leave Texas, but not if he were moving into the national headquarters of the Republican Party. So the campaign against Pauken began. Rove’s old client, Bill Clements, began calling around the country informing high-level Republicans that Pauken was damaged goods.
Pauken claimed that Clements, by that time almost eighty years old and retired from politics, had offered him a job if he would withdraw from the election for the Republican national party chairmanship. He also accused the senior George Bush of pressing Clements to nudge him out of the race for party chair. According to Pauken, the former president feared that if Pauken were Republican National Committee chairman, he would get in the way of George W.’ s 2000 presidential race.
“Nuts,” Clements said. “It’s just nuts.”
“Baloney,” he said. “All of that is just absolute baloney.” Clements said he had met with Pauken for two hours, but there had been no job
offer. And certainly no discussion of any presidential campaign. Pauken held his ground, saying he would not “be bought.”
Colorado developer Jim Nicholson won the national eight-candidate race and Pauken kept his job as chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. But the feud continued. Rove saw to it that many big Republican funders did not contribute to the party. Pauken saw to it that Karl Rove + Company lost the Republican Party’s direct mail contract. If this lacked the intensity and drama of the feud between Lyndon Johnson and Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, it nevertheless made it more difficult for Rove to prepare for a presidential campaign.
Pauken also created a problem in the Legislature. The Texas Legislature meets every two years for 140 days, and some careful observers of the process have made the case that meeting for two days every 140 years might be preferable. The same constitutional framers who feared placing too much power in the hands of the governor also feared placing too much power in the hand of the Legislature. So sessions are biennial and salaries are laughable. The business lobby perennially includes at least 1,500 registered members, who spend approximately $250 million each session in their efforts to influence the votes of 181 legislators. Thus every two years the Texas Legislature becomes a bottleneck through which only the bills of the most powerful, most plaintive, most persistent, or most devious interests can pass.
A governor can draw up an agenda and get in line with competing interests. Or he can use his political skills and expend his political capital to get his own legislative package enacted. Bush’s first session, in 1995, won rave reviews from the critics. He charmed legislators by connecting with them individually. And he delivered on his campaign promises of tort reform, more prisons, a more punitive juvenile justice system, and some education reform. “Like a knife through butter,” was how lobbyist Bill Miller described Bush’s run through the Legislature in 1995.
After he lost his race for the national committee chair, Tom Pauken returned to Texas and settled into the 1997 legislative process like a tropical depression.
The big reform proposal Bush was delicately moving through the Legislature would have replaced the state’s creaky corporate franchise tax with a tax on partnerships. (The franchise tax functioned like an income tax on corporations, but limited partnerships were exempt, so many businesses escaped taxation.) Property taxes would have been reduced. And lost revenue would be replaced by taxes on goods and services. It is a cultural imperative that Republicans don’t raise taxes, so the governor’s staff and the governor promised that whatever they passed would be “revenue-neutral.” No new money would be raised.
To Pauken, increasing any tax or taxing something heretofore untaxed was a tax increase–even if another tax was lowered. “It’s not a tax cut, it’s a tax hike,” Pauken told reporters at a Capitol press conference. He described Bush’s ambitious proposal as a scheme to “give us something in one hand and then take it back in another.” At times it was impossible to tell whether the hit sheets attacking the Republican governor’s tax plan were faxed from the offices of Democratic Party Chair Bill White or Republican Party Chair Tom Pauken.
Pauken urged Republican legislators to vote against the bill. He even bought newspaper ads attacking “Governor Bush’s Tax Increase.” And he succeeded in persuading Republicans to vote against their governor’s tax measure, which only passed in the House because Democrats supported it. The proposal finally died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Bush would have to wait two more years for a campaign sound bite describing him as “the governor who cut property taxes for all Texans.”
Pauken didn’t feel as if he had to wait until the current session ended. The tax bill was dead, but Pauken still tried to hang it around Bush’s neck. “It’s like something you would expect from a liberal Democrat,” he told Washington Post reporter Sue Anne Pressley in May 1997.
Here was a Post reporter in Austin working a softball page-one story about George W. Bush. Everything was falling into place for Rove. A former LBJ aide was talking Texan, observing that Bush didn’t seem to be doubled over with ambition: “The best politics is an easygoing politics. Some of these fellas overdo it when they try to run for something.” A Republican legislator was cultivating the log cabin myth. “When George moved back to Midland, he bummed an office, he bummed golf clubs, bummed shoes.” Even the Democratic Party’s press flack was singing Bush’s praises: “Some people thought he was not the brightest porch light on the block, and they were wrong about that.” The lone critical voice in a national daily story that framed Bush as a leading contender for the presidency just happened to be the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.
Rove and his surrogates couldn’t get their hooks into Pauken. But later in 1997, the Texas party chairman made a move that would put him directly in Karl Rove’s gunsights. He announced he would run for the Republication nomination for attorney general. It was the opportunity Rove had been waiting for. He didn’t have a mechanism to move Pauken out of the party chairmanship. But he did know how to win elections.
The 1998 attorney general’s election was one of the most peculiar races in a state known for its peculiar politics. And it almost requires a playbill to follow it from start to finish. Rove wanted to seize the moment and send Tom Pauken back to his Dallas law practice. But he also wanted to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Dan Morales, an attractive, unpredictable Hispanic who was often mentioned as a candidate for governor.
Morales was almost a perfect Democratic candidate. A Mexican-American from a middle-class family in San Antonio, Morales had attended preppy Trinity University in San Antonio and Harvard Law School. Out of Harvard, he worked as a prosecutor, a lawyer in a corporate law firm, and a state representative. He was a boyish-looking thirty-four when he was elected attorney general. This dapper Hispanic–trim, telegenic, and slightly dweeby–had more crossover appeal than Antonio Banderas. He turned on Mexican-American voters while turning out suburban women–and the
middle-class white men who often eluded the Democrats. If his Spanish wasn’t as good as that of George W. Bush, he had the surname to sell to Hispanic voters. And Morales was the only Democrat whose name would appear near the top of the ballot. His spectacular, vertical collapse, largely of his own doing, has all the intrigue and melodrama of a Mexican telenovela.
In the run-up to the 1998 election, Morales was the candidate who most worried George Bush. “The entire focus was on Morales. Bush did not want Dan Morales. He did not want Morales to win,” said a Republican campaign consultant to the 1998 election. Morales was the last star in the Democratic Party’s fading constellation, the only Democratic incumbent on the statewide ballot. If he could be eliminated–and the Democrats running for open seats defeated–the party that eight years earlier had a lock on every statewide office would hold none. And every statewide office is a power base, providing patronage, employment for campaign operatives, publicity platforms, and a farm team to develop new talent.
Eliminating Morales was a critical step in Rove’s project of dismantling the party from the top down. If he could do it in 1998, a Republican sweep from the top of the ballot down would be easier to achieve in 2002. Morales had also talked about running for governor. At the top or close to the top of the ballot, a star with Morales’ crossover appeal would discourage some voters from voting the straight Republican ticket that was becoming more common in Texas.
Rove also had a personal reason for targeting Dan Morales. Less than a year into Bush’s first term, the Democratic attorney general had filed suit against the nation’s big tobacco companies, to recover some of the money the state had incurred in treating tobacco-related illness. To prepare for the lawsuit, the lawyers Morales hired to represent the state decided to question Rove. Pitting a strong candidate against Morales also allowed Rove to settle the score with the attorney general who had dragged him into a lawyer’s office, put him under oath, and subjected him to a deposition by Democratic trial lawyers hired to represent the state in a lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
To kill two birds–Pauken and Morales–with one stone, Rove recruited to the Republican side of the race John Cornyn, a San Antonio lawyer who had once earned a living defending insurance companies, and who remained a faithful friend of the industry in the votes he cast as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Trim, tall, courtly, and blessed with prematurely white hair, Cornyn had more box-office appeal than the shorter, stocky Pauken. But because the Supreme Court is invisible to most voters–the Court of Criminal Appeals is the rocket-docket forum to executions in Texas–Cornyn didn’t have the high profile Pauken did. So Rove’s handpicked candidate entered the race trailing Tom Pauken.
As the state’s Republican Party chairman, Tom Pauken was an irritant for George Bush. As the state’s independent attorney general he would be a real threat. And it appeared that the under-funded Pauken, with broad-based support from hardcore Reagan Republicans and evangelical Christians, would defeat Rove’s hand-picked candidate, until an odd thing happened. Barry Williamson, a Republican who was leaving the Texas Railroad Commission to run for comptroller, changed his mind and joined the attorney general’s race. Williamson had won his first election to statewide office four years earlier, when Rove was advising his campaign. His entry in the race, with $1 million to spend, meant that two candidates, both flush with cash and both linked to Karl Rove, were now running against Tom Pauken.
“Rove was not supposed to get involved in Republican primaries,” said a source close to the Cornyn campaign. Rove was so formidable that Republican candidates didn’t want him in the primaries. “But Pauken was in the race,” the campaign source said. “And Bush hated Pauken. So the whole idea was that in a three-man race, Rove could see that Cornyn was elected.” Williamson became the political equivalent of a banderillero, the bullring cape man who works on foot, sticking small barbs into the bull’s neck–to provoke it and make it charge, while lowering its head to make it easier for the matador to complete the kill.
While Williamson was lowering Pauken’s head, Rove was raising the profile of the real candidate in the race. “Karl was worried about Cornyn’s name,” the Cornyn campaign source said. “He said it was a bad name for politics. Nobody could pronounce it. And John didn’t have an issue to run on. So Karl decided he should file the tobacco suit.”
Here was another stone to hit his two birds. The tobacco suit that Rove had Cornyn file, according to this campaign source, was a challenge to the contingency fees that had been earned by five attorneys the state had hired to sue the tobacco industry. That original suit had been filed in 1996 by Dan Morales.
The suit had been a difficult issue for Bush. As governor, he had to support going to court to recover billions the state had spent on health care for indigent patients with tobacco-related illnesses. Yet he opposed industry-wide lawsuits like the cases several states already filed against the tobacco industry. Bush had run for office promising tort reform. “Putting an end to junk lawsuits that clog our courts,” was a Rove one-liner Bush repeated like a mantra while campaigning. He was successfully pushing a package of tort reforms through the Legislature. And the tobacco companies were major Republican Party donors and underwriters of the party’s national conventions. Bush also knew there was neither sufficient staff nor money for the attorney general to undertake the lawsuit. As Mississippi had done, Texas had to retain lawyers on contingency fee. This arrangement would cost the state nothing up front, but if the state prevailed, the fees would enrich the plaintiffs’ lawyers hired by the state. And most (if not all) plaintiffs’ lawyers, or trial lawyers, are Democrats. Derided by the senior George Bush as “trial lawyers in tassel loafers,” they were the very Democratic funders George W. Bush believed had defeated his father.
The governor was in a box.
So was Rove.
As the governor’s campaign strategist, Rove was the architect of the campaign Bush ran against the state’s trial lawyers. He helped devise the tort reform program Bush was pushing through the Legislature. And he had a personal conflict. From 1991 to 1996, Rove worked for Philip Morris, the tobacco company with the largest market share in Texas and the nation, earning $3,000 a month. And the way monetary damages are awarded in multiple-defendant law-suits, Rove’s client would take the biggest hit if the state collected on tobacco-related health costs.
The tobacco companies had made Rove’s difficult position ever more difficult. In an effort to discourage Morales from suing them, Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Brown & Williamson hired a political consultant to conduct a push poll targeting
Morales. Rove wasn’t a tobacco company executive, employee, or even a lobbyist. So he would not be named a party to a tobacco suit. But his professional relationship with Philip Morris made him a potential witness–putting him in the one position political operatives and presidents try very hard to avoid: under oath. The tobacco companies’ push poll made that even more likely. Push polls test public support of candidates while measuring the effect of negative information provided by the pollster. They are sometimes used to disseminate negative information–which doesn’t have to be true because it is presented as a hypothetical–to “drive up the negatives” on a candidate. In the Morales poll, a traightforward question that asked about support for Morales was followed by a question that asked if it were known that Morales supported the causes of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. If the pollster conducts enough telephone interviews or mails out enough polls, he begins a public discussion about Morales’ work with Farrakhan, which never occurred. Tobacco’s push poll on Morales did in fact link him to Farrakhan, as well as to several other issues which were anathema in Texas: affirmative action, out-of-control youth gangs, and gun control. (Affirmative action was the unkindest cut of them all, as Morales had angered his own party by supporting and expanding a federal appeals court ruling against race-based admissions to the University of Texas Law School.)
Rove had been consulted in the design of the poll and several weeks later was summoned to the office of Philip Morris’ Austin lobbyist, Jack Dillard, when the lobby group met to discuss the results of the poll.
A year after Morales filed suit against the tobacco companies–with the reluctant public blessing of Governor Bush–Rove was sitting in the office of a Democratic plaintiffs’ lawyer. Under oath, Rove was answering questions about his work as a Philip Morris consultant–and whatever other questions the lawyer from the state’s tobacco trial team wanted answered. After Rove was questioned, Morales released transcripts of the deposition to reporters. This was not a common practice, although depositions are public record.
News accounts of the four-hour deposition were an embarrassment to Rove. Under oath he insisted that in order to avoid a conflict of interest, he never spoke with the governor about tobacco issues. Yet he was forced to admit that he delivered the results of the push poll to Bush executive assistant Joe Allbaugh. After admitting he served as a courier for the tobacco lobby, Rove backtracked. Yes, he had delivered the poll, he said, but only because he knew Allbaugh would never let Bush see it: “If Allbaugh had said let’s go show it to the governor, I don’t think we ought to. This is a matter between Philip Morris and Morales. I think we ought to ditch the poll.”
It required a grueling thirty minutes to get to Rove to the position of admitting he had done what he had done:
Q. Isn’t it fair to say that you had contact with the office of the Governor on an issue related to tobacco when you said you weren’t going to do that?
A. Fine. Yeah.
Q. That is correct, isn’t it. Your answer is yes?
The lawyers continued until Rove angrily agreed, or almost agreed, that he had been in contact with Bush’s office on a tobacco-related issue.
It’s rare that a political consultant’s core beliefs are tested under oath, but pressed by the Mississippi trial lawyer, Rove even got in a riff on tort reform. He said he had crafted Bush’s message about the excessive influence of trial lawyers. He referred to the “utility of frivolous and junk suits as a political issue.” And when pressed to explain frivolous lawsuits, Rove responded with the anecdotal bite tort reformers routinely rely on to support their position:
The woman from North Texas who buys her son a car or a grandson a car to drive back and forth to community college in Oklahoma and then gets sued when he has an accident. Or the guy in Lubbock who lends a ladder to his neighbor and then proceeds to get sued by his neighbor when his neighbor falls off the ladder for not having instructed him properly that the ladder is dangerous.
Suddenly, in the context of a contentious deposition, without missing a lick, the deponent shifted into the campaign mode:
And my opinion is that there are too many lawsuits and too many frivolous claims by people against other people, that the legal system is jerry-rigged. And it’s rigged in a certain way.
Gesturing in the direction of the portly lawyer interrogating him, Rove said there are health risks with certain products like saccharine, but the tradeoff is the health risks related to obesity.
In the end the state’s lawyers got little they could have used in court. And Rove never took the witness stand. But the industry settled with the state for $17 billion, and $3 billion in legal fees that would be paid separately by the tobacco companies. The five trial lawyers were going to collect paychecks that would put them in a tax bracket with Halliburton’s Dick Cheney, Enron’s Ken Lay, or GM’s Jack Welch. It was more than Rove could stomach. Billions in discretionary income in the hands of five men with a history of underwriting Democratic candidates could undo all the party-building Rove had accomplished since arriving in Texas twenty years earlier. After all, Texas is the Wild West of Campaign Finance: Any individual can give any amount of money to any candidate, as long as it is declared. The tobacco fees might mean that Democratic candidates for statewide office would have access to the kind of financial backing that had heretofore been available only to Republicans.
It was at this point that Rove pushed John Cornyn into the Beaux Arts federal courthouse that sits astride the state line in Texarkana, where the complex tobacco suit had just been settled. Cornyn–who had resigned from the Supreme Court to run for an office that would make him the lawyer for the state of Texas–stood in the courtroom and announced that he was “a private citizen” intervening in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that all the involved parties had agreed was over. And Judge David Folsom–who over two years had presided over hundreds of hearings, ruled on the admissibility of hundreds of thousands of documents, and resolved countless disputes between tobacco company lawyers and lawyers hired by the state–suddenly must have regretted leaving a lucrative law practice to preside over a courtroom being turned into a stage for second-rate political melodrama. (And it would only get worse. Bush filed his own motion to intervene, sending staff attorneys to Texarkana to take on the attorney general and the trial lawyers. It’s hard to imagine Bush would take such an action without consulting Rove. It’s also a safe assumption that Rove was consulted when Bush wisely withdrew his motion after several months.)
If jumping into a settled case was an egregious abuse of the federal court system, it was also smart politics. The candidate with the name that no one could pronounce had found his issue. Though the legal fees were set by an arbitration panel acceptable to all parties, did not come out of the state’s $17 billion settlement, and would revert to the tobacco companies if overturned, Cornyn could claim he was defending Texans against greedy trial lawyers.
In a bolt from the blue, Dan Morales announced in December 1997 that he was not running for reelection, and he was subsequently investigated by the feds for trying to secure a half billion dollar legal fee for an attorney he had secretly brought into the tobacco case. In the Republican race, Cornyn forced Pauken into a runoff and Williamson out of elective office and into the daily schmooze of the corporate lobby. Then, with $1.5 million provided by a tort-reform PAC and tens of thousands of dollars from the tobacco companies, Cornyn sent the underfunded Tom Pauken back home to Dallas.
Two years later in his law office, Pauken reflected on his defeat. “When I became party chair,” he said, “Karl discouraged people from giving to the party. The whole time I was chair, we didn’t get any Enron money, because Karl was close to those people and dissuaded them. It was difficult.” So Pauken knew what to expect when he entered the attorney general’s race. He would get little money from the party’s big corporate donors. And he would campaign against a candidate selected and managed by Karl Rove. “Cornyn was Karl’s candidate in the AG race,” Pauken said. What Pauken didn’t anticipate was a third candidate brought to serve as a spoiler. In the end he was outspent and outsmarted by Bush’s Boy Genius. Pauken believes that Rove called the shots at Williamson’s campaign, or at least that the political consultant running Williamson’s campaign was a little too tight with Karl Rove.
“Rove was close to the Williamson campaign, to that heavy-set campaign manager from the Northeast,” Pauken said. “Heavy-set” is a bit of an understatement. David Carney, brought in from New Hampshire to run Williamson’s campaign, stands six-four and weighs 325 pounds. Like Rove, he was a disciple of the late Lee Atwater. His negative ads, directed at both Cornyn and Pauken, seemed to hurt Pauken most. With no money to buy TV, Pauken couldn’t respond.
“I’m not mad at him,” Pauken said of Rove. “I beat him. He beat me. That’s life: I’m in political exile, and Karl’s running
Now Rove had the opportunity to dispose of the last member of the Democrats’ celebrated class of ’82. Running in Dan Morales’ place was former Democratic Attorney General Jim Mattox, first elected to statewide office with Ann Richards, Jim Hightower, Garry Mauro, and Mark White. Rove directed John Cornyn’s disciplined, well-financed, campaign against Mattox–the last of the traditional “lib-lab” Democrats–those who represented the liberal-labor wing of Texas’ Democratic Party. Mattox was once known as the junkyard dog of Texas politics because of his aggressive campaign tactics. In 1998, he met his match. With Karl Rove calling the shots, John Cornyn won the race. Four years later, he would be elected to the United States Senate, and the fight Karl Rove started over the $3 billion the lawyers earned representing the state would still be tied up in a district court in Houston.
Set in low relief in the transcript of Rove’s deposition in the initial suit–the one that may have portended the end of the career of Dan Morales–is a professional résumé so extraordinary that it must be considered more newsworthy than the embarrassing accounts of Rove’s four hours under oath.
In the course of questioning Rove about his background, Mississippi trial lawyer Charles Mikhail put down on paper a professional profile of the man who at the time remained largely behind the scenes. There were interesting bits of news, such as Rove’s admission for the first time that he had helped on George W. Bush’s 1978 congressional race–which Bush had to deny at the time because Rove was perceived to be too liberal in the West Texas district where Bush was running. And Rove’s mention of filing suit against former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh–after he failed to pay a bill he incurred when Karl Rove + Associates ran his failed senatorial race in Pennsylvania in 1991. But what is truly stunning is the account of Rove’s work in Texas since he answered the call of the elder George Bush in 1977.
In 1981, with the financial support of one of the state’s Republican aristocrats, polo playing South Texas rancher Tobin Williams, Rove founded the direct mail consulting firm, Karl Rove + Company. The list of Republican clients–and one Democrat (Phil Gramm in 1982)–defines the remaking of the political landscape in Texas:
Q. Mr. Rove, in the state of Texas other than Senator Hutchison and Governor Bush, what other clients have you had in political campaigns?
A. I’m not going to be able to remember them all, but Governor Clements in ’86. Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance in ’88. Treasurer [Kay Bailey] Hutchison’s ’90 race. State Senate campaigns at various times of Teel Bivins. Troy Fraser, Robert Duncan, Florence Shapiro, David Sibley, Bill Ratliff, Steve Ogden. I?m leaving somebody out in the Senate. State House, a number of State House races. Todd Staples, Troy Fraser when he was in the House. Congressman Lamar Smith. Congressman Joe Barton.
Q. Members of the Supreme Court?
A. Every Republican member of the Supreme Court. Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson. Railroad Commissioner Carole Rylander.
Rove was working from memory and forgot Hance?s 1990 primary race for governor. Six months after the deposition, the only Democratic justice on the nine-member Supreme Court would retire to be replaced by a Rove client. And John Cornyn might have been counted twice; he was leaving the Supreme Court to run for attorney general.
News is what?s happening at the moment. But an accurate sub-head to the Austin American-Statesman headline, ?State Lawyers Grill Bush Aide About Tobacco Role,? would have pointed to a story of far more durable news value. It might have read: ?Rove Admits to Making Texas a Republican State.? ?What?s your batting average?? the lawyer asked Rove. Rove responded as if he?d been asked to state his name. ?Pretty high.?
Lou Dubose is a former editor of the Observer. Jan Reid’s most recent book is a memoir of Texas and Mexico, The Bullet Meant for Me. Carl M. Cannon is the White House correspondent for National Journal.