Bush’s Hit Man
In early December 1999, George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, and Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater squared off in the Manchester, New Hampshire, airport. Rove was angry over a story Slater had written suggesting that it was plausible that Rove was behind the whisper campaign that warned that Senator John McCain–then soaring in the GOP presidential primary polls–might any day unravel, because he had been under so much pressure when he was tortured as a POW in Vietnam.
In a 700-word article that Slater said wasn’t the most significant thing he’d written about Rove, he referred to questionable campaign tactics attributed to Rove: teaching College Republicans dirty tricks; spreading a rumor that former Governor Ann Richards was too tolerant of gays and lesbians; circulating a mock newspaper that featured a story about a former Democratic governor’s drinking and driving when he was a college student; spreading stories about Jim Hightower’s alleged role in a contribution kickback scheme; and alerting the press to the fact that Lena Guerrero, a rising star in the Texas Democratic Party, had lied about graduating from college. Rove was explicitly linked by testimony and press reports to all but the gay and lesbian story; the college incident had been so widely reported for 15 years that it was essentially part of the common domain. Slater also reported that primary candidates Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer blamed the Bush camp for the smear campaign.
“He said I had harmed his reputation,” Slater recalls. Says another reporter who was traveling with Bush, “It was pretty heated. They were nose to nose. Rove was furious and had his finger in Slater’s chest.” Adds the same reporter, “What was interesting then is that everyone on the campaign charter concluded that Rove was responsible for rumors about McCain.”
That Karl Rove, who according to the White House press office is not giving interviews, hasn’t always abided by the Marquess of Queensbury rules of political engagement is not exactly breaking news. As long ago as 1989, when Rove collaborated with an FBI agent investigating Hightower, the then-Texas agriculture commissioner complained about Rove’s “Nixonian dirty tricks.”
That was at a time when Rove was a big player only in Texas. Since then, he has become George W. Bush’s closest adviser. He directed Bush’s presidential campaign and now works in an office just down the hall from the most powerful official in the world. Some wonder to what extent Rove will use the power of the federal government against those who would cross the President. Rove’s past suggests such worries are not unfounded. “This guy is worse than Haldeman and Ehrlichman,” a source who worked in Hightower’s office 12 years ago said in a recent interview, referring to Nixon’s advisers at the time of the Watergate break-in. “He’ll have an enemies list.” The interview ended with a request common among sources speaking about Rove, even those no longer involved in politics: “I’d prefer you didn’t quote me on this.”
Rove operates from deeply held conservative beliefs, shaped when he was a child growing up in Utah. His sister told Miriam Rozen of the Dallas Observer that as a child Rove had a Wake Up America poster hanging above his bed. Rove has said that while going to college, he was never inclined to identify with the antiwar movement and supported the troops because “it was hard to sympathize with all those Commies.” The “die-hard Nixonite” remains deeply resentful of the legacy of the counterculture of the sixties. Visitors to his Austin office would often leave with a copy of The Dream and the Nightmare by Myron Magnet, a Manhattan Institute fellow who argues that the political and cultural left corrupted the nation’s poor and deprived them of the work ethic they now need to lift themselves out of poverty. Rove is an eclectic and voracious reader and, although he never completed college, a self-taught historian. He is absolutely dedicated to George W. Bush, whom he describes as “the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait for a lifetime to be associated with.”
Rove arrived in Houston in 1977 to work for a George Herbert Walker Bush PAC run by James Baker 3d. Rove subsequently moved from Houston to Austin, and in the 10 years it took George W. Bush to lose $2 million of other people’s money in the oilfields of West Texas, he became the Republican Party’s premier political consultant. At the time of Rove’s arrival, U. S. Senator John Tower was the only Republican holding statewide office. When Rove left earlier this year to serve as a senior adviser to President Bush, all 29 statewide elected offices were held by Republicans, and both U. S. Senate seats were occupied by Rove clients: Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Almost half of GOP officeholders–including the governor, the attorney general, the chief justice, and several justices on the Texas Supreme Court–were also clients. Rove and the consulting firm he owned until joining the Bush campaign have represented more than 75 candidates in 24 states.
There have always been nagging questions about the tactics Rove has used to establish market domination. So when a tape of Bush’s practice debate sessions was mailed to Congressman Tom Downey, Al Gore’s opponent in practice debates, the speculation among the press corps in Austin was that Rove had arranged it. (A post office surveillance camera captured an image of an employee of Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon mailing a package that might have been the tape; a federal grand jury in Austin is still looking into the incident.) Some speculated that the move was intended to eliminate Downey from his role as debate coach (which it did); others that it would provide an excuse to cancel the debates (which, in hindsight, would have been helpful to Gore).
Austin political consultant Bill Miller has worked with and against Rove. Recently they worked together opposing a living wage campaign in Houston. “He was the right guy at the right time,” Miller says. “He was here in the late seventies with Bill Clements. He was the guy who began collecting the names of the people who gave money.” But Miller sees Rove as more than a guy who started work when Texas elected Clements as its first Republican governor of the twentieth century. “Karl has a good product. He’s good about message. He’s edgy, and you have got to have edge in political campaigns.” Miller also says that Rove is one of the most dependable political consultants to have ever worked in the state. “You can take what he says to the bank. He tells you what he’s going to do and when it will happen.” But what is most important, according to Miller, is that Rove wins. “People in the business of running campaigns often forget that the business is about winning, not about the number of clients you have. Karl always understood that.”
Rove, after all, works in the tradition of the late Lee Atwater, the Republican attack-dog/consultant who said of Michael Dukakis that he would “strip the bark off the little bastard” and “make Willie Horton his running mate,” a reference to the former Massachusetts governor’s ineffective answer to a question about a convicted murderer and rapist during the 1988 presidential debate.
Rove’s first foray into politics involved gaining entry to the office of Alan Dixon–a candidate for state treasurer in Illinois in 1970–stealing some campaign stationery and printing and distributing a fake invitation to Dixon’s campaign headquarters, promising “free beer, free food, girls, and a good time.” “I was nineteen and I got involved in a political prank,” Rove told the Dallas Morning News in 1999. A year later, Atwater ran Rove’s campaign for the presidency of the national College Republicans, and working together they defeated Terry Dolan, the Republican operative who later founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee that helped elect Ronald Reagan.
When, in the wake of the Watergate break-in, Rove was accused of teaching dirty tricks to college Republicans, he attributed the accusations to rumors started by Dolan. After the FBI interviewed Rove, the Republican National Committee–then chaired by Bush the Elder–looked into the charges, decided they were baseless, and offered Rove work. Rove later joined Bush and Baker to work on the PAC that Bush set up to position himself for the 1980 presidential campaign, which he lost to Ronald Reagan.
Rove soldiered on in obscurity until 1986, when he was working on the second campaign of Bill Clements, a Republican trying to recapture the governor’s office after losing it to Democrat Mark White. Rove made news by going public with a complaint that an electronic bugging device had been found in his office–shortly before a scheduled televised debate between the two candidates. “We never took it seriously, because we knew nobody in our shop had anything to do with it,” says Dwayne Hollman, who worked for White at the time. Hollman said it was assumed that it was a publicity stunt. “It was investigated by the FBI,” Hollman said, “and nothing ever came of it.”
Yet some wonder what “came of” Rove’s meeting with FBI agent Greg Rampton, who conducted that investigation. Local authorities who looked into the bugging seem to agree with Hollman’s assessment. “We were the first on the scene and concluded that Rove had hired a company to debug his office, and that the same company had planted the bug,” says a source involved in the Travis County DA office’s investigation. But the media reported that Rampton had determined there was nothing to pursue.
Two years later, Rampton began an investigation that involved his setting up shop in the offices of Garry Mauro, the state land commissioner and later the loser in the 1998 gubernatorial race won by George W. Bush. Mauro said Rampton informed him that a former Land Commission employee was involved in an appraisals scheme that involved the commission. “I told my general counsel to tell [Rampton] to come on in,” Mauro said. Rampton accepted the invitation. “On the day of the Democratic state convention, I got a subpoena for every document you could possibly imagine,” Mauro said.
Mauro says he was warned by Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock–who, Mauro said, insisted on speaking to him outside their office buildings–that three Democrats, including Mauro, Hightower, and himself, were being targeted. As Mauro puts it, “Greg Rampton lived in my office. He roamed the halls. He had us put in a computer room, he picked out files of people who had given money and tried to establish by regression analysis… that anytime somebody gives you a contribution, there is a quid pro quo. Once they showed up with twelve agents and brought their own copier.” In the end they found nothing, according to Mauro. “But,” he adds, “they made it hard to run a campaign.” (Attempts to contact Rampton through the FBI office in Denver, from which he recently retired, were not successful.)
If Rampton struck out in Mauro’s office, he connected in Hightower’s, after slowing down only to subpoena Bullock’s campaign finance filings. In the summer of 1989, pending indictments against two aides to Hightower–who used his office to attack what he called “the bullies, bankers, bastards and tort reformers” who run the state–were announced in Washington. But it wasn’t Rampton or any other Justice Department official who announced them. It was Karl Rove, the political consultant working for Hightower’s Republican opponent, Rick Perry.
Hightower refuses to discuss the incident. Rove later admitted under oath that he had met with Rampton during the summer of 1989 “regarding a probe of political corruption in the office of Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower.” And in June of 1990, Perry sent out a fundraising letter claiming that Hightower’s office was rife with corruption and was under investigation by the FBI, though there were no indictments until after the 1991 general election, in which Hightower lost his re-election bid.
Rove has repeatedly denied involvement in the FBI investigations of top Democrats in the 1980s and did not respond to questions submitted to him regarding this story. Miller doesn’t believe that Rove was directly involved with the FBI, describing the suggestion as “conspiracy theory that makes good political fodder, but is often political bullshit.” When questioned under oath before a Texas Senate committee in 1991, Rove was evasive about his relationship with Rampton and engaged in semantic hairsplitting worthy of Bill Clinton. “How long have you known an FBI agent by the name of Greg [Rampton]?” a Democratic senator asked Rove. The answer should have been fairly straightforward, as Rampton had cleared Rove of the bugging incident five years earlier and had met with him a number of times subsequently, which Rove had disclosed in a federal questionnaire in 1989. Yet Rove was, to say the least, evasive: “Senator, it depends. Would you define ‘know’ for me?”
And Rove has managed to eliminate at least one promising Democratic candidate without the help of the FBI or any other federal agency. Shortly after former Governor Ann Richards appointed Lena Guerrero to a vacant seat on the Railroad Commission, someone serving on a University of Texas committee selecting distinguished alumni learned that Guerrero had never graduated, contrary to her claims during her campaigns for a House seat and later for the Commission. Rove held on to the information until the time was right, then turned it over to the Dallas Morning News; confronted with the question, Guerrero unraveled. Rove’s biggest political coup, until last November’s election, was organizing the campaign by which Bush beat Ann Richards.
Rove became acquainted with George W. Bush while working for his father and Baker in Houston but didn’t work for the younger Bush until he decided to run for governor in 1994. The campaign was all Rove: a four-point message, rumors about the opponent (Ann Richards) circulated by surrogates and little direct exposure to the press.
To those following the Bush campaigns that Rove ran, it was evident that he was more than just a political consultant to Bush. Writing in the Boston Globe magazine, David Shribman posed the questions that many in the press corps dared not ask during the presidential campaign: “Is there a place where George W. Bush ends and Karl Rove begins? Are you the wizard behind the curtain of George W.? Is W. too dependent upon you? And, worst of all: Are you George W. Bush’s brain?”
Rove has certainly done much of Bush’s thinking for him. Asked by a reporter for the National Review what thinkers had shaped Bush’s political philosophy, Rove cited Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Demoralization of Society, James Q. Wilson’s On Character and several other books–none of which Bush would have been likely to see but for Rove. (Recall Bush’s response in the debate about which political philosopher had most shaped his thinking: It was not Magnet, Himmelfarb, or Wilson, but Jesus Christ.)
When working as a political operative and not a mentor, Rove has been bipartisan, eliminating Republicans who represented a threat to his boss’s career with the same zeal with which he attacked Democrats. “He’s enormously effective,” says Dallas lawyer and Bush critic Tom Pauken, noting that Rove’s political bible is Machiavelli’s The Prince. And it is Machiavelli–not the authors of the conservative and neocon canon–who has informed Rove’s treatment of Pauken. In 1994, as Bush was beginning his first race for governor, the machinery of the Republican Party of Texas was taken over by Reagan Republicans and fundamentalist Christians, and Pauken–who had worked in the Reagan Administration–was made party chairman. It was a faction that Rove correctly perceived would create problems for Bush, who had always understood that the Christian conservatives must be kept in line. Rove called big funders and diverted money from the state party to Bush political accounts
that he controlled. “He did everything he could to cut off the money to the party… throughout the time I was chair,” Pauken says. “Karl understands the importance of money in politics, and he made it more difficult for me to function.”
When Pauken filed in 1997 for the attorney general’s race Rove recruited John Cornyn to run against him in the Republican primary–and many believe that Rove encouraged Barry Williams to run in the same race, and then pushed him to go negative on Pauken late in the campaign.
Similarly, after two Christian-right candidates for the State Board of Education, Bob Offutt and Donna Ballard (Offutt was an incumbent), traveled to New Hampshire to endorse Steve Forbes in the Republican primary, they returned home to find their opponents’ campaigns suddenly flush with cash from big Republican givers associated with Rove. “You don’t cross Karl Rove and not expect repercussions,” a defeated Offutt told the Austin American-Statesman. A Republican political consultant was more colorful: “To put it in a nutshell, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”
In January, Superman moved into the White House office previously occupied by Hillary Clinton. And he’s only a phone call away from Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Former Observer editor Louis Dubose is politics editor at the Austin Chronicle and co-author, with Molly Ivins, of Shrub: the Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. An earlier version of this article was published in The Nation.