Rove’s Dirty Tricks

By Garry South

September 4, 2007


Karl Rove’s recent resignation as George W. Bush’s political Rasputin (aka “Bush’s brain”) has prompted the inevitable avalanche of commentary and analysis about Rove’s role and influence — the good, the bad and the ugly — in 43rd’s White House.

But there is a much more fundamental question about Rove that ought to be addressed: What the hell was a lifelong partisan hack like Rove ever doing sitting a few feet from the Oval Office in the first place?

I must confess I’ve never met Karl Rove, although there was a planned encounter in 2001 that fell through. In 1998, I had been designated campaign manager of the year by the American Association of Political Consultants for Gray Davis’ come-from-behind, landslide win in the California governor’s race.

Two years later, Rove won the same laurel for his role on behalf of Bush in the 2000 presidential election. The AAPC thought it would be neat if I made the award presentation to Rove and “passed the crown,” so to speak.

I agreed and flew to Washington from Los Angeles in January 2001 for the awards dinner and ceremony. But Rove was a no-show, disappointing the several hundred attendees.

Meanwhile, the political community and the media have gotten so used to Rove’s smug visage, smarmy election prognostications and sleazy political machinations over the past six and a half years, the fact that all this was carried out while he was sitting inside the White House, on the public payroll, more or less became accepted as routine and normal.

But a newly elected president of the United States ensconcing his chief political operative and hatchet man in the West Wing, making him deputy chief of staff, handing him the domestic policy portfolio, letting him chair the pre-invasion White House Iraq Group and allowing him to re-create a campaign-type political apparatus at the taxpayers’ expense, is far from accepted practice in recent times.

The two previous presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, both had Rove equivalents in their campaigns — James Carville and Lee Atwater, respectively. But to their credit, neither brought these two bare-knuckled hardballers into the bowels of the White House and assigned them a significant governmental portfolio.

Carville not only stayed outside government but even had his White House pass yanked by new White House chief of staff Leon Panetta in 1994. Bush the Elder designated Atwater, a longtime Rove mentor and friend, as chairman of the Republican National Committee (a post Atwater held until he died of a brain tumor in 1991). Ronald Reagan had Ed Rollins as White House political director, but he properly left to do the 1984 reelection campaign.

Rove’s centrality in the Bush White House particularly should have been an eyebrow-raiser because of his tissue-thin governmental experience. In 1977, he served for a nanosecond as a 26-year-old junior aide in the Dallas district office of a backbench Texas Republican legislator. After working on the campaign of Texas Republican Gov. Bill Clements in 1978, he was for one brief, shining moment a deputy executive assistant to Clements. Rove, of course, doesn’t even have a college degree, having dropped out of the University of Utah in 1971 to become executive director of the College Republican National Committee. Does this sound to any reasonable person like the résumé of someone who should be deputy chief of staff to the president of the United States and overseer of federal domestic policy?

When Davis was elected governor of California in 1998, he asked me to consider being his chief of staff — a role Davis himself had played for six and a half years under Gov. Jerry Brown. I quickly declined, because I believed it would have been inappropriate and overly controversial for a political strategist like me to have taken over running the bureaucracy in the largest state in America. Even though, I hasten to add, I had far more governmental experience at the time than Rove, including having served as special assistant to a U.S. secretary of agriculture, communications director for the governor of Ohio and public information director of the legislature in my home state of Montana — not to mention as chief of staff to Davis when he was lieutenant governor.

As if his dearth of governmental background weren’t enough, there was also Rove’s long history of questionable ethics and dirty tricks. Before he was even old enough to vote, he used a fake ID to steal letterhead from an Illinois Democratic candidate’s office and print fake fliers aimed at disrupting the campaign.

As head of the College Republicans, he roamed the country instructing young Republicans on how to play dirty pool against Democrats. In the 1972 Nixon campaign, he was a protégé of Donald Segretti, later a convicted Watergate conspirator. This led to the FBI questioning Rove, and a 1973 Washington Post story headlined “Republican Party Probes Official as Teacher of Tricks.”

The Bush clan especially had plenty of advance notice of Rove’s underhanded proclivities. He was fired from George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaigns in both 1980 and 1992 for leaking information to the press. In 1986, he was widely accused of bugging his own offices in order to blame it on the Democratic incumbent running against Rove’s candidate for governor of Texas.

Early in 2001, Rove was meeting in the White House with — and advocating on behalf of — companies in which he owned hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock, including Enron.

In April of this year, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent executive-branch agency, announced it was conducting an extensive investigation into Rove and his White House operation to determine if federal laws were broken when Rove tried to cajole government employees into helping Republican candidates.

And of course, there are also the little matters of Rove’s role in leaking the name of a covert CIA agent and the outstanding congressional subpoena to testify about his role in the U.S. attorney firing fiasco.

In California, we also know something about what blatantly partisan shenanigans Rove was up to while a federal employee.

It is clear now that he was the moving force in a multimillion-dollar media campaign, funded by the same energy pirates that were then raping California in the summer of 2001, to blame the electricity crisis in the state on Davis, whom Rove considered a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2004.

Rove operated in cahoots with Ed Gillespie, Enron’s chief lobbyist to the White House at the time (and now, wonder of wonders, counselor to Bush in the White House, after a stint as chairman of the Republican National Committee), and Grover Norquist, right-wing honcho of Americans for Tax Reform and another Rove crony from his College Republican days.

That same year, Rove was the chief recruitment officer in enlisting former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to run against Davis for governor in 2002. Rove met with Riordan in the White House, successfully encouraged pretty much the whole GOP establishment and major Bush backers in California to get behind him, and helped Riordan raise big bucks outside California for his campaign.

But we derailed him by spending $10 million in the Republican primary pointing out Riordan’s historical duplicity on the issue of abortion. Rove’s handpicked stalking horse against Davis melted into a puddle on the floor, ending up with only 31 percent of the GOP primary vote, losing by 18 points to a little-known businessman and first-time candidate who had lived in the Golden State for barely 10 years.

I don’t usually make it a practice to harshly criticize political consultants on the other side of the aisle, because I share their craft, respect their talent and understand the political imperatives on that side of the street. I am good friends with many GOP operatives in California and nationally. But the Rove case is so egregious, is so unprecedented and resulted in so much damage to the country, I think it cries out for condemnation.

Regardless of whether he is ultimately judged a political genius or goat, someone of Rove’s ilk had no business whatsoever plying his trade in a high-ceilinged West Wing office on the taxpayers’ dime, running a federally funded continuation of Bush’s political campaigns and perverting public policymaking at the highest levels of government into cynical partisan maneuverings.

Whoever the next president is, Democrat or Republican, people like Rove and me should be domiciled outside government, not embedded inside it.