Wayne Slater has known Karl Rove for 20 years. As the author of Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, he’s not easily shocked by the Republican strategist’s Gila-monstroid tactics. But even he’s been blown away by Rove’s latest political comeback.
At the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Slater watched Rove address a delegation from South Carolina on John McCain’s behalf. That would be the same South Carolina where Rove helped torpedo McCain’s campaign in 2000 by reportedly spreading rumors that the candidate’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually his illegitimate black love child. Addressing the convention delegates, though, Rove acted like McCain’s long-lost friend.
“Karl started talking in this emotional tone about how wonderful Cindy McCain was to adopt Bridget — eight years after he just took a machine gun to the guy,” Slater says in an awed voice. “He’s incredible.”
He sure is. Ever since the nomination of Sarah Palin, Washington has been abuzz with rumors that Rove has been invited to help plot campaign strategy for McCain. His rise from the ashes is the scariest story of an already scary campaign season. Presidents come and go; they sit in a place where the law can still touch them, and they’re subject to the vote once every four years. But Karl Rove is a revolutionary, a man who can’t be stopped by anything except death and maybe — maybe — prison. Rove is trying to finish the work of Nixon and Bush: to achieve the supremacy of a peculiarly American form of Leninism, one that involves the drowning of the electoral process in idiot witch hunts and dirty tricks, the handing over of all policy to anyone with a dollar more than the next guy, and the total aggrandizement of incumbent power at the expense of an entire system of checks and balances. With Rove back in the mix, there’s now a hell of a lot more at stake this November than there was when a batty, battle-scarred old poll-chaser like John McCain was the darkest figure on the ticket. Not to sound too alarmist, but Election Day now becomes a referendum on democracy itself.
The actual evidence of Rove’s newfound influence on the McCain campaign is — like so much of the history surrounding this uniquely maddening personage — scant at best, part vapor and part legend, a thing mostly deduced and inferred from various factoids and ripples in the informational pool.
We know, for instance, that Steven Schmidt, who was tapped to be head of rapid response during Bush’s 2004 campaign, is now a senior strategist in the McCain camp. Schmidt assumed a more central role in McCain’s run in June, shortly after the stammering, much-mocked “green screen” speech McCain gave near New Orleans on the night Obama claimed victory in the Democratic primaries. This promotion would put to the test a theory that Rove has trained so many subordinates in his tactics that his revolution could go on forever even without him.
“If Karl were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter,” says Slater. “There are hundreds of young Roves out there in the political bloodstream, ready to take over.”
Sure enough, it was right after that dismal night outside New Orleans that McCain — whose campaign stumpery until then had been fairly predictable, focusing heavily on his personal story, the Iranian threat and his experience and patriotic bona fides relative to Obama — began a somewhat drastic rhetorical overhaul. Under Schmidt’s guidance, McCain’s tactics took on a darker and unmistakably Rovian character.
The hallmark of the Rove campaigning method is the political act so baldly below the belt that it literally staggers you. Even the most hardened cynics find themselves continually surprised by the ability of Rove and his minions to always hit that evasive new low, coming up with things that would shock a 60-year-old Greyhound-station hooker.
What American doesn’t remember Rove, after 9/11, saying that liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding to our attackers”? What Texan doesn’t recall fondly the “push poll” Rove reportedly commissioned for Bush, in which voters were asked if they would be less likely to vote for Gov. Ann Richards if they knew her staff was “dominated by lesbians”? And what veteran doesn’t remember Rove impugning the patriotism of Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam vet, by running an ad showing the faces of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein fading into the wheelchair-bound Cleland’s face? Suck on that, Mr. Silver Star!
The first whiff of this kind of tactic in the current race came at the end of June, when the McCain campaign launched its new slogan “Country First,” making McCain the first presidential candidate in history to make “My Opponent Is a Traitor” his rallying cry. Then there was the unveiling of a new ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Following that came a coordinated campaign to ridicule Obama for the somewhat bombastic décor of the stage for his convention speech, with the campaign issuing leaflets mocking the vertical columns as a “Temple of Obama.”
All of these fairly transparent moves were beginner-level Rove tactics, designed to remove real issues from the equation and concentrate voter attention on an image of Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” in Schmidt’s words, a superficial, self-centered member of the beautiful people who probably windsurfed with John Kerry. Rove himself provided the outlines of this strategy earlier in the year when he said about Obama, “Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette who stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.”
This was classic Rove. Never mind the fact that Obama, a former community organizer who has never been a member of a country club, is running against a classic Washington insider who owns no fewer than seven houses and 13 cars. But these were merely remarks made by a private citizen, not official campaign pronouncements. It wasn’t until the selection of Sarah Palin that there began to be whispers about a direct connection between McCain and the actual flesh-and-blood Rove, as opposed to mere Rovism or Rovian tactics.
First there were reports that Rove called Joe Lieberman before the GOP convention and told him to call McCain and withdraw his name from consideration for the VP nomination. Rove denied the report, but conceded that he had been in touch with the McCain camp, saying, “I receive calls from people who are friends over there, which I’ve said a million times.” He described the interaction as mere “chitchat,” a claim seconded by the McCain camp. McCain aide Tucker Bounds insisted Rove had no access: “He’s a Fox analyst.”
But after the surprising nomination of Palin — a move that fairly stank of Rovian thinking, with its 10-megaton brazenness, its blunt anti-intellectualism and its naked courting of Rove’s beloved electoral cattle, the evangelicals — Rove seemingly let it slip in a Fox broadcast that he did have inside info, saying during the teen-pregnancy flap that Palin was “carefully vetted. . . . They knew all of it.” An anonymous Republican source soon told a Washington newspaper that Rove had a consistent, “medium”-size role with the McCain campaign.
By then, it really didn’t matter whether it was the actual, physical Rove who was pulling the strings, or just a coterie of Rove disciples in the McCain camp. By the time Palin finished her acceptance speech in St. Paul, it was clear that McCain had gone over to the dark side — that he had decided to sign on with the same Nazi-hearted smear merchants who kicked his face in eight years ago in South Carolina. Not only does McCain now have former White House aide and Rove ally Nicole Wallace serving as a senior adviser, he actually went out and hired Tucker Eskew, one of the architects of Rove’s smear campaign in South Carolina back in 2000, a man whom McCain once said had a “special place in hell” awaiting him in the next world. The Republican Party even hired Tim Griffin, a notorious Rove protégé, to run McCain’s anti-Obama operations — the same Tim Griffin named U.S. attorney for Arkansas, despite being linked to efforts to suppress minority votes.
Since the convention, all of these A-list hired political killers have helped McCain move the so-called debate so far from any real issues that it took all of Wall Street falling underwater for the public to snap out of it for so much as a minute. In recent weeks, the media have been fed a stream of fabrications and absurd accusations, some more subtle than others. Schmidt, for instance, told Katie Couric that reporters had asked campaign staffers in off-the-record lunches if Palin would be willing to allow paternity tests to be done to determine who the father of her latest child was. “Smear after smear after smear,” Schmidt said piously. “It’s disgraceful and it’s wrong.” Never mind that Schmidt himself was the only person ever to mention a paternity test in public. The whole gambit was clearly designed to create a sexy headline to help push the anti-media campaign strategy, at the expense incidentally of what passes for Sarah Palin’s own honor.
Couric was also at the center of the next Schmidt gambit, a now-infamous ad in which a Couric monologue about the role of sexism in the campaign was run following a clip of Palin’s speech. But Couric’s monologue was actually an old one, referring not to Palin but to the Hillary Clinton campaign, and the McCain camp was forced to snip the Couric bit from its still-outrageous ad charging the whole world with sexism.
The clip also made the hysterical claim that Obama himself had compared Palin to a pig when he described McCain’s repackaging of well-worn Bush policies as “lipstick on a pig.” It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true, or that McCain himself had used the line at least twice during the campaign, or that Karl Rove, offering a hilarious impersonation of civic concern, suggested that McCain had gone “too far” in the lipstick debate. All that mattered was that a week after the convention, McCain suddenly had a 51-40 lead in polls among white women — a lead that held up until the Wall Street shit-blast jolted both sexes back to electoral reality.
Whatever his role in the campaign, Rove’s unique position as both a campaign adviser and a media figure has created new opportunities for informational self-dealing of a type that would have seemed unimaginable a decade or so ago. Now the McCain camp can watch Rove say that Sarah Palin’s nomination was “not a governing decision but a campaign decision” — and then have Schmidt tell Katie Couric that same night that Rove is “wrong” before going to whine that Palin has “been under vicious assault and attack from the angry left.”
So long as there are reporters like Katie Couric out there stupid and desperate enough to let situations like this play out on their airwaves, the McCain camp can now create controversies out of thin air by arguing with itself on national television, turning premeditated, planted comments by the “independent journalist” Karl Rove into “attacks” from the “angry left.”
One is tempted to call this brilliant tactics, except that it isn’t brilliant, any more than pointing a gun at a Korean store owner is a “brilliant” way to make $135. One of the most remarkable aspects of Rove’s career is the way the media consistently respond to being lied to, pissed on and manipulated by Rove: They stroke his already swollen gonads even more, hailing him as a singular political genius. Time celebrated Rove’s return to the big stage in August by calling him “Bush’s resident campaign genius.” He is “regarded by many as a campaign genius,” added The Hill, while the Sacramento News and Review distilled “Rove’s genius” as his “willingness to push legal and ethical boundaries where no man has gone before.”
Nobody appreciates just how far Rove has pushed those boundaries more than Don Siegelman, the former Democratic governor of Alabama. While the rest of us spent the last year forgetting just what an evil, conniving bastard Rove is, Siegelman was taking the scandal-plagued last gasp of the George W. Bush era right on the chin. Successfully prosecuted by the Bush Justice Department on seven counts of corruption, Siegelman was chased from office and spent nine months in prison before a judge released him on bond. When he got out, almost the first words out of his mouth were about Rove. “His fingerprints,” Siegelman said, “are smeared all over this case.”
The U.S. attorney who launched the prosecution of Siegelman, it turns out, is married to a close ally of Rove’s named Bill Canary. A witness has since surfaced claiming that old Bill was talking about ridding Alabama of Siegelman way back in 2002, saying that “he had already gotten it worked out with Karl, and Karl had spoken with the Department of Justice, and the Department of Justice was already pursuing Don Siegelman.”
When the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Rove to testify about the scandal in May, however, Rove blew it off, insisting that executive privilege makes him constitutionally “immune from compelled congressional testimony” — a curious defense, given that the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled twice that even sitting presidents can’t hide behind executive privilege. But as we’re all finding out, Karl Rove exists on a plane that lies somewhere beyond the presidency, a world that includes all the power of the chief executive but none of the legal constraints.
“The longer the Democrats let him get away with it,” Siegelman says, “the more influence he’ll have on the election.”
Rove is not a genius, or even very clever: He’s totally and completely immoral. It doesn’t take genius to claim, as Rove ludicrously did last fall, that it was the Democrats in Congress and not George W. Bush who pushed the Iraq War resolution in 2002. It doesn’t take brains to compare a triple-amputee war veteran to Osama bin Laden; you just have to be a mean, rotten cocksucker.
The reason Rove continues to survive is the same reason that Johnnie Cochran was called a genius for keeping a double-murderer on the golf course — because this generation of Americans has become so steeped in greed and social Darwinism that it can no longer distinguish between cheating and achieving, between enterprise and crime, and can’t bring itself to criticize winners any more than it knows how to be nice to losers. He survives because an increasing number of Americans secretly agree with Rove’s vision of rules, laws and “the truth” as quaint, faintly embarrassing rituals that only a sucker would let hold him back.
Rove’s comeback is evidence that the attack on our civic institutions in the Bush years wasn’t an isolated incident, something we can pin on a specific group of now-deposed politicians. It’s a trend, a thing that grows in direct proportion to our greed and ignorance. We may be a country at war, facing one of the greatest financial meltdowns of all time. But in the end, the thing that could be our undoing is the kind of generalized boredom with legality and honor that empowers Rovian behavior. If we let it.
[From Issue 1063 — October 16, 2008]