Sunday, October 10
'Karl Rove in a Corner,'
Joshua Green's Atlantic Monthly expose that was previously available only to subscribers.
Karl Rove is at his most formidable when running close races, and his skills would be notable even if he used no extreme methods. But he does use them. His campaign history shows his willingness, when challenged, to employ savage tactics.
But no other example of Rove's extreme tactics that I encountered quite compares to what occurred during another 1994 judicial campaign in Alabama.
In that year Harold See first ran for the supreme court, becoming the rare Rove client to lose a close race.
His opponent, Mark Kennedy, an incumbent Democratic justice and, as George Wallace's son-in-law, a member in good standing of Alabama's first family of politics, was no stranger to hardball politics. "The Wallace family history and what they all went through, that's pretty rough politics," says Joe Perkins, who managed Kennedy's campaign. "But it was a whole new dimension with Rove."
This August, I had lunch with Kennedy near his office in Montgomery. I had hoped to discuss how it was that he had beaten one of the savviest political strategists in modern history, and
I expected to hear more of the raucous campaign tales that are a staple of Alabama politics. Neither Kennedy nor our meeting was anything like what I had anticipated. A small man, impeccably dressed and well-mannered, Kennedy appeared to derive little satisfaction from having beaten Rove. In fact, he seemed shaken, even ten years later.
He quietly explained how Rove's arrival had poisoned the judicial climate by putting politics above matters of law and justice—"collateral damage," he called it, from the win-at-all-costs attitude that now prevails in judicial race
He talked about the viciousness of the "slash-and-burn" campaign, and how Rove appealed to the worst elements of human nature. "People vote in Alabama for two reasons," Kennedy told me. "Anger and fear. It's a state that votes against somebody rather than for them.
Rove understood how to put his finger right on the trigger point."
Kennedy seemed most bothered by the personal nature of the attacks, which, in addition to the usual anti-trial-lawyer litany, had included charges that he was mingling campaign funds with those of a nonprofit children's foundation he was involved with. In the end he eked out a victory by less than one percentage point.
Kennedy leaned forward and said, "After the race my wife, Peggy, was at the supermarket checkout line. She picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and nearly collapsed on her watermelon. She called me and said, 'Sit down. You're not going to believe this.'" Her husband was featured in an article on "America's worst judges." Kennedy attributed this to Rove's attacks.
When his term on the court ended, he chose not to run for re-election. I later learned another reason why.
Kennedy had spent years on the bench as a juvenile and family-court judge, during which time he had developed a strong interest in aiding abused children. In the early 1980s he had helped to start the Children's Trust Fund of Alabama, and he later established the Corporate Foundation for Children, a private, nonprofit organization. At the time of the race he had just served a term as president of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. One of Rove's signature tactics is to attack an opponent on the very front that seems unassailable. Kennedy was no exception.
Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children.
"We were trying to counter the positives from that ad," a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile.
"It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information," the staffer went on. "That was a major device we used for the transmission of this stuff. The students at the law school are from all over the state, and that's one of the ways that Karl got the information out—he knew the law students would take it back to their home towns and it would get out." This would create the impression that the lie was in fact common knowledge across the state.
"What Rove does," says Joe Perkins, "is try to make something so bad for a family that the candidate will not subject the family to the hardship. Mark is not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin', tobacco-chewin', pickup-drivin' kind of guy.
He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man, and what they tried to do was make him look like a homosexual pedophile.
That was really, really hard to take." [...more]
But an interesting thing happened as I worked on this piece.
Early in the summer, as Bush was struggling, even Rove's allies professed to doubt his ability to control the dynamics of the race in view of an unrelenting stream of bad news from Iraq. Several insisted that he was in over his head—-with an emphasis that seemed to go deeper than mere professional envy.
Yet by August, when attacks by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were dominating the front pages, such comments had become rarer. Then they died away entirely.
If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element.
He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—-the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work.
It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane.
Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.
Rove isn't bracing for a close race. He's depending on it.