By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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In the early ’90s, before we learned Governor Ann Richards was a lesbian, only the political cognoscenti in Texas knew Karl Rove’s name. Richards lost to George W. Bush in 1994, though before the race began, she had approval ratings in the 70s. She made the mistake of underestimating Bush, dismissing him with her signature-mark humor. She also underestimated Rove. And probably never believed he would dare to out her. The fact that she was a grandmother and a heterosexual provided her a false sense of security.
It didn’t stop Karl Rove then. And the truth is not something that is likely to get in Karl Rove’s way now. The campaign tactics Rove developed in the state that serves as the national proving ground for bad politics and policy suggest that there’s more to come for disabled swift-boat veteran John Kerry. And that he’d better respond, before he’s an entry in Politicalgraveyard.com.
East Texas was the political nut the Republicans had tried for years to crack. Culturally conservative, Christian, racially divided, yet historically Democratic in voting habits, Republican strategists saw it as a place where only African-Americans should have been voting Democratic. It was also the field-and-stream playground of the Dallas Social Registry. The Republican governor who preceded Richards, the owners of The Dallas Morning News, and the most prominent members of the old Dallas oil oligarchy weekended there at a racially exclusive fin-and-feather camp called the Koon Kreek Klub. The pun involving “coons” and KKK was hardly accidental, and provides some insight into the raw racial politics of the region.
George W. wasn’t a KKK fisherman. But he had a weekend place at the nearby Rainbow Club, which is as segregated as the old-line Koon Kreek, where memberships were no longer available when he showed up in Dallas. But the Bush family has never been racist. So it was unlikely that George W. would have agreed to play the race card. The queer card is another matter. That’s the card the Bush campaign played when a highly regarded Republican whom Karl Rove had helped elect to the state Senate spoke out about the sexual orientation of some women close to Governor Richards. “It’s simply not part of their culture, and frankly not part of mine,” the senator said of his East Texas constituents, “that [homosexuality] is something we encourage, reward, or acknowledge as an acceptable situation.” On the other side of the state’s Pine Curtain, the suggestion that the governor had gay associates was enough to create real doubts among voters. A whispering campaign that raised questions about Richards’ sexual orientation closed the deal.
No one ever traced the character assassination to Rove. Yet no one doubts that Rove was behind it. It’s a process on which he holds a patent. Identify your opponent’s strength, and attack it so relentlessly that it becomes a liability. Richards was admired because she promised and delivered a “government that looked more like the people of the state.” That included the appointment of blacks, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians. Rove made that asset a liability.
What worked to defeat Ann Richards in 1994 worked to defeat John McCain in 2000. As with John Kerry, McCain’s strength was his stature as a war hero. When he defeated George W. Bush in the New Hampshire Republican primary, the campaign moved to South Carolina — where Bush had to win to regain his credibility. In South Carolina, with its large population of veterans, McCain was attacked for his strength. The Republican senator faced a whispering campaign that implied that the time he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had broken him, made him so mentally unstable he was unfit to be president. An ad campaign accused him of abandoning his Vietnam veterans after he returned home. Push polls raised the issue of his mental stability. He lost and never recovered.
Rove insisted he had nothing to do with it. Yet when Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater reported that the attack on McCain was similar to what Rove had done to Ann Richards six years earlier, and to the Texas Democratic attorney general two years after that, Rove publicly confronted him, shouting and shoving on the tarmac in front of the campaign plane.
The White House is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. So no reporter will have access to Karl Rove’s phone logs and appointment calendars, to prove the nature of his involvement with the Swift Boat Veterans’ attack on John Kerry. But few in Texas who pay attention to politics harbor any doubt that the Swift Boat attack against John Kerry is the work of the Bush political consultant with an office in the West Wing. The unanimous consensus of his political biographers — Jan Reid and me, who wrote Boy Genius, and Slater and Jim Moore, who wrote Bush’s Brain — is: Rove did it.
It’s the total Rove package. When a race is close, launch a collateral attack against your opponent’s greatest asset. (It’s best if it is tied to some truth: Richards had appointed two lesbians to positions of real power. McCain had been a POW in Vietnam. Kerry had served on a swift boat.) Keep your own candidate aloof from the controversy. Be persistent; if your opponent is explaining his position, he’s losing. And leave no fingerprints.