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.
And denials notwithstanding, Karl Rove is always in complete charge of every detail and decision of his candidate’s campaign. Richards would never have been attacked without Rove’s plan to do so. McCain would have never been attacked without Rove’s direct participation in the planning. John Kerry would never have been attacked by Bush campaign surrogates unless Karl was in the deal.
Then there is the money.
Rove started his political career in Texas by building the first big Republican Party donor database, at a time when all the statewide offices and the Legislature were in Democratic hands. By 2000, Rove’s donor database and brilliant (if ruthless) campaign tactics had eliminated the last Democrat from statewide office. He did it in the Wild West of campaign finance, where anyone can write a check for any amount and the Texas sky is the limit. Now we learn that the first big funder of the Swift Boat ads was Bob Perry, who provided an early $200,000. Perry was the campaign treasurer for Bill Clements, the retired Republican governor who is probably fishing at the Koon Kreek Klub today. Rove ran Clements’ campaign — and pulled off a remarkable last-minute comeback in the polls by finding a bugging device in his own office and claiming that it was placed there by his Democratic opponent (though it was later traced back to Rove himself). Although he only recently made the national news, Perry is the godfather of modern Republican Texas, a Houston homebuilder who contributed $5.2 million to the state’s Republican candidates and political action committees since 2000 (according to Texans for Public Justice, which tracks political spending in the state).
Last week the other boot dropped. Texas oilman and corporate raider T. Boone Pickens contributed $500,000 to the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Pickens is a seasoned Bush donor and a charter member of Team 100 — donors who contributed $100,000 each to Bush Sr.’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Pickens was here long before the Bushes arrived; he met Poppy Bush in the ’50s, when Bush showed up in West Texas to make his fortune in the oil patch. Rove came later. After reports in the Washington Post about an FBI examination into his clandestine school for young Republicans, Rove was investigated by the senior George Bush, then the Republican Party chairman cleaning up after Watergate. Bush concluded his inquiry and offered Rove a job in Houston.
It wasn’t virtue that Bush was rewarding.
Funny how things work out sometimes.