By Liam Scheff
GNN December 2004
– Thinking of a master plan
Bush’s Brain, the 2003 book and film by veteran journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater, and directors Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob, lays out, with compelling bi-partisan evidence, the wake of destruction left by Bush’s long-time campaign and political director, Karl Rove.
Rove is on a roll. He’s orchestrated two presidential wins in a row, gained the Republicans majority positions in the House and Senate, and all but driven the Democrats into the sea. He’s currently on the short list for Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. As his boss puts it, “Karl’s the man with the plan.”
Bush and Rove met in the early 1970s, when Rove was a young up-and-comer in the Republican Party working for then-party chairman, George Bush Sr.
Bush’s Brain author James Moore describes their early relationship, “Karl’s job was to give George W. the car keys when he came into town. Back then, Karl had no confidence about anything except his politics and his intellect. He’s got a nasal reedy voice and tortoise shell glasses almost as big as his head. And he lays eyes on George W, a strapping six-footer, wearing a leather bomber jacket and sunglasses and snapping gum. It’s an inevitable political marriage. Bush has the looks, charm, family name and corporate connections. Karl brings the politics, policy, ambition and strategy. Put those two heads on the same political body and you have one very formidable team.”
Democrats claim that Rove’s tactics are dishonest, unethical and have undermined the democratic process. Even so, Moore warns, “until Democrats find the right candidates and the right strategists, they’re just not going to defeat Karl Rove.”
I recently spoke with James Moore and Michael Shoob about Rove’s tactics, his unprecedented political influence, and what the Democrats have to do to beat him:
Scheff: What is the mark of a Rove attack?
James Moore: The Max Cleland case is a classic example of Rove. Senator Max Cleland [D – Ga.] and Senator Joseph Lieberman [D – Conn.] came up with the idea for a Department of Homeland Security. Karl bristled at it and said, we don’t need another stupid huge government bureaucracy.
But he did some overnight polling to see what the public’s take on it was and discovered that there was very strong interest in it. So the Republicans cobbled together their own Homeland Security bill. But Karl threw anti-labor and anti-union provisions into the republican version of the bill. Senator Cleland couldn’t vote for that and neither could Senator Lieberman. They voted against the Republican bill and for the Democrat’s version.
When the midterm elections come around and Senator Cleland was up for re-election, the Republicans ran an ad on television that showed Max Cleland – a veteran who left three limbs in Vietnam, an American hero, who’s spent every day of his adult life in service to his country – on the same screen with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – and said that Cleland voted to stop the Homeland Security bill.
It completely destroyed his re-election efforts.
Michael Shoob (Director of Bush’s Brain): The mark of Rove is that he attacks a candidate’s strength. The Bush campaign tried to paint McCain as mentally unfit because of what he suffered as a P.O.W. They attacked Kerry’s heroism by saying that his medals were achieved fraudulently.
Moore: Some of the things that happened on Election Day were completely Karl. There were robocalls – automated telephone calls in the state of Michigan, urging people to get out and vote for John Kerry because he was going to legalize homosexual marriages, and it was important to support him because he was taking a courageous stand. Of course this wasn’t true, but the idea was to motivate people to vote against Kerry
The same thing happened in North and South Carolina. There the calls went to African Americans who were informed by an automated message that if they showed up to vote, and had unpaid speeding or parking tickets, they’d be arrested.
These are Rove’s tactics. He has learned how to game the system, to suppress the vote of the opposition and energize the vote of his side – and drown the real issues in a sea of money.
Moore: In 2000, Karl was managing George W. Bush’s campaign and they did an all out assault on John McCain in South Carolina. They used photos, push-polls and television call-in shows to forward the notion that John McCain had an illegitimate black child.
Flyers showed up on the car windshields of people attending Sunday services throughout South Carolina. There was a photo of John McCain, his wife Cindy and their children – and standing in front was a young, dark-skinned girl. People looking at the text [accusing McCain of infidelity] wondered if McCain had done something immoral.
In reality, the girl was part of the family – she was adopted. John and Cindy McCain had adopted a Bangladeshi child from an orphanage that was run by mother Theresa. But the rumors destroyed McCain in South Carolina and gave the win to Bush.
Shoob: Rove has learned to make false allegations, which he did in Alabama, for example. He accused a judge they were running against of being a pedophile. So you’re a pedophile, you’re un-American, Kerry lied about his war record, John McCain is mentally unfit, Ann Richards is a lesbian – all these are lies carefully designed to defeat and ultimately destroy an opponent.
The way journalism works is this: you make an allegation, and it takes a certain amount of time to research and refute it. Political campaigns have a short shelf life, by the time anyone has refuted the lie, it’s too late. It’s stuck.
In most cases it sticks whether you refute it or not. A majority of voters thought there was something wrong with John Kerry’s war record, even though the charges were completely false, and had been refuted, point by point.
Moore: The Swift Boat Veterans against Kerry. That group was made up of a number of people who have actively funded Rove’s campaigns and candidates throughout the years.
Shoob: People think, where there’s smoke there must be fire. Well there is, but it’s the wrong kind of fire – there’s Rove again.
Scheff: What’s are the limits of Rove’s influence?
Moore: In the old days, Karl’s position, political advisor, did not directly influence what went on in the White House.
It used to work like this: the President, the cabinet and policy experts would sit down and try to develop policies that would best serve the country. The political advisor would only be called after the policy meeting, to help develop strategies to win political support for the policies.
Karl has morphed it into something more dangerous. He’s flip-flopped the protocol. He sits in his West Wing office and thinks of policies that will have a positive effect in the polls. It’s not about what’s good for the country, it’s what’s good for the President and the Republican Party. My tax money is being used to pay Karl Rove – who’s not elected to government – to do policy for the President of the United States
Scheff: In January 2002, at the Republican winter convention in Austin, Texas, Rove surpassed his role as political consultant. He announced the Republican party’s intention to drive America to war in Iraq, over a year before the invasion. Rove said:
“We can go to the American people on winning this war because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America. And we should be proud of the record of our Party in doing just that….This is going to be a long and difficult contest. And then much is yet to be done and much is yet to be required. We are winning in Afghanistan, but we’re winning only in the first theater of a long contest that will take a long time and a lot of treasure and a lot of challenge for this country.”
Moore: Karl was laying out what had been planned since before September 11. The whole tactic of calling Afghanistan a battle, not a war, plays right into the Rove approach to politics.
If we called it a war, we could win it and be done. But then George W. wouldn’t be a war President anymore and he’d drop in the polls. However, if it’s just the first battle in a long, ongoing war, then America is forever on a war footing, the President is forever a war president, and it’s difficult for people to criticize him.
So we have the Battle of Afghanistan, the Battle for Iraq. What’s next – the Battle of Iran? They have a rather large army. It would cost a lot more in lives and treasure than even Karl envisioned.
Scheff: In 2003, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame was outed in the press. What was the Rove Connection?
Moore: Valerie Plame was working to track the movement of weapons in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. She was what the CIA refers to as the holiest of holies – a NOC – non-official cover. This means, if you’re discovered by an enemy, the U.S. government provides you with no protection. They will disavow any knowledge of your actions.
She worked with about six or seven dozen operatives in Eastern Europe. She’d spent her entire professional life working for the CIA, and years as a NOC in a very dangerous undercover operation, trying to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Her life was in constant danger – and they outed her – they released her name in the press.
Shoob: Her husband, ambassador Joseph Wilson, told us that he received a call from a “respected reporter” – later identified as Hardball host Chris Matthews – who told him, ”I just got off the phone with Karl Rove – he tells me your wife is fair game”
Joseph Wilson is the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He had been asked by the CIA to investigate intelligence reports that yellowcake uranium from Niger had been funneled to Iraq. Wilson went to Niger and found the intelligence was bad – the transfer of uranium had not happened. He reported his findings to the CIA.
Later, he wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times called, “What I did not find in Africa.”
And then he got the call. His wife, Valerie Plame, had been outed as a CIA agent in the press. Her name appeared in a column by Robert Novak, a long-time press connection of Rove’s.
Moore: This was purely an act of revenge – to send a message to Ambassador Wilson and anyone who might consider contradicting the Bush campaign – “Don’t mess with us.”
Wilson’s wife was working in precisely the area that we went to war over – trying to stop the spread of WMDs – and they outed her. They destroyed her operation and the relationships she’d taken years to develop. They endangered the country by destroying a significant intelligence gathering operation.
Identifying an undercover U.S. agent is a federal offense. This was made law under the White House of George H.W. Bush. This is precisely the kind of irony that goes unnoticed by Americans who voted for George W. Bush.
Scheff: How do we get Karl Rove out of the White House?
Moore: As long as Republicans are in charge, Karl Rove is going be there, because there’s nobody better – there never has ever been anybody as good as this guy.
He’s iconic on the American political landscape, he has figured out how to game democracy, to win at all costs. He’s turned lying – something that used to bring down entire careers – into an acceptable political tactic.
Rove has turned the idea of our nation going to war into a marketing concept. He’s branded it and marketed it – “We’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys, our president is a hero and a leader so get in line behind him.” And it’s worked. The American public has fallen for it.
Shoob: The winner of the election was the one successful in portraying themselves as the party that achieved the moral high ground. The Democrats could’ve done this very easily if they’d claimed from the start that the war was immoral and illegal – that people had been lied to – that it was a violation of the Geneva Convention.
Scheff: But they didn’t. The Democratic leadership all supported the war – Kerry, Clinton, Feinstein, Biden, Lieberman – they all voted for it.
Shoob: The Democrats think victory is in the middle. They think that if some Americans support the war, the party has to lean to the right. Victory, I think we’ve discovered, is not in the middle.