An Interview With Karl Rove
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JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rove, welcome. And I must say, this really was a white knuckle operation, wasn’t it?
KARL ROVE: Hard fought primary and we’re here tonight to have a moment of, you know, narrow victory.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Right.
DAVID BROOKS: The delegates are demoralized right now.
JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely.
KARL ROVE: We overcame the opposition of Brooks and Shields in order to win this nomination. (Laughter) It wouldn’t have been possible except for you, Lehrer.
JIM LEHRER: Well, I was here to kind of separate the wheat from the chaff, the Shields from the Brooks.
Just in personal– we’ll talk politics here in a minute– but in personal terms, Mr. Rove, what does this mean for you?
KARL ROVE: Well, it’s another event on an important campaign. And it’s a nice night to enjoy the president’s nomination and get ready for the speeches ahead and the hard work ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory. When did you first start working with George W. Bush?
KARL ROVE: Well, I met him, I can remember exactly when, the day before Thanksgiving, 1973. And I was a young lad working for his dad at the national committee and I had the important job given to me of delivering the keys to the family car when George W. Bush came down from Harvard to spend Thanksgiving with his family and they told me he would call from the train station and I was go to meet him in the lobby and hand over the keys to the car. And he came walking in the door wearing his Air National Guard flight jacket and cowboy boots and Levis and I handed him the keys to the purple Gremlin with Levi interior. He was not impressed.
JIM LEHRER: And did you ever, ever dream that you would be sitting here tonight, or anywhere tonight, with George W. Bush being re-nominated for another term as president of the United States?
KARL ROVE: No, but I long dreamed that I’d be able to sit next to Mark Shields. A boyhood dream has been realized.
JIM LEHRER: You dream the small dreams; you dream the big dreams.
KARL ROVE: Exactly. And then you lived them.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the president is at, as I said, is at a place in Queens. I don’t think he’s supposed to speak tonight. Is that right, Mr. Rove?
KARL ROVE: No. He’s not.
JIM LEHRER: He’s just going to acknowledge what has just happened. Reminder of that is Michael Steele, the lieutenant governor of Maryland who is presiding over this. And then once this is finished, we’ll have a similar acclamation vote for Vice President Cheney who, as Ray said and we have said, will be the main speaker of the night, the key speaker of the night after the keynoter, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia.
I think it’s going to be a while here. We had expected this magic picture. What have you done, Rove? Where’s the picture?
KARL ROVE: It’s coming soon. We’re building; we’re building towards the moment.
MARK SHIELDS: You can feel it building.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID BROOKS: They’re still organizing the softball game if anybody remembers last night’s picture.
KARL ROVE: No, actually, the picture tonight night is the president with the president of the New York Fire Fighters, who are endorsing the president today — President Cassidy of the Fire Fighters.
JIM LEHRER: I have been told in this… the magic earpiece I have in my ear that the president is in place, they just, they’re not quite ready to do it yet.
Convention going pretty well the way you planned it, Mr. Rove?
KARL ROVE: Yes. Going pretty good. Have some great speakers and a lot of enthusiasm and great meetings and great caucuses and it’s coming along pretty well.
JIM LEHRER: Everybody stayed on message?
KARL ROVE: Sure have. Bill Harris, the head of the convention and Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the RNC, have done a terrific job preparing the convention and it’s rolling out just as planned.
JIM LEHRER: There’s been much made, of course, not only this convention but also with the Democrats in Boston about how ever word uttered by everybody is pretty closely edited and monitored. Do you do that? Does your office do that here?
KARL ROVE: No, there’s official proceedings which reviews those. That’s not new, incidentally. I think that’s been around since the ’60s.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MARK SHIELDS: ’72 I think was the first one.
KARL ROVE: In fact, some of the people who have been involved for the last 20 years in the official proceedings are back again. I met a guy the other day who said his first convention was in ’64 in Cow Palace, California and he’s been involved in the official proceedings ever since.
DAVID BROOKS: Did you learn anything from the Democratic convention –
KARL ROVE: You make certain you fill the day with news. Make certain that everybody does have a message that the American people want to hear and spend more time talking about what you’re for rather than what you’re against.
If you look at the content analysis on the Democratic convention, for about every second that they extolled Kerry’s virtues or values or record, they spent two seconds trashing the president and the Republicans. And that’s, I think, left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.
JIM LEHRER: What would be the ratio here?
KARL ROVE: Substantially more balanced, and my suspicion is by the end of the convention we’ll see it substantially pro-president and his agenda and, you know, like for example last night Arnold Schwarzenegger spent most of his time talking about the Republican Party and America as a land of optimism. The Republican Party as the natural party of immigrants. He took a couple of contrast points, but most of it was spent extolling the party.
MARK SHIELDS: It’s contrast points when it’s your side and it’s criticism when it’s the other side? Is that how it goes?
KARL ROVE: Well, Mark, if you like, I’ll make you feel better. It’s contrast on our part, it’s just they’re not as– there’s just a lot more of it and not as well substantiated.
MARK SHIELDS: I see. I just was struck by the speaker of the House when he spoke the first night. I think he mentioned John Kerry six times and the president twice and not necessarily in a flattering way.
KARL ROVE: Well, Mark, I’m sure you can pick out one speaker in the Democratic convention who mentioned Kerry’s name more than he mentioned Bush’s. But I’m talking about overall, and the tone of this convention is clearly more aimed at extolling the virtues of this president’s administration and their record than– because we’ve got something to extol and something to advance and something…
JIM LEHRER: Here we go.
REPUBLICAN CONVENTION SPOKESPERSON: The chair, after a little party, appoints the following distinguished Republicans to officially notify George W. Bush that he has been nominated by this convention as its candidate for president of the United States and to escort him at the appropriate time. PX Kelly of Virginia, Joanne Davidson of Ohio, Darren White of New Mexico, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Candice Miller of Michigan, Gaston Peyton South Florida, Suzanne Johnson of Missouri, Jim Clouser of Wisconsin.
JIM LEHRER: We will go back to the podium when they have the picture of the president up there. The governor now is reading the official… it’s an official step that has to be taken. PX Kelly, the first name, of course, was former commandant of the Marine Corps under his father, under President Bush.
KARL ROVE: I think he may have left over slightly under Clinton as well. These are all activists and leaders of the Bush campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rove, you made some news today in an earlier interview where your criticism of what John Kerry said before Congress in 1971, you said you thought it was… I won’t paraphrase you. What did you say? What is your point here?
KARL ROVE: Well, I said reflecting on John Kerry at his convention said he was proud of his service in Vietnam and he has every right to be proud of it. And we acknowledge that he served with honor and distinction. He also said he was proud of what he did when he came back and what he did when he came back was to go before Congress and testify and say that members of the U.S. military in Vietnam raped and pillaged and burned villages and generally routinely acted like Genghis Kahn.
I understand a lot of people who served in Vietnam and their families feel strongly about this. I had an uncle who served in Vietnam several tours of duty, he was a paratrooper, Colonel William [inaudible], and I don’t think my uncle, or the men who served under him, were routinely acting like Genghis Kahn. And I understand strong feelings about the war, I was a youngster then, but I remember how strong the feelings were. But I don’t think that kind of rhetoric was justified and I understand why people take offense at it. I do as the nephew of a Vietnam veteran.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it’s legitimate to bring up now in this presidential race?
KARL ROVE: Well, he brought it up himself. He said in his convention that he was proud of what he’d done in Vietnam and proud of what he’d done when he came back. He can’t have it both ways and say “the only people who can talk about me are people who agree with me and who agree with what I said and did.”
JIM LEHRER: You drew fire from what you said.
KARL ROVE: Sure.
JIM LEHRER: A couple comments: one from former Sen. Max Cleland said today, “Karl Rove is behind it all. It’s part of his smear campaign to tarnish the records and service of Vietnam veterans. Now he’s doing it again.” Former Sen. Bob Kerrey…
KARL ROVE: Let me respond to Sen. Cleland.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
KARL ROVE: I’m not behind what Sen. John Kerry said in 1971. Sen. Cleland served this country courageously, but he cannot tell people who disagree with what his candidate said, to shut up. People have a right to disagree with what Sen. Kerry did. He cannot have it both ways and say “if you agree with me, applaud me and if you disagree with me when I say I’m proud of something I said, if you don’t agree with me, you can’t talk about it.” I feel very strongly about this.
I was at the VFW convention in Cincinnati and veterans sought me out and people who — there were several of them who went out of their way to make clear they strongly disagreed with the advertisements that characterized his service. But they also made it very clear that there were deep wounds that still existed from what he said.
I had a couple of members of one of the leading veterans service organizations come to see me in the White House on a subject and they brought it up spontaneously, how angry they were about what he had said about their service in Vietnam. And you cannot– you know, I understand if he does, if he wants to disavow the words and if Sen. Cleland wants to disavow the words, that’s their business. But they either have to defend them or disavow time. They have to live with them.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bob Kerrey, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, made an additional point in response to your thing which was the connection point. He said “Karl Rove has been in enough political campaigns to understand how separate you need to be from these independent efforts.” And he just ended that separation. If Ginsburg resigned– he was the former counsel to the Republican National Committee– if Ginsburg resigned, so should he, meaning you.
KARL ROVE: Think about the logic. That says any of these charges made by the 527 groups against the president with $63 million worth of advertising, if Sen. Bob Kerrey or Sen. Max Cleland or anybody connected with the Kerry campaign echoes those charges, they are guilty of coordination with the 527s and they themselves ought to resign. That’s ridiculous. And Sen. Kerry, again, served our country honorably, but he cannot have it both ways. He cannot say “if you agree with John Kerry about his opposition to the Vietnam War, more power to you. If you disagree with him, you can’t… you cannot do so.” That’s just not fair.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree– both Mark and David in the NewsHour before, earlier this evening, agreed on one thing, that this is really hurting John Kerry. And it’s hurting him primarily because people are connecting it to his position on Iraq more than it is about Vietnam.
As a political analyst, do you agree, first of all, that it’s hurting him because of Iraq as well?
KARL ROVE: I don’t know. I think most times the simple explanations for things in politics are not the most accurate. I think there are far more damaging things that he has said and done in recent weeks, starting with the convention that failed to offer a positive vision. I mean, he talked for nearly 40-some odd minutes, he spent 70-some odd words and 26 seconds talking about his record in the United States Senate and very little time talking about his forward-looking vision for America. I think that and then the controversy, the back-and-forth about Iraq is probably far more damaging to Sen. Kerry than half a million dollars worth of ads bought in three states by this group.
JIM LEHRER: David?
DAVID BROOKS: I was going to ask you about that positive agenda because we were up in Boston, the convention ends, we were walking down the stairs and we ran into some of your counterparts in the Kerry campaign and they were ebullient because they thought the convention had gone so well.
But I think most people, as you just suggested, think that some of the mood evaporated because they had no structure, no policies that anybody could remember two weeks later. So what are going to be the three or four policies that come out of this convention that I’ll remember in a month?
KARL ROVE: Thursday night you’ll hear them the president’s speech. And some of them may have a ring of familiarity if you’ve read your recent columns, but I’m going to leave it to the president to lay them out. But it’s also– It was not only the failure to lay it out at the convention, it was the failure, then, to do anything about in the aftermath of the convention.
So I think that part of what you’ll see over the next several weeks is the president will lay out an agenda– and it’s hard to do in a convention speech– I mean, you’re talking about 4,800 words you’ve got to acknowledge– You’ve got to accept the nomination, acknowledge your running mate, acknowledge your family. Obviously he’s going to spend some time talking about Iraq. But we will follow it up then by giving weight and purpose to it both tomorrow night, Friday, and in the days ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Karl, Vietnam was the longest war in American history. Other than the civil war, it was the most divisive war in the American history — 58,135 Americans, hundreds of thousands of Asians. Four presidents couldn’t explain and prosecute and end that war; it ended as the war did, as you know, with a communist Vietnam, which remains the case today. John Kerry said he was proud of what he did there, he’s proud of what he did when he came back. He came back and he opposed that war.
And I just, I’m curious. I mean, you say he tarnished the record of the service of Vietnam veterans. I mean, you know, to me he volunteered twice to go and he came back and as a combat veteran, honored, as you say, his noble service, and then took that and said “I’m going to fight this war because I don’t want other people to die in what’s become a fruitless cause.”
KARL ROVE: That’s admirable. That is absolutely admirable. In our country that’s admirable. But you do not use your opposition to the war to paint, in a broad brush stroke, the service of others who went to the war as being routinely war criminals. I mean, have you read his statement?
MARK SHIELDS: I have read his statement.
KARL ROVE: It was a powerful indictment of everyone who went to Vietnam.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay, but you know and I know he was quoting someone else.
KARL ROVE: He didn’t say… I’m saying this and I disagree with it. He gave it… he said, this is what they said at a meeting that I was.
MARK SHIELDS: What they testified is that… what they testified to.
KARL ROVE: And he has never stepped back and said, “You know what? That’s what they said but I don’t agree with it and I didn’t agree with it at the time.” He laid it in his testimony as America’s indictment in Vietnam and on the basis that the government of the United States had turned our military into war criminals. And I simply do not accept the fact, I do not accept the argument that Americans in Vietnam routinely acted as war criminals.
MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t a question of… go ahead.
JIM LEHRER: Hold on. We’re going to go to where the president is; they’ve had technical problems which makes me feel good because we have them all the time. They’ve gotten the picture from Queens and the president is about to be acknowledged. I hate to interrupt that dialogue, fellows, we’ll be back.
Let’s go to… please, can we go to the… that is the… she is speaking from the Italian Charities of America Hall in Elmhurst, Queens. The president is there with New York Uniformed Fire Fighters Association.
REPUBLICAN CONVENTION SPOKESPERSON: We know that the president recognizes the heroic acts of these outstanding fire fighters who put that you are lives on the line to basically keep their community safe and secure.
JIM LEHRER: Help me out here, Mr. Rove… I feel bad now. (Laughter)
MARK SHIELDS: The well-oiled Bush machine is having problems…
JIM LEHRER: There she is. Here we go.
KARL ROVE: Actually, the problem is here, not…
JIM LEHRER: There’s the president. There’s the president. If we could get a close-up of that, this would be helpful. There we go. There he is. There we go.
(Cheers and applause)
REPUBLICAN CONVENTION SPOKESPERSON: This is an important endorsement, now back to the hall.
JIM LEHRER: Back to the hall.
Mr. Rove, is there any question in your mind that George W. Bush is going to be reelected? What would it take for him to lose this election now?
KARL ROVE: Well, I’ll leave that to the other side to describe. We’re focused on the 62 days ahead– 31 days until registration closes and 62 days until the election.
MARK SHIELDS: We talked earlier on the NewsHour about unexpected events at a time like this that could– our historians talking about past elections where things like that can happen. For you all who are trying to run a political campaign, is there any strategy to deal with that? There can’t be, can there?
KARL ROVE: No, you have to put structures in place that allow you to respond, but no. I mean, every election is affected by events, but close elections, events have a bigger impact. And this is a close election.
JIM LEHRER: Well, look, Karl Rove thank you very much for being with us and the technical problem allowed us to talk a little longer than planned.
KARL ROVE: And allowed me to fulfill my boyhood dream of being next to Mark Shields.
MARK SHIELDS: One of the great treats, it really is. What do you have to look forward to now, Karl?
KARL ROVE: Maybe you could put me in between you and Brooks and I can be next to both of you.
JIM LEHRER: Again, thanks a lot for coming by.
KARL ROVE: Thank you, sir.
JIM LEHRER: We appreciate it very much.