Karl Rove: The
Produced and directed
by Michael Kirk
Co-produced and reported by Jim Gilmore
Written by Michael Kirk
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: Karl Rove had a master
ALLEN, The Washington Post: He was the architect. His
hand was in all of it.
ANNOUNCER: It took 40 years, but he changed the
OBSERVER: Karl Rove came to town with one goal,
and that was this massive Republican realignment.
ANNOUNCER: How did he do it? And what does it mean for America?
OBSERVER: Karl Rove wants a permanent Republican
OBSERVER: He's the God inside the machine.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE and The Washington
examine Karl Rove: The Architect.
ALLEN, The Washington Post: On
election day, the president voted at the Crawford fire station.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Feel great. Thank you. Let
me go vote first.
ALLEN: The people around him were very
concerned that they had lost. The
people who were there said that they'd never seen Mrs. Bush gripping his hand
GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm sure he's happy, like I am, that
the campaign has come to a conclusion.
ALLEN, The Washington Post: We
see the aides, including the president's daughters, standing next to him,
watching him talk, all of them looking like they're at a funeral.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Put my full amount of energy in this
DOWD, Chief Strategist, Bush Re-Election: The president called me in the morning and asked me what I thought was
going to happen on election day.
GEORGE W. BUSH: —have been uplifted by the spirit of—
DOWD: He was hoping for a 5-point victory, and
I told him I didn't think that was going to happen, but you know, I'd sure
hope— I'd liked his optimism.
GEORGE W. BUSH: There'd be nothing better for our
system for the election to be conclusively over tonight so that— I think it's
going to be me— so I can go on and— and lead this country.
BALZ, The Washington Post: There were some of the Bush team who were quite nervous, who were
skeptical that Bush could pull it off. The Kerry people were uniformly optimistic. They were very confident that they were going to win that
ROVE: Oh, my God, that's great news, Ed
Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee—
NARRATOR: The chief campaign strategist for the
Bush team, Karl Rove, knew it was going to be close. He began the day trying to lighten the mood.
ROVE: —what you're hearing from the key
battleground state? [laughter] Republican areas are turning out in huge numbers all across the country.
NARRATOR: But he knows what's at stake today, the
fate of a 30-year plan to remake the American political landscape. Later that day, as the Bush team landed
in Washington, Rove received bad news.
McKINNON, Media Consultant, Bush Re-Election: I'm on Air Force One, and we are just landing. I'm on pins and needles about the exit polls, as we always
are. And just as we're landing,
Karl gets a call, and it's pretty clear that it's— we know what's happening,
and I didn't need to know a thing because I read it all in his face. I mean, it just— they were bad and
probably really bad.
DOWD: I was befuddled, and I told this to
Karl on the phone. And he was on
Air Force One. We were losing
Virginia. South Carolina was
tied. We were losing Pennsylvania
by 18. We were losing Florida. We were losing Ohio.
McKINNON: The air went out of the airplane. The air just got sucked out. And you know, I went into immediate
NEWSCASTER: Mr. Bush appeared subdued—
NEWSCASTER: —the president obviously drained, knowing all he can do now is wait.
NEWSCASTER: Advisers concede they are disappointed by the recent narrowing of the
EDSALL, The Washington Post: I'm looking at the same exit polls at around 4:30, 5:00 o'clock, and it
still looked solid Kerry, with Ohio and Florida going his way.
NEWSCASTER: A noticeably different tone from the senator today—
NEWSCASTER: Nervous optimism would best describe the mood among his staff—
NEWSCASTER: —say they are focused on early voting—
McKINNON: It led some of the Kerry staff to call
Kerry "Mr. President." And you
know, I was told by friends of mine on the other side that John Kerry was sent
to clean up and shave and get ready for his acceptance speech.
NARRATOR: By later afternoon, they were crunching
the numbers at the White House. Rove had spent years courting the conservative Republican base. He knew if the base was turning out to
vote, the exit polls were wrong.
DOWD: You know, exits are usually never that
wrong. They've been wrong, but
never usually that wrong. And I
thought either that we fundamentally misunderstood what was going on in the
electorate and just what we counted on and turn-out and all that wasn't going
to happen, or these were completely screwed up.
McKINNON: I talked to the president about an hour
later, after he got to the White House and he gave me a call, and he just said,
"What do you think?" Of course, I
put a great face on. I said, "Oh,
it's completely baloney. It's"—
you know, "It's all fine. It's a
methodological flaw." [laughter] Meanwhile, I'm— [laughter]
NARRATOR: Rove had an elaborate system designed
to plug into key precincts for real-time results.
MEHLMAN, Campaign Manager Bush Re-Election: We had set up a whole war room at the campaign. We were getting— tracking it. We were not only getting tracking
polling we knew we'd get from the networks, but we had our own system of
monitoring returns and monitoring information.
NARRATOR: And the information generated at
campaign headquarters dramatically contradicted the exit polls. Rove had been right. The base was turning out.
DOWD: As each state came in, they matched our
forecast, as opposed to the exits' forecast. But it was a long five hours until those— till those first
numbers started coming in.
McKINNON: And it went from funereal to
celebration over the course of about, I'd say, from 9:00 to 11:00.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to thank my superb campaign
team. I want to thank—
NARRATOR: The next morning, John Kerry had conceded. George W. Bush was reelected, and his
chief strategist was given a new title.
GEORGE W. BUSH: —the architect, Karl Rove.
ALLEN: Everyone in the room knew what that
meant. He was the architect of the
public policies that got them there. He was the architect of the campaign platform. He was the architect of the fund-raising strategy. He was the architect of the
state-by-state strategy. He was
the architect of the travel itinerary. His hand was in all of it.
NARRATOR: For 30 years, Karl Christian Rove has
had a hand in building a dominant conservative Republican majority. He would do it with a unique
combination of hard-hitting political skills and a highly developed
understanding of the increasingly conservative American electorate.
BARRY GOLDWATER (AZ), 1964 Republican Presidential Nominee: [July 16, 1964] I would remind you that extremism in
the defense of liberty is no vice!
NARRATOR: It all began with what's been called
the young conservatives' Woodstock, the presidential campaign of Barry
EDSALL, The Washington Post: Well, Karl is 14 when the Goldwater election takes place. It's kind of a coming-of-age period, or
the beginning of a coming-of-age. A lot of people have their first real political memories from their
BARRY GOLDWATER: Our Republican cause is to free our
people and to light the way for liberty throughout the world!
NARRATOR: Goldwater's Western libertarianism was
attractive to Rove. It seemed a
kind of common-sense conservatism.
More on Goldwater's legacy]
MATALIN, Senior Adviser, Bush Re-Election: We're all libertarians at heart. We were born of the quest for freedom and liberty and pushing forward
and making progress and taking risks and getting— you know, just have minimal
intrusion in the way in which you do that.
NARRATOR: Goldwater's loss to LBJ would inspire a
generation of young Republicans to continue the conservative crusade. In high school, Karl Rove was one of
those fervent supporters.
SLATER, Author, Bush's Brain: Karl Rove, I think, was a Republican before he was anything else. His sister recounts a story when he was
a little kid and other kids had posters of football players or basketball
players and sports heroes on their wall, Karl had a poster on his wall, she
says, that said, "Wake Up, America!" Karl understood as a very young man that conservative politics was
something he wanted to be a part of.
NARRATOR: Rove grew up a non-Mormon in the heart
of Mormon country, Salt Lake City.
ABATE, Friend: He loved to read. He had a great sense of humor, a drive
that— 24/7 before it became, you know, a popular term, he typified that.
NARRATOR: At the University of Utah, he was an
academic overachiever, but it was the late '60s, and he was hooked on
politics. So he dropped out and
moved to Washington, D.C., where he quickly became the chairman of the College
DAVIS, Political Consultant: Everybody who was a College Republican in the 1970s were geeks, and that
would include me. And we were
proud of it. What it was is, there
were a bunch of smart guys like Karl who said, "Look, this is how you win. There's such a thing as direct
mail. There's such a thing as
phone banks. There's such a thing
as get-out-the-vote activities." And they trained us on how to do the mechanics of politics.
REED, Executive Director, Christian Coalition 1989-'97: Karl was sort of a legend, you know, an
almost quasi-mythical figure. And
in our little circle of these up-and-coming conservative Republican rising
generation, everybody knew who Karl was.
NARRATOR: And everyone knew Lee Atwater. Rove, the policy wonk, partnered up
with the cool guy who became famous for his tough campaigns.
GWYNNE, Executive Editor, Texas Monthly: Lee Atwater was a gunslinger. Lee Atwater would beat you. I mean, that was his goal, was to beat
you. He wasn't a policy guy. He didn't think in terms of policy and
issues and big thoughts. Karl was
absolutely, totally policy.
NARRATOR: Rove ran training seminars on campuses
all over the country.
SLATER: Karl during these seminars began to
talk about dirty tricks. He was
talking about ways to undercut your opponent in not too nice a form.
NARRATOR: Rove also drew the interest of The
just as Watergate was dominating the news. It was a story about one of those college seminars where
Rove talked about dirty tricks.
SLATER: It came at the heels of Watergate, and
what you had was a young group of Republicans officially associated with the
national Republican Party, following Watergate, talking about dirty tricks.
NARRATOR: If you were a savvy 22-year-old future
politician, it was the kind of story you worried about. So Rove's friend, Lee Atwater, signed
this affidavit swearing that that dirty tricks story was told only in
jest. But it was Rove the
tactician who caught the eye of the CBS News White House correspondent, Dan
RATHER, CBS News: Down in the basement of party head quarters
is the operation aimed at embarrassing pundits who say Nixon doesn't appeal to
youth. The people in charge here
are from the 18-to-21-year old bracket.
ROVE: First of all, voter registration's
probably the most important function that we are undertaking now. You can't get a 35-year-old to teach
the Republican Party how to get to young people. You can't rely upon it. Young people have got reach other young people, and that's
what we're seeking to do.
RATHER: Dan Rather, CBS News, with the Nixon
campaign in Washington.
NARRATOR: Nearly 30 years later, Karl Rove was
still counting votes and had brought his candidate to the White House. He was rewarded with Hillary Clinton's
old office in the West Wing.
MILBANK, The Washington Post: Karl Rove comes to town with a larger-than-life reputation. The Svengali images are made right
away, even before he arrives. He
gets the credit or blame for just about everything—
ROVE: Thank you, Mr. President. Honored by your call to service and
looking forward to it. It's
going to be a lifetime dream rewarded.
MILBANK: —even things that I think we can
genuinely say in retrospect, he had nothing to do with.
NARRATOR: Rove's title, senior adviser to the
president, meant he would be in charge of four major departments in the White
House. Politics and policy would
BALZ: It is fitting policies and policy ideas
into a political context, in order to achieve the political goals that— you
know, that Karl's always had in mind, which is to turn the Republican Party
into a majority party in this country.
More on Rove's big vision]
NARRATOR: And Rove knew it was his job to stay
connected to that key conservative base.
REED: Karl's job is to be eyes and ears and
to have feelers out there, and it's his job to then communicate those to the
NARRATOR: One of Rove's regular conversations was
his get-together with conservative gadfly Grover Norquist.
NORQUIST, Political Activist: I
think Rove understands the nature of the modern conservative movement. And Rove and President George W. Bush
staked out very radical — meaning fundamental — conservative positions: cutting
taxes to let people have more control over their lives. He was good on the 2nd Amendment. He was pro-life. He respected people of faith. I think there's less daylight between
Bush and Rove than— it's like two halves of a brain or something. They're both operating in sync, and
have for years.
NARRATOR: Both Rove and Bush knew that the
election of 2000 had depended upon a core constituency, the conservative wing
of the Republican Party, particularly the religious right.
MODERATOR: Governor Bush, a
philosopher-thinker. And why?
W. BUSH: Christ, because he changed my heart.
accept Christ as your savior, it changes your life.
NARRATOR: George Bush had the genuine faith to
appeal to religious conservatives. Karl Rove had the political instincts to see their campaign potential.
SLATER, Dallas Morning News: Karl never really talked about religion very much. In fact, I got the clear impression
that he was a person who was not religious at all.
MILBANK: Now, where Karl's interest is, is in
the mechanics of this. And I think
it's fair to say that religious conservatives, evangelical churches, have
become sort of the new labor unions.
NARRATOR: Rove had worked hard to connect to
them, acquiring lists of church members and setting about turning them into
foot soldiers in the Republican get-out-the-vote campaign.
REED: They're looking for somebody who shares
their values, somebody I can rearrange my life, and I'm willing to rearrange my
life and give up spare time and hobbies and do things I've never done before,
because I want that person to lead.
GEORGE W. BUSH: [2000 RNC prayer breakfast] —that while government can feed the body, it cannot nourish the soul.
NARRATOR: Rove knew that Bush could speak their
W. BUSH: As I told a lot of folks in Texas over
the years, I wish I knew the law to make people love one another. I would sign it.
NARRATOR: But the race was close. Bush was running against the vice
president. There was prosperity
and peace. Right before the
election, Rove was holding his breath.
DOWD, Director of Polling, Bush 2000: We
were sort of sitting on a razor's edge because this was an election we probably
shouldn't have won. We also
thought that anything could sort of tip this thing. Any sort of news could tip it.
NARRATOR: Then trouble.
HUGHES, Communications Director, Bush 2000: [November
2, 2000] Double-check the public record. The only time Governor Bush has ever
been previously asked whether he had been— ever been arrested for drinking, he
responded, quote, "I do not have a perfect record."
NARRATOR: George Bush's prior conviction for
drunk driving — DUI — exploded onto the news cycle.
DOWD: The race went from a 3 or 4-point lead
for us in our polls on Thursday to dead even on Tuesday.
NARRATOR: Rove knew those conservative Christians
he was counting on were watching closely.
HUGHES: He has made mistakes. He has been very forthcoming about
acknowledging he made mistakes. Thank you all very much.
ALLEN, The Washington Post: I
think one of the missions was to convince conservative voters that Governor
Bush was a true conservative, someone that they could trust. And I think it was the trust issue that
really hurt them on the DUI.
NEWSCASTER: Jeb Bush of Florida and other GOP officials are now on the ground in
Florida. They are there to oversee
the recount effort, which has already begun.
NARRATOR: The morning after the election, many of
Rove's team deployed to Florida. The election was now in the hands of lawyers.
BAKER, Bush Campaign Attorney: The vote here in Florida was very
close, but when it was counted, Governor Bush was the winner.
NARRATOR: Karl Rove wanted to know why the
election had been so close. He
learned that millions of the religious conservatives had stayed home and vowed
that if his candidate was given the presidency, it wouldn't happen again. In his office in the West Wing, Karl
Rove was intent on rebuilding Bush's connection to the religious conservatives.
DAVIS, Political Consultant: Efforts to try and include religious organizations in contract with the
federal government for services increased over this time. Policies on an international level, as
it relates to birth control and family planning, you know, helped communicate
to voters in these areas. You
know, I think, from top to bottom, these are the kind of issues that they took
on. They found these voters and
they found ways to communicate with them, and they found ways to make them a
part of the administration so that they felt like if Bush lost, they would lose
something in return.
NARRATOR: And then in August came stem cell.
MILBANK: The religious conservative groups are
thrilled. You know, "This is our
guy. We were right about him,"
giving the fetus more legal rights. And of course, much more visible was the
partial-birth abortion ban, which had been tried for many years, and finally,
Bush was the guy who could sign that into law.
NARRATOR: Rove was going to need them for 2004,
but first he needed a big victory in the mid-term elections. He and his staff made an assessment of
who the president was appealing to.
EDSALL: They made this decision that there was
going to only be a 7 percent swing vote. Given that, it was much more important to shift the focus from past
focuses on persuasion— that's traditionally what you do, is try to persuade
people— and switch it to motivation.
NARRATOR: In order to motivate them, they would
have to find them. And finding
Republicans and conservatives of all stripes had become a speciality of Karl
DAVIS: Karl did something that was really
ground-breaking, and that was that he looked at commercial marketing tools to
help define these voter groups more and more.
DOWD, Chief Strategist, Bush Re-Election: There's a whole bunch of Republicans that live in traditionally
Democratic precincts around this country, and the only way to find them is
EDSALL: You can buy all kinds of lists of how
you use your American Express card and VISA card.
DOWD: Somebody gets Field and Stream, they're much more
likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter.
EDSALL: People who drink Coors beer tend to be
DAVIS: Someone drove a Volvo and went to yoga
classes, they were a Democrat.
EDSALL: People who watch Fox News tend very
much to be Republican.
DOWD: Somebody that watches CSI is much more likely to
be a Republican.
EDSALL: You have 200 million people on these
lists that you can buy.
BALZ, The Washington Post: Rove loves information. He
loves to be inundated by information, and the more information he can get, the
more comfortable he feels about the decisions they're making. But he's also fascinated by polling
data, and he's fascinated by voter registration data and by precinct data and,
you know, everything else imaginable,
NARRATOR: They called it "metrics." With those lists in the hands of his
aides, Rove began every day with a phone call.
Explore more about "metrics"]
MATALIN, Senior Adviser, Bush Re-Election: So in the morning, he would say, "What is our goal for the day? And how are we going to achieve it?"
MEHLMAN, Campaign Manager, Bush Re-Election: Our goal is to raise X. How
much does that mean we need to raise per week to get there? How do we measure that per week? How do we measure it per city? How do we measure it per event?
MATALIN: Bottom of the day, he'd say, "Did we
meet our goal today?" Day after
day after day.
MEHLMAN: Same thing with voter registration,
same thing with number of presidential visits, same thing with everything we
do. If you can't measure it, it's
not worth doing.
NARRATOR: Along with metrics, Rove spent millions
of dollars on the 72-hour task force designed to turn out the base.
BALZ, The Washington Post: Karl's not a believer in the big bang theory of realignment. Karl's a believer in, you know,
incremental politics. And it's,
you know, kind of like the old Woody Hayes Ohio State football teams, which is
three yards and a cloud of dust. You keep accumulating territory from your opponent, and you get it bit
NARRATOR: The campaign was just getting started
when the agenda dramatically shifted.
BALZ: 9/11 changed his presidency and changed
the focus of his presidency, and in a sense, gave his presidency a focus.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you, and the rest of the
world hears you!
BALZ: There was nothing that was galvanizing
in the way that 9/11 and the war on terrorism became.
GEORGE W. BUSH: And the people who knocked these
buildings down will hear all of us soon!
MILBANK: I think what you felt in the early
moments, at least, after 9/11, was the absence of Rove. I think, you know, Karl stepped back quite
a bit from— sort of from public view.
ALLEN: Rove is very passionate about
history. After 9/11, Karl studied
World War II and what was done with, you know, bond drives and what was done to
mobilize the populace in those— in those days.
NARRATOR: From behind closed doors, Rove watched
as the president's poll numbers steadily rose. The more the war on terror seemed to succeed, the more
bipartisan support the administration was receiving.
MILBANK: What was happening after September 11th
was everybody was supporting the president, you know, including, you know, all
members of Congress, but he wasn't using it to further his agenda at all.
NARRATOR: But Rove knew a galvanizing issue when
he saw one, and he wanted the president to push it to help Republicans.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I need a guy like Saxby Chambliss in
the Senate who won't cater to the special interests in Washington and join me
in protecting the interests of the American people!
NARRATOR: Saxby Chambliss was given virtually no
chance of defeating Georgia incumbent and decorated Vietnam war hero Max
Cleland. Chambliss attacked Cleland for being soft on terror.
ANNOUNCER: [Chambliss campaign commercial] As America
faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads
claiming he has the courage to lead..
ALLEN: We're seeing the president's emphasis
on security as a motivating issue, and he used it both for Republican
candidates and against Democratic candidates.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I need to be able to put the right
people at the right place at the right time to protect the American
people! John Thune will support me
in advancing a homeland security bill that makes sense!
NARRATOR: In races across the country, the Bush
White House pushed their tough agenda. Rove's Republicans won widely.
MEHLMAN, Campaign Manager, Bush Re-Election: It was historic. I mean, I
think it's the first time since, I think, 1934, that the president's party
gained seats in the first mid-term election, in both the House and the
Senate. It was unprecedented, what
CHAMBLISS (R-GA), Senator-Elect: I just got a phone call a minute ago
from a guy who's a pretty special friend—
NARRATOR: Bush's popularity and emphasis on
terrorism and a rejuvenated turnout effort combined to give Republicans an
CHAMBLISS: Told me to come down here and tell you
that two years from now, he wants all of y'all on his team!
ALLEN: In 2002, you saw an aggressiveness that
worked. And so it was clear right
away that that was going to be the template for the 2004 campaign.
NARRATOR: This had been Rove's dream since those
years as a young Republican, realigning the politics of the country. Back then, the self-taught historian
had followed his ambition south to a state dominated by Democrats, Texas.
BRODER, The Washington Post: Bright guy. The thing that
really struck me was the sort of scholarly approach about the rise of the
Republican Party in the South. And
this was a young guy who knew it in far— the story in much greater depth and
with much more insight than anybody that I'd heard.
NARRATOR: But it was not going to be easy in
ROSS, Texas Lobbyist: At that point, he was pretty much seen
as funny, charming, but in a futile situation that no one thought would change
NARRATOR: If there was a major Republican
politician who knew about the futility of running in Texas, it was George H.W.
Bush. By the time young Karl Rove
went to work for him, Bush had already lost two races for the Senate.
H.W. BUSH: I feel kind of like Custer. You know, there were too many
Indians. Well, there are too many
Democrats in some of these counties, I guess.
NARRATOR: But Bush and his family had the
potential to be political royalty. Rove had already met the oldest son.
W. BUSH: We're not done yet.
SLATER, Dallas Morning News: Here was George W. Bush coming in with his leather fighter jacket,
chewing gum, being casual and cool, the epitome of handsome, intriguing,
charismatic, collegiate. And here
was Karl Rove, just the opposite— the nerd, the intellectual, the sort of
student of history. And he really
saw in George Bush everything he wasn't.
NARRATOR: Rove threw himself into his work. Colleagues remember long days.
MASSET, Texas Political Consultant: I've never known him to have a personal life. The guy just works night and day. He's different from anybody I've ever known in
politics. And you meet a lot of
ambitious people in politics, but with Karl, you know, I always had the sense
that his whole life was politics.
NARRATOR: What Rove had in mind was to build from
scratch the infrastructure of a Texas Republican Party.
MASSET: He would go to the secretary of state's
office and get the reports of everybody who contributed to any race in
Texas. And this is before
computers, and there would be somebody there with their own Xerox machine.
Nobody else had a Xerox machine down there. It was weird. You would go into the office, and this was Karl Rove's machine in the
secretary of state's office.
NARRATOR: Rove now had the political consultant's
equivalent of the holy grail, a mailing list of donors. Now his newly-formed direct-mail
advertising company would use that list and that money to build a Republican
base in Texas.
EDSALL: Direct mail— what you do is look for
"anger points," and you try to get what makes somebody angry.
NARRATOR: "Anger points" — Republican
consultants' shorthand for hot-button issues — were the other central elements
of the direct mail arsenal. And
for his candidates, Rove put the anger points together with the kind of battle
plan he learned from Lee Atwater: attacking, attacking, attacking. Fifty percent of paid media should be
devoted to attack. "If we do not
attack, we surrender control of the agenda."
SLATER: If there's any single thing that
defines a Rove campaign, it's smash-mouth politics. He goes after you hammer and tong. He— attack, attack, attack is sort of the model that he
NARRATOR: And in the mid-'80s, Rove found an
anger point that could unite voters statewide: tort reform. To Rove, tort reform was a simple
story. The elected state supreme
court had been bought by wealthy Democratic personal injury lawyers.
WALLACE, CBS 60 Minutes: Is justice for sale in Texas?
NARRATOR: The story was pushed to the
newsmagazine 60 Minutes.
WALLACE: The Wall Street Journal has called the decision of one Texas
court "a national embarrassment."
SLATER: It was an enormously powerful piece in
Texas. Rove was a part of the
business effort that encouraged 60 Minutes, that fed them information. You couldn't have written a headline
that was better than the 60 Minutes piece, or more effective.
NARRATOR: Rove capitalized on the story.
CAMPAIGN COMMERCIAL: Justice Ted Z. Robertson once took
$120,000 in campaign money from Clinton Manges and then switched his vote
back and forth in a crucial case involving Mangus. This year, Robertson's taken over a million in contributions
from special interest lawyers.
ROSS: He knew intuitively you had to have, as
Mark Twain says, a devil for the crusade. And if this was the crusade in the context of a judicial race, of which
no one really cares about, you had to demonize somebody, and in this case, it
was central casting. They were
doing it to themselves.
NARRATOR: And Rove's strategy had a bonus. If he shut down the trial lawyers, he
would cut off their money to the Democrats.
MILLER, Texas Political Consultant: They are the financial backbone of the party. And if you put a pox on their money, you make life more
difficult, extraordinarily more difficult.
NARRATOR: Rove's pro-business candidates won five
of the six open seats.
GWYNNE, Executive Editor, Texas Monthly: It was the harbinger of the beginning
of the end of the liberal supreme court in Texas. And then Rove went on to, you know, run all nine of them,
and they swept everybody out. And
it was complete, 100 percent turnover in the supreme court, entirely pretty
much caused by Rove.
NARRATOR: What Rove had done was to persuade
traditionally conservative Texas Democrats to think of themselves as
Republicans and to keep voting that way. And they did: Senators Phil Gramm, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and most of the
statewide ballot. But there was
still some unfinished business.
ANN RICHARDS (D-TX): [1988 Democratic national
convention] Poor George.
NARRATOR: It was a famous moment in Texas, the
future democratic governor mocking the vice president.
Gov. ANN RICHARDS: He was born with a silver foot in his mouth. [laughter, applause]
NARRATOR: The pundits said she couldn't be
beaten, but Karl Rove had a secret project he'd been working on for years,
George W. Bush.
W. BUSH: Let's make it official. I'm a candidate for governor of Texas.
REED, Exec. Dir. Christian Coalition 1989-'97: I knew Karl was good, and those two
coming together— you know, Karl's sort of knowledge of the mechanics of it and
all the different personalities and players in some of these big counties. And then when you added to that this
extremely skilled candidate, it was just— it was a marriage made in heaven. It really was.
NARRATOR: Karl Rove, the strategist, wanted to
make sure they kept the election focused on just four issues: Welfare reform,
education reform, juvenile justice and tort reform.
SLATER, Author, Bush's Brain: So
you had this model of four issues, so whenever George Bush was asked in the
governor's race about a fifth issue or a sixth issue or a seventh issue, he
invariably stayed on message and moved back to these four issues. It was a marvelous exercise in
restraint and in campaign focus.
I want to
ask you about your experience in the acceptance of personal responsibility in
W. BUSH: Wayne, my business career's open for
public scrutiny, and I'm proud of it. We ought to be discussing Welfare reform, juvenile justice, education,
ways to make Texas a better place for our children.
SLATER: And very early on, Karl Rove did
something that many other political operatives don't do it, and it's really an
element of why he's a unique figure in American political life. He understands that while other people
look for the weakness in an opponent and exploit that, Rove has long looked at
the strength of an opponent. In
the case of Ann Richards running for governor, it was that she was tolerant and
appealed to many constituencies, so you attack her as an advocate for the
NARRATOR: Rove's east Texas campaign chairman,
State Senator Bill Ratliff, accused Richards of hiring avowed and activist
homosexuals to high state offices.
ANN RICHARDS (D), Texas 1991-'95: The issue of homosexuality was very much an issue. It was very much involved in that
NARRATOR: Rove released a statement distancing
the Bush campaign from Senator Ratliff's comments.
SLATER: But in every case, what I found was a
duplication of the exact pattern of every Rove race, that Rove's opponent is
attacked, often by a surrogate or anonymous group, whisper campaigns, direct
mail pieces or other kinds of personal attacks, in a way that Rove can't be
directly, clearly seen with his fingerprints, but that Rove's candidate
NARRATOR: In the end, the thoroughness of the
Rove plan — anger, focused issues, attack, attack, attack — proved too much for
Ann Richards. In 1994, George W.
Bush won handily.
McKINNON: You know, the interesting thing about
being a governor of Texas or California or Florida or New York, that the day
after you're elected, people start talking about you being president.
NARRATOR: And so it was with Texas governor
George W. Bush. But Rove knew Bush
had to turn politics into policy. He needed to govern, to deliver on those issues. To do so, he made peace with the
Democrats. Rove's four issues
became law, and in 1998, George Bush was reelected.
BRODER, The Washington Post: The basic appeal was that, "We're going to keep the damn government out
of your hair, and we're going to keep it out of your wallet." And that message was— resonated very
BALZ, The Washington Post: One area where people have constantly misunderstood Bush is to assume
that he is really a moderate, which he's not. He's a conservative. His principles are conservative. His convictions are conservative.
REED: When he left, 28 out of 28 state
offices were held by Republicans, and there wasn't a single elected Democrat
left in the state statewide.
NARRATOR: They were a formidable team, a
partnership surely on its way to the presidency. But right from the beginning of the campaign, they ran into
trouble. They would have to use
everything they had learned together.
EDSALL, The Washington Post: The
McCain campaign came out of the blue at Karl— McCain's outspokenness, his
toughness. He didn't like the
religious right. He was playing
cards that within the Republican constituency would have been fatal to play.
JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Candidate: The pro-life
group in Washington has turned a cause into a business and are opposed to my
trying to clean up campaign finance reform.
NARRATOR: But Rove tried to lighten the mood.
ROVE: Everybody make a snowball, and on the
count of 3, throw it.
ALLEN: People think of him as the Darth
Vader. Not true at all. He's always smiling. He's the merry prankster.
NARRATOR: But it didn't help, and McCain won.
McKINNON, Media Consultant, Bush 2000: We
got our ass kicked. We got
humbled. We got put on our knees
in the snows, the cold snows of New Hampshire.
ALLBAUGH, Campaign Manager, Bush 2000: I knew we were going to lose, I just
didn't know it was by 19 points. Thank you very much.
NARRATOR: But Rove mocked McCain's victory.
ROVE: Yeah, just like Pat Buchanan was the
nominee in '96. What did he do in
Iowa? He came in fifth behind Gary
Bauer, Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes, and barely ahead of Orrin Hatch? In your perverted little mind!
NARRATOR: The next primary was South Carolina,
and they played really hard.
McKINNON: We got tougher, you know, and we got
focused. And we learned how to
SLATER: George Bush understood that he had to
win South Carolina, but Rove understood it in a way that I think even Bush did
not. It was important that he
attack John McCain.
NARRATOR: Rove's campaign went straight at
McCain, but another, darker, unofficial campaign would unfold.
BRODER, The Washington Post: It
was an ugly campaign in the undercurrents. There was an underground campaign in South Carolina that was
NARRATOR: They went right at McCain's strength,
his image as a hero of the Vietnam war. This Vietnam vet said McCain was not supportive of veterans.
DAVIS, McCain Campaign Manager.: It
put us on our heels because you looked at this charge on its face, and it was
pretty spurious. I mean, you know,
who would ever think really that John McCain had been bad to veterans on his
return from Vietnam?
JOHN McCAIN: That fringe veteran said that John
McCain had abandoned the veterans. Now, I don't know how— if you can understand this, George, but that
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. Yeah. Let me—
JOHN McCAIN: You should— you should be ashamed.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, let me speak to that—
JOHN McCAIN: You should— you should be ashamed.
EDSALL: Can't say that Karl specifically
engineered it, but McCain blew up. He lost his cool.
W. BUSH: Let me answer— let me answer that— [crosstalk]
McCAIN: You should be ashamed.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me finish!
BRODER: You had to believe that, at the very
least, the Bush people were aware of what was going on.
NARRATOR: And the attacks intensified.
DAVIS, Political Consultant: There were whisper campaigns on top of whisper campaigns on top of phone
campaigns on top of media campaigns on top of e-mail campaigns, that it became
so abundant that there was no traditional way to sort of deal with that.
McKINNON, Media Consultant, Bush Re-Election: Listen, politics is a tough, tough, tough sport. [laughs] And there's no tougher than in South
Carolina in America.
NARRATOR: And then, shades of the Ann Richards
race in Texas, the gay issue.
SLATER: Then what you saw on some doorsteps was
this flyer where John McCain was shaking the hands of a member of the Log Cabin
Republicans. These were gay
Republicans, political dynamite in a place like South Carolina.
DOWD, Director of Polling, Bush 2000: Nobody in the Bush campaign or nobody associated with us with all these
allegations of things that they've said that we did and rumors that we started—
nobody anywhere in our world that we were associated with did any of that. Now, were there people out there saying
outrageous things? Yeah, like any
political campaign. But in the
end, I think South Carolina voters decided— South Carolina Republicans decided
that George Bush was somebody that better represented the party than Senator
NARRATOR: George W. Bush won that contest by 11
percentage points. They had
vanquished McCain, and they set a new tone for hard presidential campaigning. It ended in Florida. When they got to the White House, Rove
immediately set in motion the campaign for 2004.
MEHLMAN, Campaign Manager, Bush Re-Election: Much harder to run a reelection campaign than an election campaign.
MEHLMAN: In an election campaign, you're
independent. In a reelection
campaign, you're serving the White House, a whole other organization, a whole
other entity. If there's bad news
every morning, or some mornings, you own the bad news. And obviously, we had some difficult
headlines in '03 and '04.
NEWSCASTER: An orgy of band news from Iraq—
NARRATOR: After that successful mid-term
election, the president's popularity began to fall.
NEWSCASTER: The economy created 50,000 fewer jobs—
NARRATOR: There was an unsteady economy—
NEWSCASTER: Light crude hit a price of $45—
NARRATOR: —and the war in Iraq.
NEWSCASTER: The abuse scandal continues
to whip up Iraqi anger.
NARRATOR: But Rove and his team thought Bush's
decisiveness in the war on terror would prevail over John Kerry.
JOHN KERRY (D-MA), Presidential
Nominee: I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for
NARRATOR: By the time John Kerry was nominated,
Rove's team had branded him as a flip-flopper, a theme they had been pounding
ALLEN: As soon as he got the nomination, they
had this template, "John Kerry says one thing, does another." And they could fit all of their attacks
NARRATOR: Here's how it worked. The issue was Kerry's "No" vote, and
then what Rove's team called Kerry's flip-flop on the $87 billion appropriation
for the war in Iraq.
McKINNON, Media Consultant, Bush Re-Election: We discovered that John Kerry was going to talk to a group of veterans
in West Virginia. We said, "Let's
create an ad instantly."
ANNOUNCER: Body armor for troops in combat?
VOICE: Mr. Kerry.
ANNOUNCER: No. Higher combat pay?
VOICE: Mr. Kerry?
McKINNON: When he lands, all the reporters and
everybody is talking about this ad about him voting against the appropriation.
ANNOUNCER: —wrong on defense.
McKINNON: So what happens is Kerry gets in front
of the group, the veterans group, and defends himself against the ad.
JOHN KERRY: I understand the Republican attack
machine has welcomed me to West Virginia today with another distortion, and
McKINNON: Which created the most iconic moment of
the campaign, which is when he said to this group, "Before I voted against it,
I actually voted for the $87 billion dollars." And then we were up at the campaign and we were watching it
live, and we said, you know, "We got it." And we immediately re-cut the ad with that piece of his video in front
of veterans to close the ad and put it out.
Read Mark McKinnon's interview]
ANNOUNCER: And what does Kerry say now?
JOHN KERRY: I actually did vote for the $87 Billion
dollars before I voted
ANNOUNCER: Wrong on defense.
NARRATOR: And then they borrowed from a familiar
SLATER: The number one thing that John Kerry
offered was his heroic service in Vietnam, and so what Rove did was attack the
strength of Kerry, not his weakness.
NARRATOR: The first attack on Kerry's Vietnam
service came from outside of the campaign—
Boat Veterans for Truth commercial]
VETERAN: How could you accuse us of being war criminals and secretly meet with
NARRATOR: —a series of television ads made with
Vietnam veterans produced by a group known as a 527 that was by law independent
of Rove's campaign.
VETERAN: How can you expect our sons and daughters to follow you when you
abandoned their fathers and grandfathers?
McKINNON: I literally saw the Swift Boat ad on
line, and I run over to the Matthew and Karl, said— you know, the first thing I
do is go, "Have you seen this?" You know, "This is— this thing is going to have a big impact."
EDSALL, The Washington Post: The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were run, in part, out of a lobbying
shop, DCI Group here in Washington, that has had close ties to the Bush
organization over the years. And
one of the people who has been a principal in that, Tony Feather, was the
political chief in the 2000 campaign. And in this last campaign, he was running much of the direct mail.
ROVE: I'm against all the 527 ads and
activities. I don't think they're
fair. I don't think they're
NARRATOR: Rove publicly disavowed the 527s but
took the opportunity to spread the message anyway.
ROVE: But I understand why some people who
were in Vietnam feel very strongly about what Senator Kerry did and said when
he came back. I mean—
NARRATOR: Kerry's poll numbers were static. They had kept him from any
post-convention bounce. Bush was
holding his own. But to make sure,
there was always one other card to play, the gay issue.
DAVIS, Political Consultant: It
especially appealed to the small segment of voters who Karl was trying to
mobilize and really excite — not just, you know, turn out, but excite — because
if they were excited about the election, they were more likely to turn out to
NARRATOR: Bush and Rove had decided to harden the
base by supporting state ballot measures banning gay marriage.
EDSALL: I think the gay issue is a very
effective issue. And I think Karl
keeps a watchdog eye on all that echo effect and in so far he can influence it
to the advantage of the administration, he does so.
NARRATOR: The measures, certain to bring social
conservative voters to the polls, would be voted on in 11 states, one of them
the key battleground state of Ohio. And Bush and Rove went one step further.
GEORGE W. BUSH: If we are to prevent the meaning of
marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional
amendment to protect marriage in America.
NARRATOR: Back in 2000, George W. Bush had
courted the support of Republican gays and lesbians.
CATANIA, Washington, D.C., Council Member: I helped organize a group of gay Republicans, gay and lesbian
Republicans, that went to Austin, and it became known as the Austin 12.
NARRATOR: Washington, D.C., council member David
Catania supported Bush's candidacy then.
CATANIA: As far as individuals under 40, I was
one of the president's largest fundraisers. You know, we have a fabulous picture with the president and
first lady and the two of us, and they've their arms around us like a man
overboard to a life vest. And I
stopped raising money after the president made noise of a constitutional
amendment. The first time he
mentioned it, I shut it down because I wasn't going to be a party to it. I felt, you know, "What a betrayal."
SLATER: The gay issue. Karl has used it for more than a decade
in a very effective way. And
there's something of an hypocrisy, it seems to me, because many of the people
who are Republican operatives, who are helping implement this exact attack on
the issue of gay rights, are themselves gay.
CATANIA: There are openly gays within the party,
within elected officials in the administration that are gay, and how does Rove
deal with them? So long as people
don't make an issue, so long as people are lulled into a confidence that they
are, in fact, second class and act accordingly, there's no problem. You know. You do not find, though, individuals, openly gay individuals
that challenge Karl Rove. That
NARRATOR: But Rove's attention was focused on the
base, and now he had what he needed to win, an army of Christian foot soldiers.
MILBANK, The Washington Post: You know, I don't think we can overstate this mobilization of the
individual churches. Never
happened before. Vast sort of
untapped source of political energy in this country. The evangelicals didn't just come out and vote for him, they
were his campaign. They were at
the events. They were the poll
volunteers. They were making, you
know, the phone banks, the phone calls. You know, that's how you win elections.
NARRATOR: And on election day, when those exit
polls seemed to show John Kerry would win the presidency, there were thousands
of Republican volunteers across the country in key precincts reporting back to
the Republican war room. That's
how Karl Rove knew that his social conservative base was turning out and that
his 30-year quest was successful.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to thank my superb campaign
team. I want to thank the
architect, Karl Rove.
NARRATOR: Right after the election, "the
architect" said that he had just run his last presidential campaign.
MASSET, Texas Political Consultant: This is where Rove is at his best. So Rove doesn't have to worry about Bush. Rove has enough money to live on. He doesn't need to be a consultant. He can now go for the history books,
which is I'm sure what he's going for. So he's going to try to do his absolute best.
NARRATOR: Karl Rove was given a new office just
steps away from the president. He'd given him a new title, deputy chief of staff. It gave Karl Rove a formal position at
the elbow of the president and the opportunity for them together to reach back
through Reagan and Goldwater to the idea of rearranging the American political
EDSALL: I think what they're trying to do is
bigger than the Great Society and approaches The New Deal. They aren't kidding around.
NARRATOR: To Bush and Rove, the victory proved
they and not the Democrats knew where the country was, and that empowered Bush
to take on the big issue that he had long wanted to address, Social Security.
BALZ, The Washington Post: It
fits into Bush's desire to be bold. It fits into the Bush administration's and Karl Rove's desire to move
the politics of the country toward the Republican Party by going after workers
under 45 with a personal account that they think will lock those voters closer
to the Republican Party over time. And it is something in Bush's idea of, you know, being a consequential
NARRATOR: To accomplish their goals, Rove's
highly developed campaign methods and machine were ready and waiting.
NORQUIST, Political Activist: The best way to keep the political machine of 2004, the get-out-the-vote
effort, together and healthy for 2008 is to use it during the next four years
to campaign for tort reform and tax reduction and Social Security
NARRATOR: In February of 2005, as the president
headed for Capitol Hill to deliver the State of the Union speech, he took a
broad vision of a nation unfettered by the constraints of government. He was armed with Rove's method:
polling data, anger points—
GEORGE W. BUSH: The idea of Social Security collapsing
before they retire does not seem like a small matter—
NARRATOR: —and a willingness to challenge
GEORGE W. BUSH: —and it should not be a small matter to
the United States Congress.
BALZ, The Washington Post: He's not there simply to make Social Security solvent, he's there to
change it in a way that fits into his philosophy of government, which is to
give people more control over their own money or their own lives or their own
NARRATOR: Then, in classic Rove fashion, the next
morning, a five-state blitz.
ALLEN: It sends a message the president is
going to play political hardball on Social Security from day one.
NARRATOR: Rove used the base to turn out crowds
at hand-picked town meetings.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I like the idea of you owning
something. I love an ownership
NARRATOR: They focused on Rove's issue points:
ownership society and private personal accounts.
GEORGE W. BUSH: We want people owning and managing
their own health care accounts, and I think it makes sense to have people
owning and managing their own retirement accounts.
NARRATOR: This campaign, the stakes couldn't be
COMMENTATOR: There is not a crisis in Social Security.
NARRATOR: Bush and Rove are going against fierce opposition, even
from some conservatives.
COMMENTATOR: There is a lot of skepticism of the president's plan because—
NARRATOR: It's not clear their Social Security
proposal will fly any time soon—
COMMENTATOR: There is no plan.
NARRATOR: —and those promises to their religious
base make many Republicans uncomfortable. But they have a broader agenda on the domestic front and even more
ambitious plans for the U.S. in the world: bringing Iraq to a favorable
conclusion and encouraging democracy around the globe.
BALZ: The danger for the Republicans is the
same danger that any winning party has, to over-interpret any election as a
mandate to essentially do what they want to do. So if the Republicans overreach, there could be a backlash against
the Republicans that would be first be felt in 2006 and certainly could be felt
in the 2008 presidential election.
NARRATOR: Karl Rove is a student of history. He knows that politics is not static,
that it goes in cycles, and that real change takes time and that architects
have dreams and plans that don't always get built. But sometimes they do.
Rove declined to be interviewed for this program]
ROVE- THE ARCHITECT
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Republican National Committee
H.W. Bush Presidential Library
State Library and Archives
Television News Archives
THE WASHINGTON POST
FRONTLINE Co-Production with The Washington Post and the Kirk Documentary
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