Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]

Karl Rove: The Architect

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 plan.

MIKE ALLEN, The Washington Post: He was the architect. His hand was in all of it.

ANNOUNCER: It took 40 years, but he changed the political landscape.

POLITICAL 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?

POLITICAL OBSERVER: Karl Rove wants a permanent Republican majority.

POLITICAL OBSERVER: He's the God inside the machine.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, FRONTLINE and The Washington Post examine Karl Rove: The Architect.


MIKE ALLEN, The Washington Post: On election day, the president voted at the Crawford fire station.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Feel great. Thank you. Let me go vote first.

MIKE 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 so tightly.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm sure he's happy, like I am, that the campaign has come to a conclusion.

MIKE 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.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Put my full amount of energy in this campaign.

MATTHEW 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.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —have been uplifted by the spirit of—

MATTHEW 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.

Pres. 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.

DAN 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 election.

KARL 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.

KARL 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.

MARK 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.

MATTHEW 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.

MARK McKINNON: The air went out of the airplane. The air just got sucked out. And you know, I went into immediate depression! [laughter]

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 polls—

TOM 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—

MARK 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.

MATTHEW 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.

MARK 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.

KEN 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.

MATTHEW 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.

MARK McKINNON: And it went from funereal to celebration over the course of about, I'd say, from 9:00 to 11:00.

Pres. 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.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —the architect, Karl Rove.

MIKE 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.

Sen. 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 Goldwater.

TOM 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 early teens.

Sen. 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.

[www.pbs.org: More on Goldwater's legacy]

MARY 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.

WAYNE 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.

JOSEPH 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 Republicans.

RICHARD 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.

RALPH 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.

SAM 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.

WAYNE 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 Washington Post just as Watergate was dominating the news. It was a story about one of those college seminars where Rove talked about dirty tricks.

WAYNE 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.

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.

KARL 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.

DAN 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.

DANA 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—

KARL 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.

DANA 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 be melded.

DAN 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.

[www.pbs.org: More on Rove's big vision]

NARRATOR: And Rove knew it was his job to stay connected to that key conservative base.

RALPH 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 president.

NARRATOR: One of Rove's regular conversations was his get-together with conservative gadfly Grover Norquist.

GROVER 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.

DEBATE MODERATOR: Governor Bush, a philosopher-thinker. And why?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ, because he changed my heart.

When you 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.

WAYNE 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.

DANA 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.

RALPH 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.

Gov. 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 language.

GEORGE 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.

MATTHEW 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.

KAREN 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.

MATTHEW 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.

KAREN HUGHES: He has made mistakes. He has been very forthcoming about acknowledging he made mistakes. Thank you all very much.

MIKE 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.

JAMES 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.

RICHARD 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.

DANA 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.

TOM 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 Rove.

RICHARD 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.

MATTHEW 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 individual profiles.

TOM EDSALL: You can buy all kinds of lists of how you use your American Express card and VISA card.

MATTHEW DOWD: Somebody gets Field and Stream, they're much more likely to be a Republican voter than a Democratic voter.

TOM EDSALL: People who drink Coors beer tend to be Republicans.

RICHARD DAVIS: Someone drove a Volvo and went to yoga classes, they were a Democrat.

TOM EDSALL: People who watch Fox News tend very much to be Republican.

MATTHEW DOWD: Somebody that watches CSI is much more likely to be a Republican.

TOM EDSALL: You have 200 million people on these lists that you can buy.

DAN 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.

[www.pbs.org: Explore more about "metrics"]

MARY 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?"

KEN 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?

MARY MATALIN: Bottom of the day, he'd say, "Did we meet our goal today?" Day after day after day.

KEN 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.

DAN 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 by bit.

NARRATOR: The campaign was just getting started when the agenda dramatically shifted.

DAN BALZ: 9/11 changed his presidency and changed the focus of his presidency, and in a sense, gave his presidency a focus.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you, and the rest of the world hears you!

DAN BALZ: There was nothing that was galvanizing in the way that 9/11 and the war on terrorism became.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!

DANA 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.

MIKE 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.

DANA 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.

Pres. 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..

MIKE 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.

Pres. 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.

KEN 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 happened.

SAXBY 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 historic victory.

SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Told me to come down here and tell you that two years from now, he wants all of y'all on his team!

MIKE 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.

DAVID 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 Texas.

KIMBLE 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 very soon.

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.

GEORGE 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.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We're not done yet.

WAYNE 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.

ROYAL 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.

ROYAL 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.

TOM 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."

WAYNE 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 used.

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.

MIKE WALLACE, CBS 60 Minutes: Is justice for sale in Texas?

NARRATOR: The story was pushed to the newsmagazine 60 Minutes.

MIKE WALLACE: The Wall Street Journal has called the decision of one Texas court "a national embarrassment."

WAYNE 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.

KIMBLE 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.

WILLIAM 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.

SAM 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.

Gov. 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.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Let's make it official. I'm a candidate for governor of Texas.

RALPH 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.

WAYNE 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 business.

GEORGE 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.

WAYNE 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 homosexuals' agenda.

NARRATOR: Rove's east Texas campaign chairman, State Senator Bill Ratliff, accused Richards of hiring avowed and activist homosexuals to high state offices.

Gov. ANN RICHARDS (D), Texas 1991-'95: The issue of homosexuality was very much an issue. It was very much involved in that campaign.

NARRATOR: Rove released a statement distancing the Bush campaign from Senator Ratliff's comments.

WAYNE 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 benefits from.

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.

MARK 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.

DAVID 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 clearly,

DAN 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.

RALPH 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.

TOM 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.

Sen. 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.

KARL ROVE: Everybody make a snowball, and on the count of 3, throw it.

MIKE 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.

MARK 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.

JOE 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.

KARL 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.

MARK McKINNON: We got tougher, you know, and we got focused. And we learned how to win.

WAYNE 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.

DAVID BRODER, The Washington Post: It was an ugly campaign in the undercurrents. There was an underground campaign in South Carolina that was thoroughly ugly.

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.

RICHARD 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?

[Republican candidates debate]

Sen. 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 really hurts.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. Yeah. Let me— let me—

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: You should— you should be ashamed.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, let me speak to that—

Sen. JOHN McCAIN: You should— you should be ashamed.

TOM EDSALL: Can't say that Karl specifically engineered it, but McCain blew up. He lost his cool.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me answer— let me answer that— [crosstalk]

JOHN McCAIN: You should be ashamed.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me finish!

DAVID 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.

RICHARD 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.

MARK 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.

WAYNE 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.

MATTHEW 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 McCain.

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.

KEN MEHLMAN, Campaign Manager, Bush Re-Election: Much harder to run a reelection campaign than an election campaign.


KEN 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.

Sen. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), Presidential Nominee: I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!

NARRATOR: By the time John Kerry was nominated, Rove's team had branded him as a flip-flopper, a theme they had been pounding for months.

MIKE 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 in it.

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.

MARK 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."

[Bush campaign commercial]

ANNOUNCER: Body armor for troops in combat?

VOICE: Mr. Kerry.

ANNOUNCER: No. Higher combat pay?

VOICE: Mr. Kerry?


MARK McKINNON: When he lands, all the reporters and everybody is talking about this ad about him voting against the appropriation.

ANNOUNCER: —wrong on defense.

MARK McKINNON: So what happens is Kerry gets in front of the group, the veterans group, and defends himself against the ad.

Sen. JOHN KERRY: I understand the Republican attack machine has welcomed me to West Virginia today with another distortion, and this—

MARK 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.

[www.pbs.org: Read Mark McKinnon's interview]

ANNOUNCER: And what does Kerry say now?

Sen. JOHN KERRY: I actually did vote for the $87 Billion dollars before I voted

against it.

ANNOUNCER: Wrong on defense.

NARRATOR: And then they borrowed from a familiar playbook.

WAYNE 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—

[Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercial]

VETERAN: How could you accuse us of being war criminals and secretly meet with the enemy—

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?

MARK 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."

TOM 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.

KARL ROVE: I'm against all the 527 ads and activities. I don't think they're fair. I don't think they're appropriate..

NARRATOR: Rove publicly disavowed the 527s but took the opportunity to spread the message anyway.

KARL 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.

RICHARD 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 vote.

NARRATOR: Bush and Rove had decided to harden the base by supporting state ballot measures banning gay marriage.

TOM 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.

Pres. 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.

DAVID 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.

DAVID 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."

WAYNE 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.

DAVID 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 doesn't exist.

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.

DANA 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.

Pres. 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.

ROYAL 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 landscape.

TOM 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.

DAN 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 president.

NARRATOR: To accomplish their goals, Rove's highly developed campaign methods and machine were ready and waiting.

GROVER 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—

Pres. 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 Congress.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —and it should not be a small matter to the United States Congress.

DAN 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 destiny,

NARRATOR: Then, in classic Rove fashion, the next morning, a five-state blitz.

MIKE 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.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I like the idea of you owning something. I love an ownership society

NARRATOR: They focused on Rove's issue points: ownership society and private personal accounts.

Pres. 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 higher.

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.

DAN 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.

[Karl Rove declined to be interviewed for this program]



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ANNOUNCER: Visit FRONTLINE's Web site for more on this report, including background on Karl Rove's life and career, a closer look at Rove's role in the Republican realignment in Texas and how it became the template for what he would later accomplish nationally, extended interviews with members of the Bush-Cheney reelection team and Washington Post reporters, more on the tension between conservative and moderate Republicans over the party's future, plus a teacher's guide, streaming video of the full program and more. Than join the discussion at pbs.org.


Next time on FRONTLINE: Twenty-five years ago, as America was at another crossroads in the Middle East, PBS broadcast perhaps the most controversial program in its history, an investigation into why a young Saudi Arabian princess was publicly executed for adultery.

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