Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of wayne slater
interviews: wayne slater
If there's any single thing that defines a Rove campaign, it is smashmouth politics. He goes after you hammer and tong. Attack, attack, attack is the model that he used.

Who is Karl Rove? Where did he come from? Where are his roots? How did he end up being a Republican?

Karl Rove 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 and basketball players and sports heroes on the wall; he had a poster on his wall, she said, that said, "Wake up, America." He was a conservative, politically conservative person, I think well before he could vote.

He got involved as a young high school student in conservative politics, was very active for a young man in the Republican Party in Utah, and throughout college became very, very active among College Republicans. For whatever reason, Karl understood as a very young man that conservative politics, and the expression of conservative politics to the Republican Party, was something he wanted to be a part of.

He comes from Utah. Is he a Mormon? Is he religious? What's his religious background?

... Karl was born in Denver but grew up really in Utah, in this area where almost everybody was Mormon, and he was not. He would see it almost every day in high school in a situation where students who were Mormon would go across the street for an hour of Mormon training, while the non-Mormon kids, the minority, would stay behind in study hall.

His family was not very religious. He grew up, he admits, in a nonreligious household. And even during his political career very early on, when I first met him in the middle '80s, it was clear that religion was not something that was particularly important to him. But the use of religious people, the constituencies, the advantage of putting those constituencies together for political purpose, was something that really intrigued him. Religion was something that was never important to Karl. He never really talked about it very much, I think, with people at the time. In fact, I got the clear impression that he was a person who was not religious at all.

You say he realized early on that the use of religion as a tool basically was a very important thing. ... How does he learn how that could be of use to him?

What Karl Rove saw in Texas were some constituencies that had the potential to really vote Republican. There weren't very many of them in Texas in those days. It was a solidly Democrat state. Here he was, a young political operative trying to put together a machine that in the future would elect and re-elect Republicans. What he saw in Texas was, among other groups, social conservatives, religious conservatives who would vote Republican if you could get them to vote.

Wayne Slater, the author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, has reported on George W. Bush and Karl Rove for The Dallas Morning News for more than a decade. In this interview, Slater gives an overview of Rove's personal and political background, from his childhood when he has a poster that said "Wake Up America," on his wall; to his days as president of the College Republicans; to his career as a political consultant in Texas; up to his becoming "the architect" of George W. Bush's political career. "Rove already had a blueprint for the Bush presidency before George Bush even knew he would become a candidate," Slater tells FRONTLINE. In addition, he discusses the allegations of dirty tricks that have followed Rove throughout his career. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 2, 2005.

So as a young political operative in the mid-1980s, toward the end of the 1980s, he began to talk with social conservatives, religious conservatives in Texas about what they thought was important. He saw a natural relationship: Republicans were against abortion; Republicans felt prayer in school and values issues were important. And he saw that these were the hot-button issues that could get this group out and voting.

There was a little bit of that outrage when he worked for the first governor, a Republican governor of Texas. But mostly this came to fruition in the development of George W. Bush. Well before he was a candidate for governor, Karl was taking him around to different people in Austin and elsewhere in Texas to peddle him as a potential candidate for governor in 1994. And among those people he talked to were some religious leaders, religious leaders in Houston and elsewhere, who saw in Bush the potential of someone who talked religiously, was a person of religious faith.

So Karl saw the mechanics of religion. If Bush was a candidate who had religion inside him, Karl was a person who understood that the externals of religion, the machinery of religion, the constituents could be important in electing you, if only you could appeal to them on their terms.

While in high school, in the late 1960s, he runs for office in high school and goes up against one of the popular jocks for class presidency. How does he understand back then how to manipulate the audience?

I've talked to him since then about that. Karl was the classic high school nerd; [he] admits as much -- big glasses, briefcase, wore a coat and tie often to school in high school. He was never the popular student that some of the other kids were, the really attractive and often Mormon students in his high school, Olympus High.

One day he found himself a candidate. He was encouraged by a teacher and some others to run for president of the Student Senate, and he was intrigued by the idea. … He was running against a blond, attractive Mormon kid who was very popular in school. And so what Karl did was understand the essentials of politics. He began to politic in earnest: put up posters of himself, put together a little team that would work with him, had a campaign with some ideas and so forth. And what he did in the end, though, was to understand that ultimately the election of the president of the Senate was going to be all about popularity. Who did the kids like? Oh, they liked the other guy. Karl figured out a way to make them like him in a self-deprecating way, [by] poking fun at the very process of running for office.

When it was time for him to come out and both he and his opponent to talk about their two candidacies, his opponent went out and made a great speech, and all the kids cheered. It was absolutely wonderful. At one point it looked clear that the opponent was going to win. Karl then enters. And instead of walking in, he comes into the gymnasium in a convertible Volkswagen Bug with two attractive girls, like on either arm, as he sat there waving, like the classic, archetypal politician.

Kids loved it, first because you had a car on the gymnasium floor, for which he later got in trouble for, but also because clearly Rove was poking fun at himself and at the idea of politics. This is what classical politicians do. They appear on the back of convertibles with beautiful women. And so he was doing that. He won over these students, and they elected him Senate president. He was a very effective president, too.

[Tell] the story of how on the debate team he would use his 4 x 6 cards.

Karl Rove was not only the best debater in Olympus High School, but also one of the best debaters in Utah when he was in high school. He went to a lot of competitions with other schools. One of the things he was good at was talking off the cuff and developing enormously skilled responses to the other guys, something we see even these days.

The other thing he understood, though, was you intimidate the person from the beginning. What can you do to scare your opponent before the debate even comes across? Now, in those days, what students did was bring in a shoebox or a small box full of debate cards, and these were cards that basically said what your position was so that you would refer to those during the course of the debate.

He would bring in one [box]; the other side would have a box. So he'd bring in two. The other side might have two. And over time, he'd bring in four. Ultimately he and his colleague would bring in on a dolly, on a hand cart, a giant box of thousands and thousands of debate cards as if to scare and intimidate the other side, thinking, my gosh, this is a debater of enormous reputation, a debater who is obviously well prepared and better prepared than I am. Rove would put these boxes in front of him on the desk and then start out on the debate. Well, [what] nobody knew until years later was that almost all of these cards were blank. It was a show of intimidation, and Rove usually won.

What was the importance of [Sen. Barry] Goldwater [to] the spawning of the modern conservative movement?

Goldwater looked like a new, exciting, different figure from the past Republicans, the [Robert] Tafts and the soft Republicans. He also was a person who had a very strong sense of conviction. [That] ultimately got him in trouble, but he clearly knew who he was and what he stood for. And among other things, he really rallied and energized a whole, small group of College Republicans.

George W. Bush himself, while he I believe was in a prep school, had [Goldwater's book] The Conscience of a Conservative at his bed, and it was a book that presumably he read at the time that his father was actually beginning his rise in the National Republican Party. So Goldwater was the new face, and the key thing was he looked like someone who would say anything if it was a matter of principle. [He] would never back down from other forces, wouldn't temper and compromise and offer a new model for the Republican Party. It attracted an awful lot of support.

In August of 1973, a tape called the "dirty tricks" tape is leaked to The Washington Post, and it shows the backroom maneuverings of the president of the College Republicans, Karl Rove. Tell me about that tape.

Incidentally, he's never graduated from college, but [Karl] ran as a college student for the president of the College Republicans. It was not simply an adjunct group. It was really a group that was associated directly with and had an office and a desk inside of the Republican National Committee. So it was a big deal.

He was Southern coordinator at the time, [and] the campaign manager in the South was one Lee Atwater, [later a political consultant to Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush]. So the two of them would hop in a car and would travel around the South and elsewhere appealing to young collegians who were Republicans for this campaign to be the head of the College Republican group. During the course at this time, Rove and Atwater and others would periodically appear at seminars where they would teach politics to young College Republicans, people who were interested in those days in getting involved in politics.

Karl, during these seminars, began to talk about some of the dirty tricks and interesting things that he would do, as a College Republican. At one point he talked about going into the headquarters of a prominent Democrat running for state office in Illinois, stealing the stationery, dummying up a fake invitation for the grand opening of the Democrats' political office in Chicago, and then distributing that to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people: soup kitchens, hippie communes and others. The invitation invited people to come for free girls, free beer, free food, free everything. This account got a big laugh among these students who were watching. He also talked about other things -- going through the garbage of the opponent to try to find memos and so forth.

Then this thing came to light, and the reason it came to light was because there was a fight within the College Republicans over one group against another. The tape of one of these seminars, was leaked and given to The Washington Post and subsequently published. Now, normally this might not be a big event, but understand that 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, and so it became a very sensitive issue for the Republican Party.

Ultimately George Herbert Walker Bush, who was the head of the Republican Party at the time, took the whole matter under advisement. Were these dirty tricks good or bad? Was this something that should nullify Karl Rove's candidacy? Was this something that these College Republicans should not have been doing, especially in the shadow of Watergate? He took about a month or two to evaluate the situation, and he ultimately decided that Karl Rove had done nothing wrong. Then he proceeded to hire him as an aide at the National Republican Party. And it was really there that Karl Rove and father Bush, Bush 41, got to know each other and work with each other. And the entire Bush legacy, which would lead ultimately to the election of the son, began.

So the tape itself, how did it define [for] Karl Rove what was acceptable in politics?

The key thing to understand about the tape, and about these presentations that Rove and Atwater were doing before these College Republicans, was that they were talking about politics, even at that very early stage, in a very dark way. They were talking about attacking. They were talking about ways to undercut your opponent in not too nice a form.

What they really show is the beginning of a long pattern of behavior by Karl Rove. In every campaign after that, what you see with Rove is the same kind of thing: You see some series of events that attack an opponent, really not simply on the merits of issues, but in some dirty trick way. This was an opening. This was the first salvo. This was the beginning of the Rove approach. "The mark of Rove" is what some people call it. When Rove gets involved in a campaign, the opponent is going to get smeared in a bad way, and most likely, Rove's candidate will win.

So Rove developed a taste for smashmouth politics? Explain.

If there's any single thing that defines a Rove campaign, it is smashmouth politics. He goes after you hammer and tong. Attack, attack, attack is the model that he used. You saw that as early as 1985 when he put together a memo for a Republican candidate for governor in Texas, and in that he quoted Napoleon, saying, in essence, that the whole art of war is a "well-circumspect defense, but also a rapid and audacious attack." That's the model that he's always used.

Now many consultants use attack politics. It's become something that a lot of people do, in part because they model these campaigns after Rove. But he's really carried it to a new level. …

What motivates Rove to be so energetic and unwilling to lose?

… Something in his life, something in his being, created ... an enormously effective political operative who beyond everything else, beyond whatever he believes in policies and politics and issues, believes mostly in the art of winning. That's the heart of a Rove campaign. That's what really motivates him. The gyroscope inside him is "I want to beat the other guy for the sake of beating the other guy. I want to win, because winning is its own reward."

Tell me about the first time Karl Rove meets George W. Bush.

Karl was working for [Bush's] father at the Republican National Committee, and one of his jobs was to deliver the car keys for the son, this young George W. Bush, who at the time was going to Harvard Business School. Bush would come in to Washington to see his parents, and Rove's job was to deliver the car keys for the family Gremlin, which had, I think, blue leather interior, so that the son could then take that car and cruise Georgetown and have a good time.

Rove says the first time he saw this son come in from Harvard, he thought, what an extraordinary-looking person, dynamic-looking. Here was George W. Bush coming in with his leather fighter jacket, chewing gum, being casual and cool, the epitome of the handsome, intriguing, charismatic collegiate. And here was Karl Rove, just the opposite: the nerd, the intellectual, the student of history. And he really saw in George Bush everything he wasn't. They were perfect complements to each other: the nerd who understood the mechanics of a campaign, and this jock, this extraordinarily charismatic young man who understood the dynamic of personal appeal in the campaign. You put these two together, and you make history.

Why does he go to Texas?

Karl began to work for George Herbert Walker Bush in the 1980 campaign when George Bush Sr. was going to run for president. ... So Karl was there working with the father, and there were these episodes where they would fly around, and Karl would put together position papers and follow him with a briefcase full of information. It was for that reason that he came to Texas. Even though he was born elsewhere, Texas ultimately became his home. After George Herbert Walker Bush became vice president, Karl stayed in Texas, started his own political consulting business, worked with some Republicans there. Although it was really tough territory -- Texas was a Democratic state -- he began to develop some campaigns, began to work with a few candidates, and particularly worked with business groups, political money people.

His job at that time was as a direct mail specialist. It was not the most glamorous political job at the time. Basically what he did was put together documents which try to raise money or make the case for political candidates or for causes and issues that were important to business interests. ...

He met a woman named Valerie Wainwright. She was a socialite in Houston. She was a person whose family was well known to the Bushes and to other Republicans in the state. Then they got married. The marriage was not a particularly good one. Ultimately Rove did not see Valerie very much. She became unhappy in this relationship. ...And [his time away from her] was leading this marriage to break up. It was sometime after that that he basically began to direct his attention, about 23 hours a day, toward the growth of Republican Party politics in Texas.

[Talk about how Rove was able to control fundraising for Texas Republicans.]

Karl Rove's early job was starting his own business, a direct mail business. [It's] not particularly dramatic, not particularly glamorous, but it was very, very important because in Texas at the time there were very few Republican candidates anywhere. And in Texas at that time there was really not a cohesive group of Republican contributors. Karl Rove's job in this direct mail effort was to begin building the list of Republican contributors, the big money and the middle-sized money which would determine the success of any future candidate.

It sounds crazy now, but no one else had that list. ... These were the golden master lists. He did it in a very systematic way, not only talking to Republicans in suburban Dallas and Houston and Midland and other Republican haunts, but also going out to something like the Krugerrand Buyer, which was a magazine for gold [dealers], and looking at [their mailing] list. [And he looked] at other lists of different kinds of people who order things, who put things together. [It was] very conventional list maintenance, but he was doing it at a time when no such list existed.

The [value of] Karl's list is that he had, in his own hands, the money that would make a political candidate successful in Texas. He began to build on this list, and he could use it for future candidates. Whether they run for agriculture commissioner -- Rick Perry, now the governor of Texas; whether they ran for state treasurer -- Kay Bailey Hutchison, now a U.S. senator; or whether it was ultimately for George Bush, now the president of the United States -- the beginning [of it all] was Karl Rove's list of golden money men.

With that list, he was able to ultimately scare off other candidates. By the early 1990s [he] was the single most powerful political figure in Texas in determining who was on the ballot and who was not. Now, any Republican could get on the primary ballot if they wanted to and had the money. But Karl's imprimatur was absolutely needed, because unless you had the OK from Karl, in the early '90s through 1994, then it was clear to the rest of the Republican Party that you would not have the money you needed to run a successful campaign.

Ultimately, he became the person that determined who would run and who wouldn't run. I remember at one point there was this young woman, a very effective lawyer, who wanted to run for the Texas Supreme Court. Her name was Priscilla Owen. And Priscilla Owen basically called a friend of hers who was part of a key figure in the business community in Austin and said: "I want to run. I'm thinking about running for the Supreme Court of Texas." The first thing this man said was, "Have you talked to Karl Rove?"

Now, at that time, Rove was not anything official. He was a private contractor that had a political operation where he raised money on these lists. But she understood that in order to become a sanctioned candidate, you had to clear it with Karl Rove. By the mid-1990s, Republican politics in Texas had begun to change. By the end of the 1990s, the Republican Party had dominated and owned virtually every seat in statewide office. Virtually every candidate at one point or another had had Karl Rove as their consultant.

Explain how direct mail works.

Direct mail is basically the process of putting together the money, and in some cases the voter base, that you need to win an election. The way to do that is to appeal to those issues or a specific issue that's important to a group. If it's abortion, you talk about that. If it's taxes, you talk about that. If it's your opponent's weakness in a particular area, you exploit that. What you do is you find the thing that is most likely to produce voters for you, most likely to anger voters about your opponent, and you put together slick pieces of mail that are delivered around election time that appeal to the voters who you think are most likely to vote for your candidates.

Early on, direct mail was a device to gather money, big money from contributors. But also key to this is [collecting] millions and millions, in the case of a national campaign, of small contributions, people who may not always give $25 or $50 or $100 in a campaign, but can be moved in a particular direction if a direct mail letter hits them strongly. The best way you do that is to attack your opponent, point up the weaknesses of your opponent: that your opponent is weak on abortion; that your opponent is weak on taxes; that your opponent is a liberal.

Karl understood very early on that the effectiveness of direct mail was directly proportional to the sharp attack that direct mail delivered, because that would motivate someone to give money, to give support and to build a value base. Now, what you ultimately ended up with were a group of people, hundreds and thousands, then tens of thousands of contributors, who were part of a larger voter list. These are the people you would go back to make sure these same people not only gave money, but voted. ... It was the beginning in Texas of building a Republican majority, by finding those voters who would vote with you and the issues that would motivate them to do that.

How does [Rove and Bush's] political relationship develop? Tell us the story of how they get back together again.

Karl Rove, of course, had long ties with [Bush's] father. And so by about 1988, when the father was running for re-election, at the National Republican Convention, Karl was there one evening at an event with a number of Texans. ... And in this ballroom, at the Republican National Convention in [New Orleans,] La., when the father appeared on stage with some other Republicans, Karl Rove clearly already in 1988 had the son in mind as a potential candidate for office. He approached several Texas reporters, and said, "Notice the son; look at George Bush over there," encouraging us to interview the son and talk with him at that point.

This was someone who most of us never knew at that time. He was a businessman. He had been an oilman. He had worked for the Texas Rangers baseball team as a managing general partner. But at that time, he was a person [who was] simply a member of the candidate's family. But Rove already was setting in motion the future political career of George W. Bush. And really it was the relationship of Rove and Bush having come in with the father and building this sort of good camaraderie with the son where each man knew the advantage that the other offered for the potential of a future political rise that really energized Karl and made him think, this is the candidate for the future.

He tried to get George Bush to run for office in 1990. Karl brought Bush around to a whole group of people in Texas -- business leaders, Republican hierarchy and so forth -- but George W. Bush felt that it was not time to do that. His father was still president of the United States, and it might look presumptuous, he feared, to Texas voters. He was probably right. Ultimately what happened was the seeds of the campaign of George Bush's political rise were really planted by 1988, ... and Rove was already beginning the process of touting the son as a political future star of the Republican Party.

And what's your sense of that relationship?

Rove and Bush hit it off famously fairly early on because each one of them had something that the other lacked. ... Bush was not convinced that he was going to be a political figure; ... Karl was key in pushing George Bush along, encouraging him as a candidate. George Bush was receptive to the idea, but I don't think he knew that he could win. In fact, I'm positive. By 1994, when George Bush was running for governor, he told me, "I think I can't beat Ann Richards." Rove thought just the opposite, had numbers and a theory and a plan and a vision to say otherwise. But early on it was Rove driving this train. ... It was Rove who was convinced that George Bush could be a candidate for the future.

There was a moment in 1990 when George Bush was working for the Texas Rangers. [He] had never held public office. Rove was meeting with a fellow Republican operative in Austin, and they began to talk about the campaigns at hand. But Rove was interested, this operative told me, not so much in the candidates that were under way in 1990, but [in] the future candidacy of George W. Bush. He said that Rove talked about Bush as an enormously powerful political figure in Texas, even though he had never held office before. [Rove] said: "I know how you can make George Bush governor. You can do this and this and this. And I know how you can make George Bush president. Here's how you do it, having made him governor." That was 1990. And George Bush was already on Karl Rove's mind as a future candidate for president of the United States. Karl Rove had the blueprint for the Bush presidency before George Bush even knew he would become a candidate.

So how did Bush keep Rove in check?

It was common knowledge around Austin that Karl was the genius behind George Bush. [That] didn't mean that George Bush wasn't smart, because many in Texas understood that he had a kind of native intelligence and a kind of a political sense, but Karl was the genius. Karl was the man behind Bush, always. And to some extent, I think, Bush was sensitive [about] this. And so from time to time, he would very publicly call Karl to task to make it clear who was the boss and who worked for whom.

One day on the mansion grounds in Austin, George Bush delivered a news conference and talked about something, ... and as Bush headed back into the mansion, a couple of us gathered around Karl to get more information about whatever Bush had talked about. Bush turned at one point and saw this scrum of reporters around Rove, trying to quiz him, get more information, obviously doing a news conference with Karl after the official news conference was over. And Bush said in a very loud voice, "When the Karl Rove news conference is over," and Karl's face fell. He absolutely stopped, turned and went quickly back behind Bush into the mansion. It really told all of us that Bush was very sensitive about the sense that he, George Bush, was not in charge, that he was simply a puppet of Karl Rove, when, in Bush's mind, that certainly wasn't the case.

Whenever you talk with Karl, he makes it really clear, tries to make it clear, that Bush is the boss and that he works for the president. He doesn't downplay his extraordinary genius in directing the political trajectory of the success of George Bush over time, but the two men understand that part of the success of their relationship is that Bush is the governor or the president, and that Karl is the paid help.

How did Rove prepare Bush for the governor's race?

What Rove understood implicitly was that Bush had some of the tools by 1994 to be a very successful candidate. He was charismatic. He could present himself, not like the father, but more like an East Texan. He had a bass boat and a house in East Texas, and he looked like a regular guy who could wear cowboy boots and do it successfully. He also had a reputation as a good businessman from his days in the Texas Rangers baseball team. What he didn't know was anything about Texas government.

It's extraordinary to think that a man who was going to run for governor, a man who had grown up in a political household, had so little understanding of Texas. But Bush really didn't understand the dimensions of the budget, how the highways were paid for, exactly what percentage of money went for education, what taxes made up part of that -- how state government worked.

So what Karl did is put together surreptitiously a series of briefing sessions and took George W. Bush to school. He gathered a small group of lobbyists -- a guy named Mike Toomey who was a key figure in the Republican Party and Republican Party politics in Austin; Margaret Spellings, who is now the secretary of education and was a key figure among education leaders in Texas -- and put together a series of seminars. These were private seminars [that] sometimes happened in Dallas, sometimes in a political office in Austin, and they would teach George W. Bush about the budget, and they would teach him about criminal justice. They would teach him how Texas government worked.

There was a moment that I talked to George W. Bush in late 1993 in San Antonio. He had spoken to a group of people in San Antonio about education -- big agenda in Texas for the upcoming gubernatorial race. Bush talked to them from prepared remarks that effectively Karl had delivered about what the campaign would talk about. After it was over I began asking George W. Bush questions, and it was clear he couldn't answer them. I asked him how much money [in] the education budget would go to increase teachers' salaries, how much money would go here and how much money would go there. And it was clear Bush did not know. When I asked whether he would find out these answers before the election was over, a year from now, he said: "I don't know. I don't know if I will."

Karl saw that as a problem. He saw clearly Bush was not ready for prime time. He was not ready to run with the Austin politicos. He was not ready to answer the questions in Dallas and Houston about why he wanted to be governor and about the details of his program. So Karl not only put together this group of people who would help teach him -- this sort of George Bush secret school for how state government operated -- but he also began sending him on what were called the B markets: the Rotary Clubs and various groups, interviews with small radio stations around Texas. And Bush began to get much more comfortable with answering questions from reporters in these markets elsewhere, where they would generally ask questions that maybe some of us in Austin and Dallas and Houston wouldn't ask, questions that were ultimately more favorable, and speeches before groups that were ultimately sympathetic to Bush and his business agenda.

This combination of a private schooling on how the state government works and the sort of early training with training wheels out there on the B markets created a candidate so that the George Bush we saw in the summer of 1994, as he prepared to take on Ann Richards, was extraordinarily well versed in politics and very, very good at answering questions. It was a school that Karl Rove had created, and he had created a very effective candidate. ...

Why does Karl Rove see Texas Supreme Court races as winnable, important, and as a good place to start?

Karl Rove saw by the end of the 1980s that the demographics favored the Republicans, but that they weren't there yet. He saw that Republicans were increasingly voting in Texas for candidates in a state that traditionally, especially since the Roosevelt years, had been solidly Democratic. And he saw that a good place to begin building the infrastructure of the Republican Party was Supreme Court races, in part because they largely run under radar and in part because the constituency that's most important to Texas, to Supreme Court judges who handle civil cases -- suits against businesses, businesses against business -- are lawyers, business lobbyists and the business community, which by the mid-1980s had given very little money to Republican candidates. There weren't any, and so it really wasn't a part of an organized group.

Karl saw that if you began to run Republican Party candidates [for the Supreme Court] on issues that counted, you could begin to build a base of political financial donors, and you could begin to build this business group of supporters who would support the Supreme Court candidates. The issue that was key very early on, and Karl saw by 1998, was tort reform, lawsuits against business. Long before much of the nation saw this, Rove saw the tort reform issue, the fight against trial lawyers, as crucial to the success of building the Republican Party.

… What Rove saw implicitly very early on, was that the Supreme Court candidates and those races, were crucial to building the Republican Party at the very beginning, putting together candidates who would attract big money from business interests who had the money to support those candidates on an issue they cared about -- getting sued, and ultimately, if they were successful, could help de-fund the trial lawyers, the big source of money for the Democrats.

What happened in the campaign was that the business interests started talking to various folks, and then someone got the word to 60 Minutes that justice was for sale in the State of Texas. The 60 Minutes crew came in, did a piece. … It was an enormously powerful piece in Texas. Rove was a part of the business effort that encouraged 60 Minutes, that fed them information, and that was really a part of the success of the campaign, which depicted, in a very established way, that the business interests of Texas were being unfairly treated, that Democrats were on the take from trial lawyers, that "justice was for sale". You couldn't have written a headline that was better than the 60 Minutes piece, or more effective. …

First, he put together Republican Party candidates who want to limit lawsuits against business. So you get businesses to want to give money and support these candidates. Two, you begin to elect Republican candidates to office who will reflect a more business-minded agenda on the court, which decided these important questions. And three, you begin to devalue the importance of the Democratic Party's key source of money, trial lawyers. They helped fund, especially at the Supreme Court level, the candidates.

And so by working more successfully with Republican Party candidates, he got money; he got support; he began to put together a network of business-minded folks who would support [Republican] candidates, and the campaigns became ultimately successful. In fact, they were really the first part of the success of the Republican Party in Texas. These campaigns, largely under the radar, were ultimately won by campaign officials. ...

In 1985, [during] the [Bill] Clements [gubernatorial] race, Karl Rove writes a report which in some ways becomes a blueprint for '94 and every other election afterward. What was this report, and why was it important?

The report was a sort of view inside the mind of how Karl Rove would run every subsequent campaign. It had a line from Napoleon where he talked about a rapid and audacious attack. That's the Karl Rove model in the future. It talked about how you as a candidate can appeal to people in ways that are not direct. You might appeal to teachers, for example, by talking about pay raise for teachers, but that's to rally your audience; your audience are suburban mothers of students. You may appeal to minorities and women by showing what you do in your support for them and your appointments. But your appeal, as Karl lays out, is not so much for feminists and the leaders of minority groups as it is for others, those who are moderates and independents, to show that you're no longer a mean-spirited party, that you're not a party with sharp elbows, but a party that really commiserates. You see the beginnings of the "compassionate conservative" message. You see a party that will attack, attack, attack an opponent.

At one point the memo explains that attacks against the opponent are more important than positive messages about yourself. Now, clearly a campaign is a balance of both, but Karl was very, very aggressive in understanding that in order to build this party, it had to be a combination of attacks on an opponent in a very strategic way, but also an appeal that your candidate is "one of them," something the Republican Party had not been particularly successful in doing. In putting together this memo, Rove was successful in encapsulating the model, not simply for the candidate he was writing for, but a model for an approach that every subsequent Republican who he represented could appeal to voters on, a larger audience, a bigger group, a larger machine, and the success of the Republican Party.

Describe Rove's [strategy of] limiting the issues in the first governor's race to the four main issues.

One of the key things that Rove understood -- and you really see this again and again with George W. Bush, in part because it appeals to Bush's nature and Karl understands his psychological nature, but also because it's very effective politics -- is that you don't talk about 10 things; [you] talk about a couple.

In the case of the governor's race in 1994, there were a series of meetings and developments where they decided to talk about three things: education, criminal justice and welfare, and talk about them on terms that George Bush wanted to talk about them, a conservative, but a moderate and compassionate approach. And Rove [convinced Bush to] add a fourth thing: tort reform. ... Karl Rove understood that it was an appealing topic, maybe not to everyone in the general election, but certainly to the Republican money interests, the business interests who felt that tort reform was really important.

So you had this model of four issues, and whenever George Bush was asked in the governor's race [to talk] 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. We saw that in 2000, and we saw it again in 2004. But the origins of it were Karl setting out in motion four basic issues and [saying], "Don't stray from those." It was a critical decision, and it paid big dividends.

Where does the idea of compassionate conservatism come from?

What Rove understood was that Bush, running for governor against a powerful and popular incumbent, Ann Richards, would have to appeal to more than simply Republicans. If he appealed to Republicans on conservative issues of taxes and schools and accountability of students, he would lose. He had to show himself as a person people in the middle [would vote for] -- suburban soccer moms, independents and others who might be inclined to vote for a Republican but for the fact that these Republicans are the folks with the sharp elbows, that they're mean-spirited, that they're difficult, that they don't care about the poor; they don't care in the same kinds of ways that Democrats do. Bush was a natural sort of channel for expressing a larger sense, a softer sense of Republicanism.

And so you saw [Bush] in that ['94 governor's] campaign talking not only about the importance of dealing with welfare and holding the fathers of unwed mothers accountable, but saying in the same breath, "because we love the babies." Powerful message. Extraordinary, because he was talking not only about Republican responsibility, but also seizing the role of Democrats, saying, "We love the children." He talked even early on about the immigration issue ... in terms that say: "We've got to control our borders, but we've got to also understand why people are coming here. They come here because it's the greatest country in the world and because they want to feed their families, and I understand business about families."

He talked in so many terms as a candidate for governor in ways that were not only conservative boilerplate -- lower taxes, less government, more accountability in education and elsewhere -- but always tempered those messages with this kind of compassionate theme, that we care about people in what's the best way. And Bush was the perfect model for expressing that. He didn't seem mean, and throughout the 1994 campaign, even though the Richards people tried to bait him into attacking her, he never did. He really tried to be a person who seemed like the guy next door. That was a strategy set up early, and it was something Bush wanted to do, and something Bush was very successful at accomplishing. ...

Was the whisper campaign over gays in Ann Richards' administration a Rove strategy? Can it be tied to Rove? What was said, and what was the effect?

Among the various key things in the 1994 governor's race was the fact that Ann Richards was a Democrat, and Texas was still by and large a Democratic state. Among the strongholds of the Democratic Party was East Texas, the Bible Belt, a very conservative place but historically a very strongly Democrat place. It was key that this constituency vote against Ann Richards.

Karl Rove understood that and strategically, as part of his memos and his arrangements and his campaign strategy, tried to win support [for Bush] from East Texans on conservative values that they felt were important. At the same time that the campaign was very publicly involved in trying to woo these historically Democrat voters from traditionally conservative East Texas, there emerged a whisper campaign, a virulent and obviously orchestrated whisper campaign in East Texas. I would go from place to place in East Texas, I would go from business to business, and I can remember talking to people about the race, Ann Richards, George Bush, and invariably someone would say: "But what about the lesbians? What about the lesbians?"

It was a message that swept East Texas, a message that many people in that community, a largely Baptist community, felt that Ann Richards had embraced lesbians and homosexuals in a way that they did not accept; that she had appointed them to boards and commissions, as she had, in the governor's office; that she had, in fact, had them around on her campaign staff, and the intimation was that she herself, even though she was a divorced woman with four children, might be a lesbian. Very effective campaign.

Rove himself was extraordinarily careful, in all my conversations with him and in conversations with others in the media, to make sure that he was not directly tied to that orchestrated campaign. What we know is that the campaign was orchestrated and very, very effective. Everywhere you went people were talking about it. Phone calls were made. Bush supporters and Bush surrogates were talking about it in a very effective way. In no case could I ever find anyone who said, "Karl Rove told me to do this." 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 seen with his fingerprints, but that Rove's candidate benefits from. It's a pattern not just once or twice, but I've seen it throughout the last two decades. …

Where did the idea for the front-porch campaign [before Bush ran for president] come from?

If Karl Rove is anything, he's a student of history, and one of the periods of American history that he loves is the McKinley era, the election of William McKinley as president. He used that very early on as a model to begin the race for George W. Bush in many ways. He saw various constituencies out there -- immigrants, laborers and others -- who might not necessarily vote for Republicans but who voted for McKinley when they were appealed to at a particular time, when the economics of the nation were changing before the end of the last century. ...

One of the things that Karl Rove saw in the McKinley model, the success of William McKinley of a century ago, was the front-porch campaign. ... The political genius behind McKinley, Marcus Hanna, a very wealthy Ohio political guru among other things, encouraged people to be seen as coming to Ohio to visit McKinley on his front porch so that the candidate could talk to them, and they could get to know the candidate. The press of the day depicted this as a campaign in which maybe not a reluctant McKinley was being sought out by the constituencies of America, by citizens who would come to Ohio and sit on the front porch and talk about the issues and plead and urge and see in McKinley the future Republican candidate for president.

Fast-forward 100 years, and Rove saw the same model in Bush. He'd bring people into Austin to the front porch of the Governor's Mansion, exactly what McKinley had done a century earlier. These were citizens from Ohio and California, these were Catholics and business and Republican leaders, and they were all coming to Austin, to the front porch of the Governor's Mansion and in for lunches and meetings, where they were getting to know George Bush. Then they'd come out into the yard, and we'd all write stories about how this group was so extraordinarily impressed by how George Bush had a grasp of the issues and clearly ought to run for president. ... It was the beginning of the groundswell, the media groundswell, where George Bush began to be seen as a candidate not only who was interested in running for office, but who had a group of people all over the country who were clamoring for him to do that. It was brilliant.

But they lose New Hampshire. This prime candidate that everybody expects to just walk into office is hitting some difficult times. How important does the South Carolina primary become?

The Bush people thought they were going to win New Hampshire. They'd been told by Judd Gregg, the senator from New Hampshire, and by his people, "Bush will win." He lost. This was a stunning loss to Rove and to the Bush forces, and it was important that they counteract that.

The next campaign was South Carolina, a place that Bush needed to win to show that he was really a candidate. You lose New Hampshire and then you lose South Carolina, and the Bush campaign could say, "It's gone." 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. Rove understood that South Carolina was a crucial figure. Without South Carolina, the Bush campaign might be doomed. This candidate that he had cultivated for a year -- in fact for many years -- [who] has the potential [to be the] front-runner in the Republican race now might be seen as someone who didn't have it and who might be successfully challenged by this maverick, John McCain. In a place like South Carolina, a guy like McCain could do quite well: military record, political maverick, straight shooter. The Southerners in that Republican state might see him as a very good candidate.

Rove went down there, and Bush made his speech at Bob Jones University, which was well received among the Republican group but not so well received among others. He also began to appeal in a very fundamental way to the conservative values on abortion and other issues to these South Carolinians. But more needed to be done, and what happened in South Carolina was the perfect model of the exact Rove campaign, where the candidate appeals on the matters of issues, but surrogate groups and others attack the opponents, in this case the formidable presence of John McCain.

What happened was, you begin first to see the emergence of a so-called military group on the stairs of an event where Bush attended that [would] attack John McCain on the issue of Vietnam. In fact, what they did was suggest that John McCain was not good on the issues of prisoners of war, that he was not really the war hero that he seemed to be. It was sort of the beginning chink in the armor of John McCain among these very conservative, patriotic, Republican South Carolinians. The other message of this early surrogate group was that John McCain might be crazy, that the experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam might actually work against McCain because it had left him psychologically with a short fuse and maybe not the kind of person that we want to have in office.

It was followed up by … some surrogates sending virulent telephone calls against John McCain and his wife, leaving messages that suggested that John McCain's wife had a drug problem -- she had battled it [Editor's Note: a dependency on prescriptive drugs] and was fighting that -- and also that he and his wife had a black child, which was a dynamite message, especially among some racist voters in this conservative state. In fact, what McCain and his wife had was an adopted child from a Mother Theresa orphanage. But it didn't make any difference, because the surrogates were out there turning the screws on John McCain as a person whose personal life made him unacceptable as a candidate, at the same time that the candidate George Bush was attacking McCain on the perfectly appropriate policy issues that you would see in the campaign.

McCain believed that Bush was behind it. The model was exactly the same that you saw again and again and again in a campaign run by Karl Rove. And although Rove denied any involvement, the outcome was the same: surrogates and groups who supported Bush attacking the opponent in his personal life. Bush was successful and ultimately won that campaign. [But] the relationship between John McCain and George Bush was not very good for months, even years afterwards.

… One of the other things that was appearing on people's doorsteps were photographs of John McCain shaking the hands of the Log Cabin Republicans. Again, the gay card. What can you tell us about that?

What you saw on some doorsteps was this flyer of a photograph where John McCain was shaking the hands of a member of the Log Cabin republicans. There were gay Republicans, a group that, even though they are gay and opposed to a more inclusive attitude about the Republican Party on gay rights issues, nevertheless was political dynamite in a place like South Carolina. …

… 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. …

Election 2004: What's the strategy?

The key to 2004 -- and Karl Rove figured this out in 2001 -- was that in the future, in this re-election race, what you had to do was focus your attention on the base and get the base out in bigger numbers than you've ever done before. Now, that doesn't mean you ignore the appeal to people in the middle; you try to make that appeal. But fundamentally, the effort in 2004 would be based on issues and an appeal to constituents who are most likely to vote for you. Christian conservatives were a key part of that effort. And the campaign very early on began to put together lists, not only of Christian conservatives, but of people who were very fundamentally likely to vote, and if they voted they would vote for George Bush. And they began to talk about issues that were important to this group. Gay marriage was important to this group; abortion was important to this group.

Bush would talk in very successful ways about family values, would talk about Scripture and faith. They would push the issue of his faith-based initiative, all the buttons that were most appealing to Southern Baptists, conservative evangelicals, and Orthodox Catholics. ... Part of the appeal to the base was to make sure that more people showed up to vote than voted in 2000. Rove said after the 2000 race that the president failed to get 3, 3.5 million, maybe 4 million evangelical [votes] he should have gotten. I talked with a key Republican figure in the Southern Baptist Convention who told me that the problem for Bush in 2000 was that he still suffered from name identification with the father. The Baptists and other conservative evangelicals didn't believe he would deliver on the issues that were important.

By 2004, on stem cell research, on abortion, and by the end of the campaign, where it was Rove who encouraged Bush to come out publicly on behalf of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, ... what you saw -- whether it was Georgia ... or Michigan and Ohio -- were people who were not only wanting to vote for George Bush, but dying to vote for George Bush, not as a candidate who simply reflected their ideas and talked about their ideas, but who was one of their own.

When in trouble, there's a precedent in a Rove-Bush campaign that basically [says] you hit back, and you hit back hard. You find the strongest card in the other guy's hand, and that's what you take him down on. In this election it was Vietnam. Explain that.

Very early on, Karl Rove did something that many other political operatives don't do, 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 constituents, so you attack her as an advocate for the homosexuals' agenda. In the case of John McCain, it was that he was a POW in Vietnam, and so you raise questions about his service in Vietnam through surrogate groups.

In 2004, 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. What you had to do was confront Kerry's strength in Vietnam by raising doubts about whether or not he was a hero and whether or not his service was really all that noble. And you do that in part with a surrogate group, raising questions about whether his medals were truly warranted, and beyond that, pressing the case of John Kerry, who came back from the war as an opponent of the war.

So he understands the strength; he goes after him, but it's not direct. These Swift Boat Veterans, there was no [direct] connection [to Rove].

… You could never see his fingerprints associated directly [with] the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who virulently attacked John Kerry's record, while at the same time George Bush was doing what he had always done in a Rove campaign: saluting the service of John Kerry. It's a pattern we've seen again and again and again, and it was very effective in 2004. What the group did was really accomplish one of the basic models of a Karl Rove campaign: Attack the strength of your opponent. If your opponent's strength is his service in Vietnam, then attack that service by raising questions about whether it was all that noble and whether you were really that much of a supporter. …

Is there a downside of using religion as a political tool, the way Rove does?

Rove saw very early on that Bush was a man of faith and is comfortable talking about religion and really does believe strongly in sort of conservative ideas about abortion and stem cells and, to some extent, gay marriage. He could use this as a tool to rally voters, as they did in 2000 and especially 2004, and help drive an agenda on other issues and on these other agendas that keep people involved in the campaign.

The upside of this is that you develop a very loyal group of evangelicals who will go over the edge for you and who will vote for you and who believe you and who love you. I've been to these communities and talked to these pastors and Christian leaders in key states around the country. They love George Bush because they feel he's one of them.

The downside is that if you push this issue too hard, if you build the machine of your campaign by larger and larger constituencies with more and more evangelicals who support this very conservative agenda, if you build a machine based in part on that, you run the risk at some point of beginning to alienate moderates and progressives, people who don't share the same sort of hard, absolutist view on religion issues. And so these are people who could vote against George Bush or a subsequent Republican in the future.

Karl Rove's model is beyond electing and re-electing George Bush. It is building a Republican Party not simply for years but for decades. It is the McKinley model. It is the Roosevelt model. It is decades and decades of fundamental realignment of our government. To do that, in part, you have to build a base of supporters, and no one is more important in this base than conservative evangelicals for a Christian, a conservative like George Bush, and [the] Republican Party, who can use this group very successfully as part of its political base. But the danger is that there's only so big your party can go if you begin to look, as the Republican Party sometimes has in the past, as intolerant and mean-spirited.

So it's difficult to see what the future is, but Karl understands on the one hand you have to push the opposition to the gay rights issue, but you can't do it in a way that makes you look intolerant. You have to push issues that are important on abortion and marriage and stem cells, but do it in a way that restores and keeps the compassionate conservative theme. It's a balancing act and a juggling act, and the success of this will really dictate the future of the Republican Party.

And as far as the social conservatives or the Christian conservatives, what do they expect now? What pressure can they bring [to bear on this administration]?

Let me tell you, there is a values lobby in this city of Washington that you wouldn't believe. … They expect that this campaign that they helped win for George W. Bush will result in items and agendas that are their agenda. They see in this candidate a candidate who is one of them and now is obligated to deliver on abortion, on gay marriage and on the appointment of conservative judges that will rule on values issues the way they want American policy for now and the future. …

home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
tapes & transcript · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

posted april 12, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation