George Bush's Brain
Heads Magazine, Toronto
Karl Rove, America's top kingmaker is a college drop-out, a former consultant to big tobacco giant Philip Morris, a self-taught historian and George W. Bush's brain. He doesn't blink. He doesn't hesitate before the kill. If not for Rove, and if not for his ruthlessness, the hapless preppie George W. Bush would not be in the White House today.
Rove is a burly, folksy character. During the primary season, he persistently took control of television discussions. When challenged by the McCain camp on his unethical campaigning, Rove turned the tables. Piece by piece, week after week, he took apart John McCain in the media, and then went on television and shifted the blame onto McCain's staff. Soon, the public was left with an image of McCain as as hot-tempered, war-damaged veteran. McCain's underdog groundswell for a campaign finance reform was scuttled by Karl Rove.
Karl Rove got his start in politics when he ran for president of the College Republicans, and met Lee Atwater in 1972. Shortly afterward Rove was investigated by the Republican National Committee for teaching political campaign "dirty tricks" to college students. Young George W. Bush worked with Atwater and Rove to create the Willie Horton scandal that scuttled Dukakis in 1988.
After Atwater died of brain cancer, Rove and Bush went on to blindside the popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas governor's race. Rove carried on the strategy from Atwater: scare-tactics, shocking TV ads and personal attacks. Rove minimized Bush's public appearances and limited the spontaneous public speaking of the tongue-tied Bush, a tactic Rove reprised in the recent race for President.
Rove used Governor Bush's re-election campaign in 1998 as an opportunity to launch Bush's White House career. Democrat Gary Mauro was a weak target, but Rove needed a landslide to create the impression of a racially-diverse, popular mandate. He and Bush campaigned hard to decimate an already weak opponent and win the support of minorities usually hostile to the right wing agenda. Rove claimed that Bush's popularity among Latinos was proof that a Compassionate Conservative could "erase the gender gap, open the doors of the Republican Party to new faces and new voices, and win without sacrificing principles."
Bush won almost 50% of all Hispanic votes, according to his own "fuzzy math." The Bush machine trumpeted that Bush had created "political history," with 49% of the Hispanic vote, and 27% of the black vote, citing the exit poll conducted by Voter News Service of New York.
However, a co-designer of the Voter News Service survey, political scientist Bob Stein, said that the actual data on Bush's Hispanic vote was somewhere between "the high 30s and low 40s." He said Bush's percentage among black voters was probably in the low 20s. The Willie Velasquez Institute in San Antonio's exit poll showed Bush got 39%, and a local El Paso poll, conducted by a professor at the University of Texas, showed Bush with 37% of Hispanic voters. When the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram called the Bush campaign with questions about this discrepancy, they were referred to the "governor's consultant," Karl Rove. The paper glumly stated, "Attempts to reach Rove were unsuccessful."
At what point did the Republicans change from being the starched old white men of golf courses and martinis to the merciless, tech-savvy, media manipulators? After eight years of Bill Clinton, the Republicans were eager for blood, and a change in tactics was badly needed. For Campaign 2000, Marxist-turned-Reaganite David Horowitz handed the Republicans a little book called The Art of Political War, which claimed that the Left had a monopoly on strategy, aggression and tactics. The Republican Party would not reclaim the White House until they crushed their opponent with the mercilessness of total war.
Rove adopted the book as his own political Bible. Horowitz wrote The Art of Political War to call on Republicans to create a politics that appealed to the masses: the working families, gays, unions, etc. Karl Rove praised The Art of Political War as indispensible and provided the cover blurb. ("A perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield"-Karl Rove") It is recognized today as the genesis of "Compassionate Conservatism" and is used nation-wide by the Republican Party Chairs in 32 states.
Horowitz took what he learned in the late sixties, and put it in the service of the same people he once referred to as "pigs." [footnote: Radical Son, pp. TK also, for legalization advocates: note that as recently as this 1997 memoir, Horowitz recalls his brief use of cannabis in the late 60's as "the experience was seductive-but I remained skittish."] Certain fundamentals of Horowitz's politics have remained the same througout his time: politics is war by other means, and one thing you can rely on in America is that people tend to root for the underdog. But since only 10% of the country identifies themselves as "hard Republicans," Horowitz realized that the right-wing agenda would be unpalatable to the majority, unless it was wrapped in a different package. Compassionate Conservatism was born, a new brand indentity for the intolerance, fear and hate of the right-wing.
Karl Rove became the salesman and Bush was the fun and fuzzy mascot. Rove is the perfect salesman: a ballsy top dog who swaggers like the old Texan he is. He used the language of the people to promote his candidate with maximum aggression. He understood that the agenda was to promote inclusiveness, and openness, at least until the White House is taken.
Karl Rove is known for discipline and hard-right ideological rigor. Yet, he is also known to burst spontaneously into song. Like Bush, he speaks in the common tongue. On the television discussions of the campaign, he would taunt his McCainite opponents, calling them "Man." His salty use of late 60's youth culture slang obscures the fact that he's a leading conservative.
He shrinks at the dynamism and inclusive energy of modern thought. When asked what political writers he is most influenced by, he states Myron Magnet, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Q. Wilson.
Over the course of the campaign, George W. Bush also made somewhat dubious claims to have read Myron Magnet. But was this just a rote answer handed him by his senior advisor?
Magnet, in his book, The Dream and the Nightmare, states that the late 60's counterculture was a huge social disaster because it set a bad example for the underclass. The hippies encouraged indulgence and laziness instead of the virtues of hard work and competition. Yet, Bush doesn't seem to have the same harsh memories of the 60's. On Newshour with Jim Lehrer on April, 27th, 2000, Bush seemed to not quite understand what Magnet could have been talking about. Bush spoke about "responsible behavior" being the legacy and the political consciousness of the 60's. As Mark Crispin Miller points out in his excellent The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder (coming out this June from Norton), Bush stated, "I'm a strong candidate because I come from the baby boomer generation recognizing that we've got to usher in an era of responsible behavior."
Mark Crispin Miller writes "that inversion of the Myron Magnet thesis was the opposite of what Bush had meant to say-and what he did say all the time." Perhaps. Or perhaps Bush's memories of the 60's were a lot of pot and cocaine, so much so that a theory based on hate just didn't compare. [for more on David Horowitz, see Sanderhicks.com's confrontational feature on him, here >> ]
When the media stumbled upon a story regarding George W. Bush's 1972 cocaine possession arrest, Rove had to find a way to kill the story. He did so by destroying the messenger. Pop culture biographer J.H. Hatfield was on hand, traveling in and out of Texas at the time, interviewing Rove and other Bush aides to research the premier Bush biography "Lone Star Rising." The book that was later titled Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, a more critical title that reflects its turbulent publishing history.
One of Hatfield's acquaintances and primary sources was longtime Bush friend and schoolmate, Clay Johnson, a longtime Dallas businessman. When Hatfield was convicted of a felony in the late 80's, it’s likely Johnson learned of it.
When Hatfield approached them to research Bush, the Bush campaign already had the upper hand by knowing Hatfield’s felony record: a perfect way to discredit all stories of Bush's drug past. In October 1999, St. Martin's published Fortunate Son amidst a lot of buzz and hope of positive attention from major media. However, St. Martin's was hit with a one-two punch.
First, the New York Times refused to give the book the coverage St. Martin’s was counting on. So, St. Martin's dragged Hatfield into a meeting and leaned on him to reveal the confidential Bush campaign sources that told him the cocaine story. Fearing retribution, and honoring his journalistic code, Hatfield refused.
Then, St. Martin's learned that the Dallas Morning News was about to break news about Hatfield's felony record. The Bush Campaign began to publicly make legal threats against the book, and the media uproar about Hatfield's felony record killed the book, and the cocaine story. More than 70,000 copies of Fortunate Son were withdrawan.
"They're heat! Furnace fodder!" snapped the vitriolic St. Martin's Vice President Sally J. Richardson. The media focus shifted from reporting on Hatfield's Bush story to loud, loose talk about Hatfield's felony. The major media tended to sing the same chorus: "How ironic, this Hatfield character who was involved in a dirty plot to kill his boss in 1987 is trying to verify these rumors about young Bush being arrested for cocaine possession in 1972.
But this story couldn't be true, of course, since Hatfield's a criminal...right?"
I borrowed one of the rare, repossessed copies of the book from a friend and read it on a bus trip. I traveled with a pack of sticky notes and hit every page with something relevant and newsworthy and under-reported about Bush’s past. Pretty soon, the book overflowed with the edges of sticky notes poking out like the feathers of a peacock.
Bush dodged the draft, was a C student at Yale, lost a lot of other people's money in boom times in the Texas Oil market, was investigated by the S.E.C. for insider trading. What a garish life of special favors, what a clear colorful pattern of cut corners, what blurry values. I came back to New York and maneuvered my company, Soft Skull Press, Inc. to step in and acquire the rights to the book. Meanwhile, Hatfield was in hiding.
The tabloids were after him. Camera crews camped on his front lawn for two weeks. The phone rang off the hook. They all wanted to know who the confidential sources were who fed him the story, but Hatfield stuck to his journalist code. His sources were confidential. They had talked to him under condition of anonyminity. But J.H. Hatfield, our man in Arkansas, was coming to New York.
Two months after the bloody October of Hatfield’s public destruction, it was a crisp sunny winter day in New York City. Although Hatfield had the flu, he taped his portion of 60 Minutes early in the morning, and I went in later. Leslie Stahl, the elegant host of the program, had pointedly asked me on tape if I knew the sources. I said no, but that Hatfield had promised to reveal them to me. After the taping, we walked through the Lower East Side.
I had taken Hatfield and his lawyer, and my coworker to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. I needed to hold Jim Hatfield to his promise to share the sources with me; I needed to see the phone and travel records. I needed to know the whole thing wasn't a big sick joke. I needed to be 100% sure. My gut had me already believing in Jim Hatfield.
He believed in what we were doing. He stood behind all his research. He admired me for making a maverick decision, and attempting to redeem his battered book. Hatfield stopped on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington and turned to me in the bright light. His hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of his Navy peacoat. He looked tired, but determined. He looked down the street. "You've got to take this information with you to your grave. You've got to swear." I swore not to repeat it to anyone. I also knew that the truth is bigger than one person.
We would both choose to reveal the sources publicly when the time was right, when we had no other choice. When we no longer had anything left to lose.
That was Karl Rove. The other top Bush advisor was Clay Johnson. The Bush confidante, was his minister, Mayfield. Now you know. Remember, you’ve got to swear now....
THE RACE IS NOT TO THE SWIFT
By February 2000, McCain was gaining on Bush in terms of charisma, message and experience. His promises of campaign finance reform struck a chord nationwide, and on the first of February, 2000, he blew Bush away in the New Hampshire primary.
McCain defeated the New York Republican Party establishment in the courts, and forced the Bush-loyal party bosses to put him on the ballot for the upcoming New York primary. Bush appeared at the rightwing Bob Jones University, in an attempt to get his campaign back on track by appealling to the party's extreme right. Showing his true colors as a politician, McCain's campaign desperately phoned Catholic voters with a recorded message that implied Bush was anti-Catholic by association with the pope-haters at Bob Jones University.
Depite his acrimony on television, Rove knew that McCain's manueveurs were the desperate acts of a campaign in its death throes: Bush would sweep all major primaries from here on in, and take the Republican Nomination in July. By the end of February, Rove was homing in on Gore. By the end of February, New Hampshire was in the distant past. Rumors were circulating (from who knows where?) that McCain was a bit crazy and had a bad temper from being a P.O.W. in Viet Nam.
Al Gore clearly had Bush beat on experience, intelligence and gravitas. While Bush had lost $371 million of other people's money in bad investments and bankrupt oil companies, Gore had served as a Senator and later a Vice President. While Texas had the worst air pollution of any state, Gore was a moderate interested in developing new energy alternatives. Part of Rove's strategy was to trip the cumbersome Gore up on petty questions about Gore's minor factual errors.
Instead of attacking Bush, Gore spent time countering minor barbs about whether he had lied in statements about inventing the Internet or attending a Texas fire disaster site. Perhaps this shows that Gore didn't have as shrewd a top strategist.
While the Democrats watched polls and tried to create a likeable, casual personality for their stiff candidate, Rove kept harping on Gore's for being "a serial exaggerator" and kept Gore in the stereotype of an uncoordinated egghead. On October 8 with both campaigns slinging mud feverishly, Rove went on NBC's "Meet the Press," and accused Gore of being "a man who has difficulty telling the truth. He constantly exaggerates and embellishes."
Rove's strategy of disinformation follows the pattern set by all masters of public opinion of the 20th Century. Rove is the kingmaker. He is the man behind the man. Today, he works in the White House, in a job invented just for him: the Office of Strategic Initiatives. What does that mean? It means anything Mr. Rove wants it to mean.