Ever since his birth on Christmas Day 1950, Karl Rove has sailed close to the wind. Perhaps his Norwegian ancestry – incidentally imparting a distaste for all things Swedish, including weapons inspector Hans Blix – convinced him that this was the way to get ahead, in the manner of the Vikings. Or maybe it was because he turned out not to be the son of the man he thought was his father, and his mother committed suicide.
Either way, not yet out of his teens but already a budding ‘neocon’ Republican, Rove used a false identity to infiltrate the campaign of a Democrat, Alan J Dixon, who was running for Illinois State Treasurer. Rove stole his letterhead and circulated fake fliers promising ‘free beer, food, girls and a good time for nothing’ to homeless people, in the hope of disrupting a Dixon rally.
In December 1969 Rove received his papers for the military draft to Vietnam. He had wisely thought to enrol at the University of Utah, so the draft was deferred until December 1971. By this time he had dropped out of Utah, with only a few hours of study to his credit, and enrolled at the University of Maryland. The draft was deferred again. The draft itself ended in 1973. In the event, Rove neither served in the military nor completed a degree.
Meanwhile, he was cutting his political teeth on the students of College Republicans. He was recorded in seminars discussing the use of campaign techniques such as rifling through opponents’ garbage. Rove was active in the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon and became a protégé of Donald Segretti, later convicted as a Watergate conspirator. George HW Bush, then Republican National Chairman, hired Rove as a special assistant, on one occasion asking him to take a set of car keys to his son, George W. ‘Huge amounts of charisma,’ Rove later swooned over this, their first meeting, ‘swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile, just charisma – you know, wow!’
Rove was underway. Obsequious, ‘creepy’, always just that bit more unscrupulous than his nearest rival, he specialized in political fundraising, largely through direct-mail campaigns run by his consulting firm Karl Rove and Company out of Austin, Texas. Between 1981 and 1999 he worked on literally hundreds of Republican campaigns and got rich.
Though Rove is a dab hand at deniability, ‘push-polling’ is a technique repeatedly associated with his activities. In 1993 he began advising George W Bush on his bid to become Governor of Texas, against the incumbent Democrat, Anne Richards. Supposed pollsters called voters to ask if they would be ‘more or less likely to vote for Richards if you knew her staff is dominated by lesbians’. During the 2000 Republican presidential primary, pollsters in South Carolina asked voters if they would be ‘more or less likely to vote for John McCain [George W Bush’s rival] for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child’.
By now indispensable to the George W Bush operation, Rove became Senior Adviser to the President in January 2001. He got off to a flying start. On 30 June, the day the White House confirmed that Rove had been involved in energy policy meetings, he announced that he had divested himself of substantial stock in Enron, Boeing and General Electric. After the attack on the Twin Towers, the group Families of September 11 pointedly asked Rove to ‘stop trying to reap political advantage in the tragic misfortune of others’. Through 2002 and 2003 he chaired meetings of the secretive White House Iraq Group, at the centre of the bellicose – though draft-dodging – ‘neocon’ circle.
During the 2004 Bush re-election campaign there were claims that Rove had professional ties to the producers of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth TV advertisement that vilified Democrat candidate John Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. Rove was also accused of manipulating the official state of anti-terrorist alert, to Bush’s electoral advantage.
So far, Rove has come closest to capsizing in what seemed at first like a gentle breeze: the leaked identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicly challenged some of the evidence used by Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq. Exposing Plame, and ruining her career, looked like crude revenge on Wilson. The White House was clearly implicated. Revealing the identity of a CIA agent is, however, a criminal offence in the United States. Plame and Wilson sued Rove. Vice-President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, ‘Scooter’ Libby, has been indicted in the affair, but it bears all the hallmarks of ‘Rovism’ at work.
The loss of Congress to the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term elections punctured Rove’s reputation in Washington. But he is not deflated. He argues that the Republicans would have kept control, regardless of Iraq, had they not fallen victim to scandal and corruption. It is, of course, the falling victim, not the scandal and corruption, that Rove finds regrettable. •