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The epic 2012 presidential contest between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney represents the stunning comeback of GOP boss Karl Rove, the brilliant political operator whose scorched-earth partisanship infamously earned him the moniker “Bush’s Brain” and provoked some observers to label him as dangerous to American democracy. How, after leaving the Bush administration in disgrace, did Rove rise again, and what does it mean that he is back in power? This timely, meticulous account by New ...
The epic 2012 presidential contest between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney represents the stunning comeback of GOP boss Karl Rove, the brilliant political operator whose scorched-earth partisanship infamously earned him the moniker “Bush’s Brain” and provoked some observers to label him as dangerous to American democracy. How, after leaving the Bush administration in disgrace, did Rove rise again, and what does it mean that he is back in power? This timely, meticulous account by New York Times bestselling investigative reporter Craig Unger provides the surprising and disturbing answers.
KARL ROVE, the man who masterminded the rise of George W. Bush from governor of Texas to the presidency, who advised Bush during two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who some claim helped seize the 2004 election for Bush, and who was at the center of the Bush administration’s two biggest scandals—the Valerie Plame Wilson affair and the U.S. attorneys scandal—is back.
Since exiting the Bush administration, Rove has quietly become the greatest Republican power broker in the country. His pulpit is much vaster than his role as a commentator on Fox News and his regular columns for the Wall Street Journal suggest. His real strength is his ability to mobilize immense sums through the SuperPAC American Crossroads and similar organizations, and channel that money on behalf of Republican candidates.
Knowing that Rove remains connected and powerful, Unger investigates Rove’s politically controversial activities of times past, shedding important new light on them, and shows their relevance to his activities today. He scrutinizes Rove’s roles in the Valerie Plame Wilson affair, the U.S. attorneys scandal, the strange events in Ohio on the night of the 2004 presidential election, and much more.
But now that Rove is back in control of GOP political strategy and funding, there are pressing new questions: How did Rove do an end around on the Republican National Committee and build his own more powerful organization? In what ways did he subtly and not so subtly influence the 2012 Republican primary process? What did he say (and do) regarding candidates Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum? How did he placate the Tea Party, which he privately despises, even as he cleverly marginalized its importance? How did he and Mitt Romney draw closer as the GOP convention neared? How will he further benefit from a Romney victory? And if Romney loses, why will Rove remain powerful? Unger has the answers.
As demonstrated in his previous books, Unger is adept at combining incisive reporting with the journalistic record to create a master narrative that sheds new light on a political subject. Detailed, fascinating, and entertaining, Boss Rove will interest not only readers who want to know more about the 2012 election but also those keen to understand the forces endangering American democracy. This up-to-the-minute journalistic report sheds crucial light on Rove’s vital behind-the-scenes role in this fall’s presidential election and in the future of American politics.
The Man Who Swallowed the Republican Party
On Wednesday, April 21, 2010, about two dozen Republican power brokers gathered at Karl Rove’s five-bedroom Federal-style townhouse on Weaver Terrace in Northwest Washington, D.C., to strategize about the upcoming midterm elections in the fall.
Rove, fifty-nine, had hosted this kind of event many times before. Six years earlier, he held weekly breakfasts for high-level GOP operatives to plan for the 2004 fall elections. Back then, as senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, a bureaucratic title that belied his extraordinary power, Rove oversaw Bush’s reelection campaign. More important, he was attempting to implement a master plan to build a permanent majority through which Republicans would maintain a stranglehold on all three branches of government for the foreseeable future. The plan was not merely to win elections. It represented a far more grandiose vision: the forging of a historic realignment of the nation’s political landscape, the transformation of America into effectively a one-party state.
But now Rove was no longer in the White House. He had been one of the most powerful unelected officials in the United States, but, to many Republicans, his greatest achievement—engineering the presidency of George W. Bush—had become an ugly stain on the party’s reputation. “Karl Rove will be a name that’ll be used for a long, long time as an example of how not to do it, as opposed to an example of how to do it,” says GOP consultant Ed Rollins, who served as President Reagan’s political director.
A prime suspect in the two biggest political scandals of the decade, the Valerie Plame Wilson affair and the U.S. attorneys scandal, Rove had left the White House in 2007 under a cloud of suspicion, barely escaping indictment. His longtime patron had left the White House with the lowest approval rating in the history of the presidency: 22 percent. And in 2008 the Democrats vaporized Rove’s dreams by winning the ultimate political trifecta: the House, the Senate, and the White House. Finally, on the right, there was the insurgent Tea Party, to which he personified the free-spending Bush era and the Republican Party’s establishment past, not its future.
Rove’s personal life and finances had also fared poorly. His 2009 divorce from Darby, his wife of twenty-four years, meant the loss of more than half of his assets. And there were enormous legal bills resulting from the scandals. “I had to worry about retirement,” he told New York magazine. “I had to worry about getting back to Texas.”
But Rove was not without resources. Thanks to his columns in Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, and a lucrative contract with Fox News, he had straightened out his personal finances and, in just two years, created a lofty bully pulpit from which to bestow upon the public the Rovian narrative about American politics.
During his seven years in the White House, Rove had been able to dispense the perks that are so vital to building political capital with the powers that be. “Having control of the White House is very heady stuff,” says Roger Stone, a GOP operative who has known Rove for forty years. “Inviting them to the White House mess, state dinners, and so on. He has a big Rolodex of Texas millionaires.”
Another arrow in Rove’s quiver came courtesy of Michael Steele, then the hapless chairman of the Republican National Committee. An unfailing source of fodder for late-night comics, Steele had just outdone himself when the RNC squandered nearly $2,000 at a lesbians-in-bondage-themed strip club in Hollywood—precisely the kind of thing the party of family values and evangelicalism didn’t need when its coffers were bare. Whether he was discussing abortion, Afghanistan, or even asserting, preposterously, that the Republican Party needed “a hip-hop makeover,” Steele had been so out of step with the party that conservative donors were desperately seeking an alternative.
Finally, Rove had one other enormously powerful ally. It could be fairly said that no other political strategist in history was so deeply indebted to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December 2010, in Bush v. Gore, one of the most notorious decisions in its history, by a 5–4 vote, the Court effectively resolved the 2000 United States presidential election in favor of Rove’s most famous client, George W. Bush. Then, on January 21, 2010, three months before his luncheon, the Supreme Court once again provided the answer to Karl Rove’s prayers, this time, in the form of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, another landmark decision, ruling that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. This last decision was also made by a 5–4 majority, and this time, two of the justices voting with the majority, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, in part owed their lifetime appointments to Rove and to support from political action committees (PACs) such as Progress for America, which was tied to Rove. The first decision legitimized Rove’s power during the two administrations of George W. Bush. The second allowed Rove to reestablish his power and resurrected his efforts to create a permanent Republican majority.
The implications of the Citizens United decision were staggering. In the 2008 election cycle, organizations of all types—whether they were for-profit corporations, nonprofit organizations, or unions—had been prohibited from airing broadcast, cable, or satellite communications that mentioned a candidate within sixty days of a general election or thirty days of a primary. To be sure, there were many ways for wealthy individuals or corporations to funnel money to political action committees. But the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act, specifically prohibited corporations from engaging in “electioneering communications” intended to influence the outcome of an election. As a case in point, Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit group known for its right-wing documentaries, produced Hillary: The Movie, a film critical of then senator Hillary Clinton, but had been prevented by the courts from promoting it on television or airing it during the 2008 election season. The organization appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won.
The gist of the decision could be boiled down to two words: anything goes. Corporations were people now, too, ruled the court. And just as John Q. Public could say anything he liked about politics, thanks to an extraordinarily broad interpretation of the meaning of “freedom of speech,” come election time, so, too, could Wall Street, big oil, pharmaceutical companies, the tobacco industry, and billionaire cranks flood the airwaves with millions of dollars’ worth of political commercials.
To Democrats, the ruling was devastating. In his January 27, 2010, State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama asserted that “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
“The money spent in the airtime purchase by deep-pocketed interests will dwarf the voice of average Americans . . .” predicted Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It’s probably one of the three or four decisions in the history of the Supreme Court that most undermines democracy.”
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, thousands of articles were written about Citizens United as a truly historic development in the American electoral process, but one voice was conspicuous by its absence. Karl Rove did not mention the subject in his Wall Street Journal columns. Karl Rove did not mention it during his appearances on Fox News. In fact, not a word from Karl Rove on the subject was to be found in any medium. This, despite the fact that he was indisputably a leading expert on the subject, that three out of the five conservative justices voting in the majority—Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Sam Alito—had been given lifetime appointments by his patrons, George H.W. and George W. Bush, and, most important, despite the fact that he would become arguably the single greatest beneficiary of the ruling.
Karl Rove was the dog that didn’t bark.
• * *
Rove, of course, was not the only one who would be able to take advantage of the Citizens United ruling. On the Democratic side of the aisle, unions and wealthy liberals such as George Soros would benefit. And there were other Republicans, notably David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers backing the Tea Party, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a Newt Gingrich man, who often were at odds with Rove.
But with his keen eye for strategy and his ties to disaffected millionaires in the GOP establishment, Rove was the first to seize the initiative. He immediately met with Ed Gillespie, the former RNC chair who had served in the Bush administration with Rove. The two men were a potent duo. “Ed’s got the better rap and Karl’s got the better Rolodex,” a Republican lobbyist told the National Journal.
Within two weeks of the Supreme Court decision, American Crossroads, Rove and Gillespie’s new 527 advocacy group, had its website up. There was no mention whatsoever of Rove. His exact relationship to the group was informal and was described in Politico as providing “a laying on of hands” to encourage wealthy Republican donors. He and Gillespie took off for Texas to meet with some of the men who funded the money machine that had served Rove for more than twenty-five years, and came away with a major pledge from Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a longtime donor to Rove’s causes. Crossroads GPS, a sister group, was in the works under almost identical leadership. Thanks to its nonprofit status, it would not have to disclose the identity of its contributors.
And so, as a result of Citizens United, the SuperPAC was born. A new kind of political action committee, officially known as “independent expenditure–only committees,” SuperPACs were allowed to raise unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups, provided they operated correctly and did not coordinate their expenditures with the needs of any given candidate.*
Soon there would be SuperPACs of every stripe imaginable. As Al Kamen reported in his column in the Washington Post, there would be Your America Inc., not to be confused with My America Inc. There would be Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Americans for a Better Tomorrow Today. There would be the Faith Family Freedom Fund and the Family Faith Future Fund. For geometry lovers, there was even Americans for More Rhombus.
• * *
On March 8, 2010, Gillespie was off to New York, where he pitched other Republican millionaires. Meanwhile, Rove’s list included Carl H. Lindner Jr., a Cincinnati businessman who owned the American Financial Group, a holding company whose primary business is insurance; and Robert B. Rowling, whose TRT Holdings owns Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym. In just one month, American Crossroads had obtained commitments of more than $30 million—about four times what the RNC had in its coffers. “Karl has always said: People call us a vast right-wing conspiracy, but we’re really a half-assed right-wing conspiracy,” explained one Republican fund-raiser. “Now, he wants to get more serious.”
Finally, in April, Gillespie sent out an invitation that was a model of understatement, asking his colleagues to Rove’s home for “an informal discussion of the 2010 political landscape.” It was implicit that the 2010 midterms were merely a dress rehearsal for the larger political goal of the 2012 presidential elections, in which these same men would try to topple President Barack Obama. And so, over chicken pot pie, they gathered in Rove’s town house, its wood-floored living room lined with built-in bookshelves.
With few exceptions—Mary Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president; former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.); and GOP fund-raiser Fred Malek, the CEO and chairman of the fledgling American Action Network and a former aide to both Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush—those attending were operatives and fund-raisers whose names were of interest only to political insiders. “They were a number of like-minded people who were alarmed by the direction the country was taking and trying to counter that,” says one operative who was there.
“As we saw it,” says another, “this was a license to raise big money and participate in a new paradigm.”
In addition to Gillespie, Rove enlisted another former RNC chair, Mike Duncan, as chairman of Crossroads. Jo Ann Davidson, a former co-chair of the RNC, was made director. Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, was an ally as well and yet another former RNC chair. That made a total of four former RNC chairs affiliated with Crossroads.
Rove also brought on Steven J. Law, former general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as president of American Crossroads. In selecting Law as its president, Crossroads had effectively formed an extraordinarily powerful alliance with the Chamber. Once the epitome of Babbitt-like conformity and small-town boosterism, the Chamber of Commerce, under the aegis of its persuasive president, Tom Donohue, had been transformed into the biggest and most powerful lobbyist in the United States. From Goldman Sachs to British Petroleum, Microsoft to Wal-Mart, PepsiCo to General Motors, it represented oil companies, pharmaceutical giants, insurance companies, Wall Street investment banks, automakers, and more. In 2009 alone, the Chamber spent $120 million lobbying—five times what Exxon Mobil, the number-two lobbyist, spent.
Meanwhile, Rove and Gillespie put Crossroads in a network with four other groups—the American Action Network, the American Action Forum, Resurgent Republic, and the Republican State Leadership Committee—as part of an immense fund-raising and advertising machine, separate from the Republican National Committee, to win back both Congress and the White House. Greg Casey’s Business Industry Political Action Committee, also present, planned to spend $6 million to turn out the pro-business vote for the midterm elections. Norm Coleman’s American Action Network expected to spend $25 million. And the Chamber of Commerce was to announce a record election budget of $75 million—double what it had spent in 2008, a presidential election year—most of which would be targeted on nine or ten key Senate races and about three dozen House contests.
Altogether, according to the National Journal, the groups at Rove’s luncheon planned to spend $300 million to help scores of GOP congressional candidates, especially in battleground states such as Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. That was enough money to produce anti-Democratic attack ads that could run tens of thousands of times, that could produce tens of millions of pieces of negative mail, as well as tens of millions of automated phone calls. Under the new laws, all of this could take place with virtually no oversight.
Rove and Gillespie pitched American Crossroads as the answer to outside groups such as George Soros’s Democracy Alliance or labor unions that had historically supported Democrats. “Where they have a chess piece on the board, we need a chess piece on the board,” said Gillespie, who is involved in all five groups in roles ranging from chairman to informal adviser.
But in fact it was much more than that. American Crossroads was an alternative to the RNC, which had crumbled under Michael Steele. “Karl set up a parallel organization,” says Roger Stone. “The center of energy will always be where the money is. Karl is playing for control of the party. That’s where the power and the money is.”
ABC Radio talk-show host John Batchelor, a Republican, put it in perspective. “America is a two-party state,” he says. “There are the Democrats. Then there’s Karl Rove.”
• * *
To anyone who really follows him, Rove’s seminal but low-profile role in American Crossroads was no surprise. Ubiquitous though he is as a public figure, when it comes to being a political operative, when it comes to how he actually operates, Rove’s hallmark is his absence. No fingerprints. That’s how he’s always worked. And precisely because Rove is so visible, because he is the most famous political operative in America, it’s difficult to believe that you are seeing only the tip of the iceberg.
Reporters have long sought to determine why, from an early age, Rove took such a different course from most of his peers. In the early sixties, as a young boy, while his peers worshipped sports heroes like Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas, Rove read Milton Friedman, subscribed to the National Review, and collected Barry Goldwater paraphernalia. The self-described nerd from Salt Lake City, Utah—briefcase, pocket protector, Hush Puppies, and all—was, by the time he graduated from high school in 1969, on the road to becoming America’s most celebrated political operative by dint of an encyclopedic mind capable of assimilating vast amounts of data, finely honed political instincts, and message-centric iron discipline.
Some have speculated that the answer may lie in Rove’s troubled family life. “My mother [thought about] what it was that she wanted in life, and not necessarily what was good or right for her family,” Rove told the reporter Thomas Edsall in an unusually candid interview in 1997, before he was well known. “And that was just her way. She never grew up.”
The family’s difficulties came to the surface in 1969, during Rove’s freshman year at the University of Utah, when his father left his mother on Christmas Day, which happened to be Karl’s nineteenth birthday. Subsequently, she deserted the family, occasionally borrowing money from Karl and sending him packages with magazines from his childhood, broken toys, and the like. “It was like she was trying desperately to sort of keep this connection,” he recalled.
But keeping that connection alive was difficult in a family with as much turmoil as Rove’s. Soon, Karl learned that Louis C. Rove, the man he thought was his father, was really his adoptive father. Eventually, Rove discovered that one reason his parents’ marriage did not work may have been that Louis Rove was gay. All of which played itself out in 1981, when his mother “drove out to the desert north of Reno and filled the car with carbon monoxide, and then left all of her children a letter saying, don’t blame yourselves for this.”
It was, Rove said, “the classic fuck-you gesture.”
In any case, Rove took refuge in politics. He particularly admired Mark Hanna, the legendary industrialist and political kingmaker who put William McKinley in the White House more than a century ago, and who is famous for saying, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
And while Hanna may be an obscure figure to most Americans, to Rove he was iconic, a Republican senator from Ohio who was more significant as a power broker of the Gilded Age, the first famous “handler” of a politician, the political mastermind behind the presidency of William McKinley and the most expensive political campaign ever seen at the time.
• * *
Like Hanna, from the beginning Rove was not about lofty statecraft. He was about winning. Even while attending the University of Utah during the Nixon era, Rove had an affinity for dirty tricks that he learned as a member of College Republicans, a no-holds-barred band of ambitious young pols. He was a protégé of Watergate trickster Donald Segretti, who was sentenced to prison for forging phony Democratic campaign literature.
Democrats were not the only ones to bear the brunt of his attacks. “The ruthlessness he learned in those days is exactly consistent with the way he acts as an adult,” says a prominent Republican consultant who has known Rove since the seventies. “The wars we had in college never resolved themselves in his mind. He carries grudges and never lets go. Thirty years. You can’t be just ninety-five percent on his side. That’s not enough.”
Like any great intelligence operative, Rove was a master of deniability. “Karl Rove would be able to teach the CIA a thing or two,” said Larry Johnson, a former CIA operative who, as a friend of Valerie Plame Wilson’s, regards Rove’s role in the Plame affair as “despicable.” “I would have loved to see him frog-marched from the White House [during his years in the Bush administration]. But on some level I admire him. When it comes to covert actions, he has real skills. You don’t want to reveal all the bells and whistles. You want to set up front groups so that it appears there are independent operations even though they are beholden to you. When you bring all that together, it can be very powerful.”
So what about the unseen Karl Rove? How far do the tentacles of his power really reach? “I’m a myth,” Rove told the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal in a 2007 interview when he was leaving the White House. “There’s the Mark of Rove. I read about some of the things I’m supposed to have done, and I have to try not to laugh.”
Rove’s impulse to laugh stands in stark contrast to a substantial list of questions about his long tenure in the White House. Was it Rove who orchestrated the various whispering campaigns smearing opponents as pedophiles, lesbians, and crooks? When he was in the Bush White House during the U.S. attorneys scandal, did Rove use the judiciary as a political weapon, to such an extent that, for many Democrats, running for high office carried with it the risk of a trip to the penitentiary? Did Rove direct the U.S. attorneys and the Justice Department to go after Alabama governor Don Siegelman, who was jailed on highly questionable bribery charges, and other rising stars in the Democratic Party?
And what about the charges in a civil rights lawsuit brought in 2006 against Rove lieutenant Kenneth Blackwell, then the Ohio secretary of state? Did Rove play a part in the conspiracy claimed in this action through which the vote totals for Ohio were allegedly rigged in favor of Bush rather than John Kerry, thereby altering the outcome of the 2004 presidential election? How on earth did SmarTech, a Chattanooga-based tech firm servicing a who’s who of the Republican Party, end up providing highly sensitive technology for the Ohio votes in the 2004 presidential election? What was Rove’s role, if any? Had he pulled off the dirtiest trick of all—the theft of a presidential election—and gotten away with it? And what about the destruction of countless government documents on SmarTech’s servers, including Rove’s emails, which were later sought by federal investigators? Was it possible that cyber warfare, Karl Rove style, had already come to American politics . . . and we didn’t even know it?
Finally, in the wake of the Citizens United decision, expenditures for political advertising in the 2012 election season were projected to be an astronomical $7 billion. On the Republican side, to what extent would Rove control the purse strings? Given his penchant for dirty tricks, what has been Rove’s real sub-rosa role in the bloody Republican primaries? What did he have in the works for the November 6, 2012, general election? Ultimately, how much damage has Rove’s grandiose vision done to American democracy?
• * *
These are important questions, and the reader has a right to know who is asking them and why. The answer is that this writer, who is roughly the same age as Rove, grew up in Dallas, and even as a youth acquired more than a passing familiarity with the political terrain that Rove encountered in Texas. As a young boy, I attended Camp Longhorn in the Texas Hill Country with an older camper named George W. Bush. My childhood friends and classmates included heirs to great Texas oil fortunes, including those of Clint Murchison and H. L. Hunt. In Dallas, we celebrated the Christmas holidays each year at the home of family friend Bob Strauss, the chairman of the National Democratic Party, who was an immensely charming and legendary wheeler-dealer and a confidant of such icons as Lyndon Johnson and John Connally.
In October 1963, my eighth-grade teacher took me to hear Adlai Stevenson, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, give a speech on United Nations Day, only to have banners unfurled that read “UN Red Front,” as he was spat upon and struck by placards wielded by an ultraconservative mob. It was my first contact with the radical right.
A few weeks later, on November 22, my parents were seated at a luncheon in the Dallas Trade Mart, waiting for John F. Kennedy. What happened next, of course, was one of the great tragic moments in history. My father, a doctor, rushed to Parkland Hospital. The president was dead. Jackie Kennedy stood there in her blood-spattered dress. Dallas, my hometown, became known as “the city of hate.”
Perhaps as an antidote, in my high school and college years I devoured the populism of Molly Ivins and Ronnie Dugger in the liberal Texas Observer. I smiled benignly when a friend started the No Use for Bruce Committee, protesting our local Republican congressman, Bruce Alger, a darling of the right. And many years later, I wrote two books on the Bushes, House of Bush, House of Saud, about George W. Bush’s ties to the Saudis and the events leading up to 9/11, and The Fall of the House of Bush, about how the same president, working with neoconservatives and evangelicals, started the Iraq War under false and faulty premises. All of which made for a solid background from which to ferret out the truth about many of the unanswered questions regarding Rove.
But I also realized that to understand his methodology, to appreciate Rove’s power and how he wields it, would require much more. One would have to interview little-known operatives who have worked with him and done his bidding, though not necessarily while on his payroll. One would have to understand how Rove was able to dispense favors, often very lucrative ones, to functionaries through third parties. One would have to find operatives who have worked for Rove’s rivals and nursed decades-long grudges against him. One would have to interview prominent Democrats who did battle with Rove and his operatives.
One would have to interview his foes in Washington and the people who investigated him. One would have to find sources not just in Texas, where he started out, and in Washington, where he came to power, but in Alabama, where Rove had a little-known base of operations that effectively took over the state judiciary and transformed it from Democratic to Republican. One would have to study his methodology, and understand how he incorporated essential elements of intelligence tradecraft such as compartmentalization and need-to-know deniability.
One would have to put aside the notion that the most serious charges against Rove were merely the paranoid delusions of “tin foil”-hatted conspiracy nuts, and genuinely investigate Republican tech operations by interviewing their employees in Tennessee and Ohio, as well as the technology apparatus in the Secretary of State’s Office in Ohio. One would also have to understand the mechanics of voting in Ohio. And then, with an eye to the 2012 election, one would have to examine what happened to the candidacies of Texas governor Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, and other candidates for whom Rove displays such disdain.
Even after all that, one would still not get all the answers. But one could nonetheless compile a narrative showing that for three decades Rove has been putting together a systematic attempt to game the American electoral system by whatever means necessary. It would show Rove fabricating a campaign to restrict the rights of citizens to sue major corporations for damages—as a means of creating a cash machine for the Texas Republican Party. It would show him playing a leading role in drumming up a campaign against voter fraud by immigrants—a phenomenon that is negligible at best—in order to institute Jim Crow–like laws requiring government-issued photo IDs in more than thirty states, thereby disenfranchising millions of minorities, immigrants, and college students, the vast majority of whom are Democrats. It would show Rove’s candidates taking over the judiciary in Texas, Alabama, and even in the United States itself over the last twenty years, and, while in the White House, politicizing the Justice Department as never before, in a way that would have extraordinary and enduring consequences.
It would also show dazzlingly clever ways of manipulating election results. It would show that on November 2, 2004, computer servers belonging to SmarTech, a Chattanooga, Tennessee–based computer company, did in fact link up with servers for Ohio’s election results at approximately 11:14 p.m., after which highly irregular returns began to favor George W. Bush over John Kerry, in the process giving Ohio’s twenty electoral votes—and the presidency—to Bush.
It would show that Karl Rove, while not directly tied to SmarTech, benefited from it repeatedly, and that SmarTech had provided technology services to Republicans and right-wing groups for more than a decade. Similarly, it would show the destruction of countless electronic government documents later sought by investigators examining Rove’s role in the Valerie Plame Wilson scandal and the U.S. attorneys scandal.
As substantial as these issues were, they became all the more relevant as the November 2012 election neared. Rove was not only making his comeback but playing the political poker match of his life. After all, he had become the party boss of the Republicans at a time of chaos, in which rump elements were in ascent, in which the unruly right-wing populist Tea Party ran roughshod over what was left of the Republican establishment. In the prelude to Mitt Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate, the party of Abraham Lincoln had suddenly jumped the shark and was transformed into a circuslike reality show starring an ensemble of cartoonish clowns and buffoons, including, at one time or another, the sexy, big-game hunting, right-wing MILF from Alaska, Sarah Palin; billionaire real estate huckster-cum-reality host Donald Trump, with his acrobatic hairstyle that was simultaneously combed forward, blown dry, and folded back in the shape of a ship’s prow; pizza king Herman Cain displaying his foreign policy prowess about “Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”; Michelle Bachmann asserting that the Founding Fathers, in writing the Constitution, outlawed slavery; Rick Perry, with his dubious debating skills; Newt Gingrich, with his endless stream of ethics scandals and titillating marital history highlighted by allegations from an ex that he sought an “open” marriage; and Rick Santorum, clad in his sweater vest, ranting against contraception, public schooling, and the like.
Through the last half of 2011 and the first five months of 2012, Rove patiently watched and waited, content to sit back and quietly undermine the aforementioned candidates, all the while halfheartedly backing presumptive nominee Mitt Romney, knowing that Romney would ultimately have to come to terms with him.
As the November 6, 2012, elections neared, Karl Rove had completed a remarkable transformation. His political apparatus was fully funded and operational. His relationships with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal gave him a bully pulpit that allowed him to put forth his own Rovian narrative, while at the same time he manipulated events behind the scenes. A number of his former operatives had taken key positions working for Mitt Romney, who was not the perfect candidate for Rove by any means, but potentially viable. Romney’s major political opponent, Barack Obama, was burdened by a sputtering economy and the disappointment of many who had voted for him in 2008.
Even the most astute observers of Rove, with few exceptions, had made a crucial miscalculation. Given Rove’s close relationship with Bush, they had assumed that his mission had to be accomplished during the two George W. Bush administrations. But Rove had always played the long game. He was not merely a creature of the Bushes. He was a political force in his own right. Now America would find out if Karl Christian Rove could create a permanent Republican majority on his own.
1 The Man Who Swallowed the Republican Party 1
2 A Nixonian Education 16
3 Chattanooga Choo Choo 34
4 Sweet Home Alabama 50
5 Unintended Consequences 64
6 The Turn of the Screw 85
7 All Roads Lead to Rove 104
8 Lady Luck 118
9 As Goes Ohio 127
10 11:14 RM. 137
11 Drawing an Inside Straight 154
12 The Verdict 166
13 The Vanishing 175
14 Back from the Dead 202
15 Last Man Standing 218
16 Mitt Romney's Last Buyout 236