|December 19, 2005|
Karl Rove Comes of Age: An excerpt from the new book ROVE EXPOSED: How Bush's Brain Fooled America
A BUZZFLASH GUEST
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In 1973, when Karl Rove was recruited to run for chair of the College Republican National Committee, a group of supporters paired him with Lee Atwater, who at the time was president of the College Republicans in South Carolina. Rove was to be the candidate and Atwater his Southern campaign chair. In March, Rove took the train from Washington, D.C., to Columbia, South Carolina (a $25 overnight ticket) where he was met by Atwater and another young hardball Republican, John Carbaugh, later to become advisor to Jesse Helms. With a Gulf credit card, Rove and Atwater rented a mustard-brown Ford Pinto and proceeded to spend the next week campaigning together across the South, visiting state college Republican chairpersons and asking for support.
The deal went like this: Rove was to be chair and Atwater would take Rove's old job, executive director of the College Republican National Committee. Both of them would be in Washington with an office and a phone and the run of the Republican National Committee (RNC). It was impossible not to like Atwater. He was fun loving and amiable and he was forever scheming about one thing or the other. The two of them had barely taken their jobs in Washington, Rove said, before Atwater was hustling Republican National Committee Chairman George H.W. Bush for use of his boat.
Rove was awestruck by Atwater's self-confidence.
"I introduced Lee to George Bush. Lee wanted to meet George Bush because he was chairman but also because he'd heard that the chairman had a boat that he kept on the Potomac. Lee had a big date lined up for the weekend and he thought it would be very impressive if he could take this little Strom Thurmond intern named Sally out on the Potomac on George Bush's boat.
"So -- classic Atwater -- five minutes after he has met the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he was bumming the use of his boat. And the audacious guy he was, he got it." (Source: Wayne Slater interview with Rove, July 1994)
But to get to Washington, they had to win, and to win, they had to out-politick the other guys. The two of them -- Rove and Atwater -- crisscrossed the South in the spring of 1973 lining up support in advance of the summer convention where the new chairman of the College Republicans was to be chosen. Atwater knew all the fronts and fissures of campus politics in the region: who was important and who was not. By the time they rolled into Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks in June for the convention, Atwater and Rove had a battle plan. And in the end, according to his opponent, Rove had to steal the election to win.
The hotel in Lake of the Ozarks was swarming with young Republicans. There were sessions on practical politics in the little meeting rooms and politicking in the hallways, particularly for the election of the new national chair. Atwater and Rove cruised the rooms and the bar, looking to lock up votes. There were three candidates for chair: Rove; Robert Edgeworth, a Goldwater devotee who had headed up Students for Nixon at the University of Michigan; and Terry Dolan, the future founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Dolan, whose acerbic personality made it difficult to round up support, realized that he didn't have the votes to win and threw in with Edgeworth.
It was a two-man race for a majority of the votes. But which votes? Rove and Atwater's plan, supported by a faction within the College Republicans sometimes called the Chicago Boys, took as a point of pride its influence on the gears and levers of the organization. Atwater and the Chicago Boys decided the best way to win an election was to make sure the votes that counted were their votes. There was suddenly a flurry of challenges at the credentials committee, which went into the night.
"The credentials committee savagely went through and threw out, often on the flimsiest of reasons, most of my supporters," said Edgeworth, who steered his own campaign with a bullhorn and a stack of proxies, which challenged Rove and Atwater. (Source: James Moore interview with Robert Edgeworth, July 2002.)
Tempers flared and there were near-fistfights. Edgeworth supporters shouted at Rove's people, who shouted back. The committee was stymied. The next day, with everybody gathered in a large hall, Rove's name was entered into nomination, and as the roll was called, region-by-region, one voice shouted "Aye" and another voice yelled "No." Then, against a chorus of boos and cheers, Edgeworth was also nominated, just as Rove had been, and the same thing happened. Each side declared victory.
"I gave a nice acceptance speech, thanking everybody for electing me. Then I sat down," said Edgeworth. "Karl got up, gave a nice acceptance speech for everybody who had elected him. Then we both went to Washington D.C."
A CONTESTED ELECTION
The issue of who was the rightful chair was to be decided by RNC Chairman George Bush. Both sides made their cases, but Rove seemed to have an advantage, having already met Bush while working as executive director of the College Republicans. Before Bush had announced his decision, Dolan went to the media with some particularly damning material about Rove -- tapes and transcripts of "dirty tricks" seminars.
"I forbade [Dolan] to do it but he did it anyway," Edgeworth said.
The Washington Post published the story under the headline, "GOP Probes Official as Teacher of Tricks." This was exactly the kind of publicity the Republican party did not need. The storm clouds were building over Watergate. The Senate was investigating. Nixon had announced in April the departure of John Dean, John Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman. And now George Bush, who as chairman of the party had pledged to keep the GOP free of Watergate taint, was having to deal with a published report in the Washington Post -- adjacent to the day's Watergate investigation story, for god's sake -- about tape recordings and "dirty tricks" workshops by a GOP college operative.
In fact, Dolan's evidence had been given first to the RNC and quietly reviewed by a committee and dismissed. Only afterward did the tapes and affidavits find their way into the media. Now in the bright light of a newspaper report, Bush promised to reopen the inquiry. Three weeks later, September 6, 1973, he sent a letter to both candidates declaring Rove the winner.
Edgeworth wrote back asking on what basis Bush had made the decision -- and got a blistering reply.
"He sent me back an absolutely furious letter in which he wrote me out of the party. He said he certainly would not answer such impertinent inquiries from someone who was disloyal to the party and leaked hostile information to the press, which I had never done."
The response was odd, Edgeworth thought. Bush was angry not because a Republican had conducted seminars on campaign espionage, but because someone had gone to the press with the story. Obviously, the priority was containing the scandal, not getting to the bottom of it. This was all about loyalty and the club; no true Republican would violate the party code by going to the media. That was the message that Edgeworth heard.
A few months later, Bush hired Rove as his special assistant at the RNC.
How perfect was this? Assistant to the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Back at Olympus High, Rove had talked with his friend Randy Ludlow, about how he was going to Washington, and now he was there -- in the big time. Every morning when Chairman Bush arrived at the basement parking garage and stepped into the elevator, rising to the fourth floor, Rove was there eagerly ready for the day. As a member of the personal staff, Rove had all the authority of an assistant to the RNC chair -- which is to say, not much authority at all. Mostly he was a gopher. But the place was the center of the Republican universe, a place to make associations and stay current on the party's latest line.
His most important association, although he didn't know it then, was the boss' son, George W. Bush.
Defining moments of lives are often nothing more than chance encounters. But Karl Rove was leaving nothing to providence, in this case. When it came to George W. Bush, Rove ended up taking chance out of the equation. And in the process he changed -- not just their lives -- but also American history.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Rove Exposed may be purchased at retailers, including: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=bush%27s+brain
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