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Skepticism and critical thinking is not panacea, but can help to understand the world better
November 2004 |The Atlantic Online
Karl Rove is at his most formidable when running close races, and his skills would be notable even if he used no extreme methods. But he does use them. His campaign history shows his willingness, when challenged, to employ savage tactics
It is the close races that establish the reputations of great political strategists, and few have ever been closer than the 2000 presidential election. From the tumult of the lengthy recount, the absentee-ballot dispute, the charges of voter fraud, and, ultimately, the Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush emerged victorious by a margin of 537 votes in Florida—enough to elevate him to the presidency, and his chief strategist, Karl Rove, to the status of legend.
But the 2000 election was not Rove's closest race. That had come earlier, and serves as a greater testament to his skill. In 1994 a group called the Business Council of Alabama appealed to Rove to help run a slate of Republican candidates for the state supreme court. This would not have seemed a plum assignment to most consultants. No Republican had been elected to that court in more than a century. But the council was hopeful, in large part because Rove had faced precisely this scenario in Texas several years before, and had managed to get elected, in rapid succession, a Republican chief justice and a number of associate justices, and was well on his way to turning an all-Democratic court all Republican. Rove took the job.
The most important candidate among the four he would run that year was a retired judge and Alabama institution by the name of Perry O. Hooper, of whom it is still fondly remarked that in the lean years before Rove arrived he practically constituted the state's Republican Party by himself. A courtly man with an ornery streak and a stately head of white hair, Hooper seemed typecast for the role of southern chief justice, a role he hoped to wrest from the popular Democratic incumbent, Ernest "Sonny" Hornsby.
At the time, judicial races in Alabama were customarily low-key affairs. "Campaigning" tended to entail little more than presenting one's qualifications at a meeting of the bar association, and because the state was so staunchly Democratic, sometimes not even that much was required. It was not uncommon for a judge to step down before the end of his term and handpick a successor, who then ran unopposed.
All that changed in 1994. Rove brought to Alabama a formula, honed in Texas, for winning judicial races. It involved demonizing Democrats as pawns of the plaintiffs' bar and stoking populist resentment with tales of outrageous verdicts. At Rove's behest, Hooper and his fellow Republican candidates focused relentlessly on a single case involving an Alabama doctor from the richest part of the state who had sued BMW after discovering that, prior to delivery, his new car had been damaged by acid rain and repainted, diminishing its value. After a trial revealed this practice to be widespread, a jury slapped the automaker with $4 million in punitive damages. "It was the poster-child case of outrageous verdicts," says Bill Smith, a political consultant who got his start working for Rove on these and other Alabama races. "Karl figured out the vocabulary on the BMW case and others like it that point out not just liberal behavior but outrageous decisions that make you mad as hell."
Throughout the summer the Republican candidates barnstormed the state, invoking the decision at every stop as an example of "jackpot justice" perpetuated by "wealthy personal-injury trial lawyers"—phrases developed by Rove that have since been widely adopted. To channel anger over such verdicts toward the incumbent Democratic justices, Rove highlighted their long-standing practice of soliciting campaign donations from trial lawyers—just as Republicans (which Rove did not say) solicit them from business interests. One particularly damaging ad run by the Hooper campaign was a fictionalized scene featuring a lawyer receiving an unwanted telephone solicitation from an unseen Chief Justice Hornsby, before whom, viewers were given to understand, the lawyer had a case pending. The ad, and the unseemly practices on which it was based, drew national attention from Tom Brokaw and NBC's Nightly News.
The attacks began to have the desired effect. Judicial races that no one had expected to be competitive suddenly narrowed, and media attention—especially to Hooper's race after the "dialing for dollars" ad—became widespread. Then Rove turned up the heat. "There was a whole barrage of negative attacks that came in the last two weeks of our campaign," says Joe Perkins, who managed Hornsby's campaign along with those of the other Democrats Rove was working against. "In our polling I sensed a movement and warned our clients."
Newspaper coverage on November 9, the morning after the election, focused on the Republican Fob James's upset of the Democratic Governor Jim Folsom. But another drama was rapidly unfolding. In the race for chief justice, which had been neck and neck the evening before, Hooper awoke to discover himself trailing by 698 votes. Throughout the day ballots trickled in from remote corners of the state, until at last an unofficial tally showed that Rove's client had lost—by 304 votes. Hornsby's campaign declared victory.
Rove had other plans, and immediately moved for a recount. "Karl called the next morning," says a former Rove staffer. "He said, 'We came real close. You guys did a great job. But now we really need to rally around Perry Hooper. We've got a real good shot at this, but we need to win over the people of Alabama.'" Rove explained how this was to be done. "Our role was to try to keep people motivated about Perry Hooper's election," the staffer continued, "and then to undermine the other side's support by casting them as liars, cheaters, stealers, immoral—all of that." (Rove did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)
The campaign quickly obtained a restraining order to preserve the ballots. Then the tactical battle began. Rather than focus on a handful of Republican counties that might yield extra votes, Rove dispatched campaign staffers and hired investigators to every county to observe the counting and turn up evidence of fraud. In one county a probate judge was discovered to have erroneously excluded 100 votes for Hooper. Voting machines in two others had failed to count all the returns. Mindful of public opinion, according to staffers, the campaign spread tales of poll watchers threatened with arrest; probate judges locking themselves in their offices and refusing to admit campaign workers; votes being cast in absentia for comatose nursing-home patients; and Democrats caught in a cemetery writing down the names of the dead in order to put them on absentee ballots.
As the recount progressed, the margin continued to narrow. Three days after the election Hooper held a press conference to drive home the idea that the election was being stolen. He declared, "We have endured lies in this campaign, but I'll be damned if I will accept outright thievery." The recount stretched on, and Hooper's campaign continued to chip away at Hornsby's lead. By November 21 one tally had it at nine votes.
The race came down to a dispute over absentee ballots. Hornsby's campaign fought to include approximately 2,000 late-arriving ballots that had been excluded because they weren't notarized or witnessed, as required by law. Also mindful of public relations, the Hornsby campaign brought forward a man who claimed that the absentee ballot of his son, overseas in the military, was in danger of being disallowed. The matter wound up in court. "The last marching order we had from Karl," says a former employee, "was 'Make sure you continue to talk this up. The only way we're going to be successful is if the Alabama public continues to care about it.'"
Initially, things looked grim for Hooper. A circuit-court judge ruled that the absentee ballots should be counted, reasoning that voters' intent was the issue, and that by merely signing them, those who had cast them had "substantially complied" with the law. Hooper's lawyers appealed to a federal court. By Thanksgiving his campaign believed he was ahead—but also believed that the disputed absentee ballots, from heavily Democratic counties, would cost him the election. The campaign went so far as to sue every probate judge, circuit clerk, and sheriff in the state, alleging discrimination. Hooper continued to hold rallies throughout it all. On his behalf the business community bought ads in newspapers across the state that said, "They steal elections they don't like." Public opinion began tilting toward him.
The recount stretched into the following year. On Inauguration Day both candidates appeared for the ceremonies. By March the all-Democratic Alabama Supreme Court had ordered that the absentee ballots be counted. By April the matter was before the Eleventh Federal Circuit Court. The byzantine legal maneuvering continued for months. In mid-October a federal appeals-court judge finally ruled that the ballots could not be counted, and ordered the secretary of state to certify Hooper as the winner—only to have Hornsby's legal team appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which temporarily stayed the case. By now the recount had dragged on for almost a year.
When I went to visit Hooper, not long ago, we sat in the parlor of his Montgomery home as he described the denouement of Karl Rove's closest race. "On the afternoon of October the nineteenth," Hooper recalled, "I was in the back yard planting five hundred pink sweet Williams in my wife's garden, and she hollered out the back door, 'Your secretary just called—the Supreme Court just made a ruling that you're the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court!'" In the final tally he had prevailed by just 262 votes. Hooper smiled broadly and handed me a large photo of his swearing-in ceremony the next day. "That Karl Rove was a very impressive fellow," he said.
In the decade since, the recount and the court battle have faded into obscurity, save for one brief period, late in 2000, when they suddenly became relevant again. Almost as if to remind Al Gore's campaign of Rove's skill when faced with a recount, the case was revived in a flurry of legal briefs in the Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore—including one filed by the State of Alabama on behalf of George W. Bush.
his summer, with the presidential race looking as if it would be every bit as close as the one in 2000, I spent several months examining the narrowest races in Karl Rove's career to better understand the tendencies and tactics of the man who will arguably have more influence than anyone else over how this election unfolds. Rove has already generated a remarkable body of literature, including several notable books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles. I spoke to many of Rove's former candidates and their opponents; to his past and present colleagues and the people who faced off against them; and to political insiders and journalists—primarily in Texas and Alabama, where Rove has done the majority of his campaign work. I learned much about Rove that hasn't made it into the public sphere.
One of the striking things about his record is how few close races Rove has been involved with—primarily because he usually wins in a walk. In the relatively rare instances when he is in a tight race, he tends to win that, too. Although Rove first rose to political prominence as a specialist in direct-mail fundraising (and worked on hundreds of races in that capacity), mail is only one facet of a campaign, and rarely the deciding factor. So I focused on races in which Rove was the primary strategist, and therefore in a position at least roughly analogous to the one he holds in this presidential race. The last strategist before Rove to win a Republican presidential election was his former colleague Lee Atwater, who by the time of the 1988 campaign had a career record of 28—4. To my knowledge, no one has calculated such a figure for Rove. As far as I can determine, in races he has run for statewide or national office or Congress, starting in 1986, Rove's career record is a truly impressive 34—7.
The mythologizing portrayals of a "boy genius" that characterized so much media coverage of Rove after 2000, and especially after the Republicans' triumphant sweep in the midterm elections, struck me as sorely out of date when I began this project. The Bush Administration was suffering through the worst of the fallout from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the President's approval ratings were plummeting. Clearly, there are many differences between the circumstances in which Rove has been victorious in the past and those he faces now. But that is no reason to discount his record. By any standard he is an extremely talented political strategist whose skill at understanding how to run campaigns and motivate voters would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them. Anyone who takes an honest look at his history will come away awed by Rove's power, when challenged, to draw on an animal ferocity that far exceeds the chest-thumping bravado common to professional political operatives. Having studied what happens when Karl Rove is cornered, I came away with two overriding impressions. One was a new appreciation for his mastery of campaigning. The other was astonishment at the degree to which, despite all that's been written about him, Rove's fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage.
emocrats who want to feel sanguine about the coming election might well find comfort in the particulars of Rove's career. Several of his usual advantages are lacking this time around, conspicuously in geography. As a direct-mail consultant, Rove worked for races across the country, in blue states as well as red. The nature of that work mostly entailed identifying conservatives and motivating them to donate money—a fine skill for one in his current position as Bush's chief strategist, but not the equivalent of running a campaign. Rove compiled his stellar record in Texas and Alabama—and, of course, in the 2000 presidential election, even if his candidate lost the popular vote. During the period in which he rose to power, both states, deeply conservative, were transitioning from a firmly Democratic electorate to a firmly Republican one. A charge frequently levied against Rove by beleaguered Democratic consultants in Texas and Alabama is that he merely "surfed the wave" of the demographic change. This ignores his political talent. It's true, though, that for most of his career Rove has enjoyed a kind of home-field advantage, and in this election he does not.
A surprising number of Rove's former colleagues believe that his unprecedented success in Texas, where for years his candidates rarely faced serious challenges, has fostered what in the boxing world would be known as a "tomato-can" syndrome. Like a heavyweight champion who lets down his guard after beating up a series of hapless "tomato-can" opponents, Rove, they fear, may have been blinded to current national realities by hubris. "I think Karl's success in Texas is almost a hindrance," a veteran strategist who worked with him in that state told me. "The rest of the country doesn't emulate Texas in terms of voting behavior. But sometimes you see his southern roots in Texas and his experience in Alabama kind of overtake him, and he seems to think the United States is one big-ass Texas."
Several consultants pointed to the issue of gay marriage, which one described as a perfect Texas wedge issue because it would attract culturally conservative Democrats in the eastern part of the state—"the rednecks," as he put it—who are normally the key to winning statewide office. But he doubted that the issue would have the same effect in the less conservative battleground states that are expected to decide this election.
Rove is also riding on less of a decisive financial advantage than the one he normally enjoys. In their book Bush's Brain, James Moore and Wayne Slater explain how Rove's success as a fundraiser provided the impetus for his move into political consulting, and how, once established in that capacity, he consolidated his power by controlling candidates' access to major donors, usually ensuring that his clients were better funded than their opponents. This enabled him to engage in what amounted to asymmetric warfare against anyone who challenged his candidates. The authors recount an anecdote in which Priscilla Owen—then a Houston judge, later a controversial Bush appointee to the federal bench—approached a rich Republican donor whose job it was to vet candidates, and explained that she was thinking about running for the Texas Supreme Court. "Have you talked to Karl Rove?" he inquired. Taking the hint, she replied, "No, but I plan to." After Rove agreed to support her, she won handily, outspending her opponent. A similar imbalance applied in 2000, when Bush outspent Gore by a wide margin. But this year John Kerry's extraordinary and unexpected ability to raise money has largely closed the gap.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the current campaign that Rove's most notable tendency in close races has been to go negative against his opponent, early and often. One of the first highlights of his career was the famously tight 1986 Texas governor's race, in which his candidate and mentor, the Republican oilman Bill Clements, sought to oust the Democratic incumbent Mark White. The race is legendary in Texas political lore for Rove's discovery that his office was bugged—news of which, coincidentally or not, distracted attention from an evening debate in which his candidate was expected to fare poorly. More pertinent to the current campaign is a strategy memo Rove wrote for his client prior to the race, which is now filed among Clements's papers in the Texas A&M University library. Quoting Napoleon, the memo says, "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack."
Though it is forever fashionable to denounce negative campaigning, every political expert understands that it can be extremely effective. Rove's career has borne this out perhaps better than any other modern political consultant's. But his very success leaves him precariously positioned if Bush stalls or founders. Once a negative course is set, it is nearly impossible to change; the perpetrator is usually stained for good. Furthermore, Rove's method is to plot out elaborate strategies well in advance of the campaign, and stick to them vigilantly. John Deardourff, Rove's media consultant for races in Texas and Alabama, says, "This rap Bush has of never changing his mind and never admitting a mistake—that's Karl! That's where it comes from." It is a tribute to Rove's strategic skill that he is so often right.
Throughout his career Rove has been able to stage-manage races to an extraordinary degree. This is possibly his least appreciated skill. The most revealing time in his career was 1994, when Rove fought more close races than in any other year, and managed to dictate the dynamic in every one of them. He pulled off highly unlikely upsets for Perry Hooper in Alabama (a race overwhelmingly about trial lawyer excesses) and George W. Bush in Texas (a race dominated by Bush's platform of welfare, juvenile-justice, tort, and public-school reform). However impressive, all but one of his races have been conducted at the state level, and thus have been comparatively insular affairs, unimpeded by the glare of the national media or a troublesome global issue like violence in Iraq—both of which could threaten Rove's ability to control this race.
In the rare instances when he has failed to set the terms of debate, Rove hasn't fared nearly so well. Four years ago, in a race to succeed Hooper, who was retiring as Alabama's chief justice, Rove lined up support from a majority of the state's important Republicans behind his candidate, an associate justice named Harold See. Like most of Rove's clients, See had an enormous financial advantage and ran a brutally negative campaign—but he was nonetheless trounced by Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments" judge, who succeeded in making the race about religion. This loss may have helped Rove to recognize the power of religion as a political motivator: from the question of gay marriage to organizing churches for Bush, it features prominently in his playbook for the current election.
If there is any compelling reason to think that Rove may be out of his depth in this election, it is an odd lacuna in his storied career: no one I spoke with could recall his ever having to run an incumbent in a tough re-election race. This is partly a by-product of his dominance. Rove's power in Texas was such that he could essentially handpick his candidates, and once elected, they rarely lost. And he spent most of his career in the favorable terrain of the Deep South. One reason Rove was spared re-election fights is that as demographic changes swept across the South, and Republicans in Texas and Alabama began displacing Democrats, the likelihood that a Democrat could depose a sitting Republican became remote. Rove has long excelled at knocking off incumbents in tight races. Now, at last, he must defend one.
espite all this, there are significant reasons to believe that Rove can pull it off this time. One is his prior experience in close races. Another is his preparedness and attention to detail, to which any discussion with a longtime Rove colleague invariably turns. "The thing that was most important to him was the mechanics: making certain that the campaign could block and tackle," recalls a staffer who worked for Rove's direct-mail firm in the 1980s and 1990s. Rove would typically begin a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral history of a particular office, charting where votes for each candidate had originated and which groups had supplied them. In the 1980s these data led Rove to conclude that his candidates ought to target "ticket-splitters"—Texans who supported Ronald Reagan for President but voted Democratic in downballot races.
Rove's direct-mail experience had provided him with a nuanced understanding of precisely what motivates ticket-splitters. According to Karl Rove & Co. data on the 1994 Texas governor's race, Rove was aware, for instance, that households that received a single piece of mail turned out for Bush at a rate of 15.45 percent, and those that received three pieces at a rate of 50.83 percent. Turnout peaked at seven pieces (57.88 percent), after which enthusiasm for Bush presumably gave way to feelings of inundation, and support began to drop.
Rove's thirst for efficient advantage extended even to marketing. According to a former employee, rather than use costly dinners and Dallas Cowboys tickets to draw clients' attention, as other consultants did, Rove affixed antique stamps (though not valuable ones) to the weekly financial summaries he mailed to clients; he would send workers to estate sales to hunt out supplies.
When Rove arrived in Alabama, in 1994, his clients were initially puzzled as to why he was having them campaign in rural and less populated parts of the state rather than the urban areas they were accustomed to. It turned out that he had run an electoral regression analysis on each of the state's sixty-seven counties, and for efficiency's sake he put his four judicial candidates together on a bus trip to the counties with the highest percentage of ticket-splitters. "Karl got us focused on the fact that it was a matter of convincing Democratic voters who were already conservative to vote for Republican candidates," Mark Montiel, a candidate on the trip, explains, "because that was who best expressed their views."
Among Rove's other innovations was a savvy use of language, developed for speaking to the conservative base about judicial races. Candidates were to attack "liberal activist judges" and to present themselves as "people who will strictly interpret the law and not rewrite it from the bench." A former Rove staffer explained to me that the term "activist judges" motivates all sorts of people for very different reasons. If you're a religious conservative, he said, it means judges who established abortion rights or who interpret Massachusetts's equal-protection clause as applying to gays. If you're a business conservative, it means those who allow exorbitant jury awards. And in Alabama especially, the term conjures up those who forced integration. "The attraction of calling yourself a 'strict constructionist,'" as Rove's candidates did, this staffer explained, "is that you can attract business conservatives, social conservatives, and moderates who simply want a reasonable standard of justice."
As with direct mail, Rove was skilled at reaching specific voter segments with television commercials, buying air time only during programs that he believed would attract the audience he was trying to reach. In his Alabama races he was known particularly to withhold advertising from The Oprah Winfrey Show and similar afternoon programming—"trimming a media buy," as it is known in the trade. Bill Smith, who worked on a series of close races with Rove in Alabama, says, "There's a real overlap in what he specialized in professionally and what you need to do in a tight race." Whether he is seeking donors in a direct-mail fundraising campaign or manipulating a particular demographic sliver to win a close race, Rove's professional goal has been strikingly consistent: to reach the right people.
ow Rove has conducted himself while winning campaigns is a subject of no small controversy in political circles. It is frequently said of him, in hushed tones when political folks are doing the talking, that he leaves a trail of damage in his wake—a reference to the substantial number of people who have been hurt, politically and personally, through their encounters with him. Rove's reputation for winning is eclipsed only by his reputation for ruthlessness, and examples abound of his apparent willingness to cross moral and ethical lines.
In the opening pages of Bush's Brain, Wayne Slater describes an encounter with Rove while covering the 2000 campaign for the Dallas Morning News. Slater had written an article for that day's paper detailing Rove's history of dirty tricks, including a 1973 conference he had organized for young Republicans on how to orchestrate them. Rove was furious. "You're trying to ruin me!" Slater recalls him shouting. The anecdote points up one of the paradoxes of Rove's career. Articles like Slater's are surprisingly few, yet as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics—some of them breathtaking—as a matter of course.
A typical instance occurred in the hard-fought 1996 race for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court between Rove's client, Harold See, then a University of Alabama law professor, and the Democratic incumbent, Kenneth Ingram. According to someone who worked for him, Rove, dissatisfied with the campaign's progress, had flyers printed up—absent any trace of who was behind them—viciously attacking See and his family. "We were trying to craft a message to reach some of the blue-collar, lower-middle-class people," the staffer says. "You'd roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and paperboy it at houses late at night. I was told, 'Do not hand it to anybody, do not tell anybody who you're with, and if you can, borrow a car that doesn't have your tags.' So I borrowed a buddy's car [and drove] down the middle of the street … I had Hefty bags stuffed full of these rolled-up pamphlets, and I'd cruise the designated neighborhoods, throwing these things out with both hands and literally driving with my knees." The ploy left Rove's opponent at a loss. Ingram's staff realized that it would be fruitless to try to persuade the public that the See campaign was attacking its own candidate in order "to create a backlash against the Democrat," as Joe Perkins, who worked for Ingram, put it to me. Presumably the public would believe that Democrats were spreading terrible rumors about See and his family. "They just beat you down to your knees," Ingram said of being on the receiving end of Rove's attacks. See won the race.
Some of Rove's darker tactics cut even closer to the bone. One constant throughout his career is the prevalence of whisper campaigns against opponents. The 2000 primary campaign, for example, featured a widely disseminated rumor that John McCain, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, had betrayed his country under interrogation and been rendered mentally unfit for office. More often a Rove campaign questions an opponent's sexual orientation. Bush's 1994 race against Ann Richards featured a rumor that she was a lesbian, along with a rare instance of such a tactic's making it into the public record—when a regional chairman of the Bush campaign allowed himself, perhaps inadvertently, to be quoted criticizing Richards for "appointing avowed homosexual activists" to state jobs.
Another example of Rove's methods involves a former ally of Rove's from Texas, John Weaver, who, coincidentally, managed McCain's bid in 2000. Many Republican operatives in Texas tell the story of another close race of sorts: a competition in the 1980s to become the dominant Republican consultant in Texas. In 1986 Weaver and Rove both worked on Bill Clements's successful campaign for governor, after which Weaver was named executive director of the state Republican Party. Both were emerging as leading consultants, but Weaver's star seemed to be rising faster. The details vary slightly according to which insider tells the story, but the main point is always the same: after Weaver went into business for himself and lured away one of Rove's top employees, Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function. Weaver won't reply to the smear, but those close to him told me of their outrage at the nearly two-decades-old lie. Weaver was first made unwelcome in some Texas Republican circles, and eventually, following McCain's 2000 campaign, he left the Republican Party altogether. He has continued an active and successful career as a political consultant—in Texas and Alabama, among other states—and is currently working for McCain as a Democrat.
But no other example of Rove's extreme tactics that I encountered quite compares to what occurred during another 1994 judicial campaign in Alabama. In that year Harold See first ran for the supreme court, becoming the rare Rove client to lose a close race. His opponent, Mark Kennedy, an incumbent Democratic justice and, as George Wallace's son-in-law, a member in good standing of Alabama's first family of politics, was no stranger to hardball politics. "The Wallace family history and what they all went through, that's pretty rough politics," says Joe Perkins, who managed Kennedy's campaign. "But it was a whole new dimension with Rove."
This August, I had lunch with Kennedy near his office in Montgomery. I had hoped to discuss how it was that he had beaten one of the savviest political strategists in modern history, and I expected to hear more of the raucous campaign tales that are a staple of Alabama politics. Neither Kennedy nor our meeting was anything like what I had anticipated. A small man, impeccably dressed and well-mannered, Kennedy appeared to derive little satisfaction from having beaten Rove. In fact, he seemed shaken, even ten years later. He quietly explained how Rove's arrival had poisoned the judicial climate by putting politics above matters of law and justice—"collateral damage," he called it, from the win-at-all-costs attitude that now prevails in judicial races.
He talked about the viciousness of the "slash-and-burn" campaign, and how Rove appealed to the worst elements of human nature. "People vote in Alabama for two reasons," Kennedy told me. "Anger and fear. It's a state that votes against somebody rather than for them. Rove understood how to put his finger right on the trigger point." Kennedy seemed most bothered by the personal nature of the attacks, which, in addition to the usual anti-trial-lawyer litany, had included charges that he was mingling campaign funds with those of a nonprofit children's foundation he was involved with. In the end he eked out a victory by less than one percentage point.
Kennedy leaned forward and said, "After the race my wife, Peggy, was at the supermarket checkout line. She picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and nearly collapsed on her watermelon. She called me and said, 'Sit down. You're not going to believe this.'" Her husband was featured in an article on "America's worst judges." Kennedy attributed this to Rove's attacks.
When his term on the court ended, he chose not to run for re-election. I later learned another reason why. Kennedy had spent years on the bench as a juvenile and family-court judge, during which time he had developed a strong interest in aiding abused children. In the early 1980s he had helped to start the Children's Trust Fund of Alabama, and he later established the Corporate Foundation for Children, a private, nonprofit organization. At the time of the race he had just served a term as president of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. One of Rove's signature tactics is to attack an opponent on the very front that seems unassailable. Kennedy was no exception.
Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children. "We were trying to counter the positives from that ad," a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile. "It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information," the staffer went on. "That was a major device we used for the transmission of this stuff. The students at the law school are from all over the state, and that's one of the ways that Karl got the information out—he knew the law students would take it back to their home towns and it would get out." This would create the impression that the lie was in fact common knowledge across the state. "What Rove does," says Joe Perkins, "is try to make something so bad for a family that the candidate will not subject the family to the hardship. Mark is not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin', tobacco-chewin', pickup-drivin' kind of guy. He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man, and what they tried to do was make him look like a homosexual pedophile. That was really, really hard to take."
Earlier this year the lone Democrat on the Alabama Supreme Court announced his retirement. There's an excellent chance that on Election Day the court will at last become entirely Republican.lmost from the beginning Karl Rove has signaled that he expects a close 2004 election, and he has run George W. Bush's re-election effort accordingly. While John Kerry's campaign has made an extraordinary effort to gather moderate voters to his liberal base by stressing its candidate's decorated war record and centrist views, Rove—in contrast to 2000's invitingly gauzy message of "compassionate conservatism"—has returned to his traditional strength: motivating the base of conservative voters.
Bush's campaign has naturally focused on the battleground states, but Rove's strategy can be decoded by looking at the targets of emphasis within those states. They are predominantly solid Republican areas such as Pensacola, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Rove's gambit is to improve Bush's margins in places where the President fared well in the 2000 election, just enough—a few points higher among Catholics, evangelicals, Hispanics—to prevail once more. To achieve this he is following the lessons of tight races past, buying television time in solidly red Fargo, North Dakota, because the airwaves also reach the neighboring swing state of Minnesota, and in solidly blue Burlington, Vermont, so as to draw a few more voters to Bush in the battle for New Hampshire, next door.
Rather than soften Bush's appeal to reach moderates, Rove, as he has done throughout his career, is attempting to control the debate by expertly spotlighting issues sure to inspire his core constituency: the drive for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the pronouncements about love of country, the unremitting attack against anything in an opponent that seems impregnable. All these tactics stand out in Rove's most memorable past victories.
Privately, Rove has been challenged and even denounced for his approach. A common refrain I heard from Republican consultants a few months ago was that his approach is foolish, because for the sake of an ideologically intense campaign, Rove is ceding to the Democrats the moderates Kerry is pursuing. And, these consultants fear, it puts Bush in jeopardy of seeing outside events decide the race.
But an interesting thing happened as I worked on this piece. Early in the summer, as Bush was struggling, even Rove's allies professed to doubt his ability to control the dynamics of the race in view of an unrelenting stream of bad news from Iraq. Several insisted that he was in over his head—with an emphasis that seemed to go deeper than mere professional envy. Yet by August, when attacks by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were dominating the front pages, such comments had become rarer. Then they died away entirely.
If this year stays true to past form, the campaign will get nastier in the closing weeks, and without anyone's quite registering it, Rove will be right back in his element. He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—the media's unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove's skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media's unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.
Rove isn't bracing for a close race. He's depending on it.
Oct. 11, 2005
Guests: Tony Blankley, Tom Oliphant, Ed Rogers, Michael Wolff, James Moore
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight, is special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald building a case against Karl Rove, the architect of the Bush administration? And is the CIA leak case shaking the very political foundations of the White House?
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews.
Karl Rove, the president‘s political ramrod, has been called back to the grand jury probing the CIA leak case. If you don‘t think this leak case matters, ask yourself, what was the most frightening case you heard for going to war with Iraq? Probably it was that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium yellow cake in Africa to build nuclear weapons. The president said it in his 2003 State of the Union address. The vice president repeated it with military precision, almost like a Gatling gun, Saddam Hussein, nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein, nuclear weapons, again and again.
But it wasn‘t true. There‘s no evidence even now that Saddam tried to by nuclear materials in Africa. We know that now because the man the CIA sent down there to Niger to check it out, sent there after Vice President Cheney asked the CIA to check it out, wrote a “New York Times” article a few months after the war started that there was no deal. Worse yet, the former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, wrote that the people around the president must have known there was no deal, even when the president and his people kept telling the country there was.
How did the Bush people react to this unwelcome news? This is what the CIA leak case, which could produce indictments any day now, is all about. Did the people around the president actively try to discredit that man who came back from Africa, to say the yellow cake story was a phony? Did they try and kill the messenger? Did they use to enormous media power of the White House to discredit the ambassador, his mission and his wife at the CIA, who suggested him for the mission?
And, in doing so, did they abuse the office and the power to which the president was elected? Did they break the law? Did they conspire to punish a critic of the war, even if their weapon was the destruction of his wife‘s undercover career by identifying her to the public? Did they lie about their actions to government investigators to a grand jury or even to the president himself?
We could get the answers any day now. And you can bet you‘re going to hear them all right here on HARDBALL.
Washington has been buzzing with rumors and speculation about possible criminal indictments, all this as the president‘s top adviser, Karl Rove, is summoned back yet again to the grand jury. Only, this time, prosecutors say they can‘t promise he won‘t be indicted.
David Shuster reports.
DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): According to lawyers close to Karl Rove, prosecutors have told the president‘s top adviser there are no guarantees the grand jury will not indict him. “Newsweek” reports the panel now has e-mail proof Rove met with reporter Matt Cooper, a meeting Rove apparently failed to disclose to investigators in the grand jury two years ago.
Rove‘s supporters say he will try to convince the grand jury that discrepancies in his testimony were the result of bad memory, not obstruction of justice.
The CIA leak investigation stems from the administration‘s case for war with Iraq.
DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
SHUSTER: President Bush hyped the argument in his 2003 State of the Union.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
SHUSTER: Six months later, after U.S. forces had invaded Iraq and found no WMD, a column appeared in “The New York Times” titled: “What I Didn‘t Find in Africa.”
Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, wrote, he had been sent the previous fall based on an inquiry from Vice President Cheney. And he reported the Iraq uranium claim was unfounded. Following Wilson‘s column, the administration retracted that part of the president‘s State of the Union speech. And the controversy over a false Iraqi uranium claim might have died down, except that, a week later, columnist Robert Novak, in an effort to discredit Joe Wilson, revealed—quote—“His wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative, two senior administration officials told me.”
In the midst of the ensuring uproar over the disclosure of a CIA officer, Novak told “Newsday”—quote—“I didn‘t dig it out. It was given to me.”
BUSH: I don‘t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I would like to know it and we will take the appropriate action.
SHUSTER: Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan denied that Scooter Libby, the president‘s chief of staff, and Karl Rove, the president‘s top adviser, were vulnerable.
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... made it very clear that it was a ridiculous suggestion in the first place. I mean, it‘s public knowledge. I have said that it‘s not true. And I have spoken with Karl Rove.
SHUSTER: And Karl Rove spoke to President Bush that fall, according to “The National Journal,” personally reassuring the president he wasn‘t involved.
But, from the beginning, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was intent on reconstructing conversations between White House officials and reporters. And this summer, after exhausting their appeals, “The New York Times”‘ Judy Miller and “TIME” magazine‘s Matt Cooper were told they would be jailed if they continued to refuse to testify.
MATT COOPER, “TIME”: In what only can be described as a stunning set of developments.
SHUSTER: Cooper said he received a last-minute waiver from his source, then testified that source, Karl Rove, was the one who told him Joe Wilson‘s wife worked for the CIA.
SHUSTER: As for Judy Miller:
JUDITH MILLER, SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: I
was a journalist doing my job, protecting my source until my source freed me to perform my civic duty to testify.
SHUSTER: When she testified after 12 weeks in jail, Miller said her primary source was the vice president‘s chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
(on camera): The grand jury expires at the end of this month. The question is, did anybody in the Bush inner circle break the law while trying to discredit a critic of their very foundation for war with Iraq?
I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster.
James Moore is the co-author of a book called “Bush‘s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential.” Michael Wolff is a columnist at “Vanity Fair” who has written about Rove‘s role in the CIA leak investigation in the new issue in November. He writes about Vice President Cheney as well. And Howard Fineman is chief political correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.
Howard, putting it all together, the war in Iraq, because we were afraid of nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein, immense common sense on the part of the American people. If you think the other guy is going to get nuclear weapons and you think he‘s a crazy man out to get us, you stop him. The question is, did he have anywhere near the capability to get those nuclear weapons? Did he cut a deal with the Nigerian government or didn‘t he?
Joe Wilson comes back and says, no, he didn‘t cut a deal and they should have known that because I reported that back, right? Their—so, Joe Wilson is challenging the main element of this administration, which was going to war with Iraq and saying they did it under false premises. It was a corrupt war, he‘s saying. That‘s it, isn‘t it?
HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That‘s the point of the lance of this whole thing.
Right now, my sense, in reporting this, Chris, is that the Bush family, political family, is at war with itself inside the White House. My sense is, it‘s—it‘s—it‘s—it‘s Andy Card, the chief of staff, and his people against Karl Rove, the brain.
FINEMAN: And that runs through a whole lot of things, whether it‘s Harriet Miers or Katrina. But it all starts with Iraq.
And some submerged, but now emerging divisions within the administration over why we went into that war, how we went into that war and what was done to sell it. There are people are out for Karl Rove inside that White House, which makes his situation even more perilous.
My understanding, from talking to somebody quite close to this investigation, is that they think there are going to be indictments and possibly Karl Rove could be among them, if not for the act of the leaking information about Valerie Plame, then perhaps for perjury, because he‘s now testified four times.
And there are conflicts between what Matt Cooper told the grand jury and what Rove evidently told the jury himself. And Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, is an absolute stickler for detail who has no political axe to grind here, other than keeping his own credibility. Having put Judy Miller in jail, having gone to the lengths he had, my understand is, he has got some people here, not only Rove, but perhaps Scooter Libby, the vice president‘s chief of staff.
MATTHEWS: I also get the sense he reads the law book. He doesn‘t care about the politics.
FINEMAN: That‘s what I meant. That‘s what I meant. He doesn‘t care about the politics.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, you just raised a curtain-raiser for me. I didn‘t even know this.
You believe that the fight between those who may be headed toward indictment, the vice president‘s chief of staff, Karl Rove, there is a war between them and the people who are going to survive them, Andy Card, etcetera.
MATTHEWS: But is Andy Card saying now, here‘s his chance to prove the war was wrong? Is that what this—it‘s a shadow fight over that?
FINEMAN: I think it‘s possible. I think it‘s possible.
Look, when you are up, you‘re up big time. Karl Rove was the boy genius.
FINEMAN: Karl Rove could do no wrong.
But now Karl Rove seems to have been caught overstepping on this.
FINEMAN: And now people are questioning everything about it. And it goes back. If you have to have an organizing principle, it‘s the war in Iraq. That‘s what it is.
MATTHEWS: Let me—let me go to James Moore.
You have studied Karl Rove over the years.
JAMES MOORE, CO-AUTHOR, “BUSH‘S BRAIN”: Right.
MATTHEWS: Give us his M.O., his baseball card, if you can. Is he capable of really playing tough, really tough, and maybe doing something he didn‘t think was illegal, but turned out to be?
MOORE: Well, there‘s a bunch of people in this state who will tell you he can play tough, because he‘s ruined their careers, Chris.
Every part of his entire career has been about vengeance, going after people who somehow crossed him or his candidates and destroying them from the battlefield. So, the fact that he‘s accused of this surprises nobody down here who has watched him forever and ever. What surprise me, though, is this whole notion of bad memory on the part of Karl.
You‘re talking about a guy who can still recall precinct results from 1890 elections. And to tell the grand jury or Fitzgerald or anyone that he doesn‘t recall meeting with Matt Cooper is just beyond the pale in terms of believability.
MATTHEWS: That strikes me as a fair criticism. I have talked to him.
He‘s a genius, close to it.
Let me go to—let me go to Michael Wolff.
You wrote a great piece this week, a lot about the fight that is going on over this. And it seems to me that, if the vice president‘s chief is—staff gets indicted this week or is the victim of a—or the target of a vicious report by the special prosecutor, what does that do to the Cheney partnership with Karl Rove, with the president?
MICHAEL WOLFF, “VANITY FAIR”: Well, I—I mean, I think the whole White House in is turmoil over this.
And I would slightly disagree with Howard, that I‘m not sure it‘s so much of a division as lots of people running around and trying to protect themselves, because—because this could—this could wash over everyone. I mean, one of the—one of the reasonable questions here is—is, what were the guys in the Oval Office thinking?
I mean, Karl Rove comes in, theoretically, at least, we are given to understand, and says, oh, no, no, no, no, not me, not me. And we‘re also given to understand—and this is apparently at least what “The National Journal” reported the president said in his grand jury testimony—that they accepted this on face value. Karl said he didn‘t do anything.
WOLFF: Now, as we know, this is—I mean, when Karl Rove says, I didn‘t do anything, what you do immediately is say, what did you do, Karl?
WOLFF: Come clean, Karl.
And I think that that‘s where—we‘re in this situation in which—in which everybody was either—either just way too passive about this or they went out of their way not to confront him.
MATTHEWS: You know, sometimes, I like to try to figure out what‘s really important by pulling back and say, suppose this were happening in some other country we are vaguely familiar with, like England maybe or, I don‘t know, Israel or something.
And I go, what would it mean to me? Is this—let me go back to—you are good at this, because you write these cover pieces. Is this about the Iraq war and the case made to the middle-of-the-roader? I don‘t mean the fanatical “Let‘s go to war” type or the dove, but person in the middle who said, yes, I guess we better go to war with Saddam Hussein, because, if he has got nuclear weapons, that‘s one thing can‘t let be in his hands.
That person was convinced on Sunday television, in the newspapers by basically the vice president, his chief of staff. Then, when—his chief of staff, Scooter Libby. When the word gets back that there is a guy out there writing news articles and briefing the press, like you, and saying, it ain‘t true. There never was any uranium deal. There never was a nuclear threat. This thing about a mushroom cloud being a smoking gun was all B.S. It was really never there.
Who acted quick? Was it Karl Rove? I‘m not talking breaking the law. I mean the defense team. Did Karl Rove and Scooter and the vice president go out there and say, we have got to squash this guy like a bug?
FINEMAN: Well, I don‘t know...
MATTHEWS: I‘m not sure it‘s illegal, by the way, to squash a guy like a bug.
FINEMAN: No, of course. Of course. Nothing would ever happen—if it were illegal, nothing would ever go on around here.
FINEMAN: I—I—I don‘t know what Dick Cheney said, but I know, from the way Karl Rove operates and the way the Bush family, political family, operates, that Rove would have taken it upon himself, even if not directly asked, to go out and take care of that situation, the situation of course being Joe Wilson. OK?
MATTHEWS: Somebody mouth him off.
FINEMAN: Yes. And the way he would do it is, he would talk to his—the people he deals with in the media. He would talk to friends on the Hill. He would talk to people in the conservative community, as, indeed, he was doing over Harriet Miers, trying to sell Harriet Miers to James Dobson. It‘s all of a piece. Karl is Mr. Fix-it. Karl is the salesman, the political operative.
MATTHEWS: So, you say he has a long leash.
FINEMAN: He has a very long leash. But if the president asks him something, he better not—he better either keep his mouth shut or not lie to him.
FINEMAN: But—and not lie to him. And that may be the problem here. And we confirmed that “National Journal” story in Mike Isikoff‘s piece in “Newsweek” this week.
MATTHEWS: OK. We got to come back. This is—it couldn‘t be hotter stuff.
We will be right back with James Moore, Michael Wolff and Howard Fineman.
And, later, President Bush is back in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana today. But it‘s—what about his pick for Supreme Court? That seems to be a bigger story than Louisiana right now, at least to people here in Washington.
Are the Republicans split down the middle on whether Harriet Miers makes sense? And now the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, wants to know why a leading conservative is saying out front that the White House has privately assured him that Harriet Miers is against abortion rights.
These are—this is right out of the pages of “West Wing” here, this stuff.
You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, Karl Rove will testify again before the CIA leak case grand jury. Will the White House shake if Rove is indicted?
HARDBALL returns after this.
MATTHEWS: We are back talking about the CIA leak case that could break this week a series of indictments, maybe this week, with James Moore, author of the book about Karl Rove. It‘s called “Bush‘s Brain,” Michael Wolff of “Vanity Fair,” who wrote a big piece this week about the vice president, and Howard Fineman of “Newsweek.”
Michael, you wrote a piece in this November issue. I guess it‘s November issue. Let‘s take a look at a quote from it on the reason why Cheney might not, by—keeping a low profile right now: “The outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame is reaching rather to close for comfort for the vice president. Best just not to be available to anyone who might want to ask you what you knew and when you knew it.”
What are you getting at there, Michael? The vice president is lying low. I agree with you on that. He‘s behaving differently and more passively and even more invisibly than—lately. And I don‘t think he‘s pulling the strings. So, what is he up to?
WOLFF: You know, I have—I—I have to answer. I have written 4,000 words on this subject and I have absolutely no idea what he‘s up to.
WOLFF: Except, something‘s happening. I mean, he‘s—it‘s an altogether different M.O. than he‘s had for the past—for the past five years.
He‘s—is he hiding? Is he sick? Is he up to something, some other Cheney-like thing? One can only speculate.
MATTHEWS: Has the president already made the—has he already, as they say in the stock market, discounted the calamity to come? Has he already discounted the probability that, at best, the rosy scenario, if you will, is that the top aides that have been mentioned in all the press leaks about this in the leak case are going to get shot with a very vicious kind of indictment or some kind of public report that humiliates them publicly and politically, and, therefore, he‘s relying more on Andrew Card and Dan Bartlett than the vice president‘s office or the chief political man?
FINEMAN: Well, that‘s my sense of it, Chris.
And I think, if you look—if you roll back the videotape of the days leading up to Katrina, if you look at the Harriet Miers nomination, Karl Rove is conspicuous by his absence.
MATTHEWS: As is the vice president.
FINEMAN: As is the vice president. So, I think that whole wing, so to speak, is one that Bush has been flying without for the last couple weeks.
MATTHEWS: Excuse me.
We always underestimate—let me go to James Moore. We always—I will speak for the press in this—to underestimate the political moxie of this president. Could he be aware of a lot more than people thinks he‘s aware, he wants us to think could be aware of, and knows that his vice president‘s office has had a problem—is going to have a problem here with the prosecutor, knows that Karl Rove is definitely going to have a problem, and he‘s already begun to allow for that, keep them out of the action?
I was struck, James. You tell me what this means. He had Scott McClellan, his press secretary, say that the way they decided and announced the Harriet Miers nomination for the Supreme Court, the press aide came out, the press secretary, Scott McClellan, and said, when the president made up his mind on picking Harriet Miers, his counsel, he told Andrew Card, his chief of staff, and had him tell the vice president.
What happened to the interlocking president and vice president relationship that he had to have a staffer go off and tell him of a decision he had made on his own, without the vice president?
MOORE: Well, there is obviously some distancing going on between two.
But the Miers nomination is pretty telling to me, at least, because there was a relationship where she took lots of phone calls from Karl here in Texas and did his bidding. And Bush is going to be very comfortable with that nomination precisely because of that.
But, Chris, getting back to the grand jury thing, I—I suspect that the reason Karl has been brought back before the grand jury is that Judy Miller‘s testimony may have turned up something that gets back to this whole thing of contradicting Karl‘s previous testimony. And maybe Fitzgerald now has to bring him in perhaps to build a better mousetrap against him or give him a chance to correct something that he may have said previously.
MATTHEWS: Or not said. You said his bad memory is not to be believed, that he has a great memory.
MOORE: Not at all. Not at all. His memory is astounding, his historical ability to recall information.
MOORE: And it‘s unlikely that he did not know what he did and when he did it.
FINEMAN: Can I make one other small point?
The week, after Katrina, suddenly, the word materialized that Karl Rove would be overseeing the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast. Remember that?
FINEMAN: Well, yesterday—yesterday, Scott McClellan specifically knocked down, I believe—it was Scott or somebody at the White House—knocked down the idea that Karl was going to be the czar of Gulf Coast.
As a matter of fact, Karl would be great at that kind of thing.
MATTHEWS: Ramrodding something.
FINEMAN: Ramrodding, detail man, knowing the politics, where to build the bridges and so forth. Apparently, he‘s out of the loop on that now.
MATTHEWS: So, things are changing.
MATTHEWS: I think we are—go ahead, Michael. Last thought.
WOLFF: You know, one of the interesting things to remember here is that, is that, if these guys are out of the loop, if Cheney is out of the loop, if Karl is out of the loop, that really leaves the B team in charge.
WOLFF: I mean, Andy Card, Dan Bartlett, these are—you know, these are perfectly decent, I suppose, guys, but they have never been in charge.
MATTHEWS: Right. And they have got to play the second half of the season with the second team.
Thank you very much, James Moore, Michael Wolff and Howard Fineman.
Up next, President Bush revisits the hurricane zone, but the storm is still swirling here about the Supreme Court pick. NBC‘s chief White House correspondent David Gregory is going to join us and tell us what the president is up to in what has become a very difficult nomination.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
While the White House tries to sell Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers to Republicans, conservative evangelical James Dobson says he supports Miers because of something he‘s been told, but can‘t discuss. Those are his words.
On his radio program last week, he said—quote—“When you know some of the things that I know that I probably shouldn‘t know, you will understand why I have said, with fear and trepidation, that I believe Harriet Miers will be a good justice. If I have made a mistake here, I will never forget the blood of those babies that will die will be on my hands, to some degree.”
Now, Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and several Democratic senators are wondering whether the White House made backroom assurances to conservatives on how Miers would vote on hot-button issues, like abortion.
NBC White House correspondent, chief White House correspondent, David Gregory joins us now from the White House.
This has become a really odd one here. The Democrats are lying back, except to ask now, after a week of this talk, whether the president has some backroom deal, sort of a cigars and gentlemen backroom deal with James Dobson, to say, hey, she‘s going to lie low, but she‘s pro-life.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.
And I actually think that this is something that‘s being missed here, in that the larger story may be that Democrats are going to be a lot more concerned about Harriet Miers than conservatives will be down the line. Conservatives say she‘s a blank slate. They don‘t want to find out over time whether she‘s got the goods that they want to see in a Supreme Court nominee.
But if what Dobson is really suggesting, and as one source inside the White House told me today, they think this is really Dobson saying, look, she‘s pro-life. Some of what‘s already been reported, her financial support for pro-life causes in—when she was on the city council in Dallas and throughout her career, makes her a surefire vote against Roe v.
Wade, the other question that has to be asked, because she‘s not a judge,
how does she feel about judicial precedent? How does she feel about the
fact that Roe v. Wade has been on the books? It may be something that will
that will come to haunt Democrats down the line, who like their dealings with her so far.
MATTHEWS: Never wanting to underestimate the president‘s political moxie, could it be that he has designed a Trojan horse, or, rather, a wolf in sheep‘s clothing? She looks so modest and motherly and wonderful and unthreatening, and the liberals are presumed to be not smart enough to see that, deep down, she‘s an arch-conservative?
And there‘s another aspect to this, that Bush, I‘m told, wanted to be convinced that he didn‘t have a Souter on his hands. And by that, it was that he didn‘t want somebody who would change over time. He knows these people who have been around him for so many years, what it‘s Karl Rove or Harriet Miers or Karen Hughes. He really feels like he knows them.
And so whether—as someone pointed out, this is not a constitutional scholar we have in the White House. And few presidents are. And even though he gets plenty of good advice, at the end of the day, if he wanted a woman, he wanted somebody that he could trust. That list gets shorter and shorter.
And, frankly, while I think many believe that his claim that she‘s the most qualified person to take this job is demonstrably false, what he perhaps wanted to say is that he‘s somebody that she could trust—rather, that he could trust, that made her the best—best candidate for the job.
MATTHEWS: The other point we were talking about today is Karl Rove. Does he have a long leash in what he is allowed to do in terms of political hardball at the White House, in terms of going at the opponents, like, in this case, the ambassador who came back and challenged the whole president‘s case for war?
GREGORY: No question he does. And he did.
I mean, we know that. We know that he was intimately involved in taking on Joe Wilson at the time, who was criticizing the case for war. And it‘s an understatement to say there was no love lost between Rove and Joe Wilson. That‘s public knowledge. But, yes, I mean, he was among those who was responsible for attempting to take on the guy who was discrediting the president and the case for war.
Well, we will see more about that as the days go on.
MATTHEWS: I would like to have you back, because I think this case is getting hotter and hotter.
Thank you very much, NBC‘s David Gregory.
And, a reminder, tomorrow on “The Today Show,” Matt Lauer will interview President Bush himself. That‘s tomorrow on “The Today Show,” on NBC, of course.
Up next, nearly half of all Republicans in the Senate say they remain unconvinced that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is right for the job. That‘s the Republicans. Will the fight on the right derail the Miers nomination?
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
A survey by “The Washington Times” reports that nearly half of the Senate Republicans—that‘s 27 senators—are unconvinced that Harriet Miers should be on the Supreme Court. This chilly response is in marked contrast to the John Roberts nomination. He won glowing comments from Republicans before heading into his hearings.
Here to shed light on his conservative split are Pat Buchanan and Republican strategist Ed Rogers.
Is this split for real among Republicans?
ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: Well, it may be for real, but I think it‘s just temporary.
I think, for the first time in a long time, the hearings are going to matter. She is going to be asked questions that won‘t be just posturing and posing. But people are going to ask questions where they want to hear the answers. And the answers are going to matter.
MATTHEWS: Suppose she gets a dunce cap?
ROGERS: So, this is for real. Well, if—then that‘s trouble and she is going to get—she is going to get lot of votes against her.
But, having said that—I feel—I feel OK about this nomination. I feel—I believe in the president. And if you would have told me before...
MATTHEWS: Why do you feel—do you think the stakes are low?
MATTHEWS: That if she doesn‘t quite show the right stuff out there, he can pull her or ask her to withdraw and they will put up another guy who is smarter or what?
MATTHEWS: Why are you so calm about this?
ROGERS: Look, I think that, number one, I believe in the president.
I will admit that. I believe in this president.
I think, looking at his record on judicial appointees, looking at the record of what he‘s said about the Supreme Court during the campaign and in other speeches, he knows that this appointment is important.
ROGERS: And if you would have told me before the nomination, he‘s going to appoint an evangelical woman who carries a gun, I would have winced and Pat Buchanan would have celebrated. Maybe she‘s Pat Buchanan in drag.
MATTHEWS: Well, I don‘t know. I don‘t think so.
ROGERS: Could be.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you this, Pat. How can the same group that vetted and brilliantly produced a John Roberts, who was smarter than any senator that tried to interview him and tried to bring him down, produce another candidate who seems to have nothing of his style or his ability?
PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this was the president‘s own choice, Chris.
I agree with Ed. I think the hearings are critical. I think we have sort of frozen the linebackers. Nobody is going to commit to her until they see and hear her. And she is going to have to show real depth of philosophy, I think...
BUCHANAN: ... and some knowledge and strength of character to stand up toe to toe with Breyer and the others.
MATTHEWS: But you could have said that about Dan Quayle. I mean, this seems—couldn‘t this be seen as a female Quayle?
ROGERS: People did say that about Dan Quayle. And he had an election to resolve the issue.
ROGERS: People are making—have doubts about her.
MATTHEWS: His image never—his reputation never beat the initial rap against him.
ROGERS: And that was unfair.
ROGERS: But, having said that, now we‘re going to have a confirmation process.
MATTHEWS: President Bush Sr. wrote in his diary going into his second term, when he tried get reelected, I know I made a mistake about Quayle, but I can‘t admit it.
It‘s not just the P.R. around the guy. The president...
MATTHEWS: ... he was a problem.
ROGERS: Well, I don‘t know if any of that is analogous to this situation.
I mean, the fact of the matter now is, she is now going to have a hearing.
ROGERS: And I think that‘s a good thing.
And if people have expressed doubt, doubt is fair.
MATTHEWS: I agree. I agree.
ROGERS: Right now, closing the door and suggesting that she‘s not credentialed is unfair.
MATTHEWS: Arlen Specter, who has been very sharp lately, said, I‘m going to let her tell me when she‘s ready.
Isn‘t that brilliant? In other words, no matter how long it takes, she has as long as it takes to get ready for these hearings. But, once she‘s in there, it is going to be tough for her.
BUCHANAN: I think that‘s right.
Look, let me say, as one of the critics—and I agree with ed also. The president‘s appointments have been phenomenal. They‘re better than Reagan‘s in a lot of cases. People that know these people tell me, Pat, these are the best we have ever seen.
MATTHEWS: You‘re talking about the appellate judgeships.
And what is inexplicable is, look, none of us wanted, the conservatives opposing her, wanted this fight. We wanting to be standing beside and behind the president as he led the conservative movement and the whole conservative legal community in the great battle of our lifetime, because this is his last chance. They‘re going to lose Senate seats in 2006, Chris.
And here‘s our last chance for the Supreme Court. So, there is a tremendous demoralization that is going on.
Let‘s talk about the intrigue here. And this does sound like the plot last night on “West Wing,” the idea that somebody on behalf of the president, Karl Rove, may have cut a deal with James Dobson of Focus on the Family and said, no matter what is said public during these hearings, this woman is one of us. She‘s pro-life.
And now Arlen Specter, the chairman of the committee, who is a Republican, a moderate, and the Democrats are now calling for—they want testimony from Karl Rove as to what kind of a deal he made.
ROGERS: Hey, good—good for Arlen Specter, good for Arlen Specter saying, if there is any suggestion of anything like that, we are going to clear it up in the hearings process.
But here again, what we‘re headed for is hearings that really matter, where she is going to be asked questions. Other people are going to ask questions. And everybody should wait for that. Everybody give her the benefit of the doubt and be fair until we get to those hearings.
MATTHEWS: What happens if she says things like—like they did—you know, Fifth Amendment communists used to do it with; they just repeat some sort of line?
Suppose she says, I haven‘t been a constitutional lawyer; I haven‘t been a constitutional appellate judge; I‘m not familiar with this case, but you will have to trust me?
BUCHANAN: She will lose.
MATTHEWS: I mean, she‘s going to have to say that.
BUCHANAN: She will lose.
ROGERS: There will be some of that. But she will some votes.
MATTHEWS: She‘ll lose if she does that?
BUCHANAN: Oh, look, you can‘t...
ROGERS: She will lose some votes. I don‘t know if...
BUCHANAN: With Roberts, he‘s got a Cy Young record up before the Supreme Court. You don‘t say, do you know this? Even if he said, I don‘t want to recall that case, they would say, OK, that‘s a surprise.
MATTHEWS: But he recalled every case...
BUCHANAN: But, look, Chris...
MATTHEWS: ... with nuance.
MATTHEWS: He knew every case and particular aspects of it.
ROGERS: There may have been some rehearsal there as well.
BUCHANAN: The president wanted an evangelical. If he wanted an evangelical, you had one, attorney general of Missouri, governor of Missouri, senator from Missouri, attorney general of the United States, evangelical Christian. Every conservative would have stood up. John Ashcroft. You would have had the fight of your life. Why not Ashcroft?
ROGERS: Well, we don‘t know...
MATTHEWS: Well, what‘s the answer?
BUCHANAN: I don‘t know.
MATTHEWS: Why did he go with someone and who didn‘t have the distinction Pat is talking about?
ROGERS: And a lot—and we don‘t know. And we don‘t know if there was a calculus to have a woman. But the fact is, we don‘t know. And Pat has...
MATTHEWS: You heard his line, didn‘t you?
MATTHEWS: His selection process was to go down the hall looking for a woman.
ROGERS: Well, and it could have been.
And I‘m—I was for that, by the way.
ROGERS: In terms of picking of women, I was for picking a woman, period.
MATTHEWS: Per se? Any woman?
ROGERS: Pat has sat in the “West Wing”. So have I.
Sometimes, people who superficially appeal—sometimes people that have appealing credentials are not confirmable for private reasons.
MATTHEWS: Are you betting on her confirmation?
ROGERS: Yes. Yes, I will bet on it. I will take all comers on confirmation.
MATTHEWS: Are you betting for it or against it?
MATTHEWS: Not like it or not. Are you betting for it?
BUCHANAN: No, I don‘t think it‘s going to make it.
MATTHEWS: Interesting. Divisions in the vision.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan.
And, thank you, Ed Rogers.
Up next, more on Supreme Court politics and the debate over Harriet Miers‘ nomination.
and John McCain, is he considering another attempt to reach the White House? Is the pope German?
MATTHEWS: This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, with Karl Rove headed before the grand jury this week, will White House big shots face indictments soon? HARDBALL returns after this.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL on Columbus Day.
So, what could be more special—what could special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald be after by calling Karl Rove and Judy Miller back to the grand jury?
We turn to the two respected Washington journalists Thomas Oliphant, columnist with “The Boston Globe,” and Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of “The Washington Times” and author of the new book we will be talking about—and this is a scary book—“The West‘s Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?” It‘s obviously about terrorism—that in the next segment.
This segment, you have got to pay for your lunch here, Tony.
MATTHEWS: And, Tommy, thank you.
This is big casino time in Washington. We have a special prosecutor. And one thing we have learned about special prosecutors, they complete their missions. They get something done. They don‘t go home and say, couldn‘t find anything.
TOM OLIPHANT, “THE BOSTON GLOBE”: Almost always.
MATTHEWS: Almost always.
This time, the guy has got two people in his crosshairs, the president‘s top political kid, Karl Rove, and the vice president‘s office. What is your bet about what is going to happen?
OLIPHANT: Maybe more.
I mean, according to this developing theory of the case, you could even suggest that one of the reporters is technically exposed. What I don‘t understand is why I don‘t hear more of my fellow lefties screaming to the heavens about a situation like this, where the power of the state is being used essentially, as near as I can tell, to criminalize the political transactions of Washington.
I mean, we learned from Pat Buchanan in Watergate that that was an excess of...
MATTHEWS: So, you think may just be political hardball and not criminal, going out to destroy or discredit somebody like Joe Wilson?
MATTHEWS: That is the question.
But when you delegate the power of the attorney general of the United States to a guy, a special, you are giving up an awful loss. And the checks on that prosecutor are very few. And I was taught to always be suspicious of conspiracy charges, to always be suspicious of novel theories of crimes.
MATTHEWS: The theory might be here, Tom, the—and Tony—that the people in the White House who are practicing what they call hardball politics, and I always thought was hardball politics, just rough play and knocking the other guy down, so he can‘t hurt you anymore, they may have seen this as a denial of his civil liberties, going after somebody like Joe Wilson.
TONY BLANKLEY, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”: Look, if there is evidence of the underlying charge, then I think the prosecutor has every obligation to go forward with it.
MATTHEWS: Evidence being that they gave away the identity of an undercover agent on purpose.
BLANKLEY: If they actually did that, yes, on purpose.
But if are they getting into obstruction or perjury—I have been both a witness before a special prosecutor. In my past, I was a prosecutor myself, not a special prosecutor. And the idea of...
MATTHEWS: You have been everything, haven‘t you? Child star, author, prosecutor.
MATTHEWS: You are amazing, Tony.
BLANKLEY: But to try to catch Karl Rove in an inconsistency in four testimony—sessions of testimony about meetings that occurred years before, we are all going to make little changes. And this is going to be where Fitzgerald is going to—are going to be able to judge him as a straight shooter or a guy who was looking to get another success, because this is his own—where he has got to use his judgment, whether the little inconsistencies that invariably occur honestly with people, the fact you don‘t remember every conversation with the same six people you‘ve been talking with for five years...
MATTHEWS: Yes, but a jury, even a grand jury, will expect some significance to these aberrations, won‘t they?
MATTHEWS: They won‘t just be playing gotcha.
BLANKLEY: Right. Well, it depends.
Sometimes, sometimes, special prosecutors go with a gotcha.
Sometimes, they look for real, likely intentional misrepresentations.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me pose the possibility. If the president of the United States was informed by Karl Rove and the others in the White House they had nothing to with leaking this person‘s identity, isn‘t it fair to believe that they said the same story to the special prosecutor in front of the grand jury?
But the danger here is that you confuse the political with the criminal. I mean, if—we know the White House spent two years telling us that Libby and Rove had nothing to do with this. They weren‘t involved. If that turns out not to be true, shame on them. You shouldn‘t say things that are not so and all the rest of it.
What I‘m not sure as a liberal is whether going on and criminalizing the conduct is the best thing for the country here.
MATTHEWS: I think that‘s a fair question.
Let me ask you about this V.P.—not the V.P., but the—this Supreme Court nomination. Your paper, not the editorial page, but the front page, today said that half the Republican senators, 27 of the 55 -- I guess it‘s almost half...
MATTHEWS: Have a problem with this nomination, Harriet Miers.
BLANKLEY: Yes. Yes.
I thought it was good reporting on our front page. It‘s also the case that I have also talked with a number of Republican senators who have said that—basically, the same thing, that she came out of their courtesy meetings with—less impressive than going in.
She has a problem at this point with making the sale. Now, it‘s very early.
BLANKLEY: These are just courtesy calls.
But the early reaction is, gee, we would like to see more than what we‘re getting out of her. So, I think she‘s got a real challenge, which maybe she can handle. But she is going to have to perform extraordinarily well, I think, to win over. I think there are a fair number of Republican senators who might conceivably—it seems almost impossible to imagine, but might conceivably cross over and say no.
MATTHEWS: Let me tell you, you know what is not here? You know what I haven‘t heard yet, the dog that hasn‘t barked? Bad metaphor. Women have not come out for this nomination, because women of high educational status, who are the kinds of people who thought they might get to be—a Jamie Gorelick, for example, somebody who might have been thought of for Supreme Court under another administration—they don‘t seem to—in either party don‘t seem to rallying to this woman.
And there‘s another issue that is looming that I think may energize some of the Democrats. I don‘t think it‘s any accident that, in the 70-odd years of the history of this job, White House counsel, no president has ever picked one to be on the Supreme Court.
And the reason—whether it‘s Sam Rosenman for Roosevelt or Clark Clifford or Len Garment for Nixon, the reason is the closeness, the intimate closeness in that office with the president.
OLIPHANT: And the question of, how can you have the independence...
OLIPHANT: ... that you want from a jurist out of a White House counsel?
MATTHEWS: That‘s in the Federalist Papers, by the way.
OLIPHANT: Yes, sir.
MATTHEWS: I read it today in “The New Yorker,” about you—they didn‘t want to pick insignificant, pliant people. You want to pick strong people.
MATTHEWS: For this position.
Anyway, we will be right back with Tony Blankley and Tom Oliphant.
Tony is going to tell us about his book.
And a political reminder. The debate is ongoing on Hardblogger, our political Web site. Follow all the action of the hottest political stories each day. Just go to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We‘re facing a radical ideology with inalterable objectives, to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world. No act of ours invited the rage of the killers. And no concession, bribe or act of appeasement will change or limit their plans for murder.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Boy, that‘s it, isn‘t it? That was President Bush last week outlining the threat of radical Islam.
We‘re back with Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times” and “Boston Globe” columnist Tom Oliphant.
Tony‘s new book is called “The West‘s Last Chance.” It warns of the dangers of not confronting radical Islam. And it outlines a hypothetical nightmare scenario.
Catch this, because when I first read this, I thought was real: “On September 11, 2007, a string of simultaneous Islamic bomb blasts struck big suburban shopping malls in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and California. Unlike the Spanish, in 2003, the American public in 2007 reacted sternly to the renewed violence. Pollsters in both parties found widespread support for extreme measures to contain the Islamist threat.”
Thank you. Well, it‘s scary, but it‘s also positive, because it suggests that, in the end, in extremis, America is going to react to Islamic terrorism the way the British did to the IRA. We are going to stand firm.
BLANKLEY: Well, I think that, although I write a—I think a realistic assessment, that, in the long term, the Europeans, who I think must be our key allies in this struggle—they‘re half of Western civilization—are also going to respond.
And when I actually wrote the book—I finished in about April of this year—I anticipated that this might be the year when Europe starts turning around. I think there‘s some evidence of that. My central point is that the danger to us is not merely bin Laden and al Qaeda, big as that problem is and unsolved as that problem is. The greater problem is that we have Muslims in ferments (ph), a historic phenomena. And an element of it and a growing element have become radicalized and believe in terrorism.
BLANKLEY: And that‘s the danger, that when we catch—and let me give you just a couple quick things.
This is not a—it‘s a cultural threat, but it‘s also the terrorist threat that faces us now. The head of Interpol said this summer he thought that both Europe and the United States was vulnerable to a real threat of biological attack by Islamist terrorists, and neither is prepared.
Senator Lugar, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, impaneled 80 of the leading weapons of mass destruction experts in the world. Their consensus judgment was that there is a 70 percent chance we will get hit by a weapon of mass destruction, probably biological or radiological, less likely nuclear, in the next 10 years.
All the experts—and I report on the leading credible experts, not the people who work for George Bush—they all believe that this is more likely than not. If that‘s the case, I argue we are being complacent across the board in how we are preparing to defend ourselves. And we also haven‘t begun to understand...
BLANKLEY: ... the larger cultural challenge.
In Europe, for instance, the “Guardian” newspaper, leading liberal paper in Britain, surveyed Britain‘s two million Muslims last year. They found that 10 percent supported the idea of terrorism. Another 30 percent didn‘t, but would not report a fellow Muslim who was involved. And here‘s the number.
MATTHEWS: What is it about?
BLANKLEY: Last statistic: 60 percent would prefer to live under Sharia law, Muslim law, than under British law. That gives you some...
MATTHEWS: Well, why did they move to Britain?
BLANKLEY: They moved to Britain for a number of reasons, they or their parents or, once in a while, their grandparents. But they have become alienated to the culture to the point where most of them, at least in that poll, 60 percent didn‘t want to live under the law of the country they close to live.
You see Tom Friedman‘s reporting from France.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I know.
BLANKLEY: The cultural alienation...
MATTHEWS: So, how do we fight it? You got a minute.
I think we have to do a lot of things to start off with. First, I believe we need to have a constitutional—a congregational declaration of war against radical Islamism.
I was very encouraged by the president‘s statement last week. For the time, he named the enemy.
MATTHEWS: Let me make my—let me ask you a question. You can jump in here.
We beat the Nazis because we knew what—they had a war machine, not just an ideology. And once we defeated that, we were in Berlin. The war machine of Islamic terrorism in is here and in here. How do you destroy it?
BLANKLEY: Well, look, part...
MATTHEWS: There isn‘t a thing to destroy, is there?
BLANKLEY: Unlike World War II, this is largely a war of information withheld and information sought.
So, we have to be able to have the governmental powers to get information much better than we currently are.
MATTHEWS: You have a critic right here.
OLIPHANT: No, not critic, because this is very important and much better than, say, Karen Hughes‘ public diplomacy these days, I might add.
But what I think you have to be careful about is, the best sources for terrorism information are the Muslim communities themselves. We don‘t want to alienate what we need the most.
BLANKLEY: The challenge is that, while not wanting to alienate the majority of Muslims, we still have to take the actions necessary to try to protect ourselves.
MATTHEWS: The trick is not to build the hate.
Anyway, Tony Blankley.
BLANKLEY: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: Scary book.
And, Tom Oliphant, always.
Right now, it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.
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