Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove

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9781594868252: Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove
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Karl Rove has come to personify scorched earth political tactics and merciless, win-at-any-cost trickery. His status as the so-called architect behind Bush's election victories has elevated him to a mythic kingmaker in the national imagination. Not since Mark Hanna, special assistant to President William McKinley, has someone not elected to public office played such a vital role in the governance of our nation.
We know the myth, but who is the man? In Machiavelli's Shadow, the full, unvarnished truth about the mastermind of the Bush administration is revealed as swirling scandals and Karl Rove's diminished power have freed people to speak candidly as never before. Acclaimed author and veteran journalist Paul Alexander tracks Rove's journey from consummate outsider to presidential consigliere, conducting firsthand interviews with A-list sources who have never gone on the record about Rove before now. The result is a gripping, no-holds-barred account of the man whose insistence on politicizing any area on which he has advised the president—from the war in Iraq to domestic issues like Social Security, energy, the environment, and hotly controversial judicial matters—has brought about his own fall from grace and an escalating crisis within the government and the nation.
Drawing on the author's extensive connections in the political arena and delving into all areas of Rove's life—political, business, psychological, and personal—this book stands as the definitive portrait of one of the most fascinating figures ever to emerge on the American political scene.

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About the Author:

PAUL ALEXANDER is a former reporter for Time magazine and has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, New York, The Village Voice, and The Guardian. He is the author of Man of the People: The Life of John McCain as well as biographies of Sylvia Plath, J.D. Salinger, and James Dean.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

BEING KARL ROVE

In the winter of 2008, the weather in this part of Iowa had been so inclement that the night's event had been postponed from February until March 9. It was a Sunday evening, and all around Iowa City the cornfields lay barren, spotted here and there with snow. Since 1972, Iowa has been the home of the first presidential caucus in the nation, in January, when the weather is not much better. Many presidential careers have been launched in the cold fields of Iowa on caucus night. That was the case a little more than seven years ago, when a young and inexperienced governor from Texas, George W. Bush, known at the time mostly for being the son of a former president, won the Iowa caucus by a relatively modest margin and solidified his status as front-runner for the Republican nomination. He won that nomination, despite suffering a devastating upset in the New Hampshire primary, on his way to claiming the presidency. The political mastermind who had charted Bush's course on his path to victory was a soft-spoken, nebbishy, yet ruthlessly calculating political strategist named Karl Rove, who on this night was returning to the state where his candidate had first taken his place on the national political stage seven years ago. Only now, with most of two terms of a Bush presidency behind him, Rove was viewed much differently than he had been at the beginning of Bush's presidential career.

The evening's event had been announced well in advance. Immediately after the first press releases went out, the event became contentious. As part of the University of Iowa Lecture Series, Rove would make an appearance at an evening entitled "Reflections from the Architect"--a reference to the title Bush had given Rove following Bush's successful reelection in 2004. But even in the early announcements, odd details emerged. "In accordance with the contract with Rove and his speaker's agency," read one media alert, "television and radio journalists and news videographers and photographers may shoot and tape the event for the first five minutes of Rove's remarks and time preceding the speech. They can then move to a designated media area in the northeast corner of the room, take a seat with the audience, or leave the room. Reporters may take notes, but no recording devices may be used." It was the type of star-treatment security arrangement normally afforded an A-list celebrity or international dignitary, not a political consultant. At the moment, in fact, this particular political consultant didn't even have a client, since he had left his position at the White House a little more than six months before and was not looking to consult for a campaign during this election cycle. Besides making the rounds of the lecture circuit, he was a news analyst for the Fox News Network and occasional columnist for Newsweek.

Then again, maybe Rove knew what he was doing by trying to control the media. An antiwar group, the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee, had announced in February that it intended to protest Rove's appearance. "Our issue isn't that he is a conservative or an analyst," said organization member David Goodner, who described Rove as "a traitor and an accomplice to war crimes." Instead, Goodner and other critics were offended that the university was paying Rove $40,000 for the single appearance. Since July 2005, the University of Iowa Lecture Committee had brought 33 speakers to campus, paying Janet Reno $21,000 and Joseph Wilson $12,500. Rove's fee represented the largest amount paid by the committee to a speaker since July 2005. So it should not have been surprising that on the night of the event, as the audience headed to the Iowa Memorial Union, where the lecture was to take place in the Main Lounge, there were protesters such as Tim Gauger, a university employee who, disguised as Rove, stood in the cold outside the building attempting to get people to sign a poster-size mock check made out to Rove in the amount of $40,000.

Undeterred by the protesters, at 7:30 p.m. Rove took his place on the stage alongside Frank Durham, the University of Iowa journalism professor who had been chosen to moderate the event. Wearing a light brown suit and a gold tie, Rove sat in a tan wingback chair and looked out into the audience of 1,200 packed into the auditorium. The crowd was restless, animated. Shouts of "Liar!" rang out as Rove looked over at Durham, who sat in a matching chair.

"Liar! Liar!"

Even though Iowa is an agricultural state in the middle of the nation's heartland, Iowa City, home to a university with a number of departments nationally recognized for their excellence, has a decidedly liberal population, mostly because so many residents are connected with the university. A number of those people with liberal leanings had shown up on this night. They were not silent.

"Liar! Liar!"

Durham began the program by posing a question to Rove. He had recently received a telephone call from a woman in western Iowa, he said, and she was angry with him for the role he was playing in bringing Rove to the university. "That man is responsible for the deaths of our soldiers," Durham recalled the woman saying, "and we just buried another one today." The audience waited as Durham continued, saying, "And I realized she had just been to a funeral of a soldier." He then put the question to Rove, "If you had been with me, how would you have answered her?"

"Shameful! Shameful!"

Rove turned in his chair to face the audience. He had been able to control the message of the Bush White House for seven years, in part by carefully dictating the rules the media had to follow. The Bush operation even did what it could to control the composition of an audience, usually by distributing tickets beforehand to people who they knew would be friendly to Bush. But on the lecture circuit, though he could still try to manipulate the media, Rove was unable to control the makeup of the audience.

"Liar!"

"First of all," Rove forged ahead, "the president met with a lot of families . . . "

Then there was a burst of noise. The crowd, clearly not handpicked, did not want to hear a canned answer.

"I have had to staff those meetings," Rove continued.

"War criminal!" a voice from the audience rang out. "Here in Iowa!"

There was a long eruption of applause.

"MC Rove!" another voice shouted, referring to the strange, rap-inspired dance Rove performed at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2007.

"I've had to staff these meetings," Rove plodded ahead, recalling his job of dealing with death benefit checks that didn't make it to families, grave markers he had had to order.

Another voice from the audience: "Have you shed a single tear?"

Rove seemed knocked off his guard. He had appeared before hostile audiences before, but none quite as volatile as this one.

"I've shed a lot of tears," he said and without pause began to relate a trip he had gone on with Bush to see a family in northern Nevada. Just as he was reaching the emotional part of his story, another voice rang out, challenging him.

"You've got a chance to ask your question later and make your stupid statements," Rove blurted out. "Let me make mine!"

Now there was applause from his supporters in the room. Rove proceeded to tell the story about the family Bush had met with. They had lost one son in the war in Iraq and another son who was in the military would soon be deployed to Iraq, and the mother shared her feelings about the war with the president. "She was powerful," Rove said. Then, Rove described the father-- brooding, emotional. When Bush addressed him, the father explained why he was upset. Because he was 61, he was too old to volunteer for the Army Reserve, where he wanted to use his medical skills as an orthopedic surgeon on the battlefield. He wanted Bush to grant him a waiver.

"Talk to Rove," Rove said Bush had told the doctor.

Next Rove recalled the measures he went through to get the man a waiver, which he had been able to do.

"I know it's a controversial war," Rove said, "and I will defend it." He would do so, he said, because the war had been able "to liberate 50 million people."

"It's not true!" someone shouted. "It's not true!"

It was then that the room erupted into shouts of protest. The evening continued in this way, more or less, until both the interview and the question-and-answer session ended. There were a number of highlights. One occurred when an audience member asked Rove about his refusal to cooperate with legal proceedings involving Valerie Plame Wilson, the covert CIA agent whose identity Rove had helped reveal to the public after her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece highly critical of the Bush administration's reasons for invading Iraq.

"I haven't been indicted yet," Rove said, "but I fully expect to be by the end of the year."

About Wilson, who had gone on a fact-finding mission to Niger during the buildup to the war, Rove added, "With all due respect, Joe Wilson lied about his [intelligence-gathering] trip to Africa."

A chorus of boos.

When another audience member asked what the "true" body count was in Iraq, Rove went on the offensive, charging the person with "perpetrating libel on the military of the United States by accusing them of killing innocent Iraqis."

More boos.

When Rove defended the Bush legacy by saying "he will be seen as a consequential president in controversial times," the boos were mixed with cheers.

Finally, someone yelled, "Can we have our $40,000 back?"

"No, you can't," Rove snapped.

Then, almost as a way to sum up the evening, an audience member told Rove that Keith Olbermann, host of a nightly political television program, had named him the "worst person ever."

Rove seemed undaunted. "Ever?" he asked. "Yeah," he answered himself, "worse than Hitler, worse than Stalin, worse than Mao, and worse than the person who introduced aluminum baseball bats."

How had Karl Rove ended up here? What had happened over the course of his career to engender such vitriol in an audience? Much about Rove still remains below the surface, but what is clear is that the story line of his life took him from troubled youth in Utah to a role as a central player in the administration of a two-term president. It had been a singular journey.

Political strategists have engineered the careers of presidents in the past. Tex McCrary saw the potential national appeal of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, approached him about running for president, and guided his path to the presidency in 1952; some historians believe there never would have been a President Eisenhower if not for Tex McCrary. Robert Kennedy was an undeniable force behind his brother John F. Kennedy, advising him on his congressional races and serving as the manager of his presidential campaign in 1960; as attorney general, he held a pivotal position in his brother's administration. James Carville and Paul Begala's combined talents played a significant role in the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992; their guidance helped steady Clinton through a turbulent primary season, brought on mostly by revelations concerning Clinton's private life.

There are other examples. Ronald Reagan had Michael Deaver, Richard Nixon had H. R. Haldeman, and Jimmy Carter had Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan, politicos so newsworthy they ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone. These strategists worked largely behind the scenes to get their candidates elected, and some even served the candidate once he entered office. But never before in our history has there been a political operative--and a nonfamily member, at that--who achieved the level of access and influence that Karl Rove did with George W. Bush. Indeed, no political strategist ever followed his candidate into the White House to play a role so vital in the daily governing of the country that many observers believe that for years he influenced large parts of domestic and even foreign policy. "We have never had a political consultant with as much power in the White House as Karl Rove had," says Ed Rollins, who ran national campaigns, including Ronald Reagan's reelection bid in 1984. "It's absolutely historic."1

The marriage of Bush and Rove had a kind of logic behind it. Before they teamed up in early 1990, each man had achieved only marginal success. Bush was a failed businessman and self-proclaimed reformed alcoholic who had been able to live an elitist, privileged life thanks to the wealth and legacy of the Bush family, which had reached its high point when Bush's father served first as vice president and then as president. While his father had been at the very epicenter of power in the United States from 1981 until 1993, when he left the White House, George W., whose repeated attempts to make it in the oil business had gone bust, could point to no accomplishment other than being the front man for the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team--a job the sports organization legitimized by calling him an owner even though his ownership position was so small at 1.8 percent as to be negligible.

In a family of overachievers, Bush was seen as the black sheep, a relative failure. So he set his sights on making a name for himself in government, despite his one previous attempt to win elected office--he ran for Congress from Midland, Texas, in 1978--having ended in failure. Rarely has someone with presidential ambitions had such modest credentials as George W. Bush aspired to the presidency--an ambition that, considering his family connections, would have seemed reasonable had he not proven to be such a disappointment in his professional life up to that point.

In January 1993, when George H. W. Bush's exit from politics freed up his sons to run for offices of their own, Rove was nowhere near where he wanted to be in his life either. He had moved to Texas in 1977, and in a decade and a half he had built a direct-mail business based originally in Houston and then in Austin. He had run a number of successful campaigns in Texas. However, for someone who had the unbridled drive to become a player on the national political stage, Rove was far from achieving that vaunted status. He might have been highly regarded in certain circles in Texas, but outside of the state, except as a result of a few races where friends had brought him in to consult, no one had ever heard of Karl Rove. In one early article in the Washington Post that referenced him, the reporter actually misspelled his name, using a C instead of a K.2

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