A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Karl is doing in Washington precisely what he’s been doing since he came to Texas ... which is that he finds out who the players are -- the people with the money who want political power and influence -- and then he uses them. ... There’s no way Rove would let Abramoff go around Washington flinging money hither and yon without some sort of design and guidance about where that money needed to be placed. This is a complex and intricate relationship ... and the White House has thus far been successful at covering it up. -- James Moore
Imagine actors auditioning for the lead in a screenplay about the life of Karl Rove -- aka "Bush's Brain" or the "Architect" of Bush's power. They would have to ask: What motivates Rove? What's made him who he is? BuzzFlash talked to the man best qualified to address those questions, Texas journalist, James Moore, who has made a study of Karl Rove for decades now. His interviews with Rove and others contain intriguing facts and impressions, many of which are in the new book, The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power. Understanding Rove, whose own power and motivations have helped shape GOP and Bush politics, is not just a matter of curiosity; it is imperative in understanding the alternative reality and "narrative" created to keep the Bush Administration in power, as well as the well-honed tactics of character assassination.
James Moore wrote "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power" with Wayne Slater.
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BuzzFlash: How is this man Karl Rove still standing in the White House as the de facto president for domestic policy and political strategy? He is perhaps the most powerful person in the United States outside of the President and Vice President, who have actual Constitutional powers. It’s been a rocky time for Rove, but he’s still standing. The dust has settled and he’s still there, scheming away, right now.
James Moore: Karl is still there for the same reason he got there in the first place. He remains the master of image and message and denial. He packages these skills in such a way that, if you see lightning strike a tree and knock it down right in front of you, Karl can take the facts of what you just witnessed and eventually convince you it was something else. Maybe it was a weak tree, and it was going to fall anyway. Or that wasn’t lightning -- that was a flash of light, but the wind blew through. He just has an ability in terms of political communication skills and messaging that I don’t think we’ve ever experienced in our democracy.
I think he has figured out a way to game our democratic system with money, with message, with obfuscation and dissembling, and anything that’s necessary to acquire more political power. Because he has this unique skill, the President of the United States is uniquely dependent upon him and cannot separate himself from him. Nor can the troubled Republican Party. What you see, at the moment, with the President’s new round of speeches forthcoming, is precisely the unveiling of Rove’s plan, which is to label anyone who resists the war in Iraq and the President’s war on terrorism as someone who is unpatriotic and appeasing fascism. They’re just cranking up the volume on something they've tried before, and have used with great success in the past.
BuzzFlash: It is the third time around for this playbook, and the second time in terms of a prewar scenario. So, it’s almost like you know what’s coming. There’s going to be some sort of October surprise. Maybe we’ll drop a few bombs on Iran, precipitate a crisis there. It’s going to be either you’re for the Commander in Chief, or you’re for the "Islamic fascists." How can he get away with doing the same playbook three times?
James Moore: Well, because fear sells. And there are these uncertainties out there, and the American public remains unsure of what to believe. The longer that they can raise doubts about changing leadership, the better their chances are of survival.
Now what I will say is this -- and I’ve taken some criticism for saying this -- if they’re able to pull this off again in the midterms and retain control of the House and Congress, and if the Democrats don’t as a minimum take over the House of Representatives -- then to me it’s an indication that our democracy is fundamentally and fatally broken. I think it’s the beginning of the death rattle of our democracy. If immoral people who lie and kill for political and economic purposes can retain power over and over again, it raises the moral question about whether or not our own democracy has any right to exist in the future, and whether it should. If we don’t confront these people, and if we don’t stop them with our votes and our own voices, by paying attention, and being vigilant, involved, and informed citizens, then the future of our own republic is at stake.
BuzzFlash: Could Karl Rove have been as successfully politically as he’s been without television?
James Moore: No, absolutely not. Karl understands completely the value of that medium. In fact, he commented to one of our sources for Bush's Brain that he runs all of his campaigns as if people were watching television with the sound turned down. What you end up with, then, is image over substance. Consider the couple having dinner with their children at the kitchen table with the TV on across the room and the sound turned down. They look over and see a smiling President on board an aircraft carrier with "Mission Accomplished" behind him. They might think, "Oh, good. That problem’s over. We can get on with our lives." They tend to compartmentalize and put that away, trusting that if the President of the United States is saying something to them, he’s speaking the truth, and not that it’s the latest of a series of messages to sustain a fiction.
And when one sound bite or image runs out, they come up with another one. That’s what Karl has done so effectively. He simplifies and encapsulates, and distills things to black and white, and right and wrong, and portrays people who are interested in subtlety and nuance and detail and a complete discussion of an issue, as dumb asses. And the American public, because they are busy with their lives, because they’re so worried about their mortgages and their retirement, and the future of their children, and everything else -- their default position is not to read the 3,000-word story in the newspaper, but to look at the thirty-second commercial and say: okay, I get it. I’m going to vote this way. To me, that may be the Achilles heel of our democracy -- if we don’t find a way to stop Karl Rove and his ilk from doing that.
BuzzFlash: Television seems to be a medium that’s uniquely made for his skills, because it tends to be ahistorical. It kind of rides the wave or emotion of the moment, but it almost never gives you context. Consequently, Rove can just come out with a new announcement every day. It may contradict the announcement from the day before, but no one tells the person who’s watching it to compare A and B, which contradict each other.
James Moore: There is context available in television, and it’s on programs like "NOW with Bill Moyers," and it’s on "Nova," and it’s on a number of important, longer-form programs. But the problem is again, the American public doesn’t want to be bothered with complex issues. They’re watching American Idol rather than watching "Nova" or Bill Moyers, so we get a less informed electorate.
We all have tough workaday lives, and jobs and responsibilities. When we come home, we want to turn our brains off, and the fact that we have this need is something that Karl takes advantage of. He understands television. He understands its sort of ephemeral, contemporaneous nature. And he understands the power and the impact when you combine the images with the message in the appropriate way.
I started out in journalism as a radio guy, and I used to constantly beat my competitors in television for a story. But nobody ever said, did you hear that thing on the radio the other day? They’re always saying, did you see what was on TV last night? When you combine the pictures with the actual sound of an event, and you take an individual into the experience, it can have a profound impact on the way they think. No one recognizes this more intelligently and critically than Karl Rove does.
BuzzFlash: You and Wayne Slater have coauthored two books on Rove which are full of fantastic insights. You’re sort of the unofficial chroniclers of the man, his psyche and so forth. Is he immoral? Amoral? What is his drive? Just the game?
James Moore: It’s a combination of things. I do think he is amoral. I think he is interested in the acquisition of power. I don’t think he’s truly an ideologue. If you will read this book, you will discover that he doesn’t particularly have any deeply held religious beliefs. He tends to view religion and the mega-churches as a sort of gigantic vote delivery system -- which is a very cynical approach, but it’s sort of a deal made with the devil, because the churches want particular things to happen. They realize that Karl is the guy to help them make it happen, and he realizes that these various congregations around the country are the way to help him achieve his goals. But he’s not driven by religion. He’s not driven by any strongly held belief system, though, you know, he wants conservative things to happen more than he does progressive things. I think for Karl, it’s fundamentally about power and the acquisition of more power, and to continue to make it possible for corporate America to make more money, and his belief that if that happens, everything will work out just fine for the little guy.
He also wants to be the hero -- the guy who saves the Republican Party from oblivion and sets them up for a dynasty for thirty-plus years. He wants his place in history.
But I’d also say that it’s clear that all of us never really leave high school. There’s something in Karl’s psyche that is driving him to prove he’s not the spectacled, tie-wearing geek that they all said he was when he was growing up in Salt Lake City. He wants to prove himself.
BuzzFlash: Is he invincible? It seems at this point he dodged a bullet on Plamegate. And when you read closely the political reporters, they write that Republicans are relying on Rove -- not on Bush, but on Rove -- to save the midterms. There is this aura of invincibility that’s been built up by both Democrats and Republicans. We have seen Tom DeLay go under, and that certainly gives some hope that people you think are invulnerable do have vulnerabilities. But Rove, at this point, seems to have a Teflon-coated vest on.
James Moore: Well, I think we’re about to discover the limit or the lack of limit of Karl's talent, because if in fact they pull it off this go-round, then he is without question invincible, and the greatest political mind that our country has ever produced. If Democrats cannot win in the current political environment, I’m convinced that either Democrats are pathetically hopeless or our democracy is irretrievably broken. Now, he may have some contemporary invincibility, but history will not judge him as such. History will judge him as a man who distorted the truth, and messed with the electoral process, and lied and did anything necessary to win -- as a man who is only marginally concerned about morality and ethics and the legality of the things that he does. He does whatever is necessary to win.
I did not expect him to get away scott free from Fitzgerald’s investigation, but I do have to say that his failure to be brought to justice was not a big surprise to me. I was probably the only guy in America who thought he was going to walk, but I also thought, if there was anyone who was going to get him, it was going to be a sort of dogged, apolitical prosecutor like Fitzgerald. But knowing that Karl Rove did something for political effect, and proving that he did something for political effect, is a very, very difficult thing. As somebody who’s been writing and reporting on Rove for a quarter of a century, I know the challenges that Fitzgerald faced.
BuzzFlash: You and Wayne Slater cover something that the White House and Rove very much tried to keep under wraps, which is his connection with Abramoff. Can you talk a little about that?
James Moore: Sure. During the course of doing research for this book, we figured the thing to do was to approach some of these Indian tribes, because they were aggrieved, and usually that’s a good place to get sources. Of course, one we knew best, and the people I’ve been writing and reporting on since the early 1980s, were the Tiguas. We discovered a guy namedMarc Schwartz, who was the Democratic consultant helping the Tiguas in their fight to retain their casino on their reservation near El Paso. Marc had gone to Washington and met with Abramoff. Abramoff had convinced him, if they would give him the money, he could have come up with the right people, and they could get this thing turned around.
Of course, the hypocrisy here was, at the same time, Abramoff was working with Ralph Reed to keep them shut down in order to make theLouisiana Coushatta Indian tribe happy -- but that’s another story. In any case, Marc brought Abramoff to the Tiguas, and they paid him $4.2 million. Marc detailed some of the meetings between himself and Abramoff and Rove, and the detail and the characterization of these meetings gives lie to the notion that the White House hardly knew Abramoff and didn’t work with him closely. The truth is that Karl did work with him on a regular basis, and they would meet outside of the White House in order to avoid White House recordkeeping. Karl would give Jack Abramoff his marching orders, and tell him what needed to get done, and it would get done.
And there were these casual meetings where Karl would describe how he could easily shut down the media in Washington. He was full of himself, and telling these stories to Abramoff while Mark Schwartz was sitting there.
It just shows that Karl is doing in Washington precisely what he’s been doing since he came to Texas, and when I first met him in the late 1970s, which is that he finds out who the players are -- the people with the money who want political power and influence -- and then he uses them. It’s really absurd for anyone to believe that a guy like Abramoff, with his money and his connections, would not be used by Karl Rove in Washington. There’s no way Rove would let Abramoff go around Washington flinging money hither and yon without some sort of design and guidance about where that money needed to be placed. This is a complex and intricate relationship that he had with Jack Abramoff, and the White House has thus far been successful at covering it up.
BuzzFlash: Well, Abramoff was a kindred spirit in the sense that, from his college days, he’s been quoted as saying he wanted to destroy the Democrats -- not just beat them, but decimate them, eliminate them as a political opposition party.
James Moore: Right.
BuzzFlash: He and Rove, you know, share that goal.
James Moore: That’s absolutely correct. They have been kindred spirits for a long time. They met each other back in the College Republican days. Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist got together and decided that they were going to change the world and destroy the Democratic Party. What they didn’t plan on doing, I suppose, but what they are effectively doing at the moment, is destroying our country.
BuzzFlash: Here we have another Republican whose personal life growing up was anything but the kind of stereotype image of the "normal" American family that the Republicans like to portray. Actually Karl Rove had quite a dysfunctional set of parents. Are we seeing someone who’s psychically scared? Or should we just discount the sort of psychological family traumas that he grew up with? How should we deal with that?
James Moore: I think it’s the context for who he is as an adult. And I think that’s why Karl has worked so fervently to keep his personal family background hidden. I think it informs everything he is today.
It goes something like this: Karl’s father -- actually his stepfather -- was an oil company geologist, a bit of an itinerant. He was traveling the west as Karl was growing up, and was gone from home a lot. Karl's mother essentially raised the five children -- Karl and his brother, Eric, whose biological father was her first husband, and three daughters, whose biological father was Louis Rove.
In the course of doing research for the first book -- and Karl agreed to the interview for the first book -- I asked him questions about his family and his background. From the moment I asked those questions, until the time I discovered the truth, I wondered what was left out, because Karl has a very good skill of telling you something without really telling it to you, which is precisely the talent that I thought would get him in trouble in front of a grand jury. He always talks around the edges of things.
In the course of this interview, I asked him about his family -- did his parents stay married? Were they divorced? His response was: Well, my senior year in high school, my Dad was coming home on Christmas Eve. He had gotten a new job, a huge job as the chief geologist at Getty Oil Company in Los Angeles. We were going to celebrate my birthday the next day.
Karl said his father came home, and his parents went in the kitchen, and there was an argument or a discussion. His father left and checked into a hotel and flew back to Los Angeles the next day. Karl's comment was: my mother was very good at explaining things without really explaining them. She said that we weren’t going to be moving to L.A. Karl said obviously there was something wrong, but we didn’t know what, and the next thing we knew, a divorce was underway. Less than ten years later, Karl's mother committed suicide.
Karl, being the intuitive and intelligent man he is, was obviously aware of what was going on. His father, Louis Rove, had decided that he was not going to live his life repressed any longer, and he was going to come out of the closet and live as a gay man. And this has been kept secret by Karl forever and ever, obviously because it might change the perspective people have on him. He clearly loved Louis Rove, the man he calls his father, even though he’s not his biological father. He’s the only father Karl has ever known.
BuzzFlash: Can you back up a second there, because it’s a little confusing? He is not his biological father?
James Moore: Yes. Karl's mother had divorced her first husband, who was Eric and Karl's biological father, and married Louis shortly after Karl was born.
BuzzFlash: Did Karl have any relationship with his biological father?
James Moore: Never. He and Eric met their biological father one time, just to meet him and talk. They never had any subsequent meetings, and I don’t believe they even know his whereabouts or if he is still alive. The only father Karl has ever known has been Louis Rove.
BuzzFlash: So Louis Rove left the family, they were divorced, and several years later she committed suicide.
BuzzFlash: Karl still maintained, as you write in your book, that he visited his stepfather after that and they had a close relationship. But you have learned that Louis was living in a gay community in Palm Springs.
James Moore: That’s correct. Louis retired in Palm Springs, and his friends there were quite forthcoming. Louis was a large man, about 300 pounds, and a prolific smoker, which caused him to eventually develop emphysema, which ultimately took his life. When he arrived in Palm Springs, he met a number of retired gay men and became a part of the social groups there. For whatever reason -- because he was a large man, or because he smoked a lot, or whatever, after a certain period of time he just sort of withdrew, and his health was deteriorating. He was on an oxygen machine at home most of the time.
But he and Karl had a loving relationship. In fact, Karl took Louis to Norway to trace his roots, and he used to take him to Santa Fe. They traveled and had a close relationship. According to one of Louis’ closest friends, who is interviewed in the book, Louis was quite proud of Karl. And the friend says in the book, I don’t blame him. I’d love to have a son like that.
The ignominy of this is that, as much as Karl clearly loved the man who raised him, in spite of how close they were as father and son, Karl kept it hidden from friends and family, instead of saying I’m proud of my father for not living his life in a lie. Karl kept it hidden.
When his father died, there was no public notice in any newspapers. He is not buried in either of the Palms Spring cemeteries that I’m aware of. None of his friends heard anything about any type of memorial service. As soon as Karl’s father’s remains were disposed of in July of 2004, however that took place, Karl -- and after he closed up his father’s estate, Karl got on the campaign plane and took off. He travelled to the eleven swing states to help execute the anti-gay marriage amendment, which I just find astonishing. It’s probably best to leave the deconstruction of Karl’s actions to students of Freud, but any lay observer is going to look at his behavior and think that the zealousness with which Karl pursued this anti-gay marriage amendment raises all sorts of questions about what’s unsettled for Karl.
BuzzFlash: Does Karl do small talk?
James Moore: No. Everything’s whisper, whisper, whisper. Everything’s conspiratorial. He can be charming and entertaining, and he’s a pretty witty guy, but his conversation always has a point to it.
BuzzFlash: Would he talk sports?
James Moore: I’ve never heard him talk sports. There’s a great anecdote about him being invited to a Dallas Cowboys football game. He had fifty-yard-line tickets, about ten rows up, which, you know, you almost have to be born into a family to get tickets like that. Karl went to the game, and between plays, he was reading, I think, Shelby Foote’s History of the Civil War. He’s not the kind of guy who really cares about sports.
BuzzFlash: Do you think he’s the one reading Camus, rather than Bush?
James Moore: Karl is widely, widely read.
BuzzFlash: But he is a college dropout, right?
James Moore: He never graduated. He went to four or five different colleges. And at one point, when he lost his student deferment, he should have been drafted, but he was not. I can’t figure out why. It’s something I’ve never understood. I think he enrolled in a sort of last-minute way at the University of Maryland when he was in Washington. But he avoided the draft, just as capably as Dick Cheney and most of the other chickenhawks up there.
BuzzFlash: Again, we highly recommend this book as a companion piece to Bush’s Brain, and for an update on some of the activities of Mr. Rove. There’s a famous moment when Rove recalls sighting George W. Bush. George Herbert Walker Bush, who was head of the Republican National Committee in the early seventies, sent Rove with the family car to pick up George W. Bush and turn over the car to him. Rove sees Bush coming out of Union Station in Washington, D.C., and later describes Bush in terms almost like you would use to describe when you met your first love.
James Moore: You’re spot on in his description of George W. Bush. Karl was the student president of the RNC's College Republicans, so he was working for George H.W. Bush. Our current president was at Harvard Business School at the time, and he used to come down to Washington on weekends to party. Karl’s description of him when he first met him is precisely as you suggested. It is so detailed and so envious as to border on the amorous.
BuzzFlash: Again, neither you nor I have the ability to be Freudian about this, but when I reread Rove’s comments about meeting George W. Bush,I thought it bordered on the homoerotic. He described that he was in a leather jacket. He even got down to the level of detail that he had this crease in the back of his pocket that came from carrying chewing tobacco in that spot.
James Moore: Right.
BuzzFlash: It’s the kind of physical detail that you just don’t normally see if a person doesn’t have an emotional attraction to somebody.
James Moore: Right. He said, I saw him walking up, and he was wearing boots and blue jeans, and a brown leather bomber jacket, and he had these steely blue eyes, and he was smacking gum. He had this thick curly hair, and you could see the tobacco circle pouch in his back pocket. And Rove said, I thought he was just the coolest guy in the world. I wanted to be like him. The context, of course, is that George Bush was sort of the antithesis of what Karl was at that -- the glasses-wearing guy, a geek, and W. is cool. That’s why I’ve said their political union is also sort of a physical and spiritual union as well, because they’re two different kinds of characters.
But bear in mind, Karl isn’t the only one who’s offered up that sort of description. As you’ll recall, Mark McKinnon once described, I think in an interview with Tucker Carlson, how he got involved with Bush. McKinnon said, well I’m not a Republican. I’m a Bush guy. I was at a party, and I saw Bush across the room. I sort of felt the same way that a guy does when he goes to a party with his wife, and he sees a beautiful woman across the room, and he’s compelled to go talk to that person, even though he knows he shouldn’t. So this is a theme that has run throughout the Republican Party, in terms of its admiration for George W. Bush. What they had fundamentally managed to do is fall for the dumb blonde, from what I can tell.
BuzzFlash: I guess we’ll only finish this when we get Ken Mehlman to weigh in. Thanks for talking with us.
James Moore: Happy to.
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power (Hardcover), by James Moore and Wayne Slater, a BuzzFlash Premium.
The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power (Hardcover) [Autographed by James Moore], a BuzzFlash Premium.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW