Caesar's Caesar

Professor Karl Rove on politics as war

Caesar's Caesar
Illustration By Doug Potter

In addition to his long-term and ongoing role as guru to George W. Bush, political consultant Karl Rove has occasionally helped shape younger minds. During the late Nineties, at the same time he was building the machine that would elect Bush to the presidency, Rove taught in the UT-Austin Journalism Department and at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Although Rove himself never finished college (the politics draft beckoned, and he enlisted), he is notoriously well read and -- it's often said -- very smart.

"Like Gaul, the class work will consist of three parts," Rove began his syllabus for the "Modern American Political Campaign" taught at the School of Public Affairs in the spring of 1997. The allusion, of course, is to the opening of Julius Caesar's recounting of his imperial exploits, The Gallic Wars: "All Gaul is divided into three parts." In this instance, the three parts of Rove's class were student presentations on selected topics, readings, and, of course, a final paper. Guest speakers came to "share experiences." The design of the class was, perhaps surprisingly, nonpartisan. But like Caesar long before him, the instructor emphasized learning the customs of the opponent and the rules of the game -- and winning.

At the start of the semester, Rove asked students for "a short essay on why you registered for this course [and] a brief description of any past political involvement." The major theoretical question that Professor Rove hoped to answer in the course was if "a disconnect between Jay, Madison, and Hamilton's expectations" exists and what we see in today's political campaigns. The guests who came to the seminar included Gov. Bush's Communications Director Karen Hughes, David Broder of the Washington Post, and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. Attendance in class, the instructor emphasized, was "essential."

In his class outline, Rove peppered students with questions he presumably wrestles with daily: "How much do voters really know about politics, issues, and ideology, and how much is guessing? What are the consequences of this for campaigns and candidates? What shortcuts and information crutches do voters rely on to make decisions? Are voters becoming more independent, less committed to political parties?" Key to addressing these questions was the reading list. Rove included many of the usual suspects of political theory: The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Federalist Papers (Nos. 1, 10, 14, 51), Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, Robert Dahl's A Preface to Democratic Theory, and, as always, de Tocqueville. (Caesar apparently didn't make the cut.) More modern works were Chris Matthews' Hardball: How Politics Is Played -- Told by One Who Knows the Game and Thomas Patterson's book on the political role of the media, Out of Order.

There was one other contemporary analysis of politics and campaigning that professor Rove might have done well to include in his class syllabus. The work is not a text or even a magazine article. It is a memorandum dated Sept. 4, 1985, and addressed to a Texas gubernatorial candidate who was facing a long, ugly race. The memo is a brief guide to the modern campaign, especially tailored for a candidate who already was carrying considerable baggage. The memo is titled "The Next 30-60 Days," and the author was Karl Rove himself.


'The Whole Art of War'

In 1985, Bill Clements was an embittered 69-year-old former oilman who had been elected Texas' first post-Reconstruction Republican governor -- and had been defeated for re-election four years later. A former oil-field roughneck and roustabout with a competitive streak a mile wide, Clements made clear his intention to challenge Democratic Gov. Mark White in 1986, despite the question of his age and a visible lack of enthusiasm from the Republican State Executive Committee. As a former governor, Clements immediately became the front-runner for the nomination but was not assured victory by any means: Widely considered mean, crusty, and dictatorial, he also faced indifference if not outright hostility from the state's senior Republican official, U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm.

Along came Karl Rove. "Even among many of your former supporters and major donors," Rove wrote candidly to Clements in the 8-page memo, "the attitude is one of resignation, of acceptance, not enthusiasm." Rove added, "Among the politicos, there is a belief you won't listen, [you] shoot from the hip, and can be mean and insensitive. ... All these will conspire to make you the issue in the Republican primary." But true to his deftness at what the pols call "spin," Rove told the elderly Dallas oilman that -- rightly considered -- these weaknesses were really blessings: Rove called the translation, in a phrase from columnist Jeff Greenfield, "political jujitsu." "The central principle of political jujitsu [is that] the very openness with which one faces and addresses a weakness," Greenfield concluded in a passage Rove repeated to Clements, "acts as powerful evidence that there is in fact no weakness at all."

"Because you are the issue, it is within your power to determine how that issue develops," Rove told the candidate. First, he convinced Clements to acknowledge that the voters had been right in ousting him the last time. Then Rove -- an amateur scholar of history who likes to quote the classics and cite historical models -- offered Clements advice from Napoleon Bonaparte: "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by a rapid and audacious attack."

"Your message is all important. You must emphasize those things that you did that people know in their hearts were good for Texas, and you must be crystal clear that you understand why we lost," Rove continued. "You don't have to convince most primary voters: You only have to reassure them about your record and surprise them by dealing with what they perceive were mistakes." To this end he offered an example: "The purpose of saying you gave teachers a record pay increase is to reassure suburban voters with kids, not to win the votes of teachers. Similarly, emphasizing your appointments of women and minorities will not win you the support of feminists and the leaders of the minority community, but it will bolster your support among Republican primary voters and urban independents."

Rove's considered advice to candidate Clements -- a hard sell even by the formidable standards of Texas politics -- is certainly worth recalling when considering the tactics of Rove's most famous pupil. That is, when you see President Bush reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to black schoolchildren, it's not because The Man from Midland hopes to win the black vote -- but to make moderate, white voters more comfortable. When the president has a photo opportunity in a forest, it's intended not to sway environmentalists, who will never trust him, but to persuade ordinary voters that despite all appearances to the contrary he's not a danger to this world's ecology. During the 2000 campaign and in the wake of the multiple corporate scandals of the past year, the very same corporate culture that bred George W. Bush is now described by the president as corrupt.

All that is Karl Rove at work.

Clements won easily. After his 1986 general election landslide, Rove wrote a detailed analysis of the election, which showed how Republicans had spread their influence into Texas' traditionally Democratic rural areas and small towns, and how that change could be exploited to take over the state's political leadership in coming years.

Enter George W. Bush.

Of course, Bill Clements slept through his second term in office. But he won, and that's what's important to Rove.


Teacher's Pet

Clearly, to use Rove's term, there is a "disconnect" between what the Founding Fathers intended and what politics in this country -- not to mention governance -- has become. The gap is growing wider everyday, in no small part due to people like Karl Rove. Having said that, it appears he was a good, or at least popular, teacher. At the end of each semester, UT instructors are evaluated by their students in a variety of areas (helping young minds to think for themselves, communication skills, overall course satisfaction, etc.) on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 signifying excellence. From his students in the Modern American Political Campaign, Rove received an overall rating of 4.2.

The students reported Rove's only weakness was his organizational skill (ranked mostly 2's and 3's), which -- considering he is the man who made Bush Caesar -- might seem a little odd. Karl Rove doesn't seem like the stereotypical absent-minded professor, but there may be an explanation for him not having his act completely together in class: He had a lot of other things on his mind.

Dave McNeely, the Statesman columnist who taught a few journalism classes at UT with Rove, describes a typical performance: "He'd sometimes come in 15 minutes late, dropped off by an aide who'd picked him up at the airport, and have a stack of papers and call slips under his arm. He'd work through those while students were giving book reports or whatever, but, without looking up, could say, 'Yes, but what about the example from so and so, and how would you plug that in?' And go back to answering mail or whatever.

"I remember one time when he held forth for 15 minutes, without notes, about the evolution of communication tools like fliers, radio, TV, et cetera, and how political approaches had changed accordingly. He's a brilliant guy."

That brilliance, of course -- combined with more than a little "political jujitsu" -- went on to serve Rove and his Most Important Student very well elsewhere, in arenas far from the classroom. As another passage from the Gallic Wars recalls the fruits of victory: "These things being achieved, [and] all Gaul being subdued, so high an opinion of this war was spread among the barbarians, that ambassadors were sent to Caesar by those nations who dwelt beyond the Rhine, to promise that they would give hostages and execute his commands."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, Karl Rove, LBJ School of Public Affairs, Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, Bill Clements, Jeff Greenfield, Dave McNeely

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