We'll let other idiots wonder whether the 2012 presidential election is the most important race in history. (Aren't they all important?) One thing, however, is for certain—this will be the most expensive US presidential election of all time. More than $6 billion will be spent by November 7. And with over a billion to blow, Karl Rove sits at the top of the campaign finance heap. After masterminding George W. Bush’s rise to White House, he left the administration in disgrace in 2007, only return again in the elections as the country’s ultimate political power broker.
Vanity Fair’s contributing editor Craig Unger has just published a book with Scribner on Rove's consolidation of influence in the GOP called Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power. I met Craig by chance at the Democratic National Convention. A few days ago I caught up with him to discuss Karl and his stranglehold on American politics.
VICE: Who is Obama really running against in this election—Romney or Rove?
Craig Unger: Over the next seven weeks or so, people who live in the eight or nine battleground states that will decide this election will see the biggest barrage of propaganda in history and Karl Rove is behind it. He has become king of the SuperPACs and, depending upon whose figures you believe, oversees roughly $1 billion in SuperPAC funds and "dark money.” Add that to roughly $800 million put together by the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee and you have $1.8 billion, which is nearly five times the $375 million McCain spent just four years ago.
You may remember a famous quote given to journalist Ron Suskind, which was later attributed to Karl: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors."
Rove has proven himself adept at creating his own narratives that liberals often dismiss—I'm thinking of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who helped beat John Kerry in 2004—but prove to be powerful forces in elections. I'd be surprised if we don't see something like that emerge in this election.
How did Rove amass the power he has today?
I think Rove is the most powerful operative in modern history. He likes to compare himself to Mark Hanna, who helped put William McKinley in the White House more than 100 years ago and ushered in an era of Republican domination. It's often been said that Rove wants to establish a one party state, a permanent Republican majority. But I think that realignment is not in the cards, at least not demographically. (The rapid growth of the Hispanic population in the US helps Democrats, not the GOP.)
So Rove has built his power other ways. Back in the 80s in Texas, he went to big pharmaceutical and tobacco companies and told them they risked billions in product liability suits, but he could help them if they contributed a few million to political action committees so he could elect conservative judges, state legislators, and governors such as George W. Bush. As a result, he was able to create a cash machine that prefigured the SuperPACS of today, one in which he controlled the purse strings without having deal with the party bureaucracy.
In addition, Rove used that money to game the system in various ways that I would argue are undemocratic. Two examples: Rove is the father of the voter suppression drives that could determine the outcome of this election. Back when Bush was president, he started a movement to require voter IDs to stamp out voter fraud—which is virtually non-existent, but will disenfranchise millions of voters (minorities, the elderly, students etc.) who lean Democratic. In addition, when in power he used the judiciary to prosecute hundreds of Democratic politicians. Out of roughly 300 politicians prosecuted by the Bush Justice Department, over 85 percent were Democrats.
Any dirt? Does Rove love hookers or is he a former drunken cokehead like Dubya?
Sorry, no hookers and cocaine. Will tattooing and piercing do the trick? I always thought it was interesting that Rove had a close relationship with his step-father, Louis Rove, who, in later years was not just openly gay, but was also was something of an icon in the piercing and tattooing world. Thanks to 37 piercings, most of which were in his genitals, Louis Rove was featured as the cover story in Piercing Fans International Quarterly. By all accounts, Karl was close to the elder Rove, who raised him as if he were his own son, right up until Louis Rove's death.
The point is that even though Karl is widely said to have no problems being friendly with gays on a personal level, that didn't stop him from initiating vicious anti-gay smear campaigns. A whisper campaign that incumbent governor Ann Richards was a lesbian helped make George W. Bush governor of Texas. Likewise, Rove reportedly started "push polls" (phony polls intended to spread ugly rumors) to smear a Democratic judge in Alabama as a pedophile. For Rove, it was all about winning.
Who is the closest thing the Dems have to a Rove?
I've asked that question myself a 100 times and I don't have a good answer. The Democrats have some good operatives—I've watched James Carville and Paul Begala at work and they are smart, tough, and fight hard. But I don't think they resort to the ugly dirty tricks Rove uses.
Rove defies the “there's no second acts in American life” cliché. How did he do it?
Actually, I always thought that F. Scott Fitzgerald quote was one of the stupidest aphorisms by a great writer in all of history. America is all about people who reinvent themselves.
Rove is a case in point. Citizens United helped, especially given his experience in creating political action committees and in keeping a stable of donors together for 30 years. Michael Steele's failure as RNC chairman left a huge opening because the Republican Party was weak and Rove had a lot of money he could tap. Then, in April 2010, Rove and his colleague, Ed Gillespie, had a luncheon at Rove's house in Washington with about two-dozen GOP power brokers, and came away with tens of millions of dollars. They raised hundreds of millions for the 2010 midterms—and won 63 seats. So Rove was on his way.
Who from the GOP has Rove picked off internally?
Just about everyone except Romney. If you read the Wall Street Journal or watched Fox, Rove took shots at Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and more. Remember, he is not just a talking head commentator. He is the party boss with hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal. So when Rove attacks Sarah Palin, he is effectively telling her he'll make sure she doesn't get funds so she won’t win the primaries. I suspect that may be why she never even entered the race.
You and the Boss had a high noon showdown in Tampa.
I got up to ask him a question—whether he consulted with Fox chief Roger Ailes when he took potshots at other Republicans (several of whom were also Fox analysts). When I identified myself, Rove got rather heated. He said, “Here goes Unger to flack his book, launch away, Unger, launch away.” He called it "an entertaining work of fiction" and, oddly enough, said I accused him of murder. My book makes no such accusations, of course. Rove was presumably referring to the plane crash death in 2008 of his cyber guru, Mike Connell. My encounter with Rove was televised on CSPAN and I found it surprising that he would do this on television and link himself to murder allegations—which is something that is not in my book.
Can you describe your process, and how your style of investigative journalism is in peril?
I often spend several months on one story for Vanity Fair and I've used these stories to start my last three books.
I always try to speak with the principals—in this case Rove, or the key figures at SmarTech, a high tech firm Rove has used that figures prominently in the book. But I expect to get the same old pablum—and usually, that's all I get from them.
However, I use these occasions to snoop around and figure out who else works with Rove, who might have had a falling out with him, and then I go around privately, individually, trying to get the real story. When I find a good source, I may have 100 plus interviews with him or her. And, obviously, I use the internet, LexisNexis, and other electronic tools a lot. I constantly keep drilling down. When I get the answers to one question, it often raises another and I keep looking. One has to understand how Rove operates. A Rove operative is not going to be on Rove's payroll. He will find remuneration other ways. Rove can help them get government contracts and in return they will initiate under the radar operations for Rove.
But, as you say, this kind of reporting is dying out. I've perfected the 15,000 word magazine feature, but almost no publication wants stories like that anymore.
You have one of the coolest jobs in the world. How great does that feel?
When I was a child someone took me to the Museum of Natural History and I thought the dinosaurs were really, really cool. I later found out they were extinct.
Who is going to win in November?
Right now, I'd give a slight edge to Obama, but it is still too early to say. The Democrats clearly came out of the conventions in a rather strong position. But there can be a lot of surprises, and I have no idea how the voter suppression campaign might play out or what other tricks Rove might come up with.