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The Education of Karl Rove

Dirty tricks, South Carolina and Lee Atwater


Hey, where was South Carolina? Karl Rove's resignation last week was followed by media reports of the political Svengali's triumphs and dirty tricks, but no one mentioned the Palmetto state. It was a strange omission, considering that the man Dubya dubs "Turd Blossom" learned most of his sleazy campaign tactics courtesy of our beloved sister state. Specifically, Rove learned at the feet of the master, Columbia's notorious Lee Atwater.

At his peak in the 1980s, Atwater was "credited" with dragging national political campaigns into the mud -- a feat he executed by introducing the rest of the country to his own brand of brutal, bare-knuckles, South Ca'lina-style politics. It was Atwater who taught Rove the ins and outs of what the South Carolinian called "strippin' the bark off" an opponent by any means necessary.

Not that Rove needed convincing to try political dirty tricks. This is the guy, after all, who at age 19 used a fake I.D. to enter the office of Illinois' state Treasurer (whose opponent he was working for) and stole a campaign letterhead, which he later passed out at rock concerts and homeless shelters, promoting free beer and women.

Atwater and Rove became friends four years later in 1973 when Turd Blossom ran for president of the national College Republican organization. Atwater, as Republican regional coordinator, drove Rove around the country in a Pinto, lining up support from GOP state chairs. The campaign ended with both Rove and his opponent claiming victory and the opponent crying foul, a dispute that was settled in Rove's favor by Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman George H.W. Bush -- but only after Atwater signed an affidavit vouching for Rove's clean campaign tactics. That's what I'd call a dubious testimonial, but Bush bought it.

During their travels and afterward, Atwater taught Rove some of his gloves-off tricks, such as using "plants" to ask questions designed to make opponents appear unfit for office. Atwater also perfected the devious tactic known as "push-polling" -- using fake surveys filled with lies in order to convince voters that opponents are the scum of the earth.

He gained the admiration of national Republican strategists in 1980, when, as a consultant to GOP congressional candidate Floyd Spence, he engineered a comeback victory over Democrat Tom Turnipseed. At a press briefing, Atwater planted a fake reporter who said, "We understand Turnipseed has had psychotic treatment." Atwater later told reporters off the record that Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables" -- a cruel reference to electroshock therapy the Democrat underwent as a teenager. The sleazebag tactics worked, and Spence's unexpected victory over Turnipseed led to the RNC hiring Atwater.

His most notorious campaign was the 1988 presidential race, in which Atwater started false rumors that George Bush's opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, had been treated for mental illness, and that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War. Atwater's 1988 coup de grace, however, was the accusation that Dukakis was responsible for Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who committed a rape while on furlough from a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison.

Atwater's career ended in 1991 when he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer at the age of 40. His impending death led to a religious conversion and heartfelt apologies for his squalid contributions to American politics. He told Life magazine, "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood."

Unfortunately, Atwater's repentance went into one of Karl Rove's ears and out the other. By the time Atwater died, Rove was a rising star in the Republican firmament, picking up where his mentor had left off. By 1994, he was strategist for George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign in Texas, cranking up "whisper campaigns" that claimed Gov. Ann Richards was a lesbian.

During the 2000 presidential race, Rove truly came into his own, and lived up to Lee Atwater's confidence in him, by masterminding a sordid push-poll campaign against Sen. John McCain in the South Carolina GOP primary. People were asked how they would vote if they knew that McCain's wife was a drug addict, or that McCain was crazy as a loon due to his torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, or that he had fathered an illegitimate child by a black prostitute. All of those charges were false, but that didn't matter to Rove. The smear campaign derailed McCain and gave Rove's boss, George W. Bush, a crucial win in his campaign for the GOP nomination. If the ghost of the repentant Lee Atwater was watching, he no doubt shook his head at the irony of his former protégé working his slimy magic in Atwater's home state.

Eventually, Rove topped even his mentor's level of ruthlessness. Once in the White House, he introduced an approach to governing that Atwater would have been proud of: agencies, officials, and even national policy were all treated as mere opportunities to gain more political power, no matter how badly normal ethics were mauled. In his own way, Rove made certain that the legacy of Lee Atwater, and of vicious South Carolina-style politics, lives on.

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