In a new book, author Craig Unger examines the return of Karl Rove, the man who masterminded the rise of George W. Bush from governor of Texas to a two-term presidency, who advised Bush during two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who was at the center of two of the biggest scandals of the Bush administration: the Valerie Plame Wilson affair and the U.S. attorneys scandal. While Rove was almost indicted for the Plame affair, he has reinvented himself to become the most powerful political operative in America. Heading up the American Crossroads super PAC and the affiliated nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, Rove has built up a war chest that has given Mitt Romney a significant cash advantage in the fundraising race with President Obama. In “Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power,” Unger writes that Rove’s ambitions are not simply about winning elections, but represent “a far more grandiose vision — the forging of a historic re-alignment of America’s political landscape, the transformation of America into effectively a one-party state.”
Amy Goodman: Our guest for the hour is Craig Unger , who has written Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power. In it, he writes, “Undeniably, he’s back,” talking about Karl Rove. “He has re-invented himself. He is not merely Bush’s Brain; he’s the man who swallowed the Republican Party. As the maestro orchestrating the various super-pacs, he has inspired the wealthiest people on the right to pony up what could amount to $1 billion and has created an unelected position for himself of real enduring power with no term limits. Karl Rove has become the ultimate party boss.” Craig Unger , lay out his rise to power, his fall, and then his rise again.
Craig Unger: Right. Well, I think a lot of people saw him as a creature of the Bush family, and then that was it, and then it was all over in 2008 when Bush left the White House. And that was not the case at all.
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
And it’s worth going back to how he got power back in the 1980s. And there was not much of a Texas Republican Party in those years, partly because Texas had powerful conservative Democrats, like John Connolly and Lloyd Bentsen, so the big business people who normally would give to the Republicans said, “Well, why bother? We’re getting what we want from Connolly and Bentsen.” Rove got around that by creating political action committees, and he took an issue that seemed obscure at the time, known as tort reform. It’s giving the rights of people to collect in product liability cases. And he went to Philip Morris, who put him on his payroll, and to big pharmaceutical companies and so forth and said, “Look, you guys risk billions and billions of dollars in product liability. Give a few million to my candidates, and we will take over the Texas Supreme Court, we’ll take over the Texas legislature, we’ll put George W. Bush in as governor, and we will save you billions of dollars.” And he did precisely that. And he ended up with—he flipped the—the Texas Supreme Court was completely dominated by Democrats. It became completely Republican. And he ended up with some very loyal campaign contributors, like Bob Perry—who is no relation to Rick Perry—Harold Simmons and so forth. These are Texas billionaires. And they’ve stuck with him for about 30 years. So, that’s really the first phase.
The key moment then came in 2010, and this was the Republican Party was in crisis, as it appears to be again today. And if you—Michael Steele was chairman of the RNC. And you may remember, in early 2010, there was an episode where Republican donors were being entertained at a lesbian bondage-themed strip club. And—
Amy Goodman: In California.
Craig Unger: In California, exactly. And partly as a result of that and other things, big money people just refused to give anything to the Republican Party.
Amy Goodman: And this was a time when the Republican—when the RNC was broke.
Craig Unger: Absolutely, absolutely. It was also just after a landmark Supreme Court decision, Citizens United. And this opened the gateways for people to give unlimited contributions to super PACs. And so, Karl Rove had a luncheon at his home in Washington, D.C., on Weaver Terrace. He had about two dozen people there. These were the bigwigs in—it was co-sponsored by Ed Gillespie, who had been former chairman of the RNC. And he came away with millions and millions of dollars, and this represented the birth of the super PAC of American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and so forth.
Amy Goodman: Now, before we go forward, I wanted to go back a little further to show—to show Karl Rove’s power during the Bush years, both in 2000 and then—you devote an entire chapter to what happened in Ohio in 2004. And a lot of people might not remember this or might not have even known to begin with.
Craig Unger: Right. Well, Rove did a lot of things that were sort of under the radar and that I think have enduring consequences, and they represent real threats to democracy. One of them was the U.S. attorneys scandal, and I think it was widely misunderstood. And, you know, this was—became best known when eight United States attorneys were fired for sort of not toeing the Republican Party line. Now, in fact, to me, the real question is not what happened in the unjust firing of those eight people; it’s what about the other U.S. attorneys who were appointed by the Bush administration and were toeing the party line? What were they doing? And what we see happening is that they were prosecuting Democrats, essentially. This is best—it came through best in—I think the most egregious case of this is in Alabama, and it’s the case of former Democratic Governor Don Siegelman, who will probably—in early September, will face going to jail for eight years. And I think this is one of the most egregious, unjust acts we’ve seen from the Justice Department.
Nermeen Shaikh: I want to turn former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who was found guilty in a 2006 corruption case. Critics say Siegelman was the target of a political witch hunt, in part orchestrated by former Bush administration deputy Karl Rove. Democracy Now! spoke to Siegelman about his case in early 2009. We asked if he believed Karl Rove was involved in his prosecution. Let’s just go to his response.
Don Seigelman: I was brought to trial one month before the Democratic primary by Karl Rove’s best friend’s wife, who was the U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Alabama, on charges that the New York Times said have never been a crime in America. Grant Woods, who’s the Republican—was the Republican attorney general from Arizona, said that they couldn’t beat Siegelman fair and square, so they targeted him with this prosecution. We have sworn testimony from a Republican political operative, Jill Simpson, who said that she was on a conversation with my prosecutor’s husband, who said that he had talked to Karl Rove, and Rove had spoken to the Department of Justice, and everything was wired in for them to—for the Department of Justice to pursue me.
Nermeen Shaikh: That’s former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman speaking to Democracy Now! in 2006. Siegelman is now appealing his prison sentence three weeks before he’s scheduled to report to federal prison to complete a more than six-year sentence.
Craig Unger: Right. Well, I think Siegelman is absolutely right. I mean, it’s not the prettiest part of the American political system, but it’s sort of standard operating procedure that sometimes campaign contributors get political appointments. And in Siegelman’s case, Siegelman personally got zero dollars. He appointed a contributor to a non-paying state-appointed position. And if he’s to go to jail—George W. Bush gave appointments to over a hundred campaign contributors and was not prosecuted on any one of those. And it really has been standard operating procedure. Hundreds of ambassadors throughout the years, in one administration after another, have been campaign contributors.
And what you see that happened—and this is really under Rove’s aegis—is selective prosecution. And I think there’s nothing more damaging democra-cy than when laws are applied only to one group. And as I began to research this, I saw that, you know, you may notice that a mayor of Alabama was indicted or investigated, a mayor of Honolulu was investigated just before an election, mayor of Miami, mayor of San Francisco. And all in all, I found mayors of 12 major cities. There’s Cleveland; Detroit; Portland, Oregon; New Orleans; Chicago; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Memphis and Dallas. What do they all have in common? They are Democrats. They are governors and lieutenant governors from five states—Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey and Maryland—and on and on, over 200 politicians, and 85 percent of them are Democrats. And I think there’s no data suggests that the Democratic Party is seven times more corrupt than the Republicans.
Amy Goodman: But how do you tie this all to Karl Rove?
Craig Unger: Well, there is the testimony, as Siegelman said, of a former Republican operative named Jill Simpson, and she testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Now—excuse me—Rove in GQ magazine said she didn’t dare mention his name. His name is in it zero times, zero times. I went back to the testimony. In fact, his name is in it at least 50 times, and it’s—and she explicitly makes it clear that he was involved. What happened with the Siegelman prosecution is a colleague of Rove’s named Bill Canary was sort of the Karl Rove out of Alabama. He was handling the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Republican senatorial candidates and so forth. And who was appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama but Canary’s wife. So he was in this wonderful position. When he was running a campaign, his wife would simply indict the Democratic opponent. And that’s exactly what happened.
Amy Goodman: So now let’s go back to Ohio, in fact, Ohio and SMARTech. This is the one chance you ever had to question Karl Rove about that.
Craig Unger: Exactly. And I met Karl Rove in Alabama, and I asked him. And he said, “SMARTech? What’s that? I’ve never heard of it.”
Well, SMARTech is a high-tech company in Chattanooga. And what you see with Rove’s methodology is he manages to have things happen in his benefit, and there are no fingerprints. But I traced the ownership of SMARTech and its precursors, and the original company was funded by two—its precursor, rather, was funded by two Republicans named Bill DeWitt and Mercer Reynolds. Mercer Reynolds was finance chairman of the Republican Party. In ’04, he raised about a quarter of a billion dollars for the Bush-Cheney campaign. And in the ’80s, they had bailed out George W. Bush in his oil ventures, DeWitt and Reynolds had. So they were very, very close to him.
And this company started off as a very legitimate high-tech company in Chattanooga during the dot-com boom. It later reformed under a different name and different ownership, but by then it had become very much a political operation. So, this was a highly, highly partisan Republican high-tech company. It hosted—its biggest clients included the Bush-Cheney campaign, it included Jeb Bush, it included the Republican National Committee. It streamed live the convention, the Republican convention.
And somehow or other, in 2004, in the state of Ohio, which was the single most crucial state in the electoral college, when it came to the actual voting, the secretary of state of Ohio, a guy named Ken Blackwell—and the secretary of state’s job is to—part of it is to ensure fair, nonpartisan elections—happened to be co-chair of the Bush campaign. Now, there’s no conflict there. And he gave a contract to host the fail oversight for the Republican—rather, for the votes in 2004, to none other than SMARTech. And this is where things went a little crazy.
Nermeen Shaikh: But how was that allowed to happen even? I mean—
Craig Unger: Well, I mean, I think it is a huge conflict of interest on the face of it for the secretary of state of a party to be affiliated with one campaign or the other. And we saw it, of course, in Florida in 2000 with Katherine Harris.
Amy Goodman: Well, 2004, election night, tell us the story.
Craig Unger: Right, Well, about at 11:14 p.m., things started to happen, exactly 11:14 p.m. And as the votes came in, it was clear it was going to be an all-nighter in terms of the results. And around 11:00, Florida was called for Bush, and that meant the entire fate of the election hinged on Ohio. So, suddenly—excuse me—the servers for the secretary of state’s computers were flooded with queries.
Amy Goodman: Ohio secretary of state.
Craig Unger: Exactly. And they needed to lock into the fail oversight in Chattanooga with SMARTech. And this is where the results went a little crazy. And suddenly, an enormous number of irregular returns came in, and the votes shifted. The exit polls had shown Kerry winning Ohio, and therefore the election. And it looked like he had won the presidential election. I remember that day vividly because I was getting reports from the exit polls, and I went around telling people it looked like Kerry had won. But there was a 6.7 percent difference between the exit polls and the actual results. And as a result, the election ended up going to Bush. And that was the entire story.
Nermeen Shaikh: In writing about what happened in Ohio as well as in Alabama, one of the things that you say about Rove is that a case can be made that for the last three decades he’s been putting a systematic attempt to game the American electoral system by whatever means necessary. What kind of vision does Karl Rove have for the Republican Party and for American politics?
Craig Unger: Right. Well, I don’t think he’s an ideologue. I think he’s about winning. And he’s often been compared to a guy named Mark Hanna, who more than a century ago was the political mind behind President William McKinley. He was a senator from Ohio, but he was also a political operative who put McKinley in the White House and forged a realignment. There’s always been this talk of a permanent Republican majority that Rove is trying to forge, and he sees it, the nation, as being entirely Republican. And, in fact, I think that’s Rove’s line, and I don’t buy it.
He faces, and the Republican Party faces, an extraordinary challenge in the—with the Hispanic boom. There are now 50 million Hispanics in the United States. In 2020, at the current rate of growth, there will be 70 million. If they start to vote, they tend to lean heavily Democratic, and you will start to see states like Texas and Arizona flip from red to blue. And Rove is trying to stop that. And one campaign he’s supported is what is known as a campaign fighting voter fraud. And as I found out, I think the fraud about—the Brennan Center at the NYU School of Law says the fraud about—voter fraud is itself a fraud. And there have only been 10 documented cases of people voting under false names in the first decade of this century. So, why—but in response to that minuscule number, there are campaigns in more than 30 states to have voter—require voter IDs and so forth. This will inhibit voting from new immigrants, from minorities, from the elderly and so forth, who, again, lean heavily Democratic.
Amy Goodman: Before we go to break, I want to go one more time back to Ohio, because you really focus on these issues in the book. Michael Connell, who he was, and what his death meant?
Craig Unger: Right. Well, he was known as Rove’s sort of cyber-guru, and he had a company called New Media that was—hosted all its work at SMARTech, as I—the company I mentioned earlier. And what you see there is, again, a highly partisan Republican operative who gets involved in what are supposed to be nonpartisan activities. And there were a number of things going on there. What first struck my attention is he got contracts to host the House Judiciary Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, a lot of government committees, which included emails and so forth of Democrats. And I thought back to Watergate, of course, when the Republicans broke in to get one file from the Watergate office. Here, they presumably had access to thousands and thousands of files for many, many years. Whether they used that or not, I don’t really know.
They were also—you know, but Connell—one of the things that’s very interesting is how evidence disappeared again and again and again in this case. And what you saw is that in all of these scandals—in the U.S. attorneys scandal and the Valerie Plame scandal—Rove’s emails were subpoenaed, and they were hosted at SMARTech. And, oops, millions of emails mysteriously disappeared. Now, these were supposedly under the—protected by the Presidential Preservation Records Act [Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act], and the destruction of government documents is a very, very serious crime. But every attempt to investigate turns up naught. And Mike Connell became increasingly an important witness in this case. He was subpoenaed once. There was a case investigating the 2004 election. He was supposed to testify again. And finally, before he could testify again, he died in a plane crash, in a solo private plane.
Nermeen Shaikh: I want to ask you about Stephen Spoonamore, a former John McCain supporter and a highly successful expert of the detection of computer fraud. In 2008, he named Mike Connell and his company, GovTech Solutions, as having played a crucial role in the electronic subversion of the vote in Ohio in 2004. I want to ask you more about Spoonamore, but first I want to turn to a 2008 interview Democracy Now! did with the media scholar Mark Crispin Miller shortly after Mike Connell died in a plane crash. In this clip, Miller says Connell asked Spoonamore how one would go about destroying White House emails.
Mark Crispin Miller: Stephen Spoonamore is a conservative Republican, a former McCain supporter and a very prominent expert at the detection of computer fraud. He’s the star witness in the Ohio lawsuit, right, in which Connell was involved. He has done extensive work of this kind, involving computer security, and had therefore worked with Connell, knew Connell personally and knew a lot of the people who were involved in the sort of cyber-security end of the Bush operation.
Despite his conservatism—or I suppose some would say because of it—he’s a man of principle—I mean, believes in the Constitution. He believes elections should be honest. He’s the one who came forward and named Connell.
And I have seen his notes of a conversation in which Connell asked Spoonamore how one would go about destroying White House emails. To this, Spoonamore said, “This conversation is over. You’re asking me to do something illegal.” But clearly, clearly—this is the important point—Mike Connell was up past his eyeballs in the most sensitive and explosive aspects of this crime family that, you know, has been masquerading as a political party.
Nermeen Shaikh: That was Mark Crispin Miller speaking to Democracy Now! Do you think Ohio 2004 was stolen, and do you think it’s possible that something like that could happen in the 2012 election?
Craig Unger: Well, there was no question there was massive fraud. If you want to actually count the votes, unfortunately it’s impossible because so much evidence was destroyed. And then that’s why Mike Connell was such an important witness, and his death meant that—you know, I quoted—I talked to Mike Connell’s sister, who said either—there are only two possibilities, really, that Connell was murdered—and I don’t see any evidence of that—or that he was in an accident, in which case Karl Rove is the luckiest man alive.
Could this happen again? I think—you know, I think electronic voting is very, very dangerous, and it’s very easy to manipulate. But I also found evidence in Ohio of extraordinary kinds of fraud that could happen with punchcard ballots, as well, through very elaborate and byzantine means of—known as cross-voting. And I think a lot of people don’t realize, when you go into a voting booth and you see another voting booth nearby, if you voted the same way in the adjoining booth, in the wrong booth, or if your punchcard is counted by the different computer, it would register to a different vote. And we saw this happened—
Amy Goodman: I don’t understand.
Craig Unger: Well, in Ohio, they have what is known as a rotation of ballot. That is, they decide that—whoever’s at the top of the ballot has roughly a 2 percent advantage over the candidate below him. So, to compensate for that, they actually rotate the ballot sequence from one precinct to another, which makes a certain amount of sense. But the voter doesn’t know that. Now, if your—
Amy Goodman: So you might have Romney on top in one ballot, Obama on top on another ballot.
Craig Unger: Exactly. So precinct one has Romney on top. If it’s counted by precinct two, however, the vote goes to the wrong person. And we saw a lot of that in Ohio. And the giveaway was in an African-American precinct, where there were third-party people on the ballot there, including a white supremacist—someone linked to a white supremacist party. And suddenly in this African-American precinct, this—and African Americans tend to be very, very disciplined Democratic voters. They’ve been 95 percent Democratic in the past. And suddenly, this man who is linked to a white supremacist got 40 percent of the vote. And you could see exactly what had happened.
Amy Goodman: We’re talking to Craig Unger . His new book is Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power. When we come back from break, how Karl Rove barely escaped indictment and rose to be the biggest powerhouse, political powerhouse, in America today. Stay with us.
Amy Goodman: “MC Rove,” performed at the 2007 Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, with NBC’s David Gregory, Karl Rove among the backup dancers. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh . And we’re speaking with Craig Unger . His new book, Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power. We’re going to turn right now to another scandal involving Karl Rove, the outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame. The Bush administration outed her in retaliation for her husband Joe Wilson’s accusations that President Bush lied about Iraq’s alleged efforts to purchase uranium form Niger before the Iraq war. It was the whole deceit around weapons of mass destruction. Let’s begin by playing the famous comment of Joe Wilson in 2003.
Joseph Wilson: At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs.
Amy Goodman: That was the famous comment of Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame’s husband, frogmarching Karl Rove out of the White House in handcuffs. Craig Unger , explain what the Valerie Plame scandal was and what Karl Rove had to do about—with it and why he was almost indicted.
Craig Unger: Right. Well, the Valerie Plame scandal, of course, was—Joe Wilson had been an ambassador to African countries. He was sent to check out allegations that the Republic of Niger had sold or was trying to sell yellowcake uranium to Saddam Hussein. This became part of the 16 words in President Bush’s State of the Union address that called for war against and launched the war against Iraq. And the allegations, of course, were not just false, but they were based on forged documents. And worse than that, the forged documents had been revealed as forgeries, I found at least 14 times, within the administration before Bush’s speech, but they still got in it, and the war went ahead with it.
Since Wilson had discovered they were—the allegations were false, he later wrote a very famous column, an op-ed piece in the New York Times, saying what I found in Africa [“What I Didn’t Find in Africa”], and he revealed that. And this was destroying the Rovian narrative, the Bush administration’s narrative. So, in retaliation, they outed his wife, Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who was a CIA agent, and exposed her. And that’s what it was all about. And this showed that they would stop at nothing to maintain their narrative. They were trying to discredit Joe Wilson. I think they sort of didn’t realize exactly how far they were going. And this was potentially a crime, so this started the whole Valerie Plame investigation.
Now, Bush said he would fire anyone who was responsible for this leak. And one thing that’s absolutely clear is that Rove, though he was not the only one—Scooter Libby was later indicted and convicted—Rove played a very, very key role in this. And he did leak Valerie Plame’s name—rather, her identity, that she was a wife. At one point he said, “I didn’t say her name.” Well, he said this is Joe — “Joe Wilson’s wife is a CIA agent. She set up everything.” And he told that to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper. So, and Rove went on to lie about it again and again.
I think there’s, oddly enough, a link in those two clips you just showed of MC Rove dancing with the press and Joe Wilson, because what is important here, in some way, is the press’s complicity with this. What you see is, when Karl Rove is your source, you are beholden to him. I read Bob Novak’s memoirs, the late columnist, who was the man who first printed Valerie Plame’s name. And he says, rather tellingly, that “Karl Rove was my A-plus source for many, many years.” And he was sort of Novak’s meal ticket. And Novak goes on to say, “But when that happens, of course, you never write a critical word about him.” And a lot of the press was like that. And you see in that clip a lot of the correspondents dancing with Rove.
Amy Goodman: How did Rove escape indictment? I mean, Scooter Libby went down, Judith Miller.
Craig Unger: Well, I think it was by a sheer stroke of luck. And there was a woman reporter at Time magazine named Viveca Novak—no relation to Bob Novak. And she would have drinks occasionally with Rove’s lawyer, Bob Luskin. And occasionally, they—during one conversation, Rove’s lawyer said, “Well, Karl is in danger from Matt Cooper at Time.” And she let it slip that, yes, he was. And this was—so, suddenly, Rove was being called before the grand jury, I think a total of five times. He had said again and again that he had not leaked it to anyone. He said that he didn’t recall any conversation with Matt Cooper. This turned out to be a lie, frankly. He had told this to Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. He had told it to President Bush. This had been his story again and again. And he was finally caught in a lie, and now his attorney realized it. So Rove willingly asked to go back to the grand jury and correct the information. And on that basis alone, I believe he escaped a perjury indictment.
Nermeen Shaikh: You also talk in your book about Rove’s relationship to the judiciary. You say that no other political strategist in history has ever been so deeply indebted to the U.S. Supreme Court, and you talk about a couple of key decisions that went along with what Rove was lobbying for.
Craig Unger: Right, exactly. I mean, there are two United States Supreme Court decisions that are among the two most controversial in history. And one, of course, is in 2000, Bush v. Gore, and the Supreme Court, by a five-to-four margin, effectively appointed Rove’s candidate president of the United States. And again in 2010, also by a five-to-four majority, the Citizens United decision opened the gateway for the super PACs and for the billion dollars Rove controls today.
And Rove has always known this, I think, about the judiciary—excuse me. In Texas in—back in the ’80s, he started taking over the Texas Supreme Court, and he flipped it from heavily Democratic to heavily Republican. He did the same in Alabama. A lot of people don’t realize he had a real power base in Alabama. And he played a key role in the appointment of U.S. attorneys. And it’s also—one of his clients was John Ashcroft of Missouri, and Rove made—got him appointed attorney general of the United States.
Amy Goodman: And he was one of the names being mentioned if Akin were to pull out.
Craig Unger: Right.
Amy Goodman: We only have a minute to go. As you wrote this book, as you wrote Boss Rove, what most surprised you? What do you think it’s most important to understand about this man who has now become perhaps the most powerful political operative in America?
Craig Unger: Well, I think it’s the enduring aspect of the changes. We see it in the Siegelman going to jail, that this is—this started over 10 years ago with Siegelman, and now he’s going to jail perhaps for eight years. I just think it’s an absolute travesty. And Siegelman is just one example out of dozens and dozens. So, you have what I think are real threats to democracy that have a lasting power, and with things like the voter suppression drive, that these—a lot of these issues are real threats to democracy.
Amy Goodman: Craig Unger , we want to thank you very much for being with us, author of Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power. It hits the bookshelves on September 4th. He’s contracting editor at Vanity Fair, where you can read an excerpt from Boss Rove. We’ll link to it on our website.
That does it for the show. We’ll be broadcasting two-hour specials every day from the Republican and Democratic conventions.