The Karl Rove Interview
On Friday of last week, I was pleased to get an opportunity to interview Karl Rove about his new book: Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight.
Rove was very gracious during the interview, particularly since I committed one of the cardinal sins of an interviewer: The batteries on my digital tape recorder actually ran out mid-interview during the middle of a tough question. Poor Karl, who had to leave immediately after the interview, had to wait for me to change out the batteries. Let me just say that I appreciate his great attitude and willingness to answer any question I posed to him.
Without further adieu, let’s get to the interview, which has been edited slightly for the sake of grammar and clarity.
Karl, let’s say Sarah Palin walks up to you, and she may have, you never know, and says, “I’m seriously considering taking a run at the White House in 2012.” What would you tell her to do between now and then to make herself into a serious contender?
Well, you put your finger on it. People want their presidential candidates to demonstrate seriousness and depth. She’s got an enormous appeal among the grassroots of the party and now she needs to spend time, energy and effort getting her hands around the things that people will expect the next President to demonstrate fluency with.
That means it’s like a graduate course in all the big issues that face the country. So you can figure out what you believe, why you believe what you believe, and how you can defend what you believe. Then she’d gather around her a group of people who — first Republicans, and then the American people, could be confident in — people that they’d believe could take on the job of governing.
I mean, it helped George W. Bush, for example, to have the support of a lot of the foreign policy establishment of the Republican Party….It helped a great deal when, for example, when Barack Obama got support from Warren Buffet.
One of the things that has puzzled conservatives about the Bush presidency, particularly in the second term — and I’ve heard this again and again and again — is they don’t feel like there was an effective communication strategy. The general feeling was that the Left turned George Bush into a punching bag and just beat him into the ground, while the White House really didn’t do much to stop it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, I do think that there are instances, particularly on the issue of Iraq’s WMDs, where the administration didn’t punch back hard enough. I talk about that at length in the book.
It’s principally my responsibility because I should have seen it for what it was, which was a corrosive dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush Administration. But I would say this: in the last two years of the term, Bush was on the receiving end of daily blows from every Democratic presidential candidate and it was impossible for me to respond to those. The Republicans were disorganized, distressed, and didn’t come to his aid while others said the President can defend himself.
But when you’re receiving daily blows like that, you can either do your job or defend yourself, but you can’t do both every single day. It’s just the way life works.
Now, one story from your book is how Chris Matthews ended up misquoting you as saying Valerie Wilson was “fair game.” That turned out to be a pretty big deal because it apparently stuck with the Wilsons to such an extent that it became the title of her book. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, yes, it involves a conversation I had with Chris Matthews in July of 2003. I’d run into him at the Bohemian Grove, that weekend out in California, and he had raised the issue of Joe Wilson.
On the 6th of July, Wilson had written an op-ed in the New York Times alleging that the 16 words in the President’s State of the Union Address, that British intelligence had found that Saddam Hussein had attempted to acquire uranium cake in Iraq, somehow had been disproved by Joe Wilson’s visit to Niger, which turned out not to be the case.
It was clear from talking to Chris Matthews that he had no knowledge of the CIA statement that had been issued on the 11th of July, disproving all of Wilson’s claims.
The next morning, or the next Monday I was back in Washington and I called Matthews because there was some part of our conversation not involving Wilson in which I had given him a number which I needed to correct. I called him and during the course of that conversation, he jumped me saying, is it “fair game” to go after Joe Wilson’s wife? I was a little bit taken aback by the phrase and I said, “Look, it is fair to ask why he went to Niger. He claims that it was because of Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney had nothing to do with sending him to Niger.”
Well, we now know that Matthews hung up the phone and called Wilson and said Karl Rove says your wife is fair game in fighting the Wilsons, but it wasn’t my phrase. It was Chris Matthews’ phrase. In fact, he had used it in the same context the previous Thursday on his program in an interview with Trent Lott. It’s another example of how Matthews is not really a journalist, or even a commentator, but instead an advocate and a provocateur.
Now, I have to ask about the illegal immigration debacle in Bush’s second term. Comprehensive Immigration Reform turned out to be very unpopular with the American people and the base. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be a lot of evidence it even helped the Republicans who supported it with Hispanic Americans. John McCain, for example, didn’t have significantly better numbers with Hispanics in 2008 than Republicans in general did in 2006. So looking back at it, do you think it was a mistake to go that route?
I think it was a question of timing, not taking up the issue. The issue has got to be solved. We have to find a way to get control of our borders. The only way to ultimately get control of our borders is to do the things we’ve done to strengthen our defenses at the borders, but also to reduce the pressures at the borders.
That is to say, we need to have a guest worker program that allows people who want to come here for jobs that need to be done, to do so. It has to be market based so the number of people allowed into the country rises and falls with the strength of our economy. Workers are needed to keep the American economy growing, dynamic and innovative. We’ve got to resolve this.
We worked very hard. I think it would surprise your readers to know that by the time Bush left office, we were grabbing and returning back across the borders over a million people a year. We also ended the program of catch and release that existed for the last 30 years where people who were “other than Mexicans” and caught in the United States illegally, were released on their own recognizance and told to show up for an immigration hearing. For decades more than 90 percent of them never showed up. We ended that practice by building enough facilities and speeding up the process enough that we could hold everybody once we caught them until they could be processed out of the country.
But at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to resolve all three of these things: the issue of guest workers, the question of border security, and the question of what to do about the people who are here illegally.
We cannot and must not do what Ronald Reagan did in 1986. As great a President as he is, he made a mistake in 1986 by signing a bill that said if you’re here illegally, and you want to remain here, raise your right hand and say I’m a U.S. citizen.
The approach here was to make it as difficult to be a citizen as possible, put those people at the end of the line and sanction them for having come here illegally by making them pay a fine. They have to have an extensive background check to make certain that they had paid their taxes and not violated the law. If they had, they were out. Then, if the real intent was to come here and put together a nest egg and go home, we encouraged them to do exactly that by making (the process) difficult and long before they could ever get into the line to become a U.S. citizen.
I wasn’t planning to ask you a follow up question on this one, but I’ve got to ask: I know Ed Meese, for example, basically said you had the same approach as Reagan. It was basically a comprehensive approach — we’ll make people legal and we’ll also improve the border security at the same time. So you don’t think that was the case?
No. Look, after the 1986 Immigration Act that President Reagan and General Meese were involved in, we granted immediate citizenship to millions of people here illegally. Under the approach we were taking, the final version of the bill, you wouldn’t have been eligible for citizenship for at least 13 years – and that assumed that you did not have any criminal offenses, paid all your taxes, and kept your nose clean. After Reagan signed that bill, America still didn’t have enough facilities to hold all the people that were found guilty of immigration offenses.
We doubled the size of the border patrol and tripled its budget. As a result, the cost of a coyote, somebody who would bring across illegals from Mexico, it was $150 in the early 1990’s. By the time Bush left office, the cost of a coyote was $2500. It was getting more expensive not because it was getting easier, but because it was getting much more difficult to bring people and material across our borders.
Now there are a few people in public life who have ever been as demonized as you were during the Bush years. The left side of the blogosphere essentially looked at you the way some Christians view the devil. If anything they thought was bad for them happened, they blamed Karl Rove. Was any of this craziness getting back to you while you were in office and if so, what did you think?
No, not really. I mean first of all, I had a job to do and in Washington, you can do your job or defend yourself. You can’t necessarily do both — particularly when you’re a staff aide to the President.
I knew part of it was to try and get me off my game and I wasn’t going to let that happen. Besides, I worked with a lot of wonderful people who were very supportive — and, I had a boss, an ultimate boss, the President of the United States, who said, you know, “better you than me” and really got me to laugh about it.
It got to my family far more than it got to me. It’s always harder to hear and see ugly things said about your kin than it is about yourself.
Now I’m going to ask you the toughest question of the interview here. I interviewed Bush’s speechwriter Matt Latimer, who is not a big fan of yours, and I want to ask you about something he said and give you a chance to respond.
Karl Rove came into power promising the great Republican realignment. In fact, what actually ended up happening, of course, is Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama.
Then in 2004, he barely beat a candidate that Republicans used to beat with one hand tied behind their back. You know, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who also happened to be a millionaire elitist.
After the 2004 election Karl Rove was put in charge of policy, personnel and political affairs. In every one of those instances, I found him disappointing. Politically of course we lost the House and the Senate and ultimately the White House. And the policy area we failed to pass any single significant piece of conservative legislation when he was in charge of policy.
Any thoughts about that? What response would you give him?
Well, first of all, let’s look over history. When Bush came into office, he led an effort to add to the very narrow Republican numbers in the House. I think we were down to six or seven seats at that point, advantage — and we were not in control of the Senate. And in his first mid-term, in the 2002 election, Bush did something that’s only happened one other time in American politics. That is, the White House party gained seats in its first off year election.
In 2004, Bush ran for re-election, and not only won re-election despite being out-spent by $124 million by the Democrats, but he said at the very first of the campaign, and I talk about it in the book, “I don’t want a lonely victory.” I don’t want to run up my numbers. I want to do things that help other candidates down the ballot win so on election night, I don’t have a 1984 or a 1972, where the President gets re-elected, but he looks around and there are not other people on the stand with him.
So Bush worked very hard and directed his campaign to work very hard to do exactly that. You know, it’s nice to be able, in retrospect, to write off John Kerry as never having a chance. But, I would remind him the Democratic Party was united, the country was in an unpopular war, and I repeat, the Democrats outspent us by $124 million. Six or seven million dollars came from George Soros and an equal amount came from five of his friends. That’s the kind of disadvantage that we faced and we won. Not only that, but Bush won re-election by adding to his numbers in the House and the Senate. You know Presidents, when they re-elected, sometimes they add to the numbers in the House, and sometimes add to their numbers in the Senate, but this is the only time where a President has won re-election while adding to his numbers in both the House and the Senate.
Then in 2005, we passed a major piece of energy legislation, particularly removing obstacles to the creation of additional nuclear power plants. When we came in, there were none. This has also increased the amount of off-shore development of oil and natural gas resources and opened up additional resources on land. It increased alternative energy resources and modernized the electricity grid. Though we made a big effort to pass reform legislation that would gain control of Fannie and Freddie…it took a couple more years to get it done.
But, look, understand that I don’t really know Mr. Latimer. I saw him at the White House occasionally. When his name started to pop up, I literally had to google his picture in order to figure out who he was. We never had a particularly good working relationship because I first met him in the aftermath of the 2005 election, when as a speechwriter at the State Department, he attempted to have a friend of his hired as a researcher of the State Department. This was a political job, one of the jobs that could go to a non-career person, but this woman could not remember whether or not she voted in the 2004 election, and if she had voted, whom she had voted for. This was at a time when we were trying to make certain that we placed as many of the young men and women who had worked in the 2004 campaign in jobs. We thought volunteers for months or even years deserved a chance to have service in the government. It set off our relationship on an acrimonious note and it apparently never got any better.
What do you say to people who claim waterboarding is torture and if it were your call, would we be using waterboarding today?
It was not torture. It was very carefully designed. If it’s torture, then we are guilty of torturing thousands of U.S. military personnel every year who go through evasion and rescue training — particularly in the Navy. It was very carefully designed by lawyers at the Defense Department to meet our laws and our international commitments.
I feel so strongly about this I posted all of those memos on my website at rove.com so people could go read them for themselves and see the care that was taken to define what could be done and what could not be done given our laws and our international commitments.
Waterboarding was only used in extreme cases on high value targets who had been trained to resist any other form of interrogation. It was employed on three people. Those three then gave up large amounts of information that protected our country.
I think it was wise for us in the aftermath of 9-11 to do it and think that we should keep that tool available in other instances where we run up against people who have information that they could surrender to us that could save lives, but will not surrender it because of the nature of the training that they’ve received.
Another decision a lot of conservatives ask about was the choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. It was one choice that predictably infuriated conservatives. As we saw with Alito, the President was able to push through an A-list candidate whom the base was happy with. Can you explain the thinking behind the choice of Harriet Miers?
It sort of amazed me, because I know Harriet Miers, and I knew her as a strong conservative. Anyone who dealt with her in the White House Counsel’s office, with all the thorny questions that came through there, know what a strong conservative she was. She was as strong a conservative as she had been in her legal practice in Texas where she was the first woman managing partner of a major Texas law firm, the first woman to be President of the State Bar, the first woman to be President of the Dallas County Bar, and a very able person who served in many points in public life. You may remember one of the things that infuriated the Democrats was that they found out that when she was on the Dallas City Council, she had taken very strong pro-life positions.
What we misjudged was that she was not welcomed by conservatives in Washington, D.C. and if they wouldn’t trust Bush even after all he had done to advance conservatives in the judiciary, this was one step too far for them. …So they erupted and they did not support her.
It is a testament to Harriet’s character that her response to this was to watch carefully and then go to President Bush and say, “Mr. President, you may not win this battle, and if you do, you will have too much in the way of your political capital do so, so I ask that you would allow me to withdraw my name” — and she did.
I’ve known her personally for years and she would have been a superb conservative judge on the bench as many people who have dealt with her have said in recommending her.
Last question, Karl. The guy I’ve most heard you compared to is Lee Atwater, which is a pretty flattering comparison for a Republican strategist. Now that being said, at the end of his life, Lee Atwater said he regretted some of the things he said and did to particular people. Is there anything you regret in the political arena?
Well, look, life is not without regret. You can’t go through life and say, “Geez, I wish I hadn’t done this or done that or said this or said that to a person.” But, I am proud of my political career. I have been proud of the people that I have been able to be associated with as major candidates.
You know, Lee had a very sweet, sad time at the end of his life and I admire how he handled himself. He was sweet in the sense that he reconciled with a lot of people that he wanted to be reconciled with. It was sad in that he left us way too soon.
Karl, I really appreciate your time. You did a fantastic job. Have a good one, buddy.
…Thank you, buddy.
Once again, you can read more from Karl Rove at his website. Also, Karl Rove’s new book, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, is one of the hottest books in America. Make sure to pick-up a copy.
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