Karl Rove's Gilded Age

February 19, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Karl RoveGeorge W. BushHistoryElectionsUnited States

Karl Rove's Gilded Age

The hollowness of Big Government Conservatism—then and now

Karl Rove, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 496 pp., $32.50.

THESE ARE trying times for Karl Rove, and for the “big-government” Republicanism he did so much to create and promote. In November it will be ten years since his first major political defeat, the 2006 midterm disaster that gave the Democrats majorities in both the Senate and the House, halting the “rolling realignment” Rove had predicted two years before after the narrow reelection of his boss, George W. Bush. In August 2007, with the house of cards collapsing, Rove, its “architect,” slipped out the side exit, just ahead of Senate investigators looking at his part in the mass firing of U.S. Attorneys in what Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said were “apparent attempts to manipulate elections and push out prosecutors citing bogus claims of voter fraud.” The freshman senator Barack Obama, asked to comment on Rove’s legacy, suggested that he had, after all, been a master builder—of “a political strategy that has left the country more divided, the special interests more powerful and the American people more shut out from their government than any time in memory.”

Released from the Beltway, Rove might have retreated to higher ground—like his boss, reborn as Churchillian painter and memoirist, or Dick Cheney, coming forth at intervals to recite new dark verses in his Book of Revelation. There is also the example of David Axelrod, every bit Rove’s equal as campaign maestro, now contentedly directing the mugwumpish Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, while also offering pastoral homilies on the harshening Clinton-Sanders contest via CNN and Twitter (“Man, this is what I DON’T miss about politics: Finger-pointing & post mortems before 1st game’s even been played!”)

A game? Not for Rove. He pledged himself long ago to “the fight,” whether waged on the high plains of battleground states or in knifethrusts in the back alleys of Fox News. His previous book, the memoir Courage and Consequence, relitigated every controversy in the Bush presidency, large and small, with a fanaticism that rekindled the suspicion that it really had been “the Rove presidency,” in Joshua Green’s phrase.

Now Rove is back, with The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, its publication timed for the GOP nomination, its hero “a different kind of Republican who felt the GOP must broaden its base,” in proleptic rebuke of today’s party, intent on defying the facts of demographic change. McKinley as subject will not surprise seasoned Rove-watchers. “Karl Rove has a riff, which he gives to anybody who will listen, entitled ‘It’s 1896,’” Nicholas Lemann reported in January 2000, when Rove was steering Bush toward the nomination:

“Every national political reporter has heard it, to the extent that it induces affectionate eyerolling when it comes up. ‘It’s 1896’ is based on Rove’s reading of the work of a small school of conservative revisionist historians of the Gilded Age (that is, historians who love the Gilded Age), one of whom, Lewis Gould, taught a graduate course that Rove took at the University of Texas.

Here’s the theory, delivered at Rove’s mile-a-minute clip: everything you know about William McKinley and Mark Hanna—the man elected president in 1896 and his political Svengali—is wrong. The country was in a period of change. McKinley’s the guy who figured it out. Politics were changing. The economy was changing. We’re at the same point now: weak allegiances to parties, a rising new economy.”

Rove has poured this pent-up enthusiasm into the familiar mold of the you-are-there campaign history. The result isn’t especially good, but it isn’t especially bad either. And much effort has gone into it. Rove thanks archivists and researchers who dug through the “faded manuscripts and discontinued newspapers” his narrative draws on, and he seems to have absorbed the entire secondary literature. It’s gratifying to read an ideological conservative who quotes, rather than heckles, Richard Hofstadter. And there is something else, too—Rove’s feeling for the personal, human cost of politics. The best pages in Courage and Consequence were the first ones, on his painful childhood and youth, and they helped explain—if not quite mitigate—the grim brass-knuckling of adversaries: Democrats, hostile journalists and the Republican defector Jim Jeffords. Campaign maestros develop an almost maternal attention to the inner lives of the “talent” they serve, and this solicitude shines through Rove’s gentle portrait of McKinley’s sorrowful marriage. It matters to Rove that McKinley doted on his wife, Ida, a quasi-invalid who endured a torment of headaches, seizures and paralysis, worsened by the deaths of two young daughters—one died of cholera, the other of scarlet fever. McKinley was “quick to attend without complaint to her every whim and need,” interrupted meetings to check in on her, finding time, even during his first election, to the House of Representatives in 1876, “to sit in the darkened parlor at night, talking with his wife.”

What Rove doesn’t seem to care about is McKinley’s political ideals: how and why he came to them, how they developed and changed over time, if indeed they did. Rove’s McKinley wears his politics as Rove does—as an armored suit he climbs into each morning when he sallies forth to meet the opposition. From his congressional years on, McKinley was a solid party man, who embraced the two Republican articles of faith, the protective tariff and “sound money”—maintaining the gold standard against the radical crusade for “free silver.” Conflicts over trade and currency dominated the shallow politics of the post-Civil War period, as both parties ignored the social crisis seething below. Rove is right that in this narrow world McKinley was a better specimen than most—the “Apostle of Protection,” but not of its evil twin, anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic protectionism. As governor of Ohio, McKinley spread the patronage to Catholics, Rove points out.

Whether McKinley’s ideological passions reached further, Rove doesn’t say. His interest is in the mechanics of McKinley’s first presidential campaign, in which he outmaneuvered the internal Republican opposition and exposed the rust in the creaking, top-down, boss-driven machinery. McKinley changed “the nature of how future Republican candidates would run” through his method of a nationally orchestrated direct approach to voters, and he invited everyone in, “reaching out to ethnic groups such as Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Bohemians, Scandinavians, Poles, and a dozen varieties of hyphenated Americans.” McKinley’s slogan “the People Against the Bosses,” like “compassionate conservatism” a century later, elevated McKinley just enough above his contemporaries, almost all of them transparent shills for speculators and bankers, to make him presidential: George W. Bush in a brackish sea of Mitt Romneys and Rick Perrys.

Rove may be the last of the election-season romantics. He happily masticates every kernel of campaign corn, overcooked just like everything else in the Gilded Age: the flags and bunting, the “parades, bands, and picnics, even glee clubs,” the Abner Dilworthy bombast, the cigars. At times he sounds like a weekend docent on his first excited tour. “Illinois Republicans convened at ‘the Dome,’ a wooden hemisphere about 222 feet high, resting on four-square two-story brick boxes . . . Half a dozen gigantic flags hung from its big oval ceiling along with 102 streamers, each bearing an Illinois county’s name.” The awestruck tone reinforces the feeling one has had all along that “Karl Rove tactics,” in Bernie Sanders’s phrase, originate in deep sentiment, or sentimentality. “All bad poetry comes from genuine feeling,” Oscar Wilde said many cultural revolutions ago. The same may be said of thumb-in-the-eye, knee-in-the groin electioneering, so often inspired by swooning love of God and country. George W. Bush’s nickname for Rove, “turd blossom,” is not just funny, but apt: spread the fertilizer thickly enough, and the desert sprig will bloom.

Today McKinley seems to fit the cut-out profile of the five Ohio mediocrities, all Civil War veterans, who tenanted the White House in the post-Lincoln, pre-Theodore Roosevelt era, but he was not the first choice in 1896 of the East Coast “Combine.” This group preferred Thomas B. Reed of Maine, the powerful House speaker. The crux of Rove’s story is how McKinley won anyway, building his case at state nominating conventions, dozens of them held across the country at a time when the only means of long-distance travel was the locomotive. Rove reminds us that presidential campaigns were no less grueling in the era before the direct primary than they are today, at least for candidates who hadn’t sewed up the victory in advance, and he brings a professional’s appreciation to McKinley’s patient planning. He developed organizations in each state as it came up, winning the majority of the fifteen conventions held from January through March in 1896. (The Democrats had more than thirty state conventions, seventeen in a six-week period.) Rove’s appetite for vote-counting is deadening at times, but usefully recreates the tedium of the slow crawl to victory:

“The roll call of 102 counties took nearly an hour. After the first 15 counties, it was 41 aye and 78 no . . . Cook County voted 267 aye to 78 nay . . . a two-to-one majority . . . The remaining counties were strongly pro-McKinley, voting three-to-one no, leaving the final tally 503 aye to 832 no. McKinley had taken Illinois with 62 percent.”