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.”

Some of Rove’s most informative and stirring pages describe skirmishes in the post-Reconstruction South. “The GOP’s ‘rotten borough,’” it “produced no Republican electoral votes but had a quarter of the seats” at the national nominating conventions, he points out. And it yielded a cadre of African-American activists like the remarkable Norris Wright Cuney of Texas, who fearlessly stood his ground against the Lily White Republicans (“whose name explained it all”). An insistent theme in the book is the GOP’s support of voting rights for blacks, with McKinley in the vanguard taking the “radical” step of addressing black audiences. There is no mistaking Rove’s purpose in describing this, nor in his account of how the “optimistic” McKinley “struck an inclusive tone [and] rejected attempts to ‘array class against class,’ and while making a pitch for tariffs he broadened his message by arguing sound money was better for laborers,” not just for their employers. Rove contrasts McKinley’s call for national unity contrasted with the “divisive rhetoric and class appeals” of McKinley’s opponent in the general election, William Jennings Bryan, the Nebraska populist and golden-throated champion of “free silver.” Rove follows Hofstadter in depicting Bryan as being driven by animosity toward morally depraved elites. (Are you listening, Ted Cruz?) In victory, McKinley restocked the dwindling pool of “white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the North and Southern blacks being systematically stripped of their right to vote,” adding to it “a frothy, diverse coalition of owners and workers, longtime Americans and new citizens.” (Are you listening, Donald Trump?)

Some have speculated that Rove’s longstanding interest in McKinley camouflages his deeper affinity for McKinley’s mentor and campaign impresario, Mark Hanna. But Rove’s book downplays Hanna’s importance, instead giving credit to others, in particular the “meticulous” lawyer Charles G. Dawes, who supplanted Hanna as the chief organizer in Illinois, a critical state. But it was McKinley himself, in Rove’s telling, who masterminded the victory. His most famous innovation, the “front porch” campaign he waged from his home in Canton, Ohio, was brilliantly executed. On one day alone, delegations arrived in as many as forty charter trains from “at least twenty-two states.” On another, one hundred thousand people were brought in, “factory workers, steelworkers, railroad laborers, traveling salesmen, hardware men.” The disciplined McKinley greeted them all with the same on-message speech on the virtues of “sound money” and the evils of free silver. It all worked, thanks to an “early, in-depth organization, structured, deliberate, and intense, run by men who were loyal” to a candidate who never wavered in his “relentless focus.” The campaign also collected a great deal of money. McKinley, in sum, was the forerunner not only of George W. Bush, but equally of Karl Rove, who contrived a latter-day front-porch campaign in Austin, Texas, when Governor George W. Bush ran for president. The “exploratory committee” formed in 1999 was a variation on McKinley-style big-tentism. Its members, Rove has written, included

“former secretary of state George P. Shultz; Condoleezza Rice; Senator Paul Coverdell; Representatives Henry Bonilla, Roy Blunt, J. C. Watts, Anne Northup, and Jennifer Dunn; Michigan governor John Engler; and former GOP national chairman Haley Barbour. ‘A good leader surrounds himself with smart, capable people…. That will be my hallmark as I explore a national campaign,’ Bush declared. I had recruited the group with phone calls and visits during February, and we believed its membership communicated seriousness.”

Candidate and strategist—“I” and “we”—merge into a single calculating entity. This may explain why in the 360 pages of Rove’s book there is not a single mention of what McKinley actually did as president or any attempt to show he was an accomplished leader. This omission is all the more puzzling given McKinley’s middling rank today and also the obvious parallels between his presidency and Bush 43’s. McKinley, too, took office on a domestic or “legislative” platform, only to be drawn, or pushed into, war with Spain. He too had a bellicose vice president (Theodore Roosevelt) who attained all but independent status as a war consul. These circumstances made McKinley, almost by accident, the originator of the imperial presidency, which seems to have ended, also accidentally (and ruinously), with Bush. Might that explain why Rove avoids the topic?


YET ROVE IS puzzlingly mute on other matters too. Even as he asserts that McKinley, if not quite a “wooly-headed reformer” was at least perceived as one by East Coast bosses, Rove says nothing about the actual reforms McKinley embraced or even contemplated, apart from his efforts to enrich the voter pool. McKinley as reformer is not an easy case to make. In his elegant biography (in the American Presidents series) the best Kevin Phillips can do is point to McKinley as table-setter for Theodore Roosevelt, providing “the political organization, the antimachine spirit, the critical party realignment, the cadre of skilled GOP statesmen who spanned a quarter of a century, the expert inquiries, the firm commitment to popular and economic democracy, and the leadership needed from 1896 through 1901 when TR was still maturing.” Rove doesn’t say even that much and so leaves untouched the conventional picture of McKinley as prototype of the uninspiring Taft and the dismal Harding and Coolidge. Rove likewise evades the possibility, raised by many historians, that it was Bryan who actually embodied the spirit of democratic reform, his rural populism planting the first seeds of protest that flowered a few years later in the great urban progressive movement. It is strange to read a book set in the peak years of the Industrial Age that altogether ignores the bleaker story of capitalism, though they were a matter of growing concern in the 1890s and were at least the partial cause of McKinley’s assassination in 1901. The brutal conditions in factories and workshops, the horrors of tenement life, the corruptions of politics and business that were vividly described by Ray Stannard Baker, David Graham Phillips and Ida Tarbell—all of it led to Roosevelt’s trust-busting and Woodrow Wilson’s regulatory reforms.

Rove doesn’t deny or refute or try to complicate these facts. He simply ignores them, which brings up the question, inescapable in any consideration of Rove in all his works and days, whether his encyclopedic command of politics coincides with indifference to the moral life of the country, which in turn may explain his indifference to program and policy, except as Pavlovian instrument. For Rove, there is no governance, only strategy and tactics—politics as warfare, plus marketing. Rove the historian manqué is no different from Rove the policy adviser, who “never pushed for a policy unless he saw a group of big funders or a significant electoral constituency which it might bring to the Republican Party,” Lemann observed in 2007, as Rove was getting ready to leave Washington. “Social Security privatization was supposed to attract middle-class people whose pensions had been invested in the stock market; immigration reform to attract Latinos and small-business owners; the No Child Left Behind law, public-school parents; and so on.”

But Lemann also located a second motive, or ambition. Bush and Rove weren’t just bored by governance, but hostile to it, and that hostility began in their loathing of the tradition that came after McKinley. Together, Lemann suggested, Bush and Rove actively tried “to abolish the Progressive Era, which, in their view, had given liberal ‘élites’—judges, journalists, policy analysts, bureaucrats—an electorally unearned thumb on the scales of government.” If this is true, then “the Rove presidency” incarnated the anti-government passions of the current moment. For some years now Rove has said otherwise. In Courage and Conscience he ardently defends Bush’s “faith-based” initiatives and points to the inclusion among its brain trust of the “Democratic” policy thinker John DiIulio. But DiIulio quit the administration after six months and later wrote:

“Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. . . . This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis—staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.”

The Triumph of William McKinley dispenses the same lesson as the Rove presidency. There is only one kind of “triumph”—victory at election time. High-minded slogans like “the people against the bosses” or “compassionate conservatism” belong to the same mystical realm as a putatively unifying politics built on the guerrilla techniques of opposition research and push-polling. Politics offers few permanent lessons, but one of them is that not one modern Republican president has plausibly come before the public as the defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast (though many have made appeals to the culturally aggrieved), and faith-based policies did nothing to change that fact. Neither do this year’s Republican debates, deafeningly silent on poverty and race amid promises of flat taxes and the abolishment of the IRS. Rove is no stranger to the antinomianism of the modern Republican Party. He helped create it.

A mist of Aesopian falsity clings to Rove’s historiography. His championing of voting rights for blacks in 1896 is subsumed in the higher quest of burnishing the GOP’s image. McKinley’s overtures were reproduced, but not updated, at the Republican convention in 2000, with its “Benetton-ad-style roster” (as Michelle Cottle described it at the time) artfully placed on stage in Philadelphia to distract our attention from the sea of Lily White delegates. There was no chance this ruse would deceive African-American voters, but it might salve the conscience of white TV viewers, who could believe that Bush, like McKinley, was a “different kind of Republican.” The response to Hurricane Katrina proved otherwise. So did Bush’s handling of the Voting Rights Act when it was due for renewal. “[W]e were dubious about it,” Rove has said. Bush signed the bill only “because Congress passed it.” Rove himself agreed with the Roberts Court when it reversed the key provisions in the VRA, despite the infringements he had to know would follow since the Texas legislature had been among the worst offenders, pushing through voter registration laws that a federal district judge, striking them down, described as an “unconstitutional poll tax” imposed on blacks and Latinos. The same Rove who is affronted by the second-class citizenship of blacks in the 1890s notoriously said of Obama in 2008, “He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by,” as if there had no been no intervening history of Jim Crow and racial covenants whose impact is still felt today, again, in Texas. In 2011 when it was reported that Rick Perry’s family had a hunting camp named “Niggerhead,” the Texas journalist Lou Dubose wrote:

“Bill Clements, the Republican governor who was Karl Rove’s first big play in 1979, was a member of the Koon Kreek Klub, an East Texas fin-and-feather camp within a half-day drive from Dallas, in Athens, Texas. As were 150 other patrician Texans, including most of the Dallas Social Register. (Membership at Koon Kreek has been closed for years; before running for governor, G. W. Bush bought a membership in the less offensive—but just as exclusively white—Rainbo Club, almost adjacent to the KKK.)”


THE MOST OBVIOUS silence in Rove’s book comes on the subject of McKinley’s electoral breakthrough. The map of 1896 does indeed look familiar, but its topography changed many years ago. The states McKinley won—in the northeast and around the Great Lakes, with their densely populated cities and suburbs, and ethnically and economically mixed populations—have been Democratic strongholds for two generations or more and seem almost certain to remain so, while the southern, plains and mountain states that went for Bryan now form the shrinking Republican base. Bryan’s map looked geographically strong but was numerically thin. So too for his actual heirs, today’s GOP. Questioned about this by Gabriel Sherman in New York Magazine, Rove replied, Yeah, well, look, the Democratic Party was the free-trade party, the party of tax cuts and of limited government. And the Republican Party was for protectionism and [African-American] voting rights.”

Meaning what, exactly—that Rove knew all along how flimsy a construct his and Bush’s neo-McKinleyism was, that the rolling realignment would screech to a halt as soon as reality set in? Rove gave no hint of this during Bush’s salad days. Josh Green has memorably described Rove at the peak of his power, basking in adulation as he spoke to journalists at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington a week after Bush’s reelection in 2004:

“Before taking questions, he removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket and rattled off a series of numbers that made clear how he wanted the election to be seen: not as a squeaker but a rout. ‘This was an extraordinary election,’ Rove said. ‘[Bush won] 59.7 million votes, and we still have about 250,000 ballots to count. Think about that—nearly 60 million votes! The previous largest number was Ronald Reagan in 1984, sweeping the country with 49 states. We won 81 percent of all the counties in America. We gained a percentage of the vote in 87 percent of the counties in America. In Florida, we received nearly a million votes more in this election than in the last one.’ Rove was officially there to talk about the campaign, but it was clear he had something much bigger in mind. So no one missed his point, he invoked Franklin Roosevelt’s supremacy in the 1930s and suggested that something similar was at hand: ‘We’ve laid out an agenda, we’ve laid out a vision, and now people want to see results.’”

This was voodoo arithmetic. Bush’s margin of victory was decidedly smaller than Obama’s in 2012. The House races were much closer too. And in 2006 it all came undone. Nevertheless Rove had reached his meridian, his exploits sung in what George Will called the “burgeoning literary genre—studies of Roveology,” books with titles like The Way to Win: Clinton, Bush, Rove, and How to Take the White House in 2008 or One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century. Meanwhile, the “boy genius,” in the role of elder statesman, issued sibylline warnings about complacency and drift, the dangers lurking in just those moments “when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a means to achieve the greater good.”

Did Rove sense even then that he was soon to become the relic of an outmoded politics that elevated partisan loyalty to the exclusion of all other political values? Rove’s message—“ask not what the party can do for you”—feels as anachronistic today as McKinley’s men snipping the ends of their cigars. In fact it was out of date by Bush’s second term. Rove’s claque, which included many journalists, ignored the dark trail he’d left in Texas, where he was viewed not as “the architect,” but as an old-style boss. One adversary was Thomas W. Pauken, a Dallas lawyer and evangelical Christian who had been the Texas Republican Party chairman in the early 1990s until Rove forced him to the sidelines. “I’m not mad at him,” Pauken told the authors of Boy Genius: The Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush. “I’m in political exile, and Karl’s running the country.” Once Rove was dethroned, Pauken had more to say. “It is dangerous to put political consultants in charge of policy,” he told the Washington Post in 2007. “The combination of big-government conservatism and the extraordinary neoconservative influence on foreign policy has been devastating.” This was Tea Party talk before the Tea Party existed. Big-government conservatism, some now forget, had been an epithet of praise, even celebration, by Bush-Rove admirers at The Weekly Standard.

But they, like Rove, had their history wrong. George W. Bush wasn’t the heir of McKinley, but of McKinley’s Ohio predecessors Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison. Both secured the presidency without winning the popular vote and so carried the same taint of illegitimacy that haunted George W. Bush. Rove is an admirer of Robert Wiebe’s history The Search For Order, 1877–1920. Its most apposite passages today are those describing not the 1890s, but the 1870s, the difficult period in which “war and reconstruction had helped to disrupt an entire system of government,” Wiebe writes, with the result that for many Americans “politics as a vocation was never truly ‘legitimate work’; most successful politicians continued to designate themselves lawyers, or businessmen or generals, as if they were temporarily on leave from their real occupations.” McKinley couldn’t say this about himself. But Donald Trump and Ben Carson can. Wiebe also notes that the economic panic of 1873 profoundly weakened Americans’ belief in themselves. The nation had fallen from Protestant grace and so deserved “economic punishment.” Salvation must come from the people themselves, from “every man’s ability to know that God had ordained modesty in women, rectitude in men, and thrift, sobriety, and hard work in both.”

This is the sentiment that guides many conservatives today. The Republicans may get their majority in 2016, but it won’t be the one Rove foresaw. But give him points for stubbornness. He won’t give it up. In June 2013, when the Senate passed the immigration reform bill—doomed on arrival, House undertakers said—Rove warned, “If the GOP leaves nonwhite voters to the Democrats, then its margins in safe congressional districts and red states will dwindle—not overnight, but over years and decades.” And in presidential cycles it would be fatal too, unless future nominees can find a way to “improve their performance among Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.” Apart from the immigration bill, nothing in Rove’s own agenda was meant to better conditions for those constituencies. He is stuck in the age of McKinley, when a speech delivered to blacks was an act of political bravery. No matter. No one on the right is listening now. Rove thought he would become essential to the Republican future. Instead, he is a ghost of the discarded past, the hollow man of the Bush years, a figure of fun. In truth, his vision of a “different” kind of Republican politics was always a mirage. It is now a desert waste, the blossoms long faded, though the stench lingers.

Sam Tanenhaus is writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr.

Image: Flickr/LBJ Library