Triumph of the underdog

Rove's Utah roots help him defy the odds

By Lee Davidson
Deseret News Washington correspondent

Published: Sunday, Dec. 8 2002 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Karl Rove rocks with laughter in his White House office as he describes the unorthodox strategy that won a race most people figured was impossible.

He is not describing his direction of George W. Bush's runs for Texas governor and president of the United States. Nor is it his helping Texas Republicans to take over all its 29 statewide offices just a few years after losing all but one. It isn't even this year's electrifying GOP gains in Congress, which pundits and opponents credit him with orchestrating.

The smiles come from Rove's 1968 run for student council president at Olympus High School in Utah.

It — plus some later mentoring by, surprisingly, some liberal Democrats in Utah — taught him how hard work and unexpected moves can help underestimated longshots win against long odds. That's useful in working with Bush, whom Rove says "is one of those people who, for whatever reason, is chronically underestimated."

Rove, Bush's top political strategist, says that no one looking at him back in 1968 would expect him to win that student senate race against a popular opponent who had been president of both their sophomore and junior classes.

"I was the complete nerd. I had the briefcase. I had the pocket protector. I wore Hush Puppies when they were not cool. I was the thin, scrawny little guy. I was definitely uncool," he says. He spent his free time in the library preparing for the debate team.

But the teacher adviser to the student senate, Pat Ferrell, talked him into running. With her help, they recruited "the popular captain of the basketball team and an incredibly attractive senior girl to be chairmen of my campaign."

Next, he said, they found maybe the most talented artist in the school to make the campaign posters. "We made our signs by cutting words out of magazines. It was exceptionally witty and funny — and nerdy," he says.

But the big challenge would be in the school elections assembly. Rove said his opponent, John Sorensen, "had always won by having himself delivered to the podium to give his speech in an outhouse. John Sorensen — get it? John (a synonym for outhouse)?"

Rove expected a repeat and says he knew it would be tough to outdo that.

So his campaign sneaked a Volkswagen into school hallways by removing some doors. "I made my entrance into the auditorium in a Volkswagen Bug filled with incredibly attractive girls. Two girls on each arm delivered me to the podium," he said.

Rove said the stunt "inflamed the principal" but helped the underdog win the unwinnable race with hard work, finding new ways to spread his message, and doing the unexpected — mixed with luck.

Rove, 51, said those are among the many political lessons he learned, and still uses, from the five years he lived in Utah.

"It wasn't a long period of time, but it was a great period of time," he said.

Toppling dominoes

Rove's family, which lived earlier in Colorado and Nevada, moved to Utah when he was entering high school so his father could take a job with Vitro chemical. Rove would later attend the University of Utah for two years before leaving to chase political opportunities elsewhere.

But, quite literally, the falling dominoes of political connections that led him to the White House began at Olympus High School with a teacher-mentor named Eldon Tolman.

"He has since departed. But he was everything I am not. He was a liberal Democrat. He loved labor unions. He was an official of the Utah Education Association and was a huge Lyndon Johnson Democrat," Rove says.

But Tolman also inspired a love of politics in Rove — and literally pushed Rove into campaigning.

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