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Triumph of the underdog

Rove's Utah roots help him defy the odds

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.
"In 1968, he said everybody else could get an 'A' in his class by doing the course work. . . . But he said if I wanted an 'A,' I had to get involved in a political campaign," Rove says.
So he did. "I was the Olympus High chairman for (former U.S. Sen.) Wallace F. Bennett's re-election campaign, where he was opposed by the dynamic, young, aggressive political science professor at the University of Utah, J.D. Williams."
Williams would also later become another mentor of Rove, and Bennett's son — current Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah — would become a friend.
The experience pushed over more dominoes toward the White House. The next came when friends from the Bennett campaign, and an internship with the Utah Republican Party, helped Rove land a job on a Senate campaign in Illinois. That, in turn, led to a job as executive director of the national College Republicans.
That led to Rove later being elected chairman of the College Republicans just as George Herbert Walker Bush became chairman of the Republican National Committee. The senior Bush met and liked Rove and hired him as an aide.
Rove even introduced the senior Bush to Lee Atwater — who became Bush's main strategist and RNC chairman. Atwater had helped Rove win election as College Republicans chairman. Rove was later also the first person hired by the senior Bush when he ran for president unsuccessfully in 1980 but became vice president.

Taking Texas
While working for the senior Bush at the RNC, Rove was asked to meet George W. Bush the day before Thanksgiving 1973 at Union Station in Washington to give him the keys to the family car. He was coming to town from Harvard for the holiday.
Rove has never forgotten the meeting.
"He showed up and was wearing his flight jacket from the National Guard and Levis and cowboy boots, and exhibited more charisma than any one individual should have. I, of course, punctured the balloon by handing him the keys to the family car, which was a purple Gremlin with Levis interior," Rove says.
"For a guy who drove a bright red sports car around the Harvard yard, that wasn't impressive. But when it came to cars, his dad was a famous cheapskate. And he got a great deal on the purple Gremlin with Levis interior," Rove says.
Rove became better acquainted with George W. Bush during his father's runs for the White House, and later when Rove and the younger Bush both moved to Texas. "I married a Texan, so it was only a matter of time before I moved to Texas."
Rove worked for numerous high-profile Republicans in Texas and formed a political consulting company. He helped the party make great gains. In not many years, it went from the party having only one statewide office to holding them all, and from holding only a few seats in the Legislature to controlling it. Rove will not take credit for this personally, but friends and foes said he had a large role.
He also helped George W. Bush decide to run for governor in 1993 — and to figure out how to better present his message to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

A new approach
To accomplish this, Rove used lessons learned back in Utah.
For example, he said, both Democrats J.D. Williams and Eldon Tolman "taught me that no matter where you are in the political spectrum, you can love this country," and they helped him see how to appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.
Rove worked with Bush to make his Republican messages more palatable to Democrats. "He put it in terms that people could understand and spoke with a new vocabulary for a Republican," Rove says.
"For example, on welfare, the traditional rhetoric from Republicans is they (those receiving aid) are a bunch of welfare cheats, and people who didn't deserve our support were getting checks. Instead, he talked about how dependency on the government saps the soul and drains the spirit."
Rove adds that the importance of learning how to speak to political opponents without threatening them was made clear at the age of 9 years old, when he decided to support Richard Nixon in 1960 against John F. Kennedy.
"There was a little girl across the street who was Catholic and found out I was for Nixon, and she was avidly for Kennedy. She put me down on the pavement and whaled on me and gave me a bloody nose. I lost my first political battle," he said.
Bush won the Texas governor's office against popular incumbent Democrat Ann Richards with the new approach aided by Rove, who says Bush also was underestimated by Richards until it was too late.
Bush used many of the same lessons when he ran for president, including describing himself as a "compassionate conservative." Most political observers credit Rove for coining that phrase — but he won't say he did.
"A lot of people do give me undue credit. It's part of the way that he (Bush) gets underestimated," Rove says.
Rove said such underestimation makes his political work easier, including this year's congressional campaigns.
Historically, a president's party almost always loses seats in a mid-term election in Congress. Instead of resigning himself to that, Bush took political risks to campaign hard in areas where Rove and others thought it would help — risking being blamed for overall losses most thought were inevitable.
It was as unorthodox as sneaking the Volkswagen into the assembly — something most would not do. But it worked, and Republicans picked up seats in the House and regained control of the Senate.
"It was a gamble," Rove recalls. "But the president said, 'Hey, look, I have some political capital, and political capital is perishable. If I don't expend effort . . . the administration will be criticized if I fail to make gains, so why not participate and see if we can help the outcome?' "
While pundits and Democrats have credited Rove with the strategy that energized Republicans to high voter turnout and wins in this year's elections, Rove won't take credit for that, either.
He said it was Bush's decision and another example of how the president is underestimated.
Rove says he isn't sure why that happens. "He is one of the best-read people I have ever met. He is a Yale undergraduate who majored in history. He is a Harvard MBA (master's of business administration), the first MBA to ever become president.
"And yet people, for whatever reason — maybe because he's pleasant, a very good person, likable and easy to approach — people underestimate him."
They have underestimated Rove, too, ever since he was the nerd running for student council president. But he has won most everything possible since then, using that Utah-taught hard work.
But, in true fashion of Utahns who hate braggarts, he won't take any credit for the political treasures he has helped others win. The most he will do is say, "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was lucky."
And as a result, he has managed to help others — politically speaking — sneak several Volkswagens into auditoriums, too.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com

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