Karl Rove: I Did Not Pull Dirty Tricks

"Bush's brain" opens up about personal history in "Today" interview

By Mike Celizic
|  Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010  |  Updated 10:16 AM EDT
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Karl Rove: I Did Not Pull Dirty Tricks

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Karl Rove opened up about his life in a "Today" interview.

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Karl Rove said his reputation as a down-and-dirty political campaigner is undeserved. Tricks attributed to him were either media distortions or the work of others, he told TODAY’s Matt Lauer during an interview Monday on TODAY.

Rove specifically said he had nothing to do with the smear tactics used against Sen. John McCain in South Carolina during the 2000 Republican presidential primary campaign.

During a two-day interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, the former senior advisor to President George W. Bush insisted he is not a negative campaigner. But Rove grew emotional when he talked about his mother, who committed suicide when he was 30 — possibly, it has been alleged, because Rove’s father may have been gay.

‘A pretty nasty view’
Rove defended himself by saying that the American public cannot possibly be so stupid as to buy into the lies associated with negative campaigns.

In his new book, “Courage And Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight,” Rove writes:

“I have become an adjective. There is something called a Rovian-style of campaigning and it's meant as an insult. One columnist said it consists mainly of throwing mud until it sticks. One prominent blogger described the elements of a textbook Rovian race as fear-based, smear-based and anything goes.”

“You know, that's a pretty nasty view of the American voting public,” Rove commented after Lauer read the passage back to him. “I have more respect for the American public than that.  They're not easily misled. They try and do a good thing when they go into the voting booth.”

One of the more notorious dirty tricks of which Rove is accused is the so-called “push-pull poll” conducted in South Carolina during the 2000 primaries, when George W. Bush and John McCain were vying for the Republican presidential nomination. The poll suggested that McCain, who has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh, had fathered an illegitimate child with a black woman.

“Nothing to do with it,” McCain told Lauer of the rumor. “This is the kind of thing the media love, these kind of allegations. But for people in practical politics, I’ve got to tell you, I was seized with fear when this rumor began to circulate through South Carolina. It was sent out by a professor at Bob Jones University.”

Rove then used the anecdote to criticize the way McCain dealt with the smear.

“I thought John McCain would seize it for what it was, which was an enormous opportunity to give an insight into who he and his wife are because Cindy McCain adopted a child from an orphanage in Bangladesh,” Rove told Lauer. “The story of this is an incredible tale of love and compassion. But rather than doing that, John McCain said, ‘I'm a victim,’ and was angry and complained about it and pointed the finger at Bush when he had no evidence whatsoever.”

Like Boris Badenov?
Others, including fellow Republicans, don’t buy Rove’s denials. As Lauer reported, “Roy Fletcher, McCain’s deputy campaign manager said of the South Carolina smear, quote, ‘This whole thing, it was orchestrated by Rove.’ ”

And Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife, said she would not stab Rove in the back if he walked by her. “I would stab him in the front,” she reportedly said.

Lauer also read a quote from Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter, who wrote of Rove: “He was what all the liberals said he was, the villain. And to make matters worse, a clumsy one at that. He turned out to be less a Voldemort than a Boris Badenov chasing Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

Rove didn’t flinch.

“Well, I do like Rocky and Bullwinkle,” he joked. “Cindy McCain and the McCain campaign, Fletcher and others, they needed somebody to blame. And they didn't want to blame Bush. It was hard to blame Bush. He's a nice guy. People knew him. It wouldn't stick. So, why not pick out the sort of dough-faced, you know, balding guy who's the gray eminence behind the campaign and blame him,” Rove continued, referring to himself.

“And look, that's the way politics is. Bush had a theory: He'd say, ‘Better you than me.’ And that's right. That came with the territory.”

A mother’s suicide
Rove also talked at length about the death of his mother, Reba Wood, in 1981. After raising five children and becoming a grandmother, Wood took her own life after her second husband, Louis Rove, left her.

“She drove into the desert and taped up the windows, connected the tailpipe to a hose and got in the car and killed herself,” Rove said.

Wood left two notes behind: one to the police to let them know that she did take her own life, and one to her children and her two grandchildren.

“She basically said that she was sorry, but that life had been hard. She apologized for how this had made her act towards us, told us that she was proud of us, sent special words to her grandchildren and said she loved us,” he said.

“How do you deal with that? How do you hold a letter like that?” Lauer asked.

“Well, it's hard,” Rove said. “Life is rough for a lot of people. Some people live in greater material circumstances than others, but life is rough for everybody. And to have five children who loved her and to have grandchildren, and yet to feel that there is so little in your life that you're going to end it, it's got to be just horrible.”

Rove had thought that Louis Rove was his father. He discovered at the age of 19 that the elder Rove was actually his mother’s second husband and had adopted Karl. The timing of the couple’s divorce coincides with the time when it was said that Louis Rove was gay.

Painful topics
Rove wrote about that period in his life extensively. Why? Lauer asked.

“I just wanted to set the record straight, because I mean, again, this was a political attack on me,” Rove told Lauer. “In order to get to me, people had to say ugly things about my parents. I don't know whether my father was, at the end of his life, gay or not. I just don't. I don't think so, but I don't know … My mother never said to us that their marriage fell apart because my father was gay.”

That story, he suggested, as invented by the media.

“The journalists who say, ‘Well, obviously, he was gay, And Karl had to know that. And this is why she committed suicide.’ They don't know what they're talking about,” Rove said.

Rove said he would have preferred to leave his personal life out of the book, he said, but felt an obligation to visit subjects that are painful for him to discuss.

“It’s not comfortable for me to write about my family. I'm not comfortable writing about me,” Rove said. “But I wanted to do this … It was a chance to set the record straight about two people whom I loved a lot.”

Karl Rove will join Matt Lauer live on TODAY Tuesday to talk further about himself and his new book.

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