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Utahns see Rove's legacy as one of political genius - and questionable ethics

Published August 14, 2007 1:45 am
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WASHINGTON - Presidential adviser Karl Rove may be the one of most famous students to attend the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics - and also one of its greatest disappointments, one of his political mentors said Monday.

At the same time, Rove has no shortage of admirers in Utah, and is widely acknowledged for his ability to crunch voter data and turn it into a winning political formula.

Rove, who graduated from Salt Lake County's Olympus High and launched his political career at the U., is leaving the White House at the end of the month, he said Monday.

The former Utahn excelled in the realm of politics, rising to President Bush's deputy chief of staff. But he never learned the ethics of the game, says J.D. Williams, a former U. political science professor who taught Rove.

"He certainly demonstrated a command and love for politics," Williams, a Democrat, said Monday. "He loved politics. [But he] missed out on the other critical aspect of it and that was . . . the ability to play the game fairly and with honor."

Rove's departure ends about 14 years of working side by side with Bush, from campaigning to get Bush elected governor of Texas to planning the initial White House bid. The two have been friends for 34 years, the president noted.

"It has been an exhilarating and eventful time," Rove said Monday.

Rove had hoped that Williams, who is often referred to as the dean of Utah political scientists, would be proud of his work.

"My career has been to fight for causes and candidates I'm certain you disapprove of," Rove wrote Williams in a 1992 letter when Williams retired, "but I am equally confident that you approve of my being in the fight."

But Williams doesn't approve.

"He understood the necessity of getting involved in politics and he played that game to an art," Williams says. "He was absolutely superb. . . . But he missed the other part, and that was that politics should be an honorable profession."

Rove - credited as the architect of Bush's rise to power and the Republicans' hold on Congress until last year - has been at the center of several political firestorms and investigations in Washington since his arrival. And he leaves during on ongoing probe into the questionable firing of several U.S. attorneys last year that may yet result in contempt of Congress charges.

"Rove's ethics or lack thereof will always be at issue," says Kirk Jowers, the director of the Hinckley Institute, which helped Rove get internships at the Utah and national Republican parties in the late 1960s.

While Rove's power and influence in the White House was far-reaching, Jowers believes that it ultimately became a millstone for the administration's policies and explains why Bush now finds himself hovering in the low 30s in job approval polls.

"Anytime you let a person who is genius in politics control areas where his self-interest is different than the country's, you're asking for problems," Jowers said.

Despite that, Jowers says Rove was masterful in analyzing voter data and using it to shape public opinion. And he never wavered in his support for Bush.

"Rove was incredibly loyal to his boss," Jowers said. "Any leader can appreciate that quality."

Jowers made a formal request to Rove's office to have him donate his personal papers to the U., where Rove spent two years but did not graduate.

Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, says Rove will be known as the strategist who pioneered the idea of merging the knowledge of how to win elections to winning the minds of voters while governing.

"His real legacy is the way he's taken the tools of politics and moved them into the heart of the White House," Patterson said.

Those who oppose the GOP or President Bush may see Rove's legacy as the evil genius behind the curtain. But supporters of the president and Republican loyalists see Rove as the person who helped usher in a new era.

"Those two filters will shape people's opinions toward him," Patterson said.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said it was nice to have someone from Utah with so much influence. Like anybody who is a significant player in society, he says Rove will have detractors and supporters.

But, Cannon adds, "history may well render a very different verdict than what his opponents are saying in the shrillest of terms."

Rove was born in Colorado, but moved to Utah when his father, a geologist, relocated. His first campaign was running for student body president at Olympus High.

"[Whether] munching Oreos or politicking, Mr. Karl Rove was a man of the people," his 1969 yearbook read. "He put the Olympian [student body] Senate into motion with his characteristically well-versed arguments and witty comments."

One of Rove's first big-time campaigns was for GOP Sen. Wallace Bennett, whose son, Bob, is now Utah's junior senator.

Sen. Bob Bennett's spokeswoman, Sarah Stevenson, said Monday that the senator believes that campaign marked the "beginning of a very impressive career in politics and public service."





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