Young Rove's dreams became everyone else's nightmare

This is an archived article that was published on in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The year was 1968. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shaping history. Little did I know that walking next to me in the halls of Olympus High School that year was a friend who would shape history in 2004 as profoundly as these events did in 1968, the year Karl Rove and I were 17.

Karl started out with every social disadvantage. He was the new kid, physically still pre-pubescent, the classic nerd, with Coke-bottle glasses, pants too short, belt too tight and, to make it even worse, he was non-Mormon.

Yet at a very clique-ish high school, he managed to break into the social elite by understanding who was in charge and how to appeal to them. He had an energetic but not a charismatic personality. He was intelligent, but not a genius; he was well-read, but tried a little too hard to let you know that.

Karl became my friend and political counterpart. I was the student body president; he was president-elect of the student senate. We conducted political conventions at our high school. He organized the Republicans. I organized the Democrats.

But when the convention was over, the rest of us went back to worrying about our next zit, our next date, making the team. Some thought about college, the SATs, the war and occasionally "What does it all mean?"

Karl remained consumed by politics; not the ideology, the principles or the social ramifications of politics, but the infrastructure, the wheeling and dealing, the game and, most of all, the winning.

Most of our friends were academically focused with goals of becoming doctors, lawyers, professors and scientists. But with typical youthful idealism we also dreamed about our future romances, our families and making the world a better place.

Karl was the only 17-year-old I'd ever met whose dreams were limited to being a political operative, period. One mutual friend said, "Karl would stare at a sunset and see only the political implications of it." I never remember Karl talking about making the world a better place.

His next milestone: At age 22 he conducted a conference for young Republicans on the art of dirty-tricks politics.

Thirty years later he has accumulated a remarkable winning streak at political gamesmanship, but with the Machiavellian mantra of the end always justifies the means. The means have been astonishingly brutal.

When Rove decided to reach for the top he found the only presidential candidate who lacked everything he could provide. The symbiosis of Bush and Rove has steamrolled through the political landscape like the Terminator wearing an Alfred E. Newman mask and a cowboy hat.

On the outside there is Bush, with his "aw shucks" down-home-guy act who says he's on a mission from God. On the inside is Rove, the scorched-earth killing machine whose mission is to destroy every political opponent in its path.

On the outside there is Bush, who brags about not reading newspapers or anything else. On the inside there is Rove who reads everything and has unmatched attention to detail.

On the outside is Bush, who seems to truly believe in Bible literalism and creationism and who admits to allowing his foreign policy to be shaped by an apocalyptic view of the imminent second coming of Jesus. On the inside is Rove, who thinks of the Second Coming as the re-elect-Jesus campaign.

For Karl, winning is the only goal and the tactics used have no ethical, moral, factual or even legal restraint. The latest edition of Rove's smear campaigns came in the form of the Swift Boat Veterans' now totally discredited version of John Kerry's Vietnam service. It did what smear campaigns always do. It diverted attention away from what really matters.

I can't say that in 1968 I saw all the seeds of what Karl Rove would become. I am surprised more people haven't been willing to stand in his way. But a person that relentless, that single-minded, that focused loses peripheral vision, and that's where someone more introspective might see the collateral damage of their obsession.

If Karl the Terminator would pause long enough to turn his head a little to either side he would notice that in the movie of real life the victims scattered all over the highway are not just the Democrats but democracy itself. An electorate distracted by dirty tricks is less able to vote to protect the public interest, which is the whole purpose of democracy. A distracted, deceived and fearful electorate is the precursor of fascism.

Far better than any of his old friends, Karl truly has achieved his dream job. Unfortunately for the rest of us it's become our nightmare.


Dr. Brian Moench is an anesthesiologist at LDS Hospital and former instructor at Harvard Medical School.