BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back in 1973, Karl Rove was president of the College Republicans, and as far back as his college days, he had a reputation as a pioneer in hardball campaigning and media manipulation. Now, of course, political mavens regard him as the second most powerful man in the White House -- except for those who see him as the most powerful man in the White House. Certainly that's the assessment of Joe Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob, who produced and directed Bush's Brain, a documentary based on the book of the same name that dissects the brilliant, if blood-stained, career of the president's chief advisor. Joe and Michael, welcome to the show.
JOE MEALEY: Thank you very much..
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So your story is a textbook account of how the road to political success is paved with dirty tricks. We begin to see some of the classic Rove media tactics begin to emerge I guess in a 1986 race in Texas for governor between Republican Bill Clements and Democrat Mark White. Clements was a Rove client, and just as the race became very even, a bugging device was found in Rove's office. Here's a clip from Glenn Smith, the former editor of the Houston Post.
GLENN SMITH: First words out of my mouth were: Karl Rove put that bug there. See if you can get that. Because it was so Rove-like.
JOE MEALEY: We talked to a number of journalists at that time, and virtually all of them felt it was what they called "the mark of Rove." They felt Rove had bugged his own office. But what's interesting to note is that they, without exception, felt they had to investigate it. They had to report it. And as a result of investigating it and reporting it, enough doubt was shed on the Mark White campaign that it changed the election.
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: The timing was that there was a debate the following night, and Bill Clements was not considered a very good debater. But all the attention of the press went on to the bugging incident, and not on to the debate, and the results of the debate.
JOE MEALEY: Clements won the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another media management technique employed by Rove that you document could be called "strategic leakage." The issue of leaks dates back to 1980 -- the Reagan campaign -- you say that Rove was fired for leaking.
JOE MEALEY: Yes. That was a, a leak to Robert Novak, actually, [LAUGHTER] involving Rob Mosbacker. Rob Mosbacker was an operative in the Bush I campaign with Rove, and Rove leaked to Robert Novak that Mosbacker had done a terrible job. It came out in Novak's column, and Rove was fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm. Let's talk about leaks to Novak. Here in 2004 we have one hell of a leak that has the president hiring a lawyer this week. It was the name of a CIA operative given to columnist Robert Novak, among other, more discreet, reporters. The operative's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson quotes Rove saying that Wilson's wife was "fair game."
JOE MEALEY: I think there's no question that this is more of the same of Karl Rove. I mean he has a history of doing this in Texas, and now as a political advisor to the president, we see more of it. Now, we're not saying that he necessarily was the one who did the leak, but he was the one who told people that Valerie Plame is "fair game."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's move on to what you call "the whisper campaign." You suggest that this is his signature technique. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was very clear, beginning in 1994, the race for governor between George W. Bush and the incumbent Ann Richards.
JOE MEALEY: In the Ann Richards campaign, the whispers were as, as one journalist said to us, it was "thick-neck white guy says that-- 'could she be a lesbian?'"
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: It starts by having leaflets on cars at churches in the South, and then conservative talk radio, there'll be different people calling and mentioning this, and, and it just sort of builds from that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do political analysts attribute the Richards' loss to the whisper campaign?
JOE MEALEY: Her press secretary said to us: "If Karl Rove is the mastermind, and takes credit for all the good things that happen for a Bush campaign, at the end of the day, he has to take credit for the stinky things that happen." [LAUGHTER] What I've found in talking to journalists, and found very frustrating is: they know, basically, what's going -- but they cannot absolutely prove Karl Rove's fingerprints aren't on the gun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's move on to an even stinkier whisper campaign -- that was the one against John McCain in the South Carolina Primary during his run for president. Here's a clip from the film of Molly Ivins.
MOLLY IVINS: It's just a very gentle whispering campaign, and it started in Washington, and it -- people would say, you know, poor John -- he had a very tough war, and he, he was a prisoner for a long time, and he really, you know, his temper is very bad, and he's - blah blah blah blah, and so there was this little buzz.
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: There were a number of rumors -- also that John McCain had a black love child. In fact, they had adopted a baby from Mother Teresa in Bangladesh.
JOE MEALEY: A call is placed to talk radio, and someone says "Am I to understand that John McCain has a black love child?" -- and soon as that's out there and asked a number of times, the truth becomes really less significant than the rumor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who placed these calls to talk radio, do you think?
JOE MEALEY: What do you think? [LAUGHTER]
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: A number of different people, but they all get the same question and the same statement.
JOE MEALEY: And as John Weaver, who directed the McCain campaign and worked with Rove for Bill Clemmons said that the responsibility for these kinds of things begins and ends with the top of the campaign, and the top of the campaign is where you have to look for the responsibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn't just a whisper campaign. It was a slew of negative ads, and you used the taking down of Georgia Democrat Senator Max Cleland to illustrate that part of the Rove technique. Can you describe those ads?
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: Yeah, sure. There would be a photo of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and then Max Cleland. And then afterward the ad would say that-- [CLIP PLAYS/MUSIC]
NARRATOR: Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was outright character assassination of a man who'd lost three limbs in the Vietnam War. So why did the public buy those ads?
JOE MEALEY: I think because the public simply doesn't look deeply enough into these issues. If you research this at all, the idea of comparing Max Cleland's service record with George W. Bush's service record is absurd. But at a time where there was great patriotic fervor in the wake of 9/11, I think these were very effective, and with Karl Rove, it's all about effective strategy; it's not about the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Bush's Brain is outright political advocacy. You have a lot of people saying that there's no way to tell where Rove ends and Bush begins, but I don't think you really make that case. And even the chilling electioneering that you offer lacks, you know, smoking gun conclusive evidence, as you said, though you make a pretty compelling circumstantial case. Do you think that you're going to be subject to charges that this is just a hatchet job?
JOE MEALEY: You know, as, as one review said, depending on your politics, you think this is a brilliant documentary, and if you oppose it politically, you think it's propaganda.
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: What we hope to do is, is create a dialogue about the election and show people when they see something happening that's coming out of the White House, give them a way to interpret it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joseph Mealey, thank you very much.
JOE MEALEY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Michael Paradies Shoob, thank you, too.
MICHAEL PARADIES SHOOB: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They produced Bush's Brain, based on the book Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove made George W. Bush Presidential by Wayne Slater and James Moore. It should appear at your local theater some time this summer. [MUSIC]