Blogs > Cliopatria > mentors of Karl Rove?

Mar 11, 2005 4:09 am


mentors of Karl Rove?



Reviewing the history of the husband-and-wife couple Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, the first professional political public-relations consultants, reminds us how little American campaigns have changed over the last several decades. Whitaker and Baxter had long been active managing campaigns in California when they got their start on the national level in 1949 managing the American Medical Association’s successful campaign to block President Truman’s proposed legislation for national health care. After that victory, Whitaker and Baxter were hired by candidates of widely varying ideology to help with Public relations and campaign organizing. Essentially uninterested in substantive issues, they offered their services to any paying client.
It was Richard Nixon and his advisors who were the first to absorb their theories and deploy them to mount winning campaigns. According to Theodore H. White’s book BREACH OF FAITH, pp.54-55 (and kudos to my student André Maisonneuve for calling my attention to this passage), Nixon made continual and successful use of several basic principles:

The best kind of campaign is an attack campaign; in any campaign, an enemy has to be invented against whom the voters can be warned; issues are to be few, but must be clear—and must confront the voter with an emotional decision; the independent vote is critical in a close election, and once the part is captured by a nomination, the independent vote must be the target of all suasion and PR.”

I am struck by the ways in which Karl Rove and George W. Bush have stuck to these principles in their two presidential campaigns, and especially in 2004. Bush remained tirelessly on message during these campaigns, and never ceased attacking—refusing to be on the defensive so much that he refused to ever admit a single mistake. He has made immense and effective use of emotional issues, both in his language about terrorism and the ubiquitous enemy and in his advocacy of a Constitutional Amendment against same-sex marriage (quickly dropped after November). Bush and Rove have gone after independents—it was the swing states such as Ohio and Florida that received the avalanche of presidential visits and advertising—but they probably have rewritten these rules by mobilizing their core constituencies, especially among the Religious Right.

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Michael Burger - 3/12/2005

Many thanks. What this medievalist takes away from all this is: presidents don't make mistakes--at least no mistakes that might cost them. Must be nice to be a president.


Greg James Robinson - 3/11/2005

Certainly on the occasion mentioned (i.e. the presidential debates) Bush did not aver to faulty intelligence.
I am not absolutely sure which Presidents have admitted to unspecified errors (what comes to mind is Fiorello LaGuardia's comment "I don't make a mistake very often, but when I do, it's a beaut"). Perhaps the closest that comes to mind immediately is FDR's comment about his program (during the 1932 campaign) that "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all try something". I am not sure how often he claimed during his presidency that he made mistakes, though in his 1943 message to Congress in support of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he said "Nations, like individuals, make mistakes".


Michael Burger - 3/11/2005

Thank you indeed: yes, it was while in office I had in mind.

Is it the case that B. has not said he was misled by faulty intelligence? I'm under the impression he has (at some point), although I cannot swear to it, as I certainly cannot say where or when.

Your reply does raise another question (for me, at any rate). Have other presidents admitted to unspecified mistakes? (This question reminds me of a university president I once knew, who was happy to state in public that she'd made lots of mistakes, but was never willing [or able] to cite a single specific one--except "relying on other people." My personal favorite.)


Greg James Robinson - 3/11/2005

Your question is a good one. I gather you mean Presidents who confessed error during their term of office, as opposed to afterwards. It is no doubt a fairly rare thing (depending on how one parses the phrase "admitting mistakes" and the question of voluntary vs. involuntary confessions of error). More commonly, lesser officials are often called upon to fall on their swords for the good of the administration. There is also the issue of on the record versus off the record comments. Still, although Eisenhower's reference to his appointment of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court as "the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made" was not publicly proclaimed, it was certainly well-known at the time.

Anyway, the most famous case in recent times that I would think of as a public admission would be JFK taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster. Ronald Reagan confessing to making misleading statements regarding selling arms to Iran is another.

The point remains that George W. Bush is an extreme case, since he was unprepared even to admit that he had made unspecificed mistakes. He thus missed the opportunity to say even that he was misled by faulty intelligence data (as opposed to simply lying) in regard to the claims he and his administration made regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction to justify invading Iraq.


Michael Burger - 3/11/2005

Now that the heat of the campaign is over (or at least perhaps we're down to a hot simmer), I have a query for the Americanists out there. How often have, in fact, presidents admitted to error? And can we distinguish among different sorts of such admissions (in particular, admissions for things that happened years before the administration for which it cannot be truly culpable--think Clinton and slavery--vs. admissions for actions for which a president can be reasonably held responsible).

I ask because I have trouble coming up with many. But then, I'm a mediavlist.

Michael Burger
Mississippi University for Women

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