Sen. John McCain gave an impassioned defense of President Bush at the opening of the Republican National Convention–an unthinkable move four years ago when the Bush campaign launched a vicious smear campaign on McCain during the race for the Republican nomination. We speak with the author of “Bush’s Brain” about the dirty tactics and Karl Rove, who many believe orchestrated the smear campaign. [includes rush transcript]
Welcome to Democracy Now!'s special coverage, Breaking with Convention: The Battle for New York, I'm Amy Goodman.
The Republican Party kicked off its national convention last night in Madison Square Garden a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of New York in the largest demonstration ever at a political convention.
Outside, an unprecedented show of police force patrolled the streets, and the area around Madison Square Garden was heavily fortified with barriers and checkpoints.
The numerous speeches and events of the day left little doubt about why the GOP decided to hold its first convention in New York. Meeting less than three miles from Ground Zero, Republicans repeatedly invoked the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks which killed some 3,000 Americans and defended President Bush’s term in office and his decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
With the major broadcast networks providing limited coverage, convention organizers staged the evening as their own TV show, complete with roving reporters interviewing upbeat delegates who praised the president and hailed the service of U.S. troops abroad.
The stars of the night were Arizona Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Giuliani, along with most other Republicans, took swipes at John Kerry, accusing him of being soft on terror and of taking both sides of issues. By contrast, McCain who is a friend of Kerry and a fellow Vietnam War veteran, refused to criticize Kerry and said he was “fortunate” to call many Democrats his friends.
Four years ago, McCain and Bush were bitter rivals in the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Today, he has emerged as one of President Bush’s most influential supporters. He took the stage last night to endorse President Bush’s renomination.
- Sen. John McCain (R–AZ), speaking at the Republican National Convention on August 30, 2004.
McCain”s support for President Bush is surprising for those who remember the bitter race between the two men four years ago in the Republican primaries.
A smear campaign directed against McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary is believed by many to have been directed by Bush’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove.
Rove is the subject of a new documentary called “Bush’s Brain” that is based on a book by the same name journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater. It examines what happened in South Carolina four years ago. This is an excerpt.
- “Bush’s Brain,” an excerpt from the new documentary based on the book, “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Look Presidential.”
That was an excerpt of the new documentary “Bush”s Brain” that is showing in theaters across the country this month. It is based on a book by the same that is co-authored by journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater. Wayne Slater joins us in our studio today. He is the senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News and is in New York covering the Republican convention.
- Wayne Slater, senior political writer with the Dallas Morning News and co-author with James Moore of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Look Presidential.”
AMY GOODMAN: Today, John McCain has emerged as one of President Bush’s most influential supporters. He took the stage last night to endorse President Bush’s re-nomination.
JOHN McCAIN: However just the cause, we should mourn for all that is lost when war claims its wages from us. But there is no avoiding this war. We tried that. And our reluctance cost us dearly, [applause] and while this war has many components, we can’t make victory on the battlefield harder to achieve so that our diplomacy is easier to conduct. This is not just an expression of strength, it is a measure of our wisdom. That’s why I commend to my country the re-election of President Bush and the — [applause] and the steady, experienced public-spirited man who serves as our Vice President, Dick Cheney. [applause] Four years ago, four years ago in Philadelphia, I spoke of my confidence that President Bush would accept the responsibilities that come with America’s distinction as the world’s only superpower. I promised he would not let America retreat behind empty threats, false promises, and uncertain diplomacy, that he would confidently defend our interests and values, wherever they are threatened. I knew, I knew my confidence was well-placed when I watched him stand on the rubble of the World Trade Center with his arm around a hero of September 11th, and in our moment of mourning and anger, strengthened our unity and our resolve by promising to right this terrible wrong and to stand up and fight for the values we hold dear. [applause] He promised our enemies would soon hear from us, and so they did. So they did.
AMY GOODMAN: Arizona Senator John McCain speaking last night, the opening night of the Republican National Convention. McCain’s support for President Bush may be surprising for many who remember the bitter race between the two men four years ago, in the republican primaries. A smear campaign directed against McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary is believed by many to have been directed by Bush’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove. Rove is the subject of a new documentary called Bush’s Brain based on a book by the same name, by the journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater. It examines what happened in the South Carolina four years ago. In a few minutes we’ll be joined live in our studio by Wayne Slater. But here’s an excerpt of Bush’s Brain.
JOHN McCAIN: Suddenly, I don’t know if you’ve heard the results are in, but the landslide has started.
NEWSCASTER: We begin tonight with a 2000 vote in New Hampshire. John McCain scored a solid victory over fellow republican George W. Bush.
NARRATOR: After New Hampshire, a victory in South Carolina promised to seal the republican nomination for John McCain.
MAN’S VOICE: We had a candidate that didn’t need coaching, that wouldn’t take coaching on issue development. We believed completely in his philosophy and where he wanted to take not only the party, but more pertinent, the country, and it became a crusade for, not just for the staff, but for the volunteers. Proudest thing I’ve ever been involved in, quite frankly.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Remember the South Carolina primary? After McCain had unexpectedly upended Bush in New Hampshire and it was time to get real serious. And real nasty.
MAN’S VOICE: Well, there was a lot of what third-party negative stuff on McCain. I mean, even in a way attacking his military service, which was a distinguished military service. And I knew it was coming. Because I know how Karl works. I think he was trying to hit the hot button with John McCain. And he did.
MAN’S VOICE: No one that I know, no political reporter who has covered races all the way back to 1960 has ever seen anything like that primary, as far as the nastiness, the things that were said about Senator McCain and his family. It was a akin to a thousand tomahawks coming at you, and you might be able to fend off two, three, four or five of them. It was unbelievable, really.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Actually, one of the most interesting ones was the McCain is a little mental one, this was a very gentle whispering campaign that started in Washington. And people would say, “Poor John, he had a very tough war, and he was a prisoner for a long time. His temper is very bad. And he’s blah blah blah.” And so there was this little buzz.
WOMAN’S VOICE: Bush, however, says he’s not responsible for those ads.
GEORGE W. BUSH: For any group that decides to put money up on TV, they need to let us know something about their group and who their treasurer is for example. But no, I had no coordination with them whatsoever.
WOMAN’S VOICE: There are a couple of couple of them that sorta went below the radar in South Carolina. One is the un-attributed flyer that appears under the windshields of cars in parking lots of fundamentalist churches, usually on a Sunday before the election, alleging something really unappetizing about whoever Rove’s candidate is running against. And then the other is a citizen’s phone call to a call-in radio talk show about John McCain having a black love child. And suddenly there will be to every station most remarkably, a similar-sounding assertion. “Well, I hear that so-and-so…”
MAN’S VOICE: One rich irony, John and Cindy had adopted a beautiful daughter from a orphanage that Mother Theresa had run in Bangladesh. A very honorable thing, you would think the right to life community would embrace that. Unfortunately, that didn’t appear to be the case because of her skin color. So thousands of calls to people about Senator McCain having a, I’ll use the term, “black” daughter. Maybe the daughter came from a black prostitute, etc. Leaflets passed out about Cindy McCain’s drug addiction, which was well publicized. How she handled it was very honorable.
JOHN McCAIN: Do not let the Bush campaign and their cronies hijack this election with negative ads and $2.5 million of their dirty money.
WOMAN’S VOICE: All the power of political press corps was over there covering the primary, and none of them as far as I could tell, could figure out what was going on. But if you’d ever covered a Rove campaign in east Texas, it was just textbook. It was just textbook.
MAN’S VOICE: You know, we didn’t spend a lot of time trying to pursue, we had to move onto the next primary state, who made what decision. I believe I know who, where those decisions were made. They were made at the top of the campaign. And a campaign sensed the tow. And if they didn’t make the decisions, they could stop them. And they chose not to. But ultimately, I do believe all campaigns ultimately reflect either the candidate or the person who’s running the campaign, their character. And I think it certainly did then.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Weaver and the new documentary Bush’s Brain based on a book by the same title by authors James Moore and Wayne Slater.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Wayne Slater. He’s co-author of the book, Bush’s Brain, the documentary we just heard an excerpt of is based on that book. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Wayne.
WAYNE SLATER: Great to be with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about the attack on McCain four years ago. And what it was like for you to look at him last night, at the convention, giving his endorsement to President Bush.
WAYNE SLATER: It was remarkable. I was covering the Bush campaign in 2000, and I remember leaving New Hampshire, Bush lost to McCain. And being in a restaurant in the morning with Karen Hughes, who was an advisor to President Bush. And she was worried, I think for the first time, that their campaign, the Bush campaign, was in trouble. And what we then saw in the next few days, in South Carolina was extraordinary. This attack on John McCain.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s explain South Carolina. New Hampshire happened and McCain won, Bush came in second. So then, the primaries, South Carolina. Bush is behind.
WAYNE SLATER: Absolutely he’s behind. And the campaign is worried, that, wait a minute, this McCain juggernaut may be real. So what we first saw was the emergence of this suspect veteran’s group, that stood up on the stairs and basically raised questions about McCain’s abilities. It said does he have the temperament to be President? That’s code for: “He was a P.O.W. so he may be crazy.” Where did this suspect veteran’s group come from? Then as we approach the primary, a series of dirty tricks happen. And we reporters who were there, just as Molly Ivins said in the clip we saw, we were watching this event where phone calls were being made by Bush allies, raising questions about possibly a McCain love child. Questions about McCain’s wife. Whether she had used illegal drugs, prescription drugs and abused them. All kinds of things really aimed at winning over Republican primary supporters and they worked. After that, the relationship between Bush and McCain was bitter and vicious. At one point in a studio in South Carolina, right before the primary, McCain and Bush were standing beside each other. And Bush said, you know, let’s shake hands. It’s just politics. McCain said, George, not everything’s politics. And after that, the relationship was extraordinary. Last night you saw him praising the man. As I said, it’s like two parallel universes.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact a few months ago, we watched Bush and McCain arms around each other and Bush kissed the head of John McCain.
WAYNE SLATER: You know, it’s one of those moments, could I be in the brain of John McCain to know, my God, just don’t touch me. You know that’s what he was thinking. But apparently, and this is one of the mysteries of this campaign, apparently he’s an extraordinarily good Republican soldier, who is standing up, despite his continued antipathy. For Bush and his political operative, Karl Rove. He’s standing up with the party and last night praising the President in a way I’m not sure I could.
AMY GOODMAN: We were watching and listening to Bush’s Brain, the excerpt of the documentary. Molly Ivins was in it, so was a man named Paul Weaver.
WAYNE SLATER: Years ago in the 1980’s. —
AMY GOODMAN: He was there last night?
WAYNE SLATER: I saw John right after the speech. He was exhilarated. He was working for John McCain and for Democrats. The trial lawyer association and others. The reason he’s working for Democrats and only McCain is because he can’t get a job otherwise. Karl Rove is effectively destroyed him. In his ability to get work. He was one of the shining lights in the Republican Party in Texas, back in the 1980’s. There were two of them. Young Karl Rove, young John Weaver. For reasons that are complicated. But reasons that laid themselves out over the years, that followed, John Weaver found himself on the wrong side of Karl Rove. And Rove’s M.O. Is not simply to defeat someone, but to destroy them. If you’re not on my side, you’re against me. And over the years, he’s basically damaged Weaver, has denied him any kind of clients in the Republican party, as Rove has ascended to power. And with George Bush as his candidate. And so Weaver’s only opportunity really was to attach himself to John McCain. It was a sort of a Greek drama four years ago, where you had McCain and the man who was the enemy of Karl Rove, the President’s advisor on one side, and Karl Rove is arguably evil force and brain of George Bush, on the other. And in the end, again, George Bush won and Karl Rove was triumphant.
AMY GOODMAN: Karl Rove is also now one of the people who — I don’t know if it’s fair to say target of an investigation. But who is being questioned about the outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, the wife of a former Ambassador to Iraq, who had exposed the Bush administration, that President Bush saying that you know, Saddam Hussein trying to get uranium from Africa was not true. Joe Wilson. What about Karl Rove now? And how he deals with both this investigation, and also, this re-election campaign.
WAYNE SLATER: There’s something, I guess in Texas, we call the mark of Rove. And it’s essentially this. In any campaign, or any operation he’s involved in, there are a couple of things that are the same. One is, your opponent is targeted at the strength, not the weakness, the tradition is to attack and exploit the weakness of an opponent. That’s never been Rove’s style. He’s always gone after the strength of your opponent. Secondly, he never leaves any fingerprints. When we saw this basic outing of a C.I.A. agent, married to what turned out to be an opponent of George Bush, someone who is offering information that was contrary to the Bush party line, then the first thing I thought, and I think an awful lot of people thought, gosh, that sure is similar to the pattern we’ve seen not simply once or twice, but for almost two decades, involving Karl Rove.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it really is audacious to get involved in war record issues with John Kerry because of the vulnerability of George Bush on this issue. In fact a Texas legislator is just recently saying he was involved in getting these sons of rich men into the National Guard, so they could avoid service in Vietnam.
WAYNE SLATER: And all of us who are there in that period know that’s the kind of thing that was happening. You’re right, the former Lieutenant Governor, a powerful figure in Texas politics said, I’m sorry, this was a mistake. This was a guy who knew Lyndon Johnson, was a protégé of Lyndon Johnson, and said, I was involved in getting George Bush into the National Guard.
AMY GOODMAN: This hasn’t gotten much play.
WAYNE SLATER: No, it hasn’t. But it’s out there, the video’s out there and you wonder… I think a lot of us knew this was a possibility, but it’s out there.
AMY GOODMAN: And so you have George Bush, this issue of his service, or lack of service at the time. And he takes on this issue.
WAYNE SLATER: Yeah. I think the interesting thing here is, as various pundits debate this specifics of the Swift Boat For Truth veteran controversy, these guys who basically have tried to challenge John Kerry’s record, is that it’s consistent, whatever the details are, whether someone was shooting one night, whether the moon was up or the moon was down. And in Vietnam, in 1968 and 1969. What’s really indisputable, is this long pattern of activity, in which opponents of George Bush and Karl Rove, the President’s political consultant, are find themselves on the other side of attacks. And you’re right, it’s audacious, it’s amazing that the Bush campaign allies would allow themselves with the vulnerability on Vietnam to nevertheless be involved in attacking a man at his strength, Vietnam.
AMY GOODMAN: What does the former speaker of the Texas house, Ben Barnes, who is the man who said that he helped President Bush and sons of other rich families avoid Vietnam by going into the Texas National Guard, what does he gain by saying this now?
WAYNE SLATER: Well, he doesn’t, and I wonder, he’s actually a lobbyist now and has some corporate clients, of all things. I think he’s probably nervous. I’m talked to Ben a number of times in 2000 and recently saw him in Boston. He really doesn’t have much to gain. He actually is supporting a Republican, a moderate Republican in Texas who happens to be the mother of the President’s press secretary, Scott McClellan in her political race. And so unlike the attack by the Bush administration, that he is simply a partisan operative, they can’t dismiss him that simply. He really has very little to gain here. And I think the fact that many of us talk to him four years ago and he was reluctant to talk about what we suspected he’s now saying, was part of a feeling that he wasn’t ready, he was afraid that this might hurt his career, this might hurt him in some way, that the Karl Rove is a guy who can come after him. What I understand is, that he is, actually sort of searching his soul now, and I know it sounds corny, but I understand this from people who know Ben, that in the last few months, he’s really come to terms as we all grow older, with what he did. He helped the sons of rich Texans get special spots and avoid service in Vietnam while many other young men died. Now he sees himself in the position of where one of those sons is the President of the United States, involved in a campaign attacking a man who truly was in Vietnam.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Max Cleland also served in Vietnam and became a triple amputee as a result of his injuries. He’s become a staunch supporter of Senator John Kerry, going out on the road and he just went to the Crawford ranch to deliver a letter to attack President Bush for attacking the record of John Kerry. Although he says he’s not doing it. He says he has nothing to do with the veteran’s group who is doing it. What happened to Max Cleland’s in his race for Senator in Georgia?
WAYNE SLATER: Despite all the denials and all the assurances there are no fingerprints, the Bush campaign is not involved in these attacks, look what happened. Max Cleland, his absolute strength was he was a patriot, a veteran of the Vietnam war, who sacrificed three limbs for that service and came back. When he ran for re-election in 2002, a campaign that Karl Rove who had an office at that in the White House at that point was involved in orchestrating, he was active in the effort to win various Republican seats in the Senate, including that one in Georgia. He, Max Cleland was attacked, he was attacked on the basis of his strength. His service in Vietnam. Ads came up questioning whether he was associated, whether he was weak, whether he was unpatriotic, whether he truly had Vietnam honor. There was a commercial that had a picture of Max Cleland and Saddam Hussein that played in Georgia — played very well.
AMY GOODMAN: And Osama Bin Laden.
WAYNE SLATER: And Osama Bin Laden. It had a picture of the two of them beside each other, extraordinary attack. But look what’s happened. The attack on Kerry, his strength, service in Vietnam. And the attack on Cleland, his strength, his Vietnam service. And when George Bush with Karl Rove at the helm targeted Ann Richards for defeat. And they were successful. One of the most significant moments, which we wrote about in that campaign, but didn’t receive that much publicity, was a whisper campaign, a virulent whisper campaign in East Texas, a conservative area. And really attacking Ann Richards’ at her strength. Her strength as a Governor, she was tolerant, inclusive, she created the most diverse administration with women and men and minorities and gays and lesbians and others in her administration. What was the whisper campaign in east Texas which emerged with one Bush operative talking publicly a few weeks before the campaign? Ann Richards is too close to the lesbians and homosexuals, it worked in East Texas. Again, the pattern, attack the strength of your opponent. And it’s a pattern that we saw in 1994, in Texas, and we see today with John Kerry. The Bush allies can deny that the Bush campaign has anything to do with these most recent attacks. But it’s indisputable when you see this pattern of activity. It happens again and again.
AMY GOODMAN: Senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News and co-author of the book, Bush’s Brain.