book excerpt

How to Steal an Election

by Andrew Gumbel, February 15, 2006


Americans cling to an idealized image of our political integrity, but a look at how we run our elections tells a very different tale.

[Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt from Steal This Vote by Andrew Gumbel, published by Nation Books.]

If you do everything, you'll win. -- Lyndon Johnson

A few days before the November 2004 election, Jimmy Carter was asked what would happen if, instead of flying to Zambia or Venezuela or East Timor, his widely respected international election monitoring team was invited to turn its attention to the United States. His answer was stunningly blunt. Not only would the voting system be regarded as a failure, he said, but the shortcomings were so egregious the Carter Center would never agree to monitor an election there in the first place. "We wouldn't think of it," the former president told a radio interviewer. "The American political system wouldn't measure up to any sort of international standards, for several reasons."

What, after all, was to be done with a country whose newest voting machines, unlike Venezuela's, couldn't even perform recounts? A country where candidates, in contrast to the more promising emerging democracies of the Caucasus or the Balkans, were denied equal, unpaid access to the media? There were a number of reasons, in the sharply partisan atmosphere surrounding the Bush-Kerry race, to wonder whether campaign conditions didn't smack more of the Third World than the First. Every day, newspapers recounted stories of registration forms being found in garbage cans, or of voter rolls padded with the names of noncitizens, fictional characters, household pets, and the dearly departed. The Chicago Tribune, a paper that knows its voter fraud, having won a Pulitzer for its work on the infamous Daley machine, found 181,000 dead people on the registration lists of six key battleground states.

Bush opponents were all too inclined to believe, in fact, that the Republicans were about to steal the presidency, just as they believed it had been stolen the last time. The Republicans, for their part, laughed this off as conspiratorial nonsense, but they also weren't shy about announcing how hard or how dirtily they were prepared to fight if it came down to another Florida-style tug-of-war. Long Island's GOP congressman Pete King, caught on camera by the documentary maker Alexandra Pelosi during a White House function on election day, bragged even as the first polls were closing that Bush had already won. When Pelosi asked him how he knew, he answered, perhaps jokingly, perhaps not: "It's all over but the counting. And we'll take care of the counting."

Election day itself, at least in the battleground states, was a deeply jarring experience for America's trusting majority, which had led itself to believe that all was for the best in the best of all possible democracies. Everyone bristled with suspicion and mutual mistrust. The Republicans accused the Democrats of trying to sneak ineligible voters to the polls and threatened to deploy official challengers to sniff out the mischief -- something much discussed ahead of time but that ultimately failed to materialize on any scale, perhaps because of a flurry of negative publicity stirred up on the eve of the election.

The Democrats, meanwhile, could barely keep up with their own seemingly endless list of grievances. Across the country, voters in urban, heavily African American precincts complained their polling places had far too few voting machines to accommodate the crowds, creating lines as long as seven or eight hours toward the end of the day and deterring an unknown number of voters. In suburban Cincinnati, observers erupted in fury when they and the media were thrown out of county election headquarters for the duration of the vote count. They were told there had been a terrorist threat, but the FBI later denied all knowledge of it.

The poisoned atmosphere scarcely improved as Bush was declared the winner, with a comfortable popular margin of well over three million and a lead of more than one hundred thousand in Ohio. After the most hotly contested election in a generation, many of the president's detractors simply refused to believe it could be so.

Statistical analyses of varying degrees of professional competence also sought to bring out the numbers behind the numbers, pointing to inconsistencies and fluke occurrences in a number of states to make the case that Kerry had somehow been cheated. In Florida, well-known voting rights activist Bev Harris claimed to have found the backup data to Volusia County's computer tabulation machines sitting in garbage bags ready for disposal, the suspicion being that county officials might have falsified the official count and then set about destroying the evidence. But she never actually produced the allegedly discarded data, or even the videotapes she said she had made of her find.

Whatever the merits of these unsubstantiated claims, the suspicion and rancor they portended were clearly at variance with America's idealized image of its own political integrity. All the high-minded talk on the Kerry campaign trail of creating a "more perfect Union" was manifestly being undermined by a noisy minority of Kerry supporters who fervently believed the Union had been hijacked and perverted by a ruthless cabal of cheats and crooks. On the Republican side, the anti-tax guru Grover Norquist opined that the Democrats should learn to calm down and accept their ever-dwindling minority status with equanimity and grace -- a not-so subtle way of telling them to roll over and play dead now that the big boys were in charge.

It all seemed so strange. Until the Florida meltdown of 2000, conventional wisdom would have had us believe the machinery of American democracy ran smoothly and peacefully, that victors played fair, and that the vanquished conceded graciously. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, it was open season for frauds, manipulators, corrupt election officials, dishonest voting machine manufacturers, bully-boy winners, and paranoid sore losers. Where did they come from so suddenly?

The more things change...

In truth, the 2004 election was far from an aberration. Nothing has been more normal, over the past two hundred-plus years, than for one side in an American election to push, shove, and strong-arm its way across the finishing line, praising the strength and fairness of the process as it goes, while the other side stares forlornly at the inevitability of defeat and yelps in frustration about the perpetration of an outrageous theft that threatens the very fabric of the nation. This pattern is hardly good for a democracy (though it is certainly better, if transparency and fair play are lacking, to have a tightly fought contest and relatively high turnout than a moribund one and a foregone conclusion). Equally, it should not come as a surprise, given the tempestuous history of elections in this country. John Quincy Adams stole the presidency from under the nose of Andrew Jackson in 1824, and Rutherford B. Hayes stole it again, even more brazenly, from Samuel Tilden in 1876. George W. Bush no more deserved to win Florida in 2000 than John F. Kennedy deserved to win Illinois in 1960. And that's just the presidency, a far more serenely contested office than the often ferocious dogfights at the state or local level.

At different times in American history, the sanctity of the ballot box has been violated by intimidation, kidnapping, bloodshed, bribery, embezzlement, intoxication, under-the-table bargaining, stuffed voter rolls, creative vote-counting, and, above all, grotesque bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. Ballots have been bought and sold on the open market, stolen, forged, spoiled, and tossed into lakes, rivers, and oceans. In 1868 the Cincinnati Gazette reported there were men "who would think no more of going to the polls and voting without being paid for it, than a cow does of going to her rack when there is no fodder in it." In these days of wholesale rather than retail politics, the money is more likely to be spent on deceptive television advertising or wholesale character assassination (or, as emerged in the wake of the 2004 race, paying pliant television commentators to use their airtime as undisclosed White House publicity puffs), but pockets of vote purchasing persist nonetheless. In rural Texas, "vote whores" paid by the political parties still hand out cash or favors in exchange for support on election day.

There is nothing new, either, about technological miracle solutions that turn all too quickly to bitter disappointment. Before electronic voting, punch cards were hailed as the salvation of American democracy, even though they habitually lost up to 5 percent of the votes entrusted to them. Before punch cards came lever machines, which proved less impregnable than their manufacturers claimed and couldn't be double-checked, because they, too, did not provide a paper backup. Before lever machines came the innovation of the secret ballot itself -- an unimpeachable contribution to electoral democracy, one would have thought, except that it was shamelessly abused as a battering ram to disenfranchise half the electorate at a time when universal suffrage, far from being trumpeted as a great American virtue, was widely deemed to be deleterious to the health and economic well-being of the nation.

Some people might think that the days of elections fought illegally, won unfairly, and lost ungraciously belong to some distant past, but really they never went away. True, polling places and election offices tend to be calmer than they were, say, in Kansas City in 1946, when a notorious local gangster and election fixer named Morris "Snag" Klein raided the Jackson County courthouse under cover of darkness, blew open a safe, and removed crucial evidence supporting the indictments of sixty-one people, himself included, on fraud charges relating to a dirty congressional primary.

The decline of big-city machine politics and the growing complexity of the technology of voting have also made it less common for election officials from one party to bribe, twist, intimidate, or cut deals with their counterparts on the other side -- or, for that matter, to arrange for them to be kidnapped, Chicago-style, for the duration of voting hours, or to slip Ex-Lax in their coffee so they would be otherwise engaged during the most important phase of the count. Gone are the days when Democrats in certain Baltimore wards would arrange for the voting machines to "break down" during the peak hours of Republican attendance at polling stations, then magically right themselves when the union boys showed up in force.

But it is important not to confuse an outward appearance of calm with transparency or fairness. Take, for example, the governor's race in Alabama in 2002, when the Democratic incumbent, Don Siegelman, appeared to have won by a narrow margin, only to be undone by the sudden discovery of a computer glitch in rural Baldwin County. The county's probate judge in charge of elections had taken it upon himself to check the tabulation machinery in the dead of night, long after poll watchers and most of his staff had gone home, and concluded that Siegelman had accidentally been awarded seven thousand votes too many -- enough to tip the entire race to his Republican challenger, Bob Riley. County officials were distinctly vague about the cause of the supposed error, furnishing no details other than a passing reference to a lightning strike.

Of course, it may have been just a coincidence that the judge was a Republican, just as it may have been unimpeachable legal precedent that led Alabama's attorney general, also a Republican, to refuse authorization for a recount or any independent inspection of the ballots. A subsequent analysis of the voting figures by James Gundlach, a sociologist at Auburn University, showed all sorts of wild deviation from the statistical norms established by this and previous elections. Gundlach observed: "There is simply no way that electronic vote counting can produce two sets of results without someone using computer programs in ways that were not intended. In other words, the fact that two sets of results were reported is sufficient evidence in and of itself that the vote tabulation process was compromised."

If America's electoral system is more corrupted than any of its Western counterparts, many of the reasons are to be found in the workings of the county elections office. The United States has never successfully produced a professional class of technocrats, and the field of election management has, by common consent, been treated too often as a dumping ground for dimwits, time-servers, crooks, and small-time political appointees who are too incompetent to be given anything else to do. The worst of them get fired, forced into early retirement, or prosecuted on fraud charges.

The administrators in turn rely on the services of dozens, sometimes hundreds or even thousands, of shoddily paid temporary workers and volunteers, who may come forward for all the right reasons but are thrown into the job with inadequate training and little or no supervision. In the 1930s the chief clerk of a big-city elections office complained to the author of a government report: "It would be difficult to imagine a more incompetent and drunken lot of loafers anywhere than the nondescript outfit that was put on registration and election work, with a few exceptions." Things have scarcely improved since, not least because of the disdain heaped on the very concept of public office since the Reagan era and the repeated budget cuts that have been endured as a consequence.

In December 2000 as the Bush-Gore battle in Florida was reaching its endgame, the Los Angeles Times interviewed a former county election director from rural Washington State who quit to become a waitress at Sizzler, where the money was better. Lousy pay also explains why it is so hard to find and keep competent voting machine technicians. "You make more money servicing laundry machines," New York City election commissioner Douglas Kellner complained.

Election theft through the ages

There is no one way to steal an election in the United States. With the infrastructure of democracy split into fifty states and more than four thousand counties, the permutations for mischief are almost endless. What works in one jurisdiction with one kind of electoral machinery can easily run into a procedural brick wall in the next. Still, the historical record shows that precinct bosses and party machines have tended to learn from each other, borrowing the most successful techniques and then adding new ones of their own.

In the nineteenth century, loopholes involving registration lists were exploited from the very outset, as voters known as "floaters" would hop across to the next ward, the next county, or even the next state to cast extra ballots. Paying for votes was standard practice across the country, as was the lavish distribution of free liquor on election day. In New York, Boss Tweed's Tammany braves perfected the art of repeat voting, visiting the same precincts in the same wards in a variety of disguises and changes of clothes. Tweed also perfected a way to fast-track the naturalization process to generate tens of thousands of new immigrant votes, an idea he originally filched from his archrival, Fernando Wood.

In Pittsburgh, a city memorably described by Lincoln Steffens as "hell with the lid off" physically and "hell with the lid on" politically, boss Chris Magee took the time to travel to New York to study the Tammany model and take the lessons home with him. In Philadelphia, the Gas Ring also copied New York and learned to pad out the voter rolls with the names of fictional characters, children, household pets, and the dead.

In the South after the Civil War, the former Confederate states followed one another's lead as they pioneered ways to exclude black voters and illiterate whites from the polls. In the North and Midwest, bosses in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Kansas City figured out that the best response to the secret ballot was to stop corrupting individual voters and start corrupting precinct election officials and neighborhood canvassing boards instead. Tight ward-by-ward control of the city was key to this operation and frequently the object of ferocious partisan battles in and of itself.

When lever machines came in, political control of voting became all the more crucial. Governor Earl Long of Louisiana once boasted that with the right election commissioners he could get the machines to sing "Home Sweet Home." (He also said that when he died, he wanted to be buried in Louisiana so he could remain active in politics.)

The age of computer voting machines has brought its own innovations and peculiarities, most notably the greasing of palms in contract negotiations in certain states, which has led to the criminal prosecution of several machine company executives and election officials, often at the same time. The fact that vote tampering can now be conducted secretly and invisibly through software manipulation is also a perfect cover for the would-be crook. If we can't document with certainty the cases where this may have occurred already, it is precisely because digital ballots, without a paper backup, can be handled in any number of ways without leaving fingerprints. Everything is in place for the perfect electoral crime, which is of course the dirty politician's favorite kind. This avenue, one senses, has hardly begun to fulfill its potential.

One important thing to understand about vote theft is that it is not merely a question of personal morality. It is not something that divides the world into bad politicians, who do it habitually, and good politicians, who take scrupulous care to avoid it at all costs. It is first and foremost a matter of opportunity, and that in turn depends on the broader political context. If a race is particularly close, or if the stakes are regarded as particularly high, then the temptation to play to the very limit of the rules, if not beyond, will become compelling. If a political machine boss or party leader believes he can control a certain number of votes, then he will do everything to get out that vote, and never mind the exact nature of the "control" that needs exerting. If each side has reason to suspect that the other will resort to cheating, then thievery will invariably be justified as self-defense against the dastardly tactics of the other side. Often, mere accusations of vote fraud can be political weapons that are every bit as ruthless as vote fraud itself.

There are no dirty elections without dirty politics, and indeed as long as the politics are not clean, it is almost impossible to prevent the electoral process from becoming tainted. After all, rules work only if they are enforced. America is a country that thrives on ferocious competition -- the sink-or-swim ethic of capitalist adventurism, forever flirting with the fringes of the permissible -- and few competitive arenas are more cutthroat than elective politics. To believe that smooth elections are merely a question of updated machinery and proper procedure, as many election officials and mainstream media outlets appear to have done since 2000, is to slip deep into denial and self-delusion. The system functions not on the principle of the common good, but on how much its participants think they can get away with. There is nothing virginally pure about American democracy, and there never has been.

Why do such dirty politics exist? In contrast to many corrupted parts of the world, where democracy has been threatened or subverted by an excess of ideology, the answer, curiously, may be that the two major parties have not been ideological enough. Both Republicans and Democrats have represented such a grab bag of constituencies and interests over the course of their history that it has often been difficult to say what exactly each of them stands for. The GOP, in addition to its reputation as the advocate of big business and conservative social values, has at various times been the party of the antislavery movement, the reformist impulses of the Progressive Era, and the environmentalism of both Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. The Democrats, for their part, spent much of their history as an utterly improbable coalition of white Southern racists, Northern industrialists, and immigrant workers. Such oddities could take root and persist only because of the devolved nature of American politics, and because executive power happened to be vested in the presidency, not a British-style parliamentary system.

The disparate factions in each party have not generally had to try too hard to find common ground and work for a common program; often, coexistence has been enough. Such radical devolution of party organization has not been without its benefits, particularly in the diversity of political cultures spanning the country, but it has also given rise to a strikingly grasping attitude when it comes to competing for public office. Because the parties have only a fuzzy set of ideas to defend -- the conservatives are not necessarily the fiscal conservatives, nor the liberals necessarily the big spenders -- their supporters rally around them much like sports fans around a favorite team. Democrats call themselves Democrats and Republicans call themselves Republicans as a matter of personal identity more than ideology. What the party is, or claims to be, is often more important than what the party actually does.

Partisanship, in other words, is the primary organizing principle at election time. And that makes winning everything -- not just the goal, but an end in itself.

Defending the candidate, not the program, is what it has always been about. Indeed, the notion of a European-style slate of candidates, chosen according to the overall vote tallies of each party, seems almost laughable in the American context. The clash of personalities is not only given primacy over the clash of ideas; in these days of politics infected by the cult of celebrity, personality is often the only thing under consideration. Playing dirty becomes not only understandable; it is virtually the norm.

Call it the American Idol model of election practice. The audience -- which is to say the voters -- are told that the choice is all theirs, but really the key decisions on form and content have already been made, the contest is skewed in advance by the television producers for maximum entertainment value, and the only meaningful criterion left is to determine which candidate projects the greater charisma and the more pleasing character traits. The whole system reeks of deception from top to bottom.

The poster boy of dirty politics

Few historical figures attest to the abiding ferocity of electoral competition better than Lyndon Johnson, one of the pioneers of modern American politics who radically altered both parties' ideas on campaigning and the wielding of elective office. He always played the system ruthlessly to his own advantage -- which is another way of saying he could be as brazen, skillful, and meticulous an election thief as anyone when circumstances warranted. Few politicians, in fact, have adhered as closely to Charles de Gaulle's maxim to be petty in the pursuit of power but magnanimous in the exercise of it. Johnson never pretended to be a nice guy, or even a particularly honest one, appealing to the very worst in the electorate when it served his purposes to do so. At the same time, he racked up some genuinely impressive achievements in the course of his career: landmark civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act; the creation of Medicare; the food stamp program; and the beginnings of a vision to address the growing social and economic inequalities of American society. Had it not been for the calamity of Vietnam, he might have gone down as one of the great presidents of his century. As it was, Johnson shredded America's international reputation and self-confidence, was responsible for hundreds of thousands of needless deaths in Southeast Asia, and torpedoed his own career while it was at its height.

Some have sought to draw a moral equivalence between his failings as a leader and the manner in which he conducted his political battles. According to his biographer Robert Caro: "His morality was the morality of the ballot box, in which nothing matters but victory and any maneuver that leads to victory is justified, a morality that was amorality." But it is also important to see Johnson as a creature of his times and of the Texas system from which he emerged.

Curiously, while his vision of a government-driven Great Society has gone radically out of fashion, his lying, stealing, cheating approach to the elemental battleground of American politics -- his singular ability to craft an expedient and effective political identity for himself while crushing his opponents without pity or twinge of conscience -- has become his most striking legacy.

Johnson cheated in the first race he ever ran, for senior class representative on the student council of Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. He and his campus buddies, known as the White Star Gang, went systematically from class to class pretending to be enrolled where they had no right to be, made sure one of their own was named temporary chairman, and recorded the class vote as an aye for Johnson regardless of the actual outcome.

Johnson's defeat in the Senate race of 1941 had a lot to do with his determination not to be caught on the losing side again when he made his second run for the Senate seven years later. So, too, did the fact that his career was now at an uncomfortable crossroads. To qualify for the 1948 Senate campaign, Johnson had to agree not to run for reelection to his House seat, which meant he was rolling the dice on his entire political future. His problem was that he was running against a popular conservative governor, Coke Stevenson, who finished seventy thousand votes ahead of him in the first round of the Democratic primary -- Democratic primaries being the only elections that counted in the one-party, segregationist South.

For the runoff, Johnson knew he would have to sweat out every last vote. Money was no object, thanks to the patronage of the construction and military contractor company Brown and Root (these days a subsidiary of Halliburton, and still very much in the political game). Johnson commissioned numerous opinion polls, a political tool then in its infancy, which persuaded him the only way to win was to run to Stevenson's right. He blasted the radio airwaves with advertisements to ram home his message, another relative novelty. He also took to campaigning by helicopter, creating a frenzy of excitement in every rural town where he landed his "Johnson City Windmill."

None of this was enough, however, for him to overtake Stevenson in the first round. So he had to resort to more devious strategies. He orchestrated a succession of negative stories about his opponent that were so incendiary that Stevenson felt it beneath him even to respond. Stevenson was pilloried as a Communist sympathizer and a union shill, both outrageous claims, and was pilloried all over again as Johnson seized on Stevenson's silence to accuse him of quivering before uncomfortable home truths.

Johnson held meetings with the political kingpins in San Antonio and lavished them with inducements, including fat rolls of dollar bills to cover poll worker "expenses," to woo their support away from Stevenson, who had taken the city by a two-to-one margin in the first round. When all was said and done, turnout in Duval County was an utterly implausible 99.6 percent, and Johnson won there with a similarly preposterous 99 percent of the vote.

First, though, the two sides spent several days engaged in a nerve-racking game of Texas Hold 'Em, in which neither candidate dared announce more than a handful of results from his strongholds for fear of what might get stacked up against him once the numbers were on the table. On election night, Stevenson was ahead by 854. The following night, Johnson made up almost all the difference, thanks to late-breaking returns from Houston and one precinct in Duval County. Four days after the election, though, Stevenson was up again by a seemingly insurmountable 362.

After six days, with nothing obvious left to count, Stevenson was still leading by 113. Johnson needed a miracle, and he got one, courtesy of an enforcer by the name of Luis Salas in Jim Wells County, one county over from Duval. At the Thirteenth Precinct in Alice, the Jim Wells county seat, Salas artfully had a 7 in one of the vote totals changed into a 9 by the addition of a simple loop, giving Johnson an extra 200 votes and with them the election.

The Stevenson campaign exploded in indignation, refusing to believe for an instant the figures could be genuine. (Several decades later, with Johnson in his grave, Salas came clean and confirmed that the late returns from Box 13 were entirely fraudulent.) Stevenson himself traveled down to Alice in the company of Frank Hamer, a legendary Texas Ranger who had set up the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde. Together they examined the electoral register and noticed that the last two hundred names appeared in strict alphabetical order and were written in a different color of ink from the rest. The two men were not permitted to copy the list, but they memorized as many names as they could and then set about tracking down the individuals in question, many of whom said they had not been to the polls at all.

Soon, Johnson faced a dangerous new problem. Having stolen the election, he now had to fight to get away with it. His greatest fear was that the race would be thrown into the courts, and from there subjected to a full-blown criminal investigation. To avoid that, he had to persuade both the Texas Democratic Party and the secretary of state's office to sign off on the results as submitted. Seven members of the state certification board were too afraid to show up to their own meeting, much less offer an opinion on the validity of the result, but Herman Brown of Brown and Root sent his private plane to pick up three of them at their homes and made sure they put their seal on Johnson's eighty-seven vote margin of victory.

The party, which held ultimate responsibility for its own primaries, was a tougher nut to crack, with many members of the state executive committee arguing in favor of a court contest to resolve the controversy one way or the other. At the decisive meeting, the committee first voted 29-28 for Johnson, then, after one member had a change of heart, reverted to a 28-28 split, enough to allow the legal contest to proceed. Johnson's aides, with their backs right up against the wall, hunted the building high and low for any committee stragglers and eventually found one, a certain Charley Gibson, hiding in the toilets. Gibson's reluctant vote sealed Johnson's victory and with it perhaps the most outrageous single act of vote fraud in American history.

More than half a century later, it is difficult not to see some reflection of Johnson's take-no-prisoners attitude in the political style of his fellow Texan George W. Bush, and especially in the maneuverings of Bush's canny campaign strategist, Karl Rove. Despite their different party affiliations and the very different eras that spawned them, Johnson and Bush tapped into much the same well of Southern populism. Just as Johnson allied himself with Brown and Root, Bush also looked to a major Texas corporation, Enron, to bankroll his early campaigns in exchange for political favors later on.

The corporate money served both men well in their bids to vanquish opponents with more immediate and obvious popular appeal, enabling them to wage lavish media campaigns even as they resorted to more underhand campaign tactics. The outrageous distortions that Bush and Rove used against Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas governor's race and against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary were not all that different from the unstinting smear campaign Johnson waged against Coke Stevenson in 1948.

Johnson is certainly not George W.'s only role model. The Bush political style also bears strong traces of Jacksonian nationalism, as well as the front-porch corporate hucksterism of William McKinley's Rovian campaign manager, Mark Hanna. Something of Johnson's electoral ruthlessness was unmistakably at play, though, during the 2000 presidential recount, as the Republicans seized the initiative at the first possible opportunity and quickly sought to shut down all challenges. Rove has to be the first politician or consultant since Johnson to demonstrate a comparable appetite for victory at any cost. Rove's friend and mentor Lee Atwater certainly stooped to some low campaign tricks of his own, especially during George Bush Senior's trouncing of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. But Atwater never had a Florida -- or, for that matter, an unprovoked and calamitous Middle Eastern war to sell to the American public.

Rove, like Johnson, learned to play rough very early in his career, almost ripping the heart out of the College Republican movement as he concocted a bogus slate of alternate delegates to get himself elected chairman in 1973. The experience left him with no sense of remorse, only euphoria. Even in the thick of the Watergate scandal, Rove had been teaching the dark arts of political espionage and negative campaigning to College Republican weekend seminars, his message being not that dirty tricks were wrong, but that it was important not to get caught.

When Rove's adversary for the chairmanship, Robert Edgeworth, leaked details of the seminars to the media in a last-ditch attempt to wrest back the post he felt was rightfully his, the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) reacted not with shock at Rove's behavior, but with fury at Edgeworth for airing the party's dirty linen in public. The RNC head at the time was none other than Poppy Bush, George the Father, who not only endorsed Rove's fraudulent election but invited him into the family inner circle as a trusted confidant, a position he never relinquished.

This Republican embrace of dirty electioneering, and the dirty politics behind it, was to become a recurring feature of the sustained rightward shift in American politics over the next three decades. And as the conservative revolution progressed, Rove and the Bushes were among its prime beneficiaries.

Reforming the Electoral Process

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