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Karl Rove recruits bipartisan A-list to help teach UT students about campaigning

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Rove at front of classroom

Is it possible to take the old saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” and turn it upside down: “With enemies like these, who needs friends?” The recent career of Karl Rove makes a strong case that it is.

Rove became a household name more than 20 years ago, when after guiding George W. Bush to two victories as Texas governor, he repeated the feat to help him win two terms as president. “The Architect,” as Bush referred to him, strode the political stage as a Republican titan, even serving as White House deputy chief of staff for policy. Articulate and animated, he also became a constant presence on cable TV, jousting from the right.

Now, after a long career of laying waste to the political hopes of various Democrats, he keeps a brisk schedule of speaking engagements, writes a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal, and appears regularly as a commentator on Fox News. Oh, and one more thing: Rove also teaches at The University of Texas at Austin. His course, Modern American Political Campaigns, includes 50 undergraduates and is offered by the Department of Government, the Plan II honors program, and the Clements Center for National Security.

Rove’s classroom persona is friendly. As students file into Patton Hall on the East Mall on a recent Monday morning, the professor wears a suit and tie but also Allbirds shoes and an open-road hat that stays on until class starts. A video of wildlife from his recent trip to Africa, overlaid with soothing classical music, plays on the screen as students settle in.

But Modern American Political Campaigns is no walk in the park. The course has a heavy reading list with book report presentations and a rigorous writing component, including a 20-page research paper required by Plan II.

In designing the course, Rove went to his Rolodex and recruited the A-list of politicos to give his students the best possible education in politics. But you might be surprised at that list. In addition to fellow Republicans, joining the class via Zoom each week and interviewed by Rove’s students are the likes of James Carville (adviser to President Bill Clinton), David Axelrod (adviser to President Barack Obama), and Donna Brazile (former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee).

Ashish Dave, a Plan II/finance senior, was one of two students who interviewed former Secretary of State (and Treasury, and White House chief of staff) James Baker (J.D., ’57). “Only in professor Rove’s class would I have had the privilege of interviewing the campaign manager of four Republican presidential campaigns — five counting Bush’s 2000 recount effort,” says Dave of that experience.

“The students did a superb job, and Baker was fantastic!” Rove says. After Baker’s 55-minute interview, Rove told the two student interviewers, “In the last nearly half-century there are probably a dozen journalists in the world who have ever had an hour with Secretary Baker, and you’re two of them!”

Asked what has surprised him most about the class, Dave says, “I’m amazed at how small the circle of decision-makers in politics truly is. Professor Rove is a storied figure in modern American political history, granted, but the range of interviewees he brings into class, from Secretary Baker to David Axelrod, and the friendships they all share with each other, is impressive.”

"Whether they’re Republican, Democrat or vegetarian ... I want to encourage them to think deeply about this and pursue it."

Karl Rove

Karl Rove at front of classroom

Caroline Hastings is a Plan II/liberal arts senior and says, “I thought I understood the complexity of a political campaign, but I was still taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the operation. Every part of a campaign works in complete harmony with one another and must be briefed on the activities of the other departments. Mr. Rove would go through the list of all the meetings he would have to attend weekly. The scale of organization required to manage these networks of individuals gave me a renewed appreciation for campaign operation in general.”

Rove says, “I wanted students to hear from people on both sides of the aisle who had subject-matter expertise. I wanted to be very rigorous about this, so each week has a topic such as strategy or polling or debates with required readings and a problem exercise each student would have to devise a solution to.

“I particularly wanted to have guests who would be subtle role models for students,” Rove says. “Maria Cino was the first woman to head the Congressional Campaign Committee for either Republicans or Democrats. Sara Fagen was the first woman to lead the White House political office. Donna Brazile — the first person of color to head a major political party. A lot of people don’t understand this, but after Hurricane Katrina, one of the first people to call the White House and say, ‘Can I help?’ was Donna Brazile. She and I do a lot of joint speeches together, and she’ll say, ‘Karl and I worked closely on Katrina, and George Bush spent $15 billion on levies because I told him to.’” Rove lowers his voice and says good-naturedly, “That’s not exactly true, but it sounds good.”

He also put the married odd couple of James Carville (Democrat) and Mary Matalin (Republican) in the hot seat for his students to interview, as well as Axelrod, “who did a superb job on messaging and is a wonderful human being,” Rove says.

Speaking of his Democratic friends, Rove says, “We were fierce partisans back when we were fierce partisans, and I’m sure today if we found ourselves on the field of battle someplace we’d be doing battle again, but there’s no need to be hateful about it. You can be friends.” What’s more, he says, at the level of most of the guests in this class, “You do this once or twice — a set of gubernatorial campaigns and a presidential campaign or two — and then you don’t do it again.”

To keep all these plates spinning, two teaching assistants and a research intern scurry in the background, advancing PowerPoint slides, playing video clips, connecting Zoom guests.

On this day, the guest is Rove’s own lawyer, Robert Barnett, who has negotiated two book deals and a Fox News contract for him, and who also represents George W. Bush, Laura Bush and Dick Cheney, but has handled book deals for Bill and Hillary Clinton and Obama. But he was not brought in for any of that. Rather he was invited because today’s topic is debates, and Barnett has been largely in the debate preparation business for decades, working to elect Democrats by playing the part of their Republican opponents during debate rehearsals.

The reason Rove is teaching alongside this gallery of strange bedfellows and not, say, a course on conservative ideology is that Rove’s own career can be traced to a high school teacher who was “a liberal, union Democrat.” That teacher required Rove in the class to get involved in a political campaign in order to earn an A. “It set the arc of my life. I wanted to make the same experience available to these kids, whether they’re Republican, Democrat or vegetarian. I want to encourage them to think deeply about this and pursue it.”

I’m amazed at how small the circle of decision-makers in politics truly is.

Ashish Dave, Senior

Rove’s own experience with higher education forms a complicated path that starts at the University of Utah, where he became so active with the College Republicans — quickly elevating to the national level in a sign of things to come — that a college degree itself became secondary. Nevertheless, he went on to earn credits at the University of Maryland, George Mason University, the University of Houston and, during the late 1990s, even UT, where he pursued independent study toward a bachelor’s degree under historian Lewis Gould. Alas, shifting catalog requirements kept a degree just out of reach. Now, all that stands between Rove and his bachelor’s is a foreign language requirement, but at age 70 and with a very full schedule, he says he’s good.

Credentialism hasn’t kept him from being a college teacher though. In the late 1990s, he taught graduate students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and earlier, taught undergraduates in a joint appointment from the government and journalism departments. A continuous flow of Longhorn interns and the university’s cultural offerings, of which he often avails himself, also have connected him to UT through the years.

Besides having access to the greatest political advisers of our time, Rove’s students also write. A lot. “I wanted them to think through what they would do in a real campaign. We came up with a problem each week tied to the subject matter, real problems that occurred in a campaign. Everyone has to write a memo to somebody about what they think the campaign needs to do. They get to decide who the candidate is, how they’re going to solve the problem, and who they are as the writer of the memo.”

They also learn how to write within a word limit. “They have to write it in 750 words because I want them to learn how to say it directly and powerfully.”

In place of a final exam, each student had to devise a research proposal on one of the topics the class touched on. “I’m really excited to ready their final products,” Rove says, which range from the impact of debates on public opinion to the challenges faced by women candidates. Rove is particularly interested in a one paper on how a famous memo attributed to Clark Clifford, President Harry Truman’s famed adviser, was actually plagiarized.

Professor Rove is a walking political encyclopedia.

Caroline Hastings, Senior

Rove seems at home in a classroom perhaps because, at least when it comes to politics, he has the soul of a scholar. With encyclopedic detail befitting an academic, he can cite chapter and verse from mayoral races in the 1890s or intrigue within the Democratic Party of the 1940s. And he loves the stories that campaigns are rife with — knowing the actual scandals from the public ones, or how such-and-such historian in the early 20th century got something wrong that turned out to have big consequences.

His downtown Austin office brims with interesting political artifacts — framed prints of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley, the subject of Rove’s latest book. (A giant stack of plastic storage bins containing research material for the McKinley book still sits on his office floor.) A wooden chair in the corner belonged to John Addison Porter, the first person to hold the position of secretary to the president, in 1897 during McKinley’s term. “He lasted about six months before they figured out he was a terrible alcoholic,” he adds. The whirlwind of Americana continues with a Telecaster guitar, signed by the members of ZZ Top, leaning in the corner.

Karl Rove in front of slide of Kennedy-Nixon debate.“Professor Rove is a walking political encyclopedia,” says Caroline Hastings. “He meets every class topic or student question with examples from his personal campaign experiences or his extensive studying of political history. The margins of my notebook are filled with scribbled reminders to research more about the governor of Florida who walked across the entire state or whatever niche anecdote that professor Rove told us about that day. The information he shares with us, along with the design of the course, is incredibly intentional in both growing his students as political historians and giving them the practical tools to succeed in a campaign environment after graduation.”

Rove is still looking forward to the final class session of the semester featuring Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, whom he also counts as a friend, and Ken Mehlman, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager. “The object is to have them just explain what it’s like to be in the cockpit in the last three months of a presidential campaign.”

“This class is unlike any other I have or ever will take again,” Hastings says. “We are not learning about political theories in the abstract but are rather hearing about how professor Rove and his vast network applied these ideas to campaigns.” She is writing her final research paper on the decline of public funding for presidential campaigns. “Upon reviewing my topic, professor Rove immediately offered to help me schedule interviews with the individuals involved in the 2008 Obama campaign’s initial decision to privately finance their campaign in place of the public funding system.”

Ashish Dave calls Rove “a charming, engaging professor with a wealth of knowledge that leaves us hanging on to every last word of every anecdote he recites during class. His humor is unmatched, and he turns every lesson into a fascinating story that brings you along for the ride.” And, he adds, Rove always makes himself available to students interested in learning more.

All photos by Marsha Miller