On a recent news show, where Karl Rove’s medical diagnosis of Hillary Clinton was the topic of discussion, I heard this question posed: “Is Karl Rove an evil genius or just plain evil?” I have an answer to that. Who cares whether or not he’s a genius? The only thing that should matter is the evil part. A stupid evil person can be just as poisonous as an intelligent evil person. Why is a man who, as many agree, personifies evil given so much media attention? That’s a far better question. There was a bumper sticker in the Sixties, during the Vietnam War, that read, What if they gave a war and no one came?
What if when Karl Rove spoke, no one listened? Think about it — he’d just be a short little round man shouting out venomous things in a vacuum. Why do we pay attention to people with such scaly reptilian hearts? I’m not sure I have an answer — after all, I’m writing about him here so I’m clearly not ignoring him. Maybe it’s a primal fascination with the dark side. Maybe we want to reassure ourselves that we are not evil ourselves and the only way we can accomplish that is to study the monsters in our midst.
Karl Rove had a dark and treacherous teacher. His name was Lee Atwater. The two knew each other, even took a campaign road trip together in the Seventies in a beaten up Pinto. Atwater drank more deeply from the poisonous well — or maybe just at a faster pace — and became a pivotal figure in the public arena years before Rove’s devil claws came out. In the George Bush/Michael Dukakis campaign (1988) Lee Atwater made history with the Willie Horton ad, excoriating Dukakis for his support of the Massachusetts prison furlough program. Willie Horton, a convicted felon, escaped during one of these furloughs, beat and raped a woman. The ad was stark and meant to be frightening, especially to white women…If you vote for Michael Dukakis, men like this — scary black men — are going to get out of prison and come rape you. Lee Atwater was quoted as saying, “By the time we’re finished they’re going to wonder if Willie Horton is Michael Dukakis’ running mate.”
Cut to 1990 and Lee Atwater is diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He’s going to die before he even finishes out his fortieth year on this earth. He gives an interview to Life Magazine in which he repents, regrets, apologizes. “My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.” He spoke of the “naked cruelty” of the 1988 campaign and how he found redemption from the Bible. Yet after he died and his things were being cleaned out, that Bible was still in its cellophane wrapper.
Maybe we should study the monsters in our midst. We just shouldn’t give them so much air time.