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Dallas Morning News political writer Wayne Slater on Karl Rove’s future, the real George W. Bush, and the future of Texas politics.

Saturday, September 1, 2007
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HH: I’m now real pleased to welcome to get the inside scoop as seen from the outside of the Republican Party, Wayne Slater is my guest. He’s the senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s also the author of Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. That was a New York Times best-seller.

WS: Yes.

HH: And welcome, it’s great to have you here, Wayne. How long have you been doing journalism total?

WS: Oh, 35 years.

HH: All in Texas?

WS: No, in West Virginia, Kansas, and Denver, Colorado.

HH: Okay, who were you working for in Denver?

WS: The Associated Press.

HH: Okay, so how long you been down here in Texas?

WS: 20 years.

HH: All with the Dallas Morning News?

WS: With the Dallas Morning News in Austin, Texas, covering politics.

HH: All right, now that means I could just sit back and get a couple of stories here. First, how close do you think Rove will remain to Bush, even though this is Rove’s last day in the White House?

WS: Oh, extraordinarily close. I mean, these men are tied together. Rove was so important in Bush’s entire political career. Bush was so important to Karl Rove’s success. And he’s had enormous success. Obviously, 2006 was a bad time, but he is, I think, considered one of the geniuses of the last quarter century in terms of political operatives who’ve been in the White House, and even outside the White House. They’re extremely close. He’s going to work on the library. He’s going to do some speeches. You’re going to see him around. The other thing he’s going to do, because Karl understands how important this is, he wants to be the explainer-in-chief of the Bush years. You know Karl, and he’s a guy who understands the impact that historians will have on the Bush legacy. Right now, a lot of historians say it doesn’t look that good. Karl wants to be there in a serious way. He’s going to write more than one book, and it’s not just writing a book. It’s a book that will, from his perspective, give historians a very clear sense of the larger dimension of what the Bush presidency meant.

HH: Did you see his op-ed at National Review today, The Long View?

WS: No, I did not.

HH: Oh, Karl Rove published his…you’re so prescient then. He started today.

WS: (laughing)

HH: His last day in the White House, and he wrote this long piece called The Long View, that says we’re Truman.

WS: Yeah.

HH: That’s what his argument is. We’re the Republican Truman. So you absolutely called it. That’s what he is doing. Now I’ve known him since 1974. I was telling the people upstairs today that they went to campaign school today. I went to campaign school in 1974 as a freshman at Harvard, and Karl Rove taught it. I mean, his impact on the Republican Party is very deep, his impact on the Bush presidency, obviously. But does he still matter in Texas? And does W. still matter in Texas? I’m wondering, who’s running Texas now?

WS: Well, once upon a time, Karl Rove did run Texas in terms of his enormous influence as a political operative in the state, and he was instrumental in really facilitating the move from a Democratic state, once upon a time, 1980’s, 1982, to a very Republican state as Tina Benkiser just told you.

HH: Yeah, and she’s a crackerjack, isn’t she?

WS: Yeah, and the Republican Party, she’s right, the Republican Party owns this state, every statewide official, every statewide office. Rove will stay important, I think, in Texas. I think he and Darby, his wife, will come back here, mostly to work for the library. But I do think that what Karl will do is spend a lot of his time outside of Texas. The President, of course, will come back to Crawford. I think he’ll tend to the affairs of his library. People in Texas, if you look at the polls, like George Bush. His popularity ratings are obviously a lot higher here than the nation. But you know, I’m not going to lie to you, there are Texans, including a number of Republicans, who have real concerns about aspects of this administration, some things that they’re not happy with. But George Bush himself is an extremely popular figure.

HH: I’m talking with Wayne Slater, it says here you’re the adjunct professor of public affairs, that’s throwing me off, at the LBJ School.

WS: Yeah.

HH: But you’re really the Dallas Morning News guy, the political editor. Who’s going to win the straw vote here tomorrow?

WS: Boy…

HH: This is a pretty good straw vote, isn’t it? Nobody knows.

WS: I think Tina, when she said she didn’t know, I think the same thing. I don’t know. The Ron Paul people are all around here making noise…

HH: But they don’t get to vote, because they weren’t delegates.

WS: They’re not delegates. I talked to these delegates, and a lot of them are talking about this Thompson, Fred Thompson. He really has a buzz here. But tomorrow, when Duncan Hunter shows that I’m here, and I made the effort to show up, comes on that stage and delivers a red meat speech to an audience that will be receptive, you don’t know how that’s going to…I don’t know what’s going to happen.

HH: Well, tell me about Texas generally. I was over talking to the Romney people, and I don’t see Giuliani having a booth here, but I saw that she had my book, so I went over to talk to her about Mitt Romney and his organization. They’ve got some excellent grass roots and money people. I assume Giuliani’s strong as he is all over the country, but where’s the elite? Where’s Rick Perry on the presidential race? I mean, has he signed on with anyone?

WS: No, he’s not signed on with anyone.

HH: Has anyone signed on with anyone? Cornyn hasn’t. Senator Cornyn told me has not signed on with anyone.

WS: No, there are a couple of people…the land commission, Jerry Patterson, a very good guy, popular guy here in Texas, has signed on with Fred Thompson. A few officials, a few folks, have signed on with some candidates. You’re going to find, I had a story today in the Dallas Morning News that really talked about the division within the party, both in Texas and elsewhere, between whether it’s the elites, the money interest, those people who look, the pragmatists who look for a winner, and see in Giuliani or in Romney, or possibly even McCain, although obviously, he’s had problems, something important. And these grass roots activists, many of whom say you know what, what’s the candidate that really represents our values, and there’s some real questions about these frontrunners.

HH: Let’s talk about our business for a little bit. I’m fascinated that you are here, that you were here when I did a little lunch today with Michael Steele, you’d been around the convention. That’s very smart, in my opinion, for the Dallas Morning News to cover an activist assembly in depth. Is the Dallas Morning News, I know they had a horrible quarter in advertising, but that happened all over. Are they making the effort to change the way that they do reporting in order to meet the sort of new demand for new media?

WS: Oh, that question is so big, I mean, and it’s so extraordinary, I can’t answer it in any great length. The quick answer is absolutely, we are moving, and I know you’re a pioneer in this blogosphere, and understanding the potential of the internet. We are moving not simply as a newspaper, but as a media corporation with an online presence, multi-media, we’re doing the same thing that every newspaper in the country is doing. The legacy media is dying in its present form, must be reborn, not necessarily the ideological thing, where maybe you and I have some differences, but in terms of its effort to serve readers and serve people, we have to understand where we have to go in order to do that.

HH: You know, their assets are…I’ve said the byline is the brand. You’re a byline, you’re a brand here in Texas.

WS: Yup.

HH: So for them to anchor you here and say…are you writing online today? Are you posting anything during the day?

WS: We are, yes, yes.

HH: You see, and that to me is the future. People want it now. They don’t want it tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning, it’s over. I’ll have posted on it, people will be blogging the convention, they’ll be listening to the radio show.

WS: Here’s what we’re going to do. Tomorrow, we’re going to have three reporters here…

HH: Wow.

WS: We’re going to be writing about the actual event. We’re writing about some protests outside. But we’ll also have a photographer, a still photographer taking pictures, and we’ll have a video to put video up on the internet, and we’ll have one reporter whose own responsibility is blogging all day.

HH: You see, that is the future.

WS: Yeah.

HH: And this is big event. I mean, Texas, none of the big candidates are here, because it got organized a little bit late. But they’re all on the ballot, and their people are here, and so I would imagine…are all the newspapers of Texas covering it that way, or is just the Dallas Morning News doing it?

WS: Well, not all the newspapers. I think some newspapers are. I think we take this seriously, because when grass roots activists in Texas gather, we pay attention. And we do the same thing with Democrats.

HH: Right.

WS: I mean, if Democrats are…

HH: Right.

WS: This is not partisan. But we need to pay attention to not simply what one or two people at the top say, but what do the people who really work in these parties, what do they think, what do they do, and where are they going?

HH: Now I’m curious about the Democrats in Texas, because they’re probably a lot like the Republicans in California, ruined, out of breath, out of spirits, although we’ve got Arnold in California. So what are they doing to get back in the game?

WS: Well, now Tina gave you a series of statistics, all of which were absolutely right. But one of the statistics she didn’t give you was that they Democrats began to take back a few seats in the Texas Legislature in the last year, but it was a 2006 race where I think the effects nationally on the Democratic Party had some effect here.

HH: Right.

WS: The Democratic Party basically is looking to rebuild, and they’re doing it at the farm team level. They realize they’re not likely going to win the governor’s office, they’re not likely going to win the lieutenant governor’s office, but they’re looking at legislative races, and to really start at the very beginning. They were the party of Lyndon Johnson, the party of Ann Richards, the party that dominated Texas politics until, frankly, Karl Rove, George Bush and the demographic changes that happened across the nation affected this state.

HH: How much did the immigration bill hurt the Republicans here?

WS: Oh, I…what do you mean?

HH: That is failed…the Latino vote in Texas turn against them at all?

WS: Let me tell you, this is not…what I’m going to tell you is not going to be popular to folks in this audience or delegates here, that I think Karl Rove is exactly right. I think that Michael Steele, who today earlier was talking a little bit about sensitivity to bringing in larger constituencies. It is important that the Republican Party not be seen as harsh in its rhetoric. Senator Cornyn says this, says on the one hand, we have to talk about security and those things that voters want, on the other hand, we can’t alienate this growing potential constituency, especially the Republican Party, where these voters don’t vote. This is a constituency that will define the shape of Texas politics, and a lot of politics on the border, over the next…including possibly California, in the next 20 years. If the Republicans are more successful in appealing to them, the Republican Party will be more successful. But there are Republicans here, moderate, who are worried that some of the attitudes and approaches about immigration…

HH: Well, they’re right, they’re right to be.

WS: …we’re going to see in Texas the same kind of attitudes that we saw after Pete Wilson in California. And it isn’t what you’re saying, it’s the way you say it.

HH: Am I right, you probably spent more time as a reporter with George Bush than any other mainstream media reporter in America?

WS: Well…yes.

HH: Yes, I think that’s true.

– – – –

HH: It turns out you took your graduate degree in journalism at Ohio University.

WS: Absolutely.

HH: You see, so you have some Buckeye in you, you have some common sense, street smarts.

WS: But not Ohio State.

HH: I know, Ohio University. It’s where my sister-in-law went, I hear about it all the time, I know all about you people. They have a heck of a journalism program there.

WS: A wonderful journalism, a great journalism program.

HH: People didn’t know, but they’ve built all those studios and all that other stuff. They’re very, very strong up there. Of course it’s Ohio, so we should have known that. Wayne Slater, before we went to break, I wanted to ask you about Bush. And how many times do you think you’ve sat down to talk with George W. Bush?

WS: A hundred.

HH: And so you bring to this question a great deal. Is he a different George W. Bush in 2007 than he was when he was the governor of this state?

WS: This is a debate between myself and a number of sort of long time political types who’ve known George Bush and worked with George Bush, or covered George Bush over the years. And some people say he’s completely different. The man who we knew, and you’ve probably heard this, the man who we knew in Texas as the bipartisan governor who got stuff done became a very different figure in Washington. The man who was so successful in Texas on all fronts has really struggled in the sort of slaughterhouse politics of Washington. And so he’s a different guy. I disagree. I think he’s exactly the same person, in fundamental ways. If you looked at George Bush as governor, he surrounded himself, first day, 1995, surrounded himself with a small group of people he trusted whose opinions he valued, whose judgment he felt was important. He wanted those people to give him advice. He was never very good at going out beyond that group of people. It was a fairly diverse group here, and that’s where he made his decisions. He was the kind of guy who says I want to hear about three or four different things, give me these ideas, I’ll make a decision. I’ll make fifty decisions a day. I’m the decider. He was the decider in Texas in 1995, ’96, ’97. When he went to Washington, he was really in many ways exactly the same person. It’s that Harvard Business model of executive decision making. And I think he’s gotten in trouble in a couple of areas. I wonder whether Don Rumsfeld and the Vice President, in some cases, whether some other of the neocons, and we may disagree with this, but have served him as well. But in a funny way, when George Bush was governor, he listened to the people he trusted, and he made a judgment based on what he was hearing from those people. Exactly the same thing came in Washington, and in some cases, I think he has been told things, he’s made decisions based on those things by these experts, and a member of the book, David Halberstam’s book The Best And Brightest, he’s surrounded himself around some people who I know critic will laugh at this, but they’re, many of them are the best and brightest of this period. And in some cases, they’ve been wrong, and the President has been harmed.

HH: Now of course, I have the same opinion of you as to his consistency over six years, but I have no template. But I also believe that that is, his consistency is going to be his great redeeming historical value, and that he is our Truman, and that Rove is right. But I am a big Bush fan, and that’s just the way it is. When it comes back to, though, personality and affability, I’ve only been with him on two occasions, once for an hour a month ago in the Oval Office. And I said to myself, this is extraordinary. This fellow is not worn down by this office. He loves being the President of the United States. He may have a lot more grey hair, but he’s very confident.

WS: It’s funny. I would travel to Ohio, especially, and I went to Florida in the 2004 race, and especially in Ohio, because I thought that was an important state…

HH: Yup.

WS: And I would talk to these Democrats, and they would say I hate George Bush. I hate him. And I would say…how can you hate him? If you spent an hour with him, you would like this guy. Now you may disagree with every policy that he espouses, everything that he has done, but if people could spend time with him, he’s an extraordinarily amiable guy. He is absolutely a person who understands who he is, he’s comfortable in his own skin, and you’re right. Even under these extraordinary circumstance, is someone who…I would be beaten down. I would be do defeated. I would be so battered every morning and say to Laura why the heck do I have to do this. There’s something about him, and I think part of it is his religious faith, part of it is, I think, he has a commitment to believing that you know, I’ve done what I thought is right, history’s going to judge whether I am right.

HH: Now Wayne Slater, before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you a couple of Texas questions. Where does Ron Paul come from? What is his story? What is this? I mean, most people from outside of Texas, he’s a Congressman, but he’s so libertarian, how’d he get elected, and what’s going on there?

WS: (laughing) Well, it’s kind of a libertarian district, it’s a fairly conservative district.

HH: What’s in that district?

WS: It’s near Houston, but it’s outside. It’s fairly upscale, some urban, some semi-rural areas. And I think what people there like is the smaller government/get off our back. You see all these Republicans, many of whom say you know, we like the idea of government get off our back, but Ron Paul delivers. He means it. He actually means it. Now in some cases, that leads you to places where maybe you don’t want to go.

HH: Does he play well with other Congressmen? Do they like him in the delegation, or is he a loner?

WS: To be honest with you?

HH: Yeah.

WS: They don’t. No, no. first, he is a wonderfully charming guy. He’s a very nice man. He’s a very nice man. But no, he has some problems in the delegation.

HH: Okay, now talk to me about Governor Rick Perry.

WS: Rick Perry.

HH: What’s going to happen to him? Is he going to go longer, because there’s no term limit? Does he get to go a third round?

WS: Well, I think Tina’s right. I don’t think…I’m not sure she said this. I do not think he’s going to run again.

HH: She did not say that. She said he doesn’t have to decide for four years.

WS: And there is no term limit. I mean, we’re in America, Hugh. You know, there are no limits on campaign contributions in Texas. There are no limits on the governor. You know, the voters will decide these matters. People will decide these matters. I don’t think he’s going to run again, but I think he’s making noises for two reasons. One, he’d like to be considered as a potential vice presidential candidate. I find it difficult to see how that would fit. I would see possibly a Kay Bailey Hutchison, if they’re going to pick a Texan, as someone’s running mate before Rick Perry. The other thing is, gee whiz, he’s got another legislative session in a year, and don’t start burning, don’t become a lame duck too early.

HH: Yeah, don’t. What about John Cornyn as…a lot of people see Cornyn as being our failsafe Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy were to develop because of retirement or sudden illness. They think everybody likes him. Can you imagine him willing to do that?

WS: No, I don’t think he would do it. We asked him the other day if he would be the Attorney General.

HH: Attorney General? No way.

WS: And he said no way. Of course, I don’t think he would do this. I guess it’s awful to say when a president really, really asks you to do something, how can you ultimately refuse? I don’t think that’s something he really wants to do.

HH: And the Bonilla seat and the Delay seat. Tina, the state chair last was saying we get those back. What do you think?

WS: Maybe, maybe, maybe. Those seats are close, those districts are close. I think the Delay seat is something that you could get, the Republicans could get back.

HH: Is Sekula Gibbs going to get the nomination?

WS: Not necessarily, because there’s a guy named Robert Talton, a state legislator, fairly popular in part of the district, there’s another guy who actually worked with Cornyn’s staff, a good solid person. I’m not sure she’s going to win the nomination. I noticed how Tina, being the good chairman of the party…

HH: She said nothing.

WS: She said nothing.

HH: You can get a transcript of that, and no one’s going to be mad.

WS: That’s right.

HH: Wayne Slater, what a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I look forward to continuing it on. By the way, will the Republicans carry Texas in ’08?

WS: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

HH: Not a chance?

WS: Not a chance for Democrats.

HH: Well see you tomorrow.

End of interview.

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