The Man Karl Rove Couldn't Beat

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Earlier this week, I noticed an item on the new chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, Mark Kennedy, who won the job after no one else sought it, probably because it is such a daunting one. Kennedy knows about daunting. The articles didn't mention this, but Mark Kennedy is the rare Democrat to have defeated Karl Rove, which he did in an epic Supreme Court race in Alabama in 1994. Kennedy was also the target of a breathtakingly vicious smear campaign that Rove orchestrated, and that I described in a 2004 Atlantic profile of Rove. Kennedy's job won't be easy--but anyone who can endure this sort of thing and prevail is made of pretty stern stuff (excerpt after the jump):

But no other example of Rove's extreme tactics that I encountered quite compares to what occurred during another 1994 judicial campaign in Alabama. In that year Harold See first ran for the supreme court, becoming the rare Rove client to lose a close race. His opponent, Mark Kennedy, an incumbent Democratic justice and, as George Wallace's son-in-law, a member in good standing of Alabama's first family of politics, was no stranger to hardball politics. "The Wallace family history and what they all went through, that's pretty rough politics," says Joe Perkins, who managed Kennedy's campaign. "But it was a whole new dimension with Rove."

This August, I had lunch with Kennedy near his office in Montgomery. I had hoped to discuss how it was that he had beaten one of the savviest political strategists in modern history, and I expected to hear more of the raucous campaign tales that are a staple of Alabama politics. Neither Kennedy nor our meeting was anything like what I had anticipated. A small man, impeccably dressed and well-mannered, Kennedy appeared to derive little satisfaction from having beaten Rove. In fact, he seemed shaken, even ten years later. He quietly explained how Rove's arrival had poisoned the judicial climate by putting politics above matters of law and justice--"collateral damage," he called it, from the win-at-all-costs attitude that now prevails in judicial races.

He talked about the viciousness of the "slash-and-burn" campaign, and how Rove appealed to the worst elements of human nature. "People vote in Alabama for two reasons," Kennedy told me. "Anger and fear. It's a state that votes against somebody rather than for them. Rove understood how to put his finger right on the trigger point." Kennedy seemed most bothered by the personal nature of the attacks, which, in addition to the usual anti-trial-lawyer litany, had included charges that he was mingling campaign funds with those of a nonprofit children's foundation he was involved with. In the end he eked out a victory by less than one percentage point.

Kennedy leaned forward and said, "After the race my wife, Peggy, was at the supermarket checkout line. She picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and nearly collapsed on her watermelon. She called me and said, 'Sit down. You're not going to believe this.'" Her husband was featured in an article on "America's worst judges." Kennedy attributed this to Rove's attacks.

When his term on the court ended, he chose not to run for re-election. I later learned another reason why. Kennedy had spent years on the bench as a juvenile and family-court judge, during which time he had developed a strong interest in aiding abused children. In the early 1980s he had helped to start the Children's Trust Fund of Alabama, and he later established the Corporate Foundation for Children, a private, nonprofit organization. At the time of the race he had just served a term as president of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. One of Rove's signature tactics is to attack an opponent on the very front that seems unassailable. Kennedy was no exception.

Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children. "We were trying to counter the positives from that ad," a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile. "It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information," the staffer went on. "That was a major device we used for the transmission of this stuff. The students at the law school are from all over the state, and that's one of the ways that Karl got the information out--he knew the law students would take it back to their home towns and it would get out." This would create the impression that the lie was in fact common knowledge across the state. "What Rove does," says Joe Perkins, "is try to make something so bad for a family that the candidate will not subject the family to the hardship. Mark is not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin', tobacco-chewin', pickup-drivin' kind of guy. He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man, and what they tried to do was make him look like a homosexual pedophile. That was really, really hard to take."

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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