As a string of foes from John McCain to Richard Clarke can attest, Karl Rove has never been shy about using personal attacks for political gain. But as the Valerie Plame scandal rages on, the Bush administration’s in-house bulldog may be forced to endure a taste of his own medicine.
Last Sunday, in a blistering column in the New York Times, Frank Rich charged that around the time the White House was leaking Plame’s undercover CIA status to friendly reporters, Rove’s office was publicly “outing” Jeffrey Kofman after the gay ABC correspondent reported on the flagging morale of American troops in Iraq. Rich angrily charged the Republican rumor-monger with fostering a “pervasive culture of revenge” in Washington. Now, in the same spirit, Rove’s critics are forcing the married pol to fend off a politically motivated campaign that focuses on his own personal life.
For years, political insiders in the Lone Star State have whispered about Rove’s close friendship with lobbyist Karen Johnson, a never-married, forty-something GOP loyalist from Austin, Texas. The two first became close when Johnson sat on the board of then-Governor George W. Bush’s Business Council over a decade ago. Their friendship reportedly deepened after Bush appointed Johnson—a little-known spokesperson for the Texas Good Roads Association—to a seat on his Transportation Department transition team in 2000. The plum appointment enabled Johnson’s lobbying firm, Infrastructure Solutions, to snare such high-paying clients as Aetna and the City of Laredo. Sources say Johnson now frequently travels between Washington D.C. and Austin, where she frequently appears at Rove’s side at parties and unofficial functions.
Although there is no evidence that their relationship is anything but professional, the close association between the married White House aide and the comely lobbyist has long raised eyebrows in conservative Texas circles. Asked about the pair, a prominent political journalist who has written extensively about Rove says, “I’ve heard the stories, but I would never write about Karl and Karen. If you want to keep your job as a reporter in Texas, you make believe you don’t see them together.”
In the post-Lewinsky era, Washington’s press corps has mostly avoided reporting on the private lives of public officials. But as the political climate in the capitol grows more poisonous, Rove’s close friendship with the lobbyist has attracted increased scrutiny from opponents eager to prove that Bush’s dirty trickster is sitting on some dirty laundry of his own.
Asked to comment on Rove’s relationship with Johnson, a White House spokesman firmly declined to discuss the matter, saying that their relationship was “the business of these two individuals who have personal lives…I don’t think that’s something that the White House should comment on.” A new air of civility in Washington? Don’t count on it.