Matt Lewis

Did Karl Rove really work for Ronald Reagan? It’s complicated

Anyone who doubts that Ronald Reagan still looms large over modern-day conservatism should look no further than the many times his name has been invoked to establish conservative credibility over the years.

And there is no better example of this than the recent controversy over whether or not Karl Rove actually worked for The Gipper in Texas.

It all started when the New York Times reported that Rove was backing a new group called the Conservative Victory Project, whose mission “is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates.”

Popular conservative talk show host Mark Levin was one of many conservatives who took umbrage at the news. Levin took to the air to criticize Rove for launching a group that many believe will focus on defeating conservatives. “As somebody who was active in the Reagan campaign in ’76 and ’80 and served in his administration for eight years,” Levin said, “I don’t remember Karl Rove.”

On Thursday night, Rove appeared on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” to fend off the charges.

During his appearance, Rove said that he was “the director of the Texas campaign for Ronald Reagan in 19 … in the fall of 1980…” (The fact that he stopped to correct himself in order to specify the “fall of 1980” reveals that Rove supported Reagan only after he won the nomination.)

But here’s where the story gets interesting. Call them Rove Truthers – or “Rovers,” for short – but several conservatives were skeptical of Rove’s supposed involvement with Reagan.

Craig Shirley, a respected Reagan biographer, was especially distressed. Shirley fired off an open memo to conservative leaders, noting that:

In the course of my research for [his book] Rendezvous with Destiny about the 1980 campaign, at no time did I come across Mr. Rove’s name in association with the Reagan campaign. Indeed, according to sources, he was with the George H. W. Bush campaign until he was fired for leaking to the media.

In 1976, as Chairman of the College Republicans, Rove was for Gerald Ford over Governor Reagan, as was all of the Republican National Committee.

The 1980 Texas campaign for Ronald Reagan was run by Ernie Angelo and the Field Director was Rick Shelby. Gary Hoitsma ran the media for Reagan in Texas in 1980. 

Later in the day, the American Spectator’s Jeffrey Lord also noted that Rove isn’t included in the Reagan Alumni list.

In Rove’s memoir, he recalls that, “By the summer of 1980, politics had swept me up again. That meant for me a role in the campaign to carry Texas for Ronald Reagan and his running mate, my former boss, George H. W. Bush.” In his book, Rove doesn’t mention being “director” of Reagan’s Texas campaign, but this does at least establish the fact that Rove didn’t suddenly invent the back story to respond to Levin.

Other conservatives still weren’t convinced. “Karl Rove campaigned in 1980 against Ronald Reagan and for George Herbert Walker Bush in the Republican presidential primary in Texas,” recalled Tom Pauken, former Reagan official and former Texas Republican State Chairman who has a history of sparring with Rove and Bush in Texas. “In the general election, I never heard at the time that Karl was running the Reagan campaign in our state.”

So who’s right? It’s complicated.

I finally caught up with Rick Shelby, who helped me get to the bottom of it. Today, Shelby’s with the American Gas Association, but in 1979, he was one of the original Regional Political Directors for the Reagan for President Committee. This involved coordinating nine states — including Texas.

Since Texas was important, Shelby tells me he spent an “inordinate” amount of time in the Lone Star State in 1980. And though Rove never technically worked on the Reagan campaign, Shelby says he served as executive director for the state’s Victory Committee.

In that capacity, Shelby recalls that Rove “played a vital role in helping raise the funds necessary” for an effective voter ID and turnout program in the state. The confusion, he says, results from the fact that 1980 was the first year in which the law allowed for this sort of coordination.

Rove didn’t work on the Reagan campaign, but he did work to help elect Reagan — albeit after Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush — and won the nomination (which, to some hardcore conservatives, is almost a moot point).

Ultimately, this, of course, isn’t about Rove. It’s really a microcosm of a struggle that has been taking place in the GOP for decades — and continues to this day.

The Ford-Reagan split from 1976 is alive and well. And you can’t really trust anyone who was on Team Ford.

UPDATE: An email from Ernest Angelo confirms Rove’s involvement, but refers to him as being “in the campaign”:

In 1980 I was Gov Reagan’s Texas chairman in the primary and Campaign Manager for the general election. Gov Clements endorsed Reagan after the Texas primary and was the campaign Chairman. I was a full time volunteer on site for most of the Fall campaign in Austin. I worked closely with Rick Shelby who was a Reagan Regional Political Director and was in Austin nearly full time. We had a large staff of volunteers and paid individuals. I’m not much for titles but I can assure you Karl Rove was materially involved since he was working for me and Gov Clements in the campaign.