Lee Atwater must be spinning in his grave.
Judging by their bungling of the Jeffords affair, the two most powerful graduates of the Atwater School of Hardball Politics, President Bush and his advisor Karl Rove (Class of '88), have regrettably and dramatically missed the final -- and most important -- lesson of their teacher's life.
Atwater was only 40 when he renounced the politics of viciousness. Wracked with brain cancer, the former happy hatchet man who sliced and diced Michael Dukakis, famously vowing to "make Willie Horton his running mate," came to see the error of his ugly ways.
Rove and Bush studied their mentor's life but skipped the last chapter. Atwater's hard-earned insights were lost on them.
"My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood," Atwater wrote. "It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime." Or not.
It took terminal cancer to put Atwater in touch with his humanity. What will it take before Rove learns to bury the hatchet someplace other than right between the eyes of his adversaries?
Jeffords, of course, was worse than an enemy. He was a traitor. And Rove and the rest of the Bush loyalists feel about a traitor the way Cicero did: "He infects the body politic so it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared. The traitor is the plague." The problem is, the Bush definition of a traitor is anyone with an "R" after his name who has the temerity to disagree.
And the vindictiveness is compounded by pettiness. Take it from someone who knows. Ever since I joined the ranks of "recovering Republicans," I've often found myself on the receiving end of this charmless, small-minded fury.
The most amusing example was the time I asked a Bush buddy -- and one of the original "Pioneers" -- to help me land a decent hotel room during last summer's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. "No problem," he answered graciously. "Anything you want."
Well, as it turns out, not quite anything. A month later, I was still roomless, and he had to come clean. "Austin will no longer let me do anything for you," he told me sheepishly. My first thought was, Why would a perpetually horny fictional spy care about my room search? Then I realized that he meant Austin, Texas, not Austin Powers.
Wow, I thought then, and have been thinking ever since, Is nothing too trivial for the Bush revenge machine? Are they never once going to consider taking the high road, assuming they could ever find it? Apparently not.
W. and Rove are still following the early teachings of Atwater and not the later lessons that superseded them. "Like a good general," Atwater admitted at the end, "I had treated everyone who wasn't with me as against me."
The repentant Atwater, with his newfound understanding and wisdom, would never have treated Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the way Rove and the White House did. Phone calls not returned, invitations not offered, input conspicuously ignored -- this was all old-school stuff.
So while Bush had plenty of time to chat up Teddy Kennedy on the education bill, he had no time to call Jeffords, who after all was only the chairman of the education committee. Kennedy was invited to the Bush family quarters for hot dogs and a movie; Jeffords was frozen out.
The president -- clearly easily impressed -- has nicknamed Rove the "Boy Genius," but it doesn't take a Mensa member to realize that in a 50-50 Senate, the last thing you should be doing is humiliating one of your own.
But Rove's style, first and always, is to go for the jugular. "You don't cross Karl Rove and not expect repercussions," says a former opponent from the Texas days.
Even after the bloodletting of the self-inflicted Jeffords wound, Rove could not resist a cheap insult.
"You have to respect somebody who does something out of principle," Rove said last week, parroting the administration's spin. But with practically his next breath, he gleefully suggested that Jeffords' decision was linked to "committee chairs and deals and bargains and pledges."
Rove is so petty, he can't even stick to his own talking points.
How low is he willing to go?
Ask Vermont's National Teacher of the Year, who found her moment of glory being used like a rolled-up newspaper wielded by the owner of a disobedient dog -- in this case, a pooch named "Jeffords."
Like a crazed Barbara Woodhouse, Rove is struggling to keep his GOP hounds on a short leash. Now that Jeffords has refused to sit up and beg, the big dog to watch is John McCain, who already has knife wounds up and down his back from his dealings with Rove. Many date from the South Carolina primary and the Rove-fueled whispering campaign that, among other poisonous rumors, raised doubts about McCain's mental stability because of the torture he endured in Vietnam.
Rove, incidentally, has never talked to anybody on McCain's staff. Not once. So the tone of McCain's response to Jeffords' defection was hardly surprising -- and a barely veiled castigation of Rove. "Perhaps those self-appointed enforcers of party loyalty," he said, "will learn to respect honorable differences among us, learn to disagree without resorting to personal threats, and recognize that we are a party large enough to accommodate something short of strict unanimity on the issues of the day."
The dying Atwater would heartily agree. Too bad his star students dropped out before learning this vital parting lesson.