Updated: Jan 15
Karl Christian Rove, or “Turd Blossom” as he was christened by George W. Bush, is probably the most well-known Republican political strategist of our time, but it was his expertise in direct mail marketing that put me in the same room with him for the first time in the late spring of 1993.
My dear friend Mike Gillette had reached out to his acquaintance and fellow Texan for advice on building a base of public support for the National Archives. While we had a small core of very loyal followers, we had not been able to break into the realm of the Smithsonian or even the Library of Congress in public awareness or support. The National Archives Foundation had been created a few years before to accept public financial support and its leadership was considering a membership campaign to raise money and widen our footprint as a cultural institution.
Karl Rove was the wizard who had risen from the ranks of the Young Republicans to design and execute direct mail plans for President Ronald Reagan, Senator Phil Gramm, and Governor Bill Clements. He had taken on non-political clients along the way, the largest of which was Phillip Morris. When we sat down to chat the first time, he was well known, but not the super star that would eventually put George W. Bush in the Governor’s Mansion and the White House.
I had two meetings with Karl as part of that Archives membership project and recall that his low-key persona was not what I expected. While clearly knowledgeable of his craft, his awe of history and deference for the job that I had put us on much more of an even plane than I had expected. He helped paint a picture of just how high the mountain was that we had to climb. Nevertheless, he signed on and did a very large direct mail campaign to promote membership for the Archives Foundation. All his services were pro bono.
Turning the clock forward to 2006, Karl and I met again. George W. Bush was halfway through his second term as President of the United States and Rove was transitioning from Deputy Chief of Staff to a senior advisor role to prepare for the upcoming congressional elections. Dr. Allen Weinstein, celebrated history professor and author of an award-winning, though controversial biography of Alger Hiss, was Archivist of the United States, having been appointed by President Bush the year before. A long-time golden boy of the neo-cons, Allen was an old friend of Rove’s and invited him over to the Archives to see the Emancipation Proclamation which was being prepared for a rare public display.
When Karl arrived, Allen had his secretary give me a call to drop by and say hello. Rove was in a jovial mood and the three of us had a great chat about the issues of the day. As I recall Rush Limbaugh was on a rant against the President that week and Karl said some things about Rush that you would never have heard him say in public. Back in the political realm full time and out of the day-to-day policy grind, he seemed like a fish that had just been reintroduced to the water. He was happy and his default expression that day was smiling laughter.
The three of us walked down to the Archivist’s Conference Room, a space originally christened the “Board Room” for the Archives Foundation when the building was renovated a few years before. However, Allen Weinstein had fallen in love with the beautiful mahogany-paneled walls and oversized photographs of historic moments in the history of the Archives and procured the room as his very own.
Tables had been put together on one side of the room and excited archivists and conservators were ready to show off this iconic document to Mr. Rove.
Five pages in length, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln and declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
The three most famous documents in the Archives, The Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights, are written on parchment, animal skin that has been cured and prepared for writing. Our early treaties and laws were all inscribed on this same ancient medium. The Emancipation Proclamation, on the other hand was written on paper and is therefore much more fragile. Also, like the Declaration of Independence, it was almost loved to death in its early years. Everyone wanted to see these documents and they suffered the light damage that comes from over display. The Proclamation lives in the dark for most of the year and was only displayed once a year on its anniversary. It was being prepared for its 2006 display and we were going to get a peek.
We stepped forward to the table and Mary Ellen Ritzenthaler, one of our lead conservators, took the cover off the document for Mr. Rove to see. As our guest looked at the document, my mind went back to the others that I had accompanied to this moment over the years.
Reverend Jessie Jackson, former quarterback at North Carolina A&T, and renowned American civil rights leader.
Dr. John Hope Franklin, James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University, and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Kweisi Mfume, US Congressman from Maryland and former President of the NAACP
Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
One year, as the document was coming off display, I received an emergency call from Kennedy’s secretary to tell me that the Senator was on his way. The Senator had heard about the exhibit from his pal Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut to whom I had shown the document that morning. As the document was being rolled out of the rotunda, I intercepted the conservators and diverted the exhibit case into the Archivist’s Reception Room so that I could give Kennedy a private viewing. The case stopped rolling four minutes before the Senator walked through the door. All in a day’s work.
Seeing the iconic documents of our national story was a special privilege. Showing them to others was a true honor.