The Original Karl Rove - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Original Karl Rove

The Original Karl Rove

By Sean Braswell

President William McKinley with businessman and Republican Mark Hanna standing on a porch with First Lady Ida Saxon McKinley and family members.


Because dirty campaign tricks never go out of style.

By Sean Braswell

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Sound like vintage Karl Rove? It is, only he didn’t say it; his hero did, almost a century before Rove ran his first campaign.

Portrait of Mark Hanna

Karl Rove, the prequel.

Source Library of Congress

A wealthy Cleveland industrialist, Mark Hanna was a businessman before he became a kingmaker. He made his fortune in coal and iron in the latter half of the 19th century, then gave it up for his real love: political horse-trading. Hanna was a U.S. senator and Republican National Committee chair, but what he is best known for is catapulting William McKinley to back-to-back presidential election victories in 1896 and 1900.

How did Hanna do it? His playbook reads a lot like the one that worked so well for his 21st century disciple. Here are the top five Rovianesque rules.






Rule One:

The kingmaker picks the candidate, and not vice versa. Long before Rove recognized the younger George Bush’s swaggering potential and ran his first losing campaign for Congress in 1978, Hanna fell (politically) for a handsome, pious widower who was a clean-cut but unpolished Ohio congressman. Two decades later, McKinley had twice been elected governor of Ohio and twice president of the United States.

Hanna shook down Wall Street, amassing the first “slush fund” in American politics. 

Rule Two: 

Fund-raise like there’s no tomorrow. When the Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan threatened to win the 1896 election and shake up the ruling establishment, Hanna shook down Wall Street and eastern conservatives, outraising Bryan 16 to 1 and amassing an enormous “slush fund,” the first of its kind in American politics.





Rule Three:

Neutralize your opponent’s strengths. Bryan, only 36, was a remarkable public speaker, and during the 1896 campaign he traveled 18,000 miles across 27 states, making over 600 speeches (including 35 in one day). Rather than putting the older McKinley through the paces, Hanna organized a “Stop Bryan, Save America” Astroturf “campaign for education” movement, using his Wall Street funds to hire an army of 1,400 swift-boaters to shill for McKinley across the country. 

Mark Hanna with other delegates at the famous front porch meetings

Delegation came to see Republican presidential candidate William McKinley (center) in Canton, OH, October 1896.

Source McKInley Presidential Library

Rule Four: 

Put your guy in the best light possible. Rove famously minimized Bush’s debates and public-speaking appearances and held rallies filled with carefully screened supporters. Likewise, while Bryan was out barnstorming the country in 1896, Hanna staged highly publicized “front porch” meetings where carefully selected groups of voters submitted questions in advance, which McKinley responded to in scripted speeches from his porch. Hanna also inundated America with roadside billboards and millions of leaflets, prompting an astounded Teddy Roosevelt to comment that Hanna “advertised McKinley as if he were patent medicine.”

Rule Five:

Fear is your friend. Long before Rove made sure America was paralyzed by fears of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, Mark Hanna had Wall Street spooked by Bryan’s radical “communist spirit” and Main Street swirling with rumors that employers would lay off workers after Election Day if Bryan won.

Did it work? Well, Hanna helped usher in 16 straight years of GOP control over the White House. And he even earned himself a spot in the Senate in the process. Eat your heart out, Karl.

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