Things might be bad in Washington right now, but they’ve been a whole lot worse and they will eventually get better. That was the message from Bush Administration mastermind Karl Rove, who spoke to a full house at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Thursday.
Billed under the deceptively pessimistic title “If You Think It’s Bad Now, Think Again,” Rove regaled the crowd with stories from his own experiences in politics and American history, dwelling specifically on the life of William McKinley (about whom he wrote a book in 2016).
“Things today are not what they ought to be,” Rove started, outlining that faith in almost all public institutions are at all-time lows. “You can’t sustain a free society if there’s no trust in the fundamental institutions of democracy.”
Peering back in time, Rove described the widespread political corruption of the Gilded Age, the time between the Civil War and the Theodore Roosevelt presidency. “Very little gets done for one reason: they hate each other,” Rove said. “It’s like today – only worse.”
Rove articulated a variety of conflicts in that time (many grudges still fresh after the Civil War) including one “particularly mean” Texan member of Congress who would publicly sharpen his bowie knife on his cowboy boots.
“I don’t remember Nancy Pelosi doing this in 2011 on her stilettos,” he joked to great laughter.
The key to leaders restoring civility are 1) success, 2) doing what they say they’ll do, and 3) unifying messages.
Rove went on at length about an episode where McKinley held a joint event with both Confederate and Union veterans to help reconcile old wounds.
“We’ve been in places where the American people have soured, and when we look back we just gloss over them,” he said. “We’ve been broken before for a while … Don’t despair. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat: you have an obligation to do what you feel is best for the country.”
Rove, a Utah native, attended the University of Utah and leveraged an internship with the Hinckley Institute to a close relationship with the Bush family. He was in Salt Lake City to receive an honor from his alma mater, Olympus High School. He joked that his friend and local magnate Bud Scruggs has “tried to bring to be the faith and failed, but he did make me a non-drinker.”