A Broken Family on the Western Front
Have you heard the joke about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much he almost told her? My father—Louis C. Rove, Jr.—was a Norwegian, one of those taciturn midwesterners who held back a lot. But in the last decades of life, Dad began to open up about himself, his marriage, and my childhood. He would meet me and my wife, Darby, in Santa Fe for the opera and the Chamber Music Festival each summer, and while exploring New Mexico, he would reveal secrets of our family life that were shocking because they were so intimate. But I disclose them here because my early years have been painted very differently. There is something to be said about setting the record straight, especially when it involves your kin.
So before I get to my career in politics, I want to tell the real story of my family, with all the love and heartbreak it contained. My father was a geologist. At about six feet tall, trim, with short-cropped blond hair and glasses, he had a kind but somber demeanor. Born in Wisconsin, he served briefly in the Navy at the end of World War II. Afterward, he spent a year at Hope College in Michigan. Inspired by his uncle Olaf Rove, a consulting geologist of some renown, my father then transferred to the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, Colorado.
It was there that he met my mother, Reba Wood. There were many differences. Dad was college-educated, well-read, and had grown up in a sensibly middle-class home with books, classical music, and opera. My mother never went to college, never had been exposed to books or classical music, and wasn’t interested in them. It may have been that she was the only girl in a family that prized boys, or else it was an early misfortune that was hidden from me, but regardless, while she appeared strong and in control, in reality she was fragile. Her brittleness, emotional pain, and suffering were out of most people’s view. But she and Dad were drawn to each other: he to her beauty and passion, and she to his solid dependability and dashing good looks. For a very long time, they were very much in love.
Mom was the only daughter of Robert G. and Elsie Wood and had three younger brothers. My maternal grandfather never went to college, but he was full of drive, dreams, and integrity. During the Depression, he found work on a Colorado Highway Department crew. Later, from a wooden shelf on the backseat of his car, Grandpa started selling butcher knives he had bought on consignment, to out-of-the-way grocery stores in southern Colorado. He eventually built it into a business—Robert G. Wood & Company, “Quality Butcher Supplies.” It was to provide a good livelihood for three generations of Woods. I was to spend many happy hours in his shop in Denver and around Grandfather Wood and my three uncles.
My grandparents lived in the same house for most of their adult lives, at 3045 Lowell Boulevard in Denver. The only luxury they allowed themselves was travel, recorded on a primitive motion picture camera by my grandfather. Over a twenty-year period, they went to Mexico, worked their way through South America; flew to Hawaii; traveled to Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt in simpler times in the region; visited Cambodia and Vietnam before they became dangerous; and went to Japan when it no longer was. It was a highlight after each trip to go to our grandparents’ house to see my grandfather’s movies, carefully narrated by him. My grandmother decorated their house with things brought home from their travels, whether trinkets, rubbings from the Angkor Wat temples, or Peruvian village retablos.
When my grandfather died of a heart attack on Labor Day 1974, my grandmother attempted suicide by shooting herself in the stomach. She lived another twenty-five years in pain and loneliness, mourning her husband and, I later was to discover, indirectly showing her loved ones that suicide was an acceptable way to deal with hardship.
I was born early on Christmas Day 1950, in a hospital elevator in Denver, Colorado. I guess I started out eager to get going. I grew up on the genteel fringes of the lower middle class, the second oldest in what became a family of five kids—three boys (an older brother and a younger one) and two sisters (both younger). We lived in Colorado until I was nine; in Sparks, Nevada, until I was fifteen; and then in Holladay, Utah, as my father followed opportunities in the mining business.
In the 1950s, being a young geologist specializing in uranium, lead, zinc, and copper was not a lucrative calling, but it was a demanding profession. Dad was often gone for months at a time on stints in Angola and Mozambique; in Aruba; in Manitoba, Alberta, and on the Queen Charlotte Islands of Canada; in Alaska; and all across the western part of the lower forty-eight states. His trips prompted a childish interest in vexillology: I used to draw pictures of the flags of the countries and states he worked in and treasured a small book of flags of nations and history he gave me.
I keep a picture of my father on a shelf near my desk. It was taken in a remote corner of Angola in the early 1950s. He is surrounded by bush children who probably had not seen many Westerners. When I was young, the picture seemed to me to be of a young, tanned demigod. In reality, he was a gangly young man fresh out of college, trying to chart his way in life.
We were brought up on tales of Africa, of his beloved monkey Chico, who later died in the Lisbon Zoo, and how my father had come to possess an eighteen-foot-long snakeskin, a zebra hide, and a rhinoceros horn—revered as sacred family totems in our home. We showed them to our friends with great ceremony.
In Colorado, our family first lived briefly in the company town of Kokomo, near the Climax mine north of Leadville. Then we moved to a house in a big field outside Arvada. There was a large pond in the southeast corner and a ditch meandered over the lower part of the property, providing welcome territory for games and exploring.
We had a chicken coop and a garden that provided us with much-needed eggs, carrots, tomatoes, and green beans. To this day, I think there’s almost nothing better than a ripe strawberry plucked fresh from the garden and nothing worse than eggplant, especially when it’s been fried the night before and served cold for breakfast because you left it on your dinner plate.
We never lacked for anything we really needed, but the family budget was always under pressure. My mother could spend more money to less effect than almost anyone I have ever known. To her credit, she tried earning money, but her ideas usually lasted only a season or two. One year, we collected pinecones and sold them to local nurseries. Then Mom became an Avon lady and my brother and I (and eventually all the kids) became experts at bagging orders. I knew by heart the code for almost every shade of Avon lipstick. We delivered newspapers, cut grass, babysat the neighbors’ kids, sold lemonade, and helped out at Grandfather’s store. As a teenager, I waited tables and washed dishes, ran a cash register at a hippie shop that sold patchouli oil, worked in a hospital kitchen, and held down the night shift at a convenience store. My parents made me quit the last job after I was robbed twice—once with a pistol and the second time with a sawed-off shotgun. I was stoic during the robberies, but shaken afterward and happy my parents insisted I quit.
Even with all these efforts, and especially when we were young, there didn’t seem to be enough money. The Christmas I turned five, the bonus Dad had been promised turned out to be a pittance, leaving him with no money for presents, so he talked a buddy who flew a helicopter like the one in the M*A*S*H television show into landing his chopper in the dusty field surrounding our house and taking us up. Dad explained it was Santa’s helicopter, so we had to take our ride the day before Christmas rather than on Christmas itself. It’s still the best Christmas I ever had.
For my brothers and sisters and me, it seemed like an idyllic childhood, with Boy Scouts, Little League, playing “war” in the fields nearby, stamp and coin collections, trading baseball cards, and fried chicken dinners on Sunday at our grandparents’ house, where we watched Bonanza and The Wonderful World of Disney on their color TV. I looked up to my older brother, Eric, even though he used to beat me up, as all older brothers do. I thought he was the smartest person I knew. He spent his life outdoors, working in highway construction after attending the University of Nevada. Alma, six years younger than me, looked the most like Mom and, like her, had more than her share of misfortune in life. Olaf, eight years younger than me, was a happy and thoroughly content child who grew up to run computer systems. And the baby, Reba—nine years younger than me—was especially smart, disciplined, funny, prone to tricks, and, at least when it comes to her childhood memories, also prone to good-hearted exaggeration. We were an outgoing, active group.
We didn’t have a television at home until we moved to Nevada. Dad said it was because he wanted us to read, exercise our minds, and do our homework. I suspect family finances had something to do with it, too. When he was home and read to us or made us listen to the opera sponsored by Texaco and explained the stories we were hearing, not having a television didn’t matter so much.
During breaks from school, Dad would take his children with him when he had geological fieldwork nearby. It fostered a love of the open spaces of the West and of nature and its processes. Dad’s frequent travels and our family’s mobility made me a natural extrovert, with both the ability and the need to make friends and connect with others. And living in a tidy middle-class household with only a few, but nice, pieces of furniture and art never made me yearn for material things.
Mom ran the household in Dad’s absence and she could alternately act like a Marine drill instructor or a soft, caring figure. She was not stable or predictable and had a penchant for melodrama. The family was always headed over a cliff tomorrow. She would be seized by some crisis and then share her fear with her children. The moment would eventually pass for her, but some anxiety and uncertainty would remain with us.
My father and my grandfather helped organize the First Presbyterian Church of Golden, Colorado, so there was also Sunday school and summer church camp. The young minister they called to the pulpit told me many years later that he and my dad attended a local Presbyterian meeting where the little daughter of one of the pastors played the piano to entertain the group. She was Condoleezza Rice, whose father, John, was an associate pastor at Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver. My parents were later active in helping form Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sparks, pressing me into service as a canvasser and then an usher.
We caught glimpses of life’s casual cruelty, especially after we moved to Nevada when I was nine. Sometimes neighborhood kids would show up unannounced for dinner at our house, which was inevitably spaghetti or macaroni and cheese with hamburger meat. I learned that these kids were from families where the parents had gambled away their paychecks. The experience gave me a lifelong aversion to gambling.
Because my father was often gone and my mother prone to erratic behavior, I took refuge in books. They were dependable, solid, and an exciting escape to a better place. “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson once wrote. I wasn’t good at sports, and my family couldn’t afford entertainment, so books were my savior: you can blame them for my love of politics, and the career it produced.
I still have the first frigate I can remember reading: a gift from my second-grade teacher called Great Moments in History. Its pages on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Alamo, and the Civil War fascinated me. I read everything I could get my hands on, especially biographies and histories. The coming of the centennial of the Civil War in 1960 meant I was exposed at the age of seven to a flood of books on it.
To me, the Civil War was not just compelling and stirring, it was real. It was a true drama of real people with real lives whose decisions settled the question of whether the young democracy would remain Lincoln’s “last, best hope of freedom.” I pored over Civil War picture books and even copied the wartime drawings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly, which appeared in Fletcher Pratt’s Civil War in Pictures. The maps in the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War especially enthralled me. They were pictures of the battlefields with drawings of tiny armies, North and South, smashing into each other at Bull Run, Spotsylvania, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta, Petersburg, and Appomattox.
But my bookishness doesn’t entirely explain why I fell in love with politics and became a Republican. My parents never expressed an interest in politics. My mother voted Republican in 1970 because I was working for the GOP, but in 1972 she voted for the Peace and Freedom Party, headed by radical Eldridge Cleaver, because my brother was supporting it.
Republicanism fit with my childhood of growing up in the Rocky Mountain West, a place of big horizons, long vistas, and most important of all, a palpable sense of freedom. There is something about the West that encourages individualism and personal responsibility, values I thought best reflected by Republicans. In the West, people tend to be judged on their merits, not their pedigree. From there, Washington seems undependable and a long way away.
At the age of nine, I decided I was for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. I got my hands on a Nixon bumper sticker, slapped it on my bike’s wire basket, and rode up and down the block, as if that alone would get him a vote. Instead it drew the attention of a little girl who lived in the neighborhood. She had a few years and about thirty pounds on me and was enthusiastically for John F. Kennedy. She pulled me from my bicycle and beat the heck out of me, leaving me with a bloody nose and a tattered ego. I’ve never liked losing a political fight since.
At the age of thirteen, I was wild for Barry Goldwater. I loved that his philosophy celebrated freedom and responsibility, the dignity and worth of every individual, the danger of intrusive government, and the importance of politics to protecting those ideals. I had Goldwater buttons, stickers, and posters, a ragged paperback copy of Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, and even a bright gold aluminum can of “Au H2O,” a campaign artifact that played on the candidate’s last name. I got ahold of a Goldwater sign, but it didn’t last long in our front yard. I don’t know whether my parents or a supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson removed it. LBJ not only crushed the Arizona senator, he also crushed me. I was devastated. But for budding Republicans like me, there was nobility in Goldwater’s loss. He went down with guns blazing and his ideology on full, unapologetic display. Goldwater was a “conviction politician,” the kind who shaped a movement.
Economics came on my radar screen when I was twelve or thirteen, when someone gave me a copy of Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman, one of the greatest defenders and advocates of capitalism. “Government power must be dispersed. If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington,” he wrote. Reading Friedman led me to next plow through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The pin maker, the division of labor, and the “invisible hand”—all of it made sense to me.
Then there was William F. Buckley, Jr. The Sparks, Nevada, library had a subscription to Buckley’s National Review magazine, with its unadorned cover and its bold credenda. I eagerly awaited its arrival each week, devouring articles using words I didn’t know (such as denouement) but whose meaning I could often guess. I couldn’t get my hands on Buckley’s books quickly enough. At age fifteen I laughed out loud all the way through The Unmaking of a Mayor.
When I took my first civics course in the fourth or fifth grade, and classmates were doing their first term papers on “Our Constitution” or “The Congress,” I was writing on the communist theory of dialectical materialism, since I had read Karl Marx. But I wanted a bridge from the world of ideas to the world of practical politics—and at fifteen, I received my first experience in government.
Between junior high and high school, I wrangled a summer internship in the Washoe County clerk’s office in Reno, Nevada. At the beginning of that summer, my family moved from Sparks to Holladay, Utah, near Salt Lake City. I stayed behind, living with my scoutmaster and his wife and spending the summer riding the bus to and from the courthouse to work. Somehow, filing papers and making photocopies in the clerk’s office seemed exciting and fresh. The process of government was thrilling. I spent most of my time filing crime and divorce papers, but I also watched trials and county commission meetings and even sat in on the Board of Equalization, though I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about, other than that it had to do with money and taxes. I was fascinated by county government and read whatever I could find about the esoteric disputes of county government theory.
Summer ended on a thrilling social note. On the final day of my internship, the cute eighteen-year-old clerk asked me to walk her home. Outside her apartment she gave me a quick kiss (my first). But the last bus from downtown Reno home to Sparks was fast approaching its stop a block away, so I had to bid her good-bye and run to catch it.
As we settled into a modest house in Holladay in the fall of 1966, I entered Olympus High School in suburban Salt Lake City feeling lost. I didn’t know anyone. I was a non-Mormon in a school where 90 percent or more of the students did follow that faith. I had no particular skill at sports or with girls. But I did have an ability: I could talk and argue. I was fortunate that at Olympus specifically, and in Utah generally, high school debate was a big deal, an activity where a bookish boy could find affirmation. I joined the debate team, found my tribe, and was off.
The coach, Diana Childs, paired me with Mark Dangerfield, who was a year ahead of me. Mark and I clicked right away. He had a great smile, a sharp mind, a competitive spirit, and the ability to scrape away some of my rough edges. We turned out to be alike in many ways.
For example, we were obsessive about preparation. We wanted better research and more of it than any of our competitors (a habit I still have to this day). We spent a small fortune on four-by-six-inch cards on which we wrote our information in precise block lettering or typed it with a small manual typewriter we had scored at a secondhand sale. We then meticulously arranged the cards in giant boxes behind dividers that made possible the quick recovery of facts, quotes, and authorities. I developed an elaborate color scheme to help us pluck just the right card at that special moment to confound the opposing pair of debaters.
In high school debate, you had to be ready to argue both sides of the question on a moment’s notice. So we picked apart our own arguments, anticipated the counterarguments, and picked those apart, too. Gaming the debate out as many moves in advance as possible was great training for politics. Debate gave me the habit of examining the case of my candidate and that of his opponent. In a campaign, you need to think not just about what you want to say now, but how that train of arguments, and even events, will play out over time. It taught me that staying on offense was important and that once you were on defense, it was hard to regain control of the dialogue.
Being fanatical about research, Mark and I came up with a favorite tactic. We’d quote authorities the opposition had never heard of, and when they rose to dismiss our source, we’d roll out their impressive title such as the “Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs” and express astonishment that our worthy opponents had never heard of that significant policy leader.
The debates were staged in high school classrooms, generally in front of speech, history, or world affairs classes. They were often tough audiences, uninterested in what we had to say but stuck in their seats and forced to listen to the scrawny guys in three-piece suits. If we got them to laugh or otherwise favorably respond, it was almost as good as getting the most points on a judge’s score sheet. We became the only undefeated team in the statewide high school speech and debate competition, and won an important western regional meet as well.
Debate led to other activities. I became involved in Model U.N., which was big in Utah, and eventually became Model U.N. Club president. I took part in speech competitions such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ “Voice of Democracy” and the American Legion’s “Americanism” contests. Students delivered patriotic addresses on an assigned topic to veterans audiences. I won several competitions, even traveling to Merced, California, for a western regional contest.
Debate wasn’t the only way my horizons were broadened in high school. My political vista was ready to be stretched as well. The man who would do that was a short, natty, bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing high school teacher named Eldon M. Tolman. He was a lot of things I wasn’t and didn’t like—including a Democrat, and not just any kind, but an LBJ Democrat. Tolman was also a union official, president of the local chapter of the Utah Education Association. If I learned anything from Goldwater, it was not to trust union bosses.
But those differences were far less important than the fact that Tolman loved politics and wanted his students to love it, too. To his credit, he didn’t care what his students’ views were. As luck would have it, he was my teacher in 1968, and he made sure I kept up with all that year’s earth-shattering events. But he also took me aside and in his prim, proper manner told me that if I wanted an A, I had to get involved in a political campaign. At the time, I was a little over five feet tall, had glasses with thick frames, wore hush puppies, and carried a briefcase. A’s mattered a lot to me.
The campaign I chose was that of Utah’s senior United States senator, Wallace F. Bennett. Bennett was seventy years old, having been elected to the Senate the year I was born. A brash, charismatic young professor at the University of Utah named J. D. Williams was running for the Democratic nomination. Anger was rising at the Vietnam War and many young people across the country were flocking to support antiwar candidates like Williams. Bennett supported the war and, unbeknownst to me, was planning a big effort among young people to counter the Democrats’ appeal.
Somehow I became the Salt Lake County high school chairman of Students for Bennett. I cajoled friends to volunteer, handed out stickers, worked at the headquarters, and recruited teams of similarly minded young political junkies to put out yard signs and attend campaign events. There weren’t that many of us, so I pressed my younger siblings into service frequently.
Tolman, meanwhile, decided that in the spring Olympus would have mock conventions in which students would nominate the presidential tickets. I threw myself into helping organize the GOP one. Hundreds of students played the roles of state delegations and party leaders. Like the real Republican National Convention, we nominated Richard Nixon—but not before we’d made the rounds of campaign headquarters, scoring buttons, banners, and baloney to decorate the school cafeteria for our convention.
Tolman’s greatest contribution was to make certain that his students saw all the presidential candidates who came to town. It’s hard today to think of Utah as a swing state, but in 1968 it was. The three major candidates—Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace—appeared at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, and I saw them all.
Wallace was angry, belligerent, and nasty, and even to my untrained ears, a pure demagogue. A protester heckled and the Alabama governor taunted him back, saying that if the protester lay down in front of Wallace’s limousine, it would be the last one he’d lie down for. The crowd screamed in agreement. As the Alabama bantam rooster strutted on the Tabernacle stage, I realized this was the first time I had seen a bigot, and the racial hatred he engendered, up close. I actually felt fear: his harangue was practiced and effective, and drew angry shrieks from the audience. These ordinary people were furious with their country and this man fed their frustration.
Nixon was polished and programmed, promising change “from top to bottom.” He was an odd combination: one of the most effective politicians of that year, yet a man who was visibly uncomfortable as a campaigner. He drove himself by force of will to great heights. Vice President Humphrey struck me as nervous and old-fashioned. Nelson Rockefeller came across as a patrician with a nice, unforced backslapping folksiness when he came to open his Utah campaign headquarters. He also had the best campaign materials and plenty of them. Robert Kennedy stirred the crowd into a frenzy but he seemed cerebral, distant, and tired, yet inspiring and sad, all at the same time. I saw Ronald Reagan leave Republicans on their feet screaming and cheering in the loudest room I’d ever been in. The antiwar Eugene McCarthy was aloof and cold at a rally in a downtown park.
I had, then, a front-row seat in a rare, memorable, and consequential year in American politics, all courtesy of a liberal high school teacher who loved politics and his students. I was permanently bitten. I even became a candidate myself. In fact, for the first time I watched a savvy campaign manager (my world history teacher) pick a neophyte candidate (me), run a clever campaign, and produce a winner.
She insisted I run for second vice president of the student body, even though my nerds weren’t numerous enough to elect anyone. But she recruited the senior captain of the basketball team and the popular senior girl with the brand-new yellow sports car to co-chair my campaign. I had instant credibility with influential endorsements and the adroit behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a powerful sponsor. The fix was in.
There were two activities by which Olympus students judged candidates for student body office. The first was the quality of the posters candidates hung in the hallways. A friend who was an art student helped me and my debate team buddies manufacture dozens of posters using cutouts from magazines and then covered them with a shiny shellac to make them stand out. Most of the posters were witty, risqué, and eye-catching. Having the help of people who played with words for fun turned out to be an unanticipated advantage. I recall only one poster: it echoed a popular car ad by encouraging students to “Support the Mini-Brute.” I was confident we had the best ad blitz—but would that be enough?
The second test of the candidates was skits and speeches. My opponent, John, had gotten elected sophomore and junior class president on the strength of being rolled into the gym in a full-sized cardboard outhouse, from which he sprang to give a speech sprinkled with references to his fake outdoor commode. (A john—get it?) It had worked for him twice and we correctly anticipated he’d fall back on the tactic again. Students had seen it before, so its novelty had worn off. But we had a surprise: As my name was announced over the sound system, we fired up a VW convertible, flung open the gym doors, and drove the bright Bug into the packed arena with a basketball hero in the front seat behind the wheel and me in the back waving to the crowd, flanked by two attractive girls. Principal John Larsen, a tall, brooding hulk, reacted to the scene with a scowl that would have scared the bejesus out of the toughest biker gang. But a VW driving across the gym with the nerd in the back between two babes brought the students to their feet cheering and laughing and made my remarks almost unnecessary. I won.
Something else happened to me that fired up my love of politics: I went to Washington, D.C. I was chosen by my state for the Hearst Foundation’s U.S. Senate Youth Program, a seminar in the nation’s capital on American government. I met senators, congressmen, past and future presidential candidates (Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy), and a future president (Gerald Ford). But the week culminated in a visit to the White House to meet President Nixon. When it came time to shake the president’s hand in the receiving line, he asked me where I was from. When I told him Utah, he said, “It’s really something when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir begins to sing, ‘This is my country!’” as he warbled the tune for a few notes. I was taken aback by the singing president, which seemed to me so out of character, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing.
But for a boy of my interests, the week could not have been more exciting. It wasn’t just the history that permeated every street corner, the famous buildings, the museums and monuments. This was the center of politics for the world’s most powerful nation, a place where high-minded ideas and less high-minded practical politics mingled. I left Washington with a raging, incurable case of Potomac fever. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when, but I knew someday, some way, I’d be back.
But while I was finding my life’s work, my family was falling apart. In late 1968, Dad had gotten a new job with Getty Oil’s minerals division in Los Angeles. At first the plan was for the family to join him by moving to California after my graduation from high school the following spring. But as the winter turned to spring, my mother hinted that the plans were on hold, raising questions about whether the Getty job would last. So facing application deadlines, I sent my paperwork off to the University of Utah. If we were still going to be living in Salt Lake, it was the only place I could afford to go. Between the mortgage, my father’s small apartment in Los Angeles, and my brother’s expenses at the University of Nevada in Reno, the family’s finances were tight. In the fall of 1969 I entered the University of Utah with high hopes and, I thought, a bright future. I found the College Republicans and a fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha.
Then it all started to go bad. My brothers and sisters and I were all looking forward to Christmas. Dad was coming up from L.A. for an extended stay. He hadn’t been home since the summer and, I believe, had been out of the country on geological work for part of the fall. There was tension simmering in the household about why the family hadn’t moved to Los Angeles after I graduated from high school. Dad arrived home on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
Shortly after Dad’s appearance, he and Mom argued—angrily and heatedly. Things were smashed. And Dad left. Before he stormed out the door, he told me where he would be staying until he could get a flight back to California. I didn’t know what had caused the argument, but I knew his decision to leave wouldn’t be reversed. My mother provided no answers and withdrew to her bedroom. A little while after Dad left, I drove to the airport motel he mentioned and found him getting ready to catch a plane to L.A. He said he was sorry it had come to this, that he loved my mother and she him, and that they both loved all of us children, and he asked me never to forget that. He hugged me, I cried, and we parted—him for the airport and me for the worst Christmas of my life.
It wasn’t just that my parents were splitting up. Shortly after New Year’s Day, Mom told me I’d have to find somewhere else to live. She was selling the house and moving back to Sparks. She’d always felt uncomfortable in Utah and wanted to return to Nevada immediately. Whether I survived now depended on whether I let myself falter.
After minor negotiations over child support, my parents’ marriage was dissolved in a Washoe County courtroom in May 1970. After Mom arrived in Nevada in January, she farmed out my three younger siblings for a month or two to neighbors and friends she knew from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Sparks. My young brother and sisters thought she had returned to Salt Lake to sell the house (whose sale closed days after she left town), and I thought she was in Sparks, but she wasn’t in either place. To this day, her whereabouts during that time are a mystery.
My mother’s hasty moves made life a lot more difficult. Being left to shift for myself could have been a shattering event. But when faced with adversity, my tendency is to break the problem down into its parts and tackle what I can. I couldn’t shrug off that Mom had proved unreliable, but I could focus on keeping things from falling further apart. Recovery would start with finding a place to stay.
I had too little money for an apartment. It was too late to get into a dorm—and that was too much for my budget, anyway. Fortunately, the fraternity house had an empty storage closet under the eaves and I was allowed to stay there until a bunk became available. The price tag for the storage area was in my price range: free. I moved in the day Mom left town.
My “apartment” was cramped and the ceiling slanted downward; I couldn’t stand up straight. The floor was the uninsulated ceiling of the outside porch, so the space was cold. I hung my shirts, pants, and coats on a nail and stored everything else in a battered clothes hamper. Like other students, I kept my books on wooden boards held up by cement blocks. Light came from an industrial lamp that was plugged into an outlet with a cord that snaked down the hall. But I had a roof over my head and was grateful for it.
There would be no more meals at home, no family washing machine or dryer, no parents to buy school clothes or provide gas money. I had a few dollars from my part-time job at a gift shop and $500 a semester in tuition and books from a scholarship. I’d have to get more hours at work and figure out how to make ends meet until Mom and Dad were able to send money.
Only it turned out, there wouldn’t be any money. When Mom surfaced a month or two later by phone, she told me Dad wasn’t sending support money even though she was desperately urging him to do so. I found out two years later that my father had religiously sent money to all his children, starting in January 1970, and, starting several months after that, had sent separate checks specifically for me.
My Mom had hidden this from me, as she hid so much from all of us. When it served her purpose and especially when it affected her survival, she had a problem telling the truth.
I asked for more hours and found other jobs, like waiting tables. I got an internship at the Utah Republican Party that came with a small stipend. I watched pennies, ate lots of macaroni and cheese, stopped using my antique light green station wagon—bought during a flush moment the summer after my graduation—and rode the bus or walked instead. A bunk opened up in the frat house that spring after about three months.
But the shocks kept coming. I learned by accident several months later that I had been adopted. My father, it turns out, wasn’t really my father. While working in Illinois that summer for a U.S. Senate campaign, I would visit my aunt and uncle who lived in suburban Chicago. My father’s sister, Louise, and her husband, Colonel William Ver Hey, often invited me over for a home-cooked meal. The colonel was career Army and a paratrooper with multiple tours in Vietnam. He was my childhood hero, and my aunt reminded me of my father. They were terrific.
On one visit for dinner, the colonel presented me with a grown-up drink (a weak gin and tonic, I think) and the three of us began talking about Dad. Then my aunt said something like “When you were adopted.” I dropped my glass. The look on my face must have shaken her, for she worriedly asked if I hadn’t known I was adopted. I hadn’t.
She then told me the real story: Louis C. Rove, Jr., adopted my older brother, Eric, and me when he married our mother. Eric, two years older than me, apparently recalled our biological father. As a teenager, Eric had tried to contact him but was rebuffed. I was blissfully ignorant about the situation, or at least had driven whatever memories I might have had of my life as a very small child into a dark recess.
After Aunt Louise’s revelation, it took me months to finally confront Louis about his failure to mention the fact that he was my adoptive father. After confirming from aunts and uncles on my mother’s side that I’d been told the truth, my head was spinning with questions. Why hadn’t I been told before? What were the circumstances? Who was my biological father? I just couldn’t bring myself to ask Louis these questions over the phone or in a letter. And when we were next together the following summer and I blurted out my questions over dinner in his L.A. apartment, he offered a simple explanation to the first. He said, “It never mattered to me and I hope it never matters to you.” I have often thought about his statement, which could be taken as dismissive or nonchalant. I don’t think it was either. My dad gave all five of his children unconditional love, whether he had brought them into this world or not. He sacrificed to make certain we wanted for nothing important. He nurtured in us an appreciation of art, music, and books, all priceless gifts. What mattered to him was that he was our father and that he loved us and we loved him.
As to my other questions, he told me that my mother had been married before to a fellow Colorado School of Mines classmate. He gave me the man’s whereabouts, but cautioned me not to have high expectations of a relationship. Everything he told me was offered calmly and economically.
It took me more than a dozen years to try to contact my biological father. The delay was partly out of anger that he hadn’t tried contacting either Eric or me; in fact, he’d rejected Eric’s attempts to contact him. But part of the delay was also because I didn’t want anything to interfere with my relationship with Louis. Eventually I reached out to the man who had given me up. I wish I hadn’t. Dad had been right to dampen my hopes. While cordial, my biological father made it clear he did not want a relationship. It could have been devastating, but by then I was at peace with the knowledge that the man who raised me was not the man who brought me into the world.
For a long time, Louis was reticent about discussing his life with my mother. It was clear the breakup of his marriage stung deeply. I raised the topic when I visited him in Los Angeles in the summer after my sophomore year, but he refused to say why or how their marriage had dissolved. He also refused to speak ill of my mother, even when we discovered that his child support checks for my college expenses had been rerouted. He encouraged me to think about my mother’s sacrifices for me and my brothers and sisters and how much she loved and cared for us. It was apparent he still loved her, regardless of what kept them apart. As for my mother, she never offered an explanation.
Over the years, Dad grew closer to all his children, especially after he retired from Getty and moved from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, California, in 1986. He had a large house with two extra bedrooms that were often filled by his children and grandchildren. It was there that, approaching his seventies, he opened up more about Mom. In response to gentle questions from Darby, Dad emotionally explained she was the love of his life and that he had never stopped loving her. The conversation touched a deep regret, and he started weeping, which I’d seen him do only once before, when his stepmother died. It was shocking to hear a stoic Scandinavian like him talk about his and Mom’s physical passion and how, when he returned home from weeks or even months away on geological fieldwork, the “naps” he took were really an excuse to exile the children from the house so the two of them could repair to their bedroom to make love. My parents even tried “dating” years after they divorced, once embarrassing my youngest sister, who found herself their chaperone as they played footsy under the table.
I also think he wept in those later years because he wished he could have saved her. Twelve years after she deserted the family, when I was thirty years old, she committed suicide. Her third, and by now very unhappy, marriage was in the process of ending. It had lasted just three months. She was approaching her fifty-first birthday with the expectation that much of what she had in life—her modest home, her marriage, and her life savings—would all soon be gone. Her house had three mortgages on it. Between her and her latest husband, the little she had of value, everything she had saved, was now gone for boats and gambling and God knows what else. Even my childhood stamp, coin, and baseball card collections were gone. Mom was never good with money, and so a spouse who shared that weakness was a recipe for disaster.
On September 10, she had breakfast with my youngest sister, Reba, and they discussed Mom’s declining prospects. The two of them made arrangements for what Mom would do once she had split from her husband—including a place to live and a car to use. Reba thought she had left Mom in good spirits, but Mom failed to appear at home the next day. However, her husband did not call the police.
While on routine patrol, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department found my mother, Reba Wood Rove, slumped over in her small pickup truck. It was September 11, 1981. She had driven into the desert north of Reno, found a secluded but visible place to park, run a piece of hose from the tailpipe through the cracked-open rear window of her pickup, methodically taped the area around the point at which the hose entered the vehicle, gotten in the truck, and killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Like her mother before her in 1974, my mother had dealt with life’s punishing blows by attempting suicide. But unlike my grandmother, Mom succeeded. I was stunned when I got the news but at some deep level I had always known she was capable of this. My mother had struggled, even in placid waters, to keep a grip on life.
Why did she do it? There aren’t easy answers. Mom left two letters in the truck, one to whoever found her and the other to her children. The first was to make it clear to the police that she took her own life and was not a victim of foul play. In the letter to her children, she wrote of her love for each of us and her pride in how we’d “grown up and matured into fine adults.” She expressed her disappointment that after the “great hope” for a life with her new husband, “things hadn’t turned out that way.” “Living alone and being so bossy and making all the decisions that had to be made—made me into a very hard person to share a life with,” she wrote, before saying, “it has also made me very tired, deep inside tired. So I am taking my own life and I know this is a chicken way to do it. Please forgive me for failing all of you.” She wrote a few lines for her granddaughters and then closed, “Love you all—please forgive me.”
I suspect she killed herself because her third marriage failed. Life had been hard for her after she failed to follow my father to Los Angeles in 1969. If our family had moved to L.A. after my high school graduation, as my parents had planned, I believe there would have been no reason for her to drive into the desert, write such a wretched letter, and then so meticulously end her life.
I write about this in more detail than is comfortable for me because some journalists have used her divorce and her death to advance theories about me. One journalist alleged that my father was gay and that my parents separated that Christmas Eve because he “informed his wife that he was gay and that he was coming out of the closet and wanted a divorce.” Another journalist suggested Dad’s coming out meant my mother “suffered emotional damage from which she never fully healed.”
A pair of journalists wrote that as “a man of almost startling intelligence,” I was “not likely to have ignored the possibility that [my] father’s homosexuality might have figured in [my] mother’s choice to end her own life.” Actually, it never occurred to me that this would be the reason she wanted to kill herself. None of the five Rove children heard such a thing or believe that was the cause of their divorce and her lifelong pain. If this was the issue she wrestled with and lost to, she would have talked about it with family or close friends. But to her children, family, and friends she mainly talked of too little money or her fear of being without a loving husband; she never spoke of Louis’s alleged homosexuality. Just over a year after their separation, Mom wrote Dad to admit “I am sorry I caused you so many lonely hours . . . I made a mistake by not moving [the children] with you to L.A.” She wrote again to deny she’d been having an affair at the time of the breakup. These suggest that other reasons were at the heart of their dispute and they are a reminder of playwright Tom Stoppard’s insight: “No one, no matter how well informed, can possibly know what goes on inside a marriage except the two principals themselves.”
Some reporters—a relatively small percentage, it should be pointed out—speculate on things they know nothing about in order to attack those with whom they politically disagree. They are an example of the ugliness to which journalism and journalists can descend. They are driven by hatred, and hatred submerges everything, including journalistic standards and even basic decency. Some reporters are inclined to practice psychology without a license—one of the modern media’s biggest shortcomings, especially in its political coverage. For these writers, the juxtaposition of my father’s alleged sexual orientation and my personal support for the traditional definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman is just too delicious to pass up. Karl Rove, antigay crusader, had a gay father. Get it? The pair of journalists even used the timing of my father’s death to write that after living as “a gay man” my Dad “passed away quietly at home on July 14, 2004. His son was in the midst of launching the antigay issues campaign that was to lead to the reelection of George W. Bush.”
Could Dad have been gay? I didn’t see it. I know he had gay friends and volunteered for years at the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs. But having gay friends or being concerned about whether someone who is sick gets driven to a clinic appointment or gets a delivery of groceries doesn’t make you gay. To this day, I have no idea if my father was gay. And, frankly, I don’t care. He was my father, with whom I had a wonderful relationship and whom I loved deeply.
The writers who are fascinated with whether my father was gay are really more interested in implying that all people who have gay relatives or friends must support same-sex marriage; otherwise they are bigots and hypocrites. And if one of these people happens to be Karl Rove, so much the better.
This mind-set has also led some writers to offer up inaccurate accounts about his death. That same pair of journalists wrote, “The seventy-six-year-old Rove was not buried in either of the two cemeteries in the Coachella River Valley on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. A close friend said there was no funeral. The final disposition of his mortal remains is known only to Louis Rove’s immediate family. The son, of whom Louis was so proud, has kept a photo of his smiling father in a star-shaped frame in his office in the West Wing of the White House, a few steps from the Oval Office. And Karl Rove is convinced his father was a happy, contented person.”
Actually, there was a simple and moving funeral service, presided over by the pastor whom my father had helped call as the founding minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Golden, Colorado, in the 1950s. My father’s mortal remains were handled precisely as he wanted. I know because as he came to life’s end, worried and anxious, Dad asked me time and again as his executor if I understood his instructions. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at his family’s ancestral cabin in northern Wisconsin, at the big rock beside the lake where the ashes of his father, his mother, and his stepmother were all scattered. His instructions were followed to the letter two years after his death on a bright day under a summer sky with his children and grandchildren, his sister, and his best friend as witnesses. Also in accordance with his desires, the ashes of his wife were mingled with his. They lie together again, only now for eternity.
I wasn’t very close to my mother in her final decade. She was erratic and undependable when I was growing up, left abruptly when it was convenient for her, and withheld the financial support my father provided. So I was wary of her. We saw each other infrequently, once in the mid-1970s in Washington, D.C., and every once in a while in Denver, where her mother lived, or on my rare trips to Nevada.
When Mom called, it was generally to ask for money, which I tried to provide within my limited means. Sometimes I would receive, unannounced, packages filled with childhood drawings or elementary school report cards or black-and-white snapshots with scalloped edges or other debris of my early years. It was as if she wanted to share parts of those years when we had been an intact family. There is a picture taken shortly after she and Dad married. She is a young, beautiful woman, but even then there’s a tired quality to her eyes. Sadness never left her. Our relationship was at times shaky and always insecure, but I love her still. And I will miss her always.
Every life contains sorrow and regret, and my father and mother carried their share. But I know that my father, for his part, knew happiness and contentment. Near his end, as I sat in his hospital room, or as he lay on his couch at home, tethered to an oxygen bottle, he would tell me how grateful he was for his life. He would express his thankfulness for a career spent in geology and his gratitude for children and grandchildren whom he loved and who loved him. That was difficult for such an emotionally contained man. If that’s not an expression of contentment and happiness, I don’t know what a life richly and fully lived would be. I am proud he chose to call me his son. And I am proud to call him my father.
© 2010 Karl Rove