Columbus Dispatch

Article published in The Columbus Dispatch, written by Mike Harden

Columbus lawyer Jim Owen’s old running buddy Karl Rove is under grand jury scrutiny and no doubt wincing that it’s now common knowledge that President Bush refers to him as a blooming meadow muffin. Still, Owen finds much to envy about the lot in life of his political Yoda.

“To be the chief political adviser to the president,” Owen said, “would be a dream for anyone interested in public policy.”

Rove and Owen were young Republicans when people still joked that the term was an oxymoron. Their paths first crossed at a college Republican club gathering, though Owen didn’t begin to learn what made Rove tick until the latter conducted a workshop Owen attended in 1974.

“It was called Campaign Fieldman School,” Owen said, “which was, essentially, how to manage a political campaign.

“He was a genius, in terms of developing a message that was marketable, and a huge proponent of opponent research: Use anything you can to attack or destroy your opponent’s credibility or fitness to serve.”

Rove’s reading list included Machiavelli and Carl von Clausewitz’s On War.

At the time, Owen said, Rove was working for the elder George Bush at the Republican National Committee.

“He had one gray pinstripe suit then,” Owen recalled, “and it was threadbare.”

Yet, Rove was immersed in a world Owen found both fascinating and desirable.

“I asked him whether there was any way I could get a job at the RNC,” Owen said. That quickly, he found himself working in a closet-size office in the basement.

Rove might have had only one suit, and the building’s janitor might have had a better office than Owen’s, but it was a heady time for both.

Owen, who had been Rove’s prize student at Campaign Fieldman School, was soon helping the one-day presidential adviser teach it.

In time, Rove would open a political fundraising operation in Texas. Owen would put his efforts to work on campaigns for Congress to county treasurer.

By the end of the ’70s, though, while Rove’s star was in ascent, Owen was losing his appetite for politics.

“In 1974,” Owen said, “you could still run a good campaign for Congress for $40,000 to $100,000. Today, you’re looking at $2 (million) to $3 million. It seemed the game of politics was becoming one for people who either had great financial means or an uncanny ability to shake down special interests. It seemed kind of unsavory. So I took my marbles and went home.”

Owen, now a trial lawyer, might be best-known today for his work to free Timothy Howard, a Columbus man wrongly convicted of bank robbery and murder who spent 26 years in prison before being released in 2003.

“All of the principles that apply to political campaigns apply to criminal defense,” Owen has said.”You do everything you can to destroy the credibility of accusing witnesses. The defense has to strike a responsive chord with the jury as being believable, just like a candidate’s campaign message has to strike a chord as believable to voters.”

Owen couldn’t have known 30 years ago that he would one day be employing Rove’s Campaign Fieldman School tactics in court.

The grand jury is still out on whether Rove will need any of those tactics for his own defense.

Owen doesn’t seem too concerned, though. “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword,” he said.

“It ain’t no game of beanbag, and he (Rove) loves to take out opponents. He makes no apologies about playing hardball, and he assumes that anybody who wants to play knows that.”