So, Why is this man laughing?
Karl Rove just may hold the key to George Bush's re-election bid
A visitor made the mistake of asking Karl Rove to explain the "raison d'être" of George W. Bush's presidency not long ago. "RAY-zon DEH-trah!" Bush's political guru shouted in mock horror at his guest's use of what he considered a highfalutin French phrase. Then Rove began singing a French Canadian folk song about a cook plucking feathers from a lark in preparation for dinner. "Alouette," he boomed happily, "gentille Alouette. Alouette, je te plumerai." Rove didn't stop until his guest broke into laughter at his goofy didacticism.
Believe it or not, Karl Rove, George W. Bush's legendary political architect and White House counselor, has a lighter side. The man behind the curtain in the president's campaign is a lot more complex than his caricature as a clench-jawed zealot would suggest, and it's increasingly clear that Rove will need all his myriad skills to score a victory in what is likely to be one of the closest and nastiest elections in recent history. In some ways, he defies stereotyping. Rove never graduated from college but is one of the few intellectuals in Bush's inner circle. He prides himself on being a big thinker but has an encyclopedic knowledge of political details, down to the demographics of obscure Ohio precincts. His heroes include Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, two of the brainiest of presidents, but he is devoted to re-electing one of the least cerebral.
Most of all, the 53-year-old Rove takes the long view, and it's a decidedly nuanced one. "There are lots of earlier periods where a president has been called upon for extraordinary leadership in a time of actual threat," he told U.S. News, "but we're in a different kind of war that was instigated not by a nation-state but by transnational terrorists. And it's a different kind of war that requires a different kind of presidential leadership. [Americans] want to know it's steady. They want to know that it's committed. They want to know that it's got a vision, with clarity, and they want to know it's going to operate out of conviction. And they want to know the president is not going to get up in the morning and change his beliefs because of what he thinks is fad or fashion."
As for the war itself, Rove said, "People are constantly monitoring it, and they want to know that we are there for good reason, that we understand the stakes, and that we're committed to winning." Not exactly a bumper-sticker slogan, but Rove appreciates complexity, unlike his boss, who sees things in black and white. That trait, of course, is one reason Bush prizes him so highly--he adds a perspective Bush lacks.
Despite vast media interest in his activities, the owlish, bespectacled Texan has been keeping his head down. One reason is that the president and, more pointedly, Bush's wife and his mother thought Rove was getting too much attention--with the media depicting him as what a biographer called "Bush's brain." So Rove virtually shut down media appearances, though last week he did feel compelled to appear on Fox News and deny he was linked to ads by swift boat veterans challenging John Kerry's military record.
Mostly, though, Rove's raison d'être these days is to quietly build the best grass-roots organization ever. His goal is to name a Bush coordinator in 29,000 crucial precincts in 17 key target states, and the campaign is 95 percent of the way there right now. Similarly, Rove says the campaign has now recruited 980,000 of the 1 million pro-Bush volunteers it hoped to have signed up by Election Day.
Yet Rove's influence is not purely political; he also has a hefty policy portfolio. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card says Rove "doesn't play very much in foreign policy" but has a pivotal role on domestic affairs, pushing a conservative agenda that includes cutting taxes, encouraging charities to do more social work, opposing abortion, and reforming education by promoting accountability for teachers and schools.
The question asked increasingly in Washington is whether, by encouraging Bush's already strong conservative convictions, Rove exerts too much influence. Argues John Podesta, a Democratic activist and former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton: "He may go down as making the worst political move in history by taking the post-9/11 period and trying to lurch the country to the right not just on war with Iraq but on energy, on economics." If Rove and Bush had tried to unite conservatives and liberals on a common agenda after 9/11, Podesta says, "it would have produced Republican dominance . . . for a generation."
Not everyone in the president's camp has been happy with Rove's rightward march, either. Family friends tell U.S. News that Laura and Barbara Bush think Rove has pushed the campaign too far to the right on some issues, such as favoring a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The first lady and the former first lady believe the country is more centrist than that, and they fear Rove is making the president look divisive. Rove recognizes that he must pay some attention to the centrists, and he has arranged for moderates such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to have prominent roles at the Republican National Convention this week. He also wants the convention to play up the theme that Bush is not only a strong leader but a compassionate one as well.
On political matters, Rove has no peer in Bush's world. He sees the president at least once a day when both are in Washington, and Bush peppers him with phone calls. It was Rove who persuaded Bush that 2004 would be a "base election" year, with the country evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The main goal, under this theory, is to identify as many core Republicans as possible and motivate them to vote. "In the end, the president believes this has become a conservative country," says a senior GOP strategist. "That's Karl's view." At Rove's behest, Bush has been cultivating Christian conservatives for his entire term of office. Rove believes this strategy can generate 4 million more votes for Bush than four years ago.
"A complete nerd." ^ Rove also has some surprises for the final weeks of the campaign. One is an interview Bush has taped with television counselor Phil McGraw, known as "Dr. Phil," on parenting. The relationship adviser is popular with female viewers, who could make the difference in several swing states, and the interview shows the president as a caring, sensitive father.
For his part, Bush enjoys playfully needling his counselor. His nicknames for Rove have included "Boy Genius," which the middle-aged Rove has outgrown, and "Turd Blossom," Texas slang for a flower that blooms in cowpies.
Born in Colorado on Christmas 1950, Rove moved with his family to various small towns in the West, such as Sparks, Nev.; Holladay, Utah; and Golden, Colo. His father was an oil company geologist.
Young Karl read widely, and in high school, he was, he admits, "a complete nerd" who wore a crewcut and a plastic pocket protector. But he developed an interest in conservatism, a rarity for young people amid the era's massive anti-Vietnam War protests. Friends trace his political interest to a college professor who required his students to participate in a campaign for a political science course. Rove was hooked. While still in college in Utah, Rove got to know Lee Atwater, a rising young conservative who eventually became the chief political adviser for George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president's father. Rove then dropped out of college to become a full-time Republican operative. In 1973, Rove became chairman of the College Republican National Committee with the help of Atwater, a South Carolinian who served as his southern coordinator. By the end of the 1970s, Rove had settled in Texas, where he saw the potential for remaking the state into the sort of Republican powerhouse it is today. He became an expert in direct mail and, emulating Atwater, attack politics.
Rove got to know George W. Bush in the course of helping Bush's father in Houston as he prepared for the 1980 presidential campaign. Rove ran Dubya's successful campaign for governor of Texas in 1994, and he has been Bush's chief political adviser ever since.
"Eggies." They remain an odd couple. Bush is the son of a family of privilege, of parents who gave him stability, while Rove, as the son of a geologist, was constantly on the move. The marriage of Bush's parents and his own union with Laura have lasted many years, while Rove's parents divorced, and his mother eventually committed suicide. Rove was divorced two decades ago. He married his current wife, Darby, in 1986, and they have a teenage son, Andrew. Bush has degrees from Yale and Harvard Business School; Rove attended three different universities and never graduated.
Yet Bush and Rove share a mutual irreverence, a deep conservatism, a belief in the individual and in America's moral superiority, a disdain for northeastern elitists, and a revulsion against the if-it-feels-good, do-it liberalism of the '60s and '70s. Rove consumes two or three books a week, mostly political science and history. He is currently reading Larry D. Kramer's The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review. He goes quail hunting in Texas two or three times annually. And he loves to cook, specializing in a breakfast of what he calls "eggies" --concoctions of eggs scrambled with cream, butter, and bacon grease--for his weekend political meetings at home. He bakes his own apple, berry, and other fruit pies from scratch, rolling the low-sugar dough himself. And he grills steak dinners for family and friends. "But politics is Karl's profession and his hobby," says a Republican strategist who knows him well.
Rove's problem today is that Bush is locked in a tight race with Democratic nominee John Kerry, and many of the president's policies are unpopular. If Bush doesn't pick up support at his convention this week, Rove will face a new round of criticism for leading Bush down the wrong path.
But Rove discounts the grumbling as excessive nervousness, and he prefers to lighten the West Wing's mood with a little humor. When Card and his deputy were out of town recently, Rove was asked to run a senior staff meeting. He brought in a big tray of Krispy Kreme donuts and announced that he wanted everyone to know how great life would be in a "Karl Rove White House" --if he were really running things. He was joking. Apparently.
This story appears in the September 6, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.