Rove's Down-to-Earth Quality Aided a Calculated Strategy
Contrary to his image, Karl Rove isn't a humorless, Darth Vader-like figure hovering perpetually in the shadows. He actually has a sense of humor and a down-to-earth quality that he parlayed into unparalleled influence as President Bush's supreme political strategist and a key adviser in many policy areas, from Social Security to immigration.
Throughout his nearly seven years as a senior White House official, most recently as deputy chief of staff, Rove has liked to use that image to his benefit. He throws people off guard by confounding their expectations. He is adept at the needling but good-humored critique, whether of a reporter's necktie or an ally's failure to remember some obscure political fact. He can deliver a blunt (but off-the-record) joke about an opponent and likes to make out-of-the-blue phone calls to convey a sense of importance to people he is courting. He has at least some degree of self-effacement, regularly serving doughnuts and pastries to subordinates when he runs White House staff meetings.
But everything seems calculated by Rove to get a desired effect, and that is part of his strength as a political strategist and inside player.
In announcing his resignation from the White House at the end of this month, Rove took Washington by surprise. But friends say he had been planning his exit for many months and had discussed it in detail with President Bush well in advance. This kind of planning and discipline are Rove trademarks, as is his attention to detail. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of political lore, down to the history of Republican success or failure in innumerable precincts across the country.
Along with Bush, he likes to think big. He was once fond of comparing Bush's presidency to what he called the "transformational" presidency of William McKinley more than a century ago. Of course, it hasn't worked out that way, and that's part of Rove's legacy, too—in addition to his devising the strategy that elected Bush twice. The Republicans lost the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections, which makes many GOP analysts argue that the Rove strategy of polarization and cultivating the conservative base may have run its course.
Much will be written and said about what Rove's departure will mean internally. The White House's bench strength has been greatly depleted in recent months with the departures of counselor Dan Bartlett, political director Sara Taylor, deputy national security adviser J. D. Crouch, and budget director Rob Portman. And, of course, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ouster after the 2006 midterm election represented a huge change.
Who steps into the void? West Wing insiders point to Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, ex-senior strategist for congressional Republicans and recently appointed White House counselor to the president.
"One would assume that Ed would fill the bill," says a GOP adviser who knows both men well. "But remember that no one can do what Karl did. You're not going to have a Master of the Universe at the White House anymore. That was a unique role that Karl filled."