The Enforcer

Karl Rove
Karl Rove; drawing by David Levine

No previous presidential aide has had the power and influence that Karl Rove has in the White House of George W. Bush. He has been Bush’s closest adviser since he first ran for governor of Texas. The authors of Bush’s Brain write that during Bush’s six years as governor of Texas “nothing important happened without his [Rove’s] imprimatur.” Yet Rove’s work takes place behind the scenes; he rarely gives television interviews. Most of his activities are carried out in secrecy, and other White House officials are very reluctant to talk about what he does. The Bush White House is more clamped down than any other in recent history: Bush hates leaks, which he believes damaged his father’s reelection chances, and Rove is his enforcer.

Both of the recent biographies of Karl Rove concentrate on his role in Texas politics and in Bush’s rise, but they go a long way toward helping us understand Bush’s presidency. The more recent one, Bush’s Brain, by James Moore and Wayne Slater, two experienced Texas reporters who have covered the pair for many years, has fresh information about Rove’s influence on Bush. Boy Genius, Bush’s edgy nickname for Rove, by two Texas reporters as well as Carl Cannon, a writer for the conservative Weekly Standard, goes over much of the same ground but is less probing about Rove’s fascinating, and troubling, character, and his relationship with Bush.

Both books tell us about the heretofore-little-explored early relationship between Bush and Rove and show how it developed. The fifty-two-year-old Rove, a self-described “nerd” who likes nothing more than studying political history and analyzing electoral statistics, was born in Colorado in 1950, the son of a mineral geologist whose family moved about the country. He spent most of his early years in what he calls a “relatively conservative state,” Utah; he attended the university there and later the University of Texas, as well as George Mason University, and never took a degree. He has a somewhat professorial manner (when he’s not red-faced and vituperatively on the attack), and has read widely, especially in American history.

Rove made his first important political connections as an officer of the national group called College Republicans, which has branches on hundreds of campuses and has produced a number of well-known political operators on the right, several of whom Rove has worked with. They include the late Lee Atwater, who became a model for Rove and helped to advance his career; the late Terry Dolan, the founder of the first sophisticated right-wing political organization, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, or NCPAC; Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a flourishing political consultant (he was instrumental in Bush’s campaign for the nomination, in particular using his phone banks on behalf of Bush during the South Carolina primary); and Grover Norquist, founder and head of Americans for Tax Reform and…

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