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 the organizer of a coalition of some one hundred groups on the right, all dedicated to reducing the role of government.
In 1973, with Atwater’s help, Rove ran successfully for national chairman of the College Republicans. According to a current associate, he remembers to this day exactly who was for him and who opposed him. From Atwater, with whom Rove worked soon after in an election in South Carolina, he got an early introduction to the ways of South Carolina politics. Atwater was a native of the state as well as responsible for much of the distinctive barbarity of its political campaigns. That experience was to prove invaluable in Bush’s victory there in 2000. Atwater also taught Rove how to make the most of such “wedge” issues as patriotism and race in order to divide the opposition. Thus, after being badly beaten by John McCain in New Hampshire, Bush made a calculated appearance at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, which banned inter-racial dating, thus appealing to the fundamentalist vote.
Rove’s chairmanship of the College Republicans in the mid-1970s allowed him to frequent the offices of the Republican National Committee when it was headed by the elder George Bush, who hired him as his personal assistant. (One of Rove’s assignments was to turn over the father’s keys when his eldest son came to town and wanted to use a family car.) Later, Rove moved to Austin to help the elder Bush’s presidential campaign. Rove came to see son George, who was then part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, as having political promise and sensed he might be the ideal instrument for fulfilling Rove’s own ambition to have national power. He steadily nudged George W. toward running first for the governorship of Texas, and then for president. The consultant, as the recent books make clear, was more ambitious for his client than his client was for himself. In the meantime, Rove set up what became a lucrative business as a political and business consultant; he was particularly skillful at running direct-mail campaigns. Before long, he had reorganized Texas politics so thoroughly that the once-Democratic state became dominated by Republicans—almost all of them Rove clients—who held every statewide elective office.
According to both books, Rove’s career as a political operator was marked from the beginning by “dirty tricks,” which Rove once referred to as “pranks.” He learned from Atwater, for example, the efficacy of whispering campaigns—spreading scurrilous charges by radio, organized phone calls, and “push-polls,” which circulate a rumor through the wording of a question. Texas Governor Ann Richards, whom Bush successfully challenged in 1994, was said to be a lesbian; John McCain was rumored to be mentally unstable and the father of a black child. (The McCains had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh.) Rove’s clients, including George W. Bush, have been able to stay aloof from such smears, protesting that they had nothing to do with them. In Bush’s Brain Moore and Slater write:
A Rove candidate was always able to honestly argue that he was running a clean, issues-oriented campaign because Rove stirred up the dirt without involving his client. He made phone calls to reporters, supplied documents, and produced third-party groups with damaging allegations. This approach, already a template for the modern electoral campaign, was refined by Rove with a new precision.
Rove sometimes blunders. Absorbed in his study of political statistics, he didn’t see McCain gaining on Bush in New Hampshire until it was too late, and McCain beat him by eighteen points. Next came South Carolina and vengeance. But Rove was always confident that Bush would defeat the less well funded and well organized McCain. When it came to the general election, Rove made another mistake, predicting that Bush would defeat Gore by six points; overconfident in the closing weeks, he allowed Bush to run a leisurely campaign and wasted the candidate’s time and resources in California, where he had no chance of winning.
After the 2000 election, Rove not only became Bush’s White House political adviser but effectively took over the Republican National Committee. Rove forced out his and Bush’s first choice as chairman, former governor James Gilmore of Virginia, whom he didn’t find compliant enough, and installed Mark Racicot, the former governor of Montana and a friend of Bush’s, who had been very helpful during the Florida recount, making numerous television appearances pressing Bush’s case. But in fact Rove runs the RNC through its deputy chairman, Jack Oliver, a longtime Bush family loyalist.
About a year before the 2000 election, Rove made an alliance with the anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, probably the most influential figure in organizing the American right, without which Bush could not have become president and probably couldn’t be reelected in 2004. Rove not only cultivates the right, the Republican Party’s base, but through Norquist he is trying to broaden the constituencies he reaches. Both men are expert coalition builders, and together they are attempting to assemble a coalition to guarantee conservative Republican dominance of American politics.
They are going about it in several different ways. While the tax cuts that Bush—like Norquist—advocates favor the very rich, Rove and Norquist have also been concentrating on appeals to small businesses, which maintain one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington and whose owners have long wanted to abolish the estate tax (which Norquist has dubbed “the death tax”). That aim was accomplished in Bush’s first tax bill, and small business also favors his new tax legislation. Rove and Norquist act on the assumption that stockholders, who currently are estimated to make up 50 percent of American households and 70 percent of voters (what Norquist terms “the investor class”), would favor Bush’s proposal to eliminate the tax on dividends. (About the investor class, Norquist says, “Rove understands it.”)
The two men also collaborate on getting more ethnic groups to vote Republican, not just Hispanics but also Muslims and immigrants from India and Pakistan—a large number of whom, Norquist observes, own small businesses. Rove has been closely following Norquist’s efforts to expand the influence of his own coalition of groups on the right by installing branches of it in additional states. When the two men meet, which they do fairly frequently, Norquist shows Rove a map indicating where his state coalition groups exist—there are now thirty of them—and Rove has urged him to set up organizations in West Virginia, Missouri, and North Carolina, all states important to Bush’s reelection. “He keeps pushing,” Norquist says. (Rove perceived that Bush could carry West Virginia, traditionally a Democratic state, in 2000; and, after an intensive effort involving not only television advertising but also three trips to the state by the candidate, two by Dick Cheney, and appearances by Bush’s parents, as well as Charlton Heston, who received a hero’s welcome, Bush won it. Moore and Slater write: “No decision Rove made in the 2000 general election more clearly illustrated his political genius.”) Four times a year, Rove attends Norquist’s Wednesday morning meetings with his allies in Washington, and he has held fundraisers for Norquist’s group.
Bush’s campaign for president was hardly the first deceptive presidential campaign—FDR in 1932 pledged a balanced budget—but in hindsight its cynicism was astonishing. Having won the nomination with the strong help of the Republican Party’s conservative base, and aware that elections in the US are won by attracting voters who are neither strongly liberal nor strongly conservative, Bush tacked toward the middle, especially for the cameras—there were several scenes, for example, showing him with black children. During the summer of 2000, when I remarked to Norquist that Bush was apparently “moving to the center,” he quickly set me straight. Bush was doing just what the right wanted, he said: backing tax cuts, missile defense, privatization of social security, the “right to life,” limits on punitive damages (or “tort reform”), and opposing gun control. Since the election, of course, Bush has governed from the right.