Karl Rove's Moment

How "Bush's Brain" hijacked Washington, D.C. and politics-as-usual

When the Bush gang gets around to writing its memoirs, one year or five years from now, you can be certain no one will wax nostalgic about the winter of 2004--a time when several things went wrong at once, and when the White House was caught in a what looked like a long, white-knuckled skid, overtaken not just by events but by its own mistakes and disarray.

Nothing like it was ever supposed to happen on Karl Rove's watch. Since taking power three years earlier, the Bush administration had grown renowned for its lockstep political precision. Its messages were always kept simple, and the president's men and women all stayed on message. Whatever the talking point was this week, the White House would have a new way to underscore it each day. It was without question the single quality for which the White House received most universal praise among the press corps. (The fact that the Bush crew was widely admired by journalists precisely for making journalists perform like trained seals may be significant in assessing the Washington world Rove inherited.)

The maniacal micro-manager Rove, known to many as "Bush's Brain," was thought to oversee every detail. The evidence of his achievement was not just anecdotal. Rove drew the Senate under closer White House control by engineering the ouster of Trent Lott and installation of Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader. And he kept America hearing what he wanted it to hear, in part by designing events that played well in 30 or 60 seconds of TV airtime. Karl Rove was made out to be a genius, a one-man repository of everything worth knowing about contemporary political practice.

By late 2002, the New York Times was calling his operation "one of the most powerful White Houses in at least a generation," wielding "what even Democrats say is a stunning degree of authority." But nobody said Rove got his way just by being smart. Colleagues and observers speak of the Mark of Rove--the trail of dirty tricks (none ever formally connected to him) that extends from the fortuitous discovery of an electronic bug in campaign chief Rove's office in the waning days of the 1986 Texas governor's race to the various smears regarding John McCain that were passed around during the 2000 primaries. But opponents probably fear Rove less than his own people do. He has rarely let a Republican functionary step out of line without trying to exact vengeance--as publicly demonstrated last year when former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suggested in a book that Bush had meant to invade Iraq all along. O'Neill soon found himself under threat of prosecution for brandishing supposedly classified documents on 60 Minutes. He apologized and reversed himself, as the objects of Rove's wrath often do.

But 2004 brought trouble, and for a time the White House--Karl Rove's White House!--seemed to have no idea what to do. Some of their problems were circumstantial, even mundane, normal waves in the cycle of election pageantry. When the primary season began in January, the media play given to Democratic attack rhetoric took a toll. (The only surprising thing was its brash tone: Democrats hadn't gotten so abrasive with a sitting Republican president since Nixon.) Coupled with job growth figures that lacked any pulse at all, the Democrats' campaign sent Bush down-ticking to the lowest approval ratings of his term.

Which in turn emboldened a press corps that had never exactly held Bush's feet to the fire. Reporters hectored the administration more urgently and regularly on a range of subjects. They came snooping after the president's National Guard record, and old questions--regarding pre-war intelligence fabrications, and the White House's outing of an undercover CIA agent for political revenge--continued to linger. It could have been worse; many other egregious failures and scandals remained effectively untouched by the Democrats and the media even during the brief siege on Bunker 1600.

What no one expected was that the worst damage would be inflicted by the White House's own hand. Bush himself sprung the first leak. In January he unofficially kicked off his campaign with a shapeless State of the Union address that critics aptly likened to a laundry list. Then, reportedly at his own insistence, W signed on for an unusual hour-long Meet the Press appearance in which he seemed so distracted and nearly catatonic that you half-expected him to wander out of the room before it was over. It was unquestionably the low point in Bush's scant number of unscripted encounters with TV cameras, and only its effective burial on Sunday morning television kept it from becoming a major public embarrassment.

It wasn't just Bush. The whole White House apparatus sputtered. Under Rove's direction, Team W had always responded to criticism in shrill, peremptory, and brutally unified fashion. Besides O'Neill, another critic it sought to punish was Joseph Wilson, a key figure in establishing that the administration knew its pre-war claims about Iraqi WMD were false. White House operatives repaid the offense by leaking to numerous reporters the identity of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative whose cover was blown for good when Bob Novak published the information. Just one problem: As political dirty tricks go, this one happened to constitute a felony, and a grand jury is currently showing signs of exploring the matter aggressively.

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