Karl Rove's Moment

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

Well, everyone knew they were bullies. But few if any of the Great Minds paid to discuss such things ever believed that Rove's legendary command of "message," and of the foot soldiers charged with putting it across, would desert him. Suddenly there was the president on Meet the Press, offering what looked like an unplanned, impromptu pledge to release all relevant National Guard documents, and here was the White House spinning and fretting for days before coughing up the file. Other gaffes soon followed. They were nothing if not eclectic: Education Secretary Rod Paige compared America's unionized teachers to a terrorist band. The use of wtc attack footage in Bush-Cheney campaign ads elicited a bitter response from many relatives of 9/11 victims. And the New York Times reported on page one that the White House was cranking out "video news releases" in which actors hired to portray journalists read pro-Bush scripts--crypto-campaign commercials, that is, designed to air in newscasts as straight reportage.

But the administration's most potent screw-ups came in one of the areas it could least afford: the economy. First the White House released an obviously unvetted Economic Report of the President that called the outsourcing of American jobs a positive development. Then the White House planned the appointment of Anthony Raimondo to the Commerce Department as Bush's new manufacturing czar--proof the president was serious about keeping jobs here at home. But before they could even name Raimondo to the post, Democrats were already crowing over what they had learned from a simple search of the Nexis news database: Raimondo's own company recently built a plant in China. The appointment was scuttled.

A couple of days later, a Republican whisper campaign that had been growing in volume since January made the front pages of the Washington Post. Under the headline "Missteps on Economy Worry Bush Supporters," a former member of the administration was quoted as saying, "Somebody over there has to take complete and utter responsibility for everything that is publicly released from that White House. And no one is doing that." The story went on to note that "Democrats are drawing scrutiny to errors and inconsistencies that might have passed unnoticed a few months ago. 'This is a hyper-charged political environment, and they have not adapted,' the former official said."

A Republican attached to the Bush campaign offered this absurdly diplomatic rendering of the dilemma: "They've populated the place with an absence of ideas guys"--a feat, if you think about it, akin to covering a wall with an absence of paint--"which is fine if you think you can put it on autopilot and win. But it doesn't look like it's working."

What went so wrong so quickly? It was as if these notorious practitioners of hardball, smash-mouth politics had never even considered the prospect that they might at some point have to absorb a punch themselves.

After all, they never really had. And watching their façade crack in seeming slow motion, you might have been tempted to wonder if the myth of Karl Rove's genius, and of George Bush's invincibility, owed as much to everyone else's failings as to their side's successes.


For such a purportedly mysterious figure, Karl Rove has been a remarkably unchanging commodity. Since childhood, politics and the Republican Party have been his sole concerns. (Asked a few years ago when he first started weighing a presidential campaign, he named the day he was born, December 25, 1950.) And his entire career, spanning some 30 years, is bound together in large measure by his professional ties and personal devotion to both George Bush the father and George Bush the son.

Which is to say, Rove is not quite the puppetmaster that the Bush-is-stupid crowd supposes. The history of his relationship with W is fraught with tensions, contests of ego and will, and occasional political disagreements that Rove did not always win. One token of the ambivalent undercurrent between them is the invariably withering series of nicknames Bush has applied to Rove: Boy Genius, Mr. Big Shot, Turd Blossom. (In west Texas, you see, desert flowers sometimes sprout from cow manure.) Rove may be the man with big ideas, but he is also, like everyone else around W, a subordinate--at best, an honorary member of the Bush clan.

You don't have to be a psychohistorian to see in it an element of compensation. Rove's family life as a child sounds fairly dismal. His father, a mineral geologist, was gone from home for long stretches, and finally walked out for good on Christmas Eve, 1969, which was also the eve of Karl's 19th birthday. A few years earlier, the family had uprooted from Nevada and moved to Salt Lake City just as Karl was entering high school. According to Bush's Brain, Wayne Slater and James Moore's biography, the whole experience left Rove hungering for images of permanence, legitimacy, and authority. "In a city where the prevalent influences were political and religious," they wrote, "his family was neither. He grew up in an apolitical household, without religious mooring. Friend Mark Dangerfield told a reporter that it seemed to bother Rove that 'he was raised in a completely nonreligious home.'" (Though Rove may never have caught the religion bug himself, it figured prominently from the start in Rove's service to his one true god, the Republican Party.)

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