Karl Rove's Moment

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

Rove's ties to Bush the Elder commenced in 1973, when Poppy was the Republican national chairman and Karl aspired to be the president of the College Republicans. It was a post Rove could not win by the numbers. To circumvent them, he claimed that the organization was not adhering procedurally to the College Republican charter, and mounted credentials challenges to supporters of his opponent, Robert Edgeworth. In the end Rove essentially declared himself the winner of a separate election. The controversy got kicked upstairs to Bush, who awarded the election to Rove.

Later, in retaliation, Edgeworth leaked to the Washington Post that Rove was teaching dirty tricks seminars to young Republicans--and fresh off the humiliation of Watergate, no less. Bush promptly excommunicated Edgeworth from the Republican Party for his disloyalty in leaking the story. Rove, along with his friend and College Republicans ally Lee Atwater, became favored Bush protégés. Rove moved to Texas in 1977 to toil as a fundraiser on George Sr.'s failed presidential-exploration PAC, the Fund for Limited Government. A year later he worked on an unsuccessful primary run for the Texas legislature by George W.

If his efforts on behalf of the Bushes didn't come to much at first, Rove's own career took off in Texas, where he would engineer a complete Republican takeover of the state's elective offices in a little over a decade's time. After working for a while as Governor Bill Clements's chief of staff, he started his own business in 1981: Karl Rove + Co., direct-mail specialists. Nicholas Lemann's May 2003 New Yorker profile of Rove is one of the few sketches of his career to appreciate the significance of this move:

"That Rove got his start in the direct-mail business, a technical and unglamorous political subspecialty, is important in understanding the way he thinks and operates today.... Media consultants tend to think of raising money as somebody else's job, but direct-mail consultants are fundraisers--there's that little envelope in each letter--and are more closely attuned to where the money is. Most important, direct-mail consultants are in the business of narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. They have to be on perpetual patrol for new groups with intense opinions about politics."

In politics there is nothing more useful than knowing where the money is, but Rove knew more than that. A voracious student of electoral history--and one of those people possessed of a seemingly eidetic memory for numbers and statistics that bordered on the freakish--Rove always knew where the votes were, too, and could, if you cared to listen, parse them in a dozen different ways on the spot and tell you how to woo each sub-segment of voters. Yet he wasn't just a numbers geek. As Rove made the transition from producing direct mail to running political campaigns, he proved quite good at concocting sturdy, simple campaign themes for general consumption. Rove could broadcast as well as narrowcast, He had the makings of a fine minister of propaganda--the intuitive facility for adducing that single, simple, forceful idea that would win the most people to your side, and the force of personality to repeat it over and over, even if it was absurd.

And he was ruthless in chasing his goals, especially when it came to rivalries or power struggles with his own Republican cohorts. One of his foes, Tom Pauken--a Christian conservative who, as state party chair of Texas Republicans, stood in Rove's way for a time--characterized him this way in Bush's Brain: "Lee [Atwater] was the kind of guy who'd say, hey, you were against us here but you can be for us the next time. Karl is very different. If you cross him, you're on the list. And the more you cross him over a period of time, the higher you go on the list."

A Texas Medical Association lobbyist was more terse: "It is in Karl's nature to engulf and devour and control and to rule." Rove's tendency to make every fight personal, and to the death, may yet undo him. (Remember that he and his staff are still parties to an active criminal investigation over the leak of Valerie Plame's identity.) But Rove's rage for control is inseparable from the qualities that make him excel at what he does. In outlook, one word seems to sum up Rove best: interloper. As a non-Mormon in Utah, a nondescript middle-class kid who identified with political royalty, and more generally a conservative throughout the tumultuous '60s, Rove defined himself against the grain repeatedly. He seems to have learned two things in the process: what it feels like to count yourself part of a besieged but noble minority (which may be one reason Rove and the Republicans have been so good at crafting folksy, anti-elitist images on behalf of GOP elites), and how to rise up above any crowd and turn its attention to you.

Regarding the latter, it should be noted that geeky gentile Karl won the presidency of his largely Mormon high school class before he was through. In so doing, he must have seen the lesson that would shape his future and punch his ticket out of Salt Lake City for good: You do not have to play by the rules, or respect the prevailing order of things, if you do your homework right, do the little things thoroughly, and--most important--act with absolute audacity when the time is right. This was quite literally how he came to the head of the College Republican class, and therefore to the attention of GHWB. (Later Rove found a Napoleon quotation that summed up his philosophy: "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack.") Finally, it was no doubt a great boon to Rove to hone his craft in Texas, a setting where few pretended to stand on rules or balk at cronyism, and where many openly admired his kind of zeal and inventiveness in the screwing of enemies.

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