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.

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.)

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.

Along the way, Rove kept up his ties to the Bush family, working on Sr.'s successful run for president in 1988. When it came time to launch the political career of George W., every pol in Texas knew that Rove--if not necessarily Bush--had one eye on the White House from the start. But not even Mr. Timing himself could have anticipated how ripe the world inside the Beltway would be for his style of politics by the time he arrived.

 

Recently the Rove machine has started performing like its old self again, cranking out positioning ads and anti-Kerry ads and regaining control of the daily news agenda. A New York Times/CBS poll last week showed Bush creeping back ahead of Kerry, 46-43, though W's negatives remained high (54 percent said the country was headed in the wrong direction, matching Bush's all-time low). Last Wednesday a freshly poised Rove spoke to a group of conservative activists and fundraisers convened by anti-tax guru Grover Norquist. According to the AP account of the meeting, "Rove assured [the group] that Bush planned a nimble campaign able to counterpunch even before Kerry opens his mouth. The White House adviser pointed with pride to the Bush camp's response Tuesday, when it got word that Kerry planned a national security speech to veterans in West Virginia. Less than 24 hours after learning of the speech, the Bush campaign produced an ad criticizing Kerry for his Senate votes on military spending. It also dispatched volunteers to hand out pro-Bush material to West Virginians, and started radio ads in the state.

"The Bush campaign has material ready to go on Kerry based on his votes and speeches, said a Republican who attended the session. Whenever Kerry raises an issue, the Bush-Cheney campaign will be prepared to hand out leaflets, and run ads on TV and radio."

Rove is never without detailed attack strategies, but he always keeps the master plan simple. He once summed up the entire Bush 2000 campaign thus: Character, not issues; and play on the other guy's turf (that is, target and take away a few Democratic strongholds, as Republicans did in West Virginia and Al Gore's home state of Tennessee). The plan for 2004 is not hard to infer. Where issues are concerned, say that tax cuts stimulate growth and the president is tough on terrorism. But once again, make the main issue character--which really means personality. Make Bush look steady, likeable, strong. Make Kerry look feckless, self-serving, cynical. Include in the mix some tough-but-sentimental ad spots that function more or less like video yule logs burning in the electronic hearth. They encourage comfort with Bush. And raise enough cash to outspend God if it comes to that.

Now every schoolchild knows that modern political campaigns revolve around cash, but that does not begin to express the Zen of Money as Rove practices it. His famous historical obsession with the election of 1896 holds some clues. The victory of Republican William McKinley over the free-silver Democrat William Jennings Bryan represented the first time that a candidate had been packaged so much like a product, or marketed to so many discrete corners of the populace. The Republicans' success in targeting the new urban immigrant working class helped them prevail, but at unprecedented cost. To finance it, the architects of McKinley's campaign, Mark Hanna and Charles Dawes, raised the unheard-of sum of $3.5 million by direct and urgent appeal to the captains of industry.

Rove's first rule of politics is to know where the money is. His first rule of governance is to keep one's political base mollified while setting about the serious work of assuring the commanding allegiance of big political donors in the next election cycle. In 2001, when the Bush administration made cutting taxes on the highest marginal rates its first order of domestic business, the implications for future fundraising could not have been lost on Rove. In this White House, it might have been the main impetus for starting with tax cuts. In any case, Rove expects to have something in excess of $200 million to make Bush's case to the people. (In case you don't plan to watch, here it is: Go back to sleep.)

It's said one quality that sets Rove apart is his ability to see the whole playing field in politics. So let's talk about the playing field that Rove seems to see.

Start with the people. They are tired, overworked, and scared--about their own livelihoods and threats from without. More important, they are woefully ignorant and easily worn down concerning the details of any political subject. They are acclimated to political races in which the main differences revolve around personality, and they're comfortable making almost entirely emotional decisions about candidates. This is an overgeneralization, but to date a viable one. Presidential elections are mass-culture phenomena, and the majority of voters in any election know very little of substance about the candidates or issues involved.

The media: On a mass basis, the medium that matters most by far is television. According to a 2003 Pew Research Center study, over 80 percent of Americans claim to get most of their news from TV. And if you take the further step of looking at TV news viewership numbers, you will find them pretty underwhelming. The only sensible conclusion is that a great many Americans consume political news in sporadic, sidelong fashion if at all. Many others try to follow events, but lack the time for anything beyond a few minutes of cable news and glance at their newspaper's front page.

Two things follow: First, the relative impact of political ads versus news coverage is much greater than a casual observer might think. Second, and more important, if you can keep bad news off the front page and off TV news, most people will never even know it happened. There are only a handful of media organizations in charge of what Americans see on the national TV news, and they are always looking over their shoulders at each other. They're not just pack animals; they're an exceptionally small and manageable pack. Give them interesting things to take pictures of, toss them an emotionally charged sideshow like gay marriage occasionally, and they will show the public whatever you want them to see.

The political opposition? Please. They were pathetic to start with, and September 11 paralyzed them completely. The Democrats have been chasing Republicans' fumes since Reagan. For the past generation they have not disagreed with the GOP in principle on any of the important points of empire, capital's prerogatives, or economic austerity at home; they just fuss more and go slower. To them, elections have been battles over market share more than the direction of things. In the process, the Democratic Party has gone soft. It's politically unserious, no longer capable of putting up a sustained fight. This is nothing new. Republicans got away with Iran-Contra in the '80s, and Bill Clinton was nearly booted from office for illicit blow jobs. George Bush I got little flack for pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators on his way out of office; Bill Clinton let a sleazy financier named Marc Rich off the hook, and Republicans kept the issue in play for weeks.

 

All of which brings us to Karl Rove's radical insight, his claim to true genius if he has one: He arrived in Washington knowing that the vaunted institutions of democracy were bankrupt, that the whole civics-class edifice of checks and balances, reasoned political debate, and a vigorous, impartial press amounted to a paper line you could just walk through. (The terms of his boss's 2000 win proved that: Whatever might be said about fraud and chicanery in Florida, no one can dispute that it all came down to a 5-4 Supreme Court vote in which two of the justices who voted for Bush had family members who worked for his campaign.) If it wasn't quite as simple as that formulation makes it sound, the project proved no less feasible in the end. It involved the two central virtues invoked by Napoleon: audacity and an "extremely circumspect defensive." For Bush-Rove in 2004, the latter means a massive effort to divert attention from the facts of Bush's record.

But the totality of their successes can't be put down to running slick campaigns. For a good three years, the Bush gang had its way with "the political process" without being called to account for much of anything. The autocratic prerogative they've enjoyed is so glaring that a line of apologetics has already been constructed for posterity: The whole political system rolled over for Bush because it was the patriotic thing to do after 9/11.

Aside from being largely untrue, this explanation also fails to explain anything. If the post-September 11 world was suddenly defined by a war against terrorism, then surely any great--or halfway-sound--democracy would have indulged in vigorous debate over the course of the fight. Voices surely would have risen up to question the wisdom of invading a nation whose terrorism threat looked--and, shockingly, turned out to be--fictitious. All the while, a free press would have dug in its heels and sought to illuminate the underlying issues (the range of them, mind you, not just the officially sanctioned ones) to a concerned citizenry. But none of this ever happened, unless you count the lonely, stately protests of Robert Byrd as an "opposition."

So there you go. To speak of Karl Rove's successes is to speak of the failures and corruptions of American politics and public life. They are two expressions of the same thing. Since January and the start of the Democratic presidential campaign, there has been some hint of life in the loyal opposition and the press; American newspapers, led by the big three (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), have turned notably more critical in their Bush coverage. Any one of numerous potential scandals still might return to haunt the administration. (One of the figures reportedly implicated in the criminal investigation of the Plame leak is Rove underling I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.) There are also signs that Democrats aren't the only ones in the Washington political establishment feeling anxious about Bush's brazenness and his reckless, sloppy management of economy and empire. This circle is not a great power in electoral politics, but it could lend fuel to a media feeding frenzy, if one arose.

The president could lose this election, as I'm guessing Rove surmised early on. In crafting a campaign that is half poison-pen note, half Hallmark card, he and George W. are wagering against a lot of things: real, and serious, competition from John Kerry and the Democrats; and sustained criticism of Bush in the media. These aren't bad bets. The news media has proven that it does consist mainly of deadline-driven trained seals, most of whom don't know much about the issues in question themselves. But they do know the rules of political theater, and that is what they write about. Rove and the Republicans understand this so much better than the Democrats that in terms of hand-to-hand political combat, it's a little like the Democratic National Committee beer-ball team against the New York Yankees.

John Kerry has been slowly dematerializing in the public imagination since his wrap-up of the nomination came into view. He has made some trenchant criticisms of Bush, but he hasn't made any of them stick. He doesn't know how. It's still possible that Kerry and the Dems could put the White House back on the defensive, force them off their game, but they've been losing that battle for a month now and can't afford to keep losing it much longer.

It doesn't mean Bush is home-free. No matter how well you do political campaigns, there is always the faint chance that too many people will already have seen through you. The amazing thing about 2004 is not that a radical, reckless president has the chance to be reelected; the amazing thing is that, in the face of a political establishment and a news media that rarely said boo to George W. Bush, millions and millions of people have his number anyway. Where the people are concerned, therefore, Karl and W are forced to make a dicier bet--against public memory, decency, and self-interest. It isn't clear yet whether terror fears and "wedge" issues like gay marriage, guns, and religion will once again divert sufficient numbers of people from more pressing matters, such as their own livelihoods. Maybe not.

On the other hand, Karl Rove has yet to lose a race by underestimating the integrity and rationality of American electoral politics.

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