October 3, 2004
A parking lot in Waco, Texas. It was late August and George W. Bush had hived himself away at his country home - at that point, the 248th day of his presidency spent on the ranch. And as I headed to check into my hotel, I bumped into three men making their way back from dinner: Michael Gerson, the president’s speechwriter, Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media director, and Karl Rove, the chief political strategist, his head crooked over his BlackBerry as he scrolled through his incoming e-mail.
Rove was all jovial small-talk. He laughed off the latest, false rumour that the president was headed on a stealth mission to Athens, a clandestine stop-over at the Olympics. “He’ll go,” Rove said with a grin, “if you arrange the security.” Then there was more joking about the peculiar ability of the British to excel - or at least snatch the occasional bronze - in out-of-the-way sporting events: “racing pistols”, Rove teased, must be a speciality of Team GB.
Then, rather awkwardly, we got into the elevator. It was the journalistic equivalent of stagefright, the presidential aides’ version of running into a former lover: I didn’t know what to say first, they wanted to get away with saying nothing at all. Rove filled the uncomfortable moment with bonhomie, playing the valet with a cheerful declaration that he wanted to make sure that Mr Harding, a journalist from across the pond, was escorted safely to his room. I pressed seven and when the doors opened on the seventh floor, we all got out. I went to room 706, they went next door to room 708.
On the other side of a wall from the pivotal figure of the presidential election, there was an aching temptation to pick up the Duralex glass the hotel kindly provides and eavesdrop on a man who is, by universal acclaim, the most powerful political consultant at work in America today - and the most controversial.
After all, Rove had not always played so nice with me. Earlier this year, I flew to the west coast to interview a Republican Party power-broker. While I sat opposite him in his office, he called Karl Rove to get clearance to speak to me. Rove told him, he said, that I was “not one of us”. And that was that - after a few minutes of polite and empty conversation, I was ushered out of the building.
Perhaps that is why Bush has two nicknames for Rove - one is Boy Genius, the other Turd Blossom (for those who do not speak Texan, turd blossom refers to a flower which makes its home in manure). And with apologies to the 43rd president for intellectual plagiarism, Rove, as viewed through the eyes of his colleagues and his critics, the comments of both Republicans and Democrats as well as the acres of ink spilled on this one political consultant, is arguably best understood in exactly those twin terms - both as a cheerful wizard and a fragrant shyster.
On the one hand, the chubby-cheeked, wispy-haired and jolly 53-year-old is considered by fellow political operators, as well as the pundit class, to be a peerless strategic innovator who is redrawing the lines of the Republican Party. On the other, he is painted by the defeated Democrats he left behind in Texas, his vanquished Republican opponents over the years and liberal pundits in the Molly Ivins mould, as the embodiment of the worst of American politics: the dirty, but deniable, smear.
Rove, in that sense, is a Bush lightning rod much like Dick Cheney - Rove has the unique honour of being the only White House staff member to be attacked by name by John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate. He is also the first presidential political adviser in history to have a full-length film about him out in the cinemas: “If you were haunted by Fahrenheit 9/11, Bush’s Brain will give you nightmares,” the movie ad reads. “Meet Karl Rove, the most powerful political figure America has never heard of.”
There are those who revere him. “I don’t think there is any question that he is a genius,” says Brad Freeman, Bush’s close friend and chief fundraiser in California. “I don’t think there is anyone better to run a campaign in the country.” And he rattles off Rove’s qualities: his encyclopedic knowledge of the US electoral map and the country’s political history, a lifetime’s campaign experience which makes it hard for him to get sprung by opposition surprises, the assiduous cultivation of a national network of Republican contacts and his relentless appetite for the work - when quail hunting down in South Texas, he is tapping away on his BlackBerry during the shoot.
But there are as many, if not more, who acknowledge his brilliance, but fear his purpose. “There is one thing which is really special about him,” says Kevin Phillips, the author of the 1967 classic The Emerging Republican Majority and an esteemed conservative analyst of US presidential elections. “He is the first strategist to elect a schmuck as president of the United States - to orchestrate the triumph of a relatively mediocre thinker who lost the popular vote and now has the chance to become a historical figure thanks to Osama bin Laden.”
One senior Republican Party figure, who like many interviewed for this article would only speak about Rove on condition of anonymity - “People are scared to death of Karl” - said the architect of the president’s re-election strategy is an “enormously able, talented and driven political operator”, but one who seeks to destroy his opponents. James Moore, the author of the book (and now movie) Bush’s Brain, which casts Bush as monkey and Rove as the organ grinder, has examined Rove’s career and concludes: “The policy and politics of Karl Rove are a threat to our republic.”
When Rove heard Moore’s judgment of him on Fox News recently, he dismissed him as “a far left-winger who has been drinking too much swamp water”. A White House spokesperson, responding on Rove’s behalf, told me this week that the book was “filled with absurd charges which have been rehashed and dismissed numerous times over the years”.
What is in no doubt is that Rove occupies a unique place in modern American politics. His influence goes well beyond winning elections. He is more than just a counsellor to the president - he is a man abreast of the whole operation. In past White Houses, the politics shop and the policy shop were separate outfits. But Rove has straddled both. He has intervened in domestic economic policy matters: the “Mark of Rove”, as it is known, was evident in the application of steel quotas and the push for tax cuts, even when the administration has sworn blind that politics, polls and focus groups play no part in its decision-making.
Even more unusually, he has waded into foreign policy, too. When Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador, wanted to engineer a thaw in the relationship between Paris and Washington, he went to Rove first to discuss the possibility of a phone call between Bush and Jacques Chirac.
When a US spy-plane was downed over China, the president consulted Rove on how to handle Beijing without alarming the China hawks on Capitol Hill. When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice mapped out US policy for the Sudan, closely watched as it is by the evangelical Christian community, she worked with Rove. And when Air Force One touched down in Egypt for a summit with Arab leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the future of the Israelis and the Palestinians, we were surprised but not shocked to see Rove, who has made the Jewish vote a strategic priority, disembarking with the president.
Talking to Rove a few weeks ago as Bush addressed a crowd in Ohio, I was left in no doubt that policy-making by focus group was not only a Clinton phenomenon. Rove had just got word back from two focus groups held in Columbus, Ohio. The moderator had called him back saying that the president’s then undisclosed plans had tested well with independent voters. They liked them, Rove had been told, because they were “practical”. Three weeks later, the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign had a new ad out on healthcare - extolling the president’s plan for being “practical”.
In other campaigns, political strategy tends to be hammered out by a coterie of advisers. By the time a man rises to be president, he tends to have amassed a clutch of political consultants, pollsters and private counsellors.
And the Republican team is, certainly, more than one man: the “Breakfast Club”, the handful of senior cadres on the campaign who meet at Rove’s house on the weekends for a weekly strategy session over what he calls “eggies”, include Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager, Matthew Dowd, the chief pollster, McKinnon, the media strategist, Nicole Devenish, the communications director and a handful of others. But Rove is singularly in command. He wrote the campaign playbook. He designed the fundraising operation. He appointed the key personnel. And his authority has reach.
In western Ohio this summer, John “Bud” O’Brien, the Republican Party chair in the town of Troy, told me he is implementing a get-out-the-vote plan as written by Karl Rove - Rove instructed the Republican Party machine to recruit volunteers three months earlier than usual, he set the targets for Republican voter turnout county by county, he has forced the investment in the registration of Republican voters and he has constructed the crucial 72-hour operation to win the election, the final push to get out the vote in the last three days of the campaign.
Even Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager for John Kerry, says the Democrats have a team of tacticians, wordsmiths and enforcers, but not a singular Rove of their own: “There is no Great Oz behind the curtain.”
In one sense, certainly, Rove is the Wizard of the Emerald City: his powers are easily overestimated. Rove dismisses the Bush’s Brain storyline, the notion that the president is the puppet and he the puppeteer, as a reflection of the arch political culture of Washington, a town which needs a conspiracy theory to explain the obvious.
Indeed, the Bush-sceptics’ favourite urban myth, namely that Rove is the ventriloquist of the Bush presidency, has an obvious flaw. It is hard for the president to be the creature of Rove, if he is also said to be the creature of Dick Cheney and, for that matter, the creature of Don Rumsfeld, too.
No, Bush may not be an intellectual president, but he is a man with an appetite for forceful advice and, rightly or wrongly, a pride in his own abilities as a decision-maker. Let there be no doubt, Bush is a savvy political customer, Bush is a Christian conservative and it was Bush who decided to take on Saddam Hussein.
Still, if George W. Bush wins a second term on November 2, Rove will not have to share too much of the credit. And, if Bush loses, there will be one very obvious person to blame.
The big idea of Rove’s political helmsmanship is not just to win the 2004 election, but to cement a political realignment which sees the Republicans becoming the natural party of government in the US. Rove’s strategy for securing a Republican mandate for a lot more than four years is, therefore, more than just an election playbook. It is a judgment not only on the state of the US, but on the drift of the nation.
To be precise, it is a long-term Republican game-plan built around three principles: harnessing the momentum of social conservatism, establishing credibility as the war party and chipping away at the communities - the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the unions and the Jews - which sustain the Democratic Party.
The Republican realignment, as defined by the now-retired Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, has in large part already happened. Republicans have long enjoyed a stranglehold of the south. The 2002 election and the California recall showed Republicans closing the gender gap, eroding support of the Democratic Party among women.
On Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives now looks safely Republican for the next two, if not four, years. Across the country, the political map has tilted in favour of the Republicans, who in 2002 won their first majority of state legislators (3,684 to 3,626) since 1952, who now control the majority of gubernatorial mansions and who can now boast nearly as many people identifying themselves as Republicans as Democrats, marking the end of an historic handicap. Rove never fails to mention what a tough election this will be, but the fact is, he is sailing with a following wind.
Still, Rove sees the 2004 election as a milestone in the Republican effort to secure tenure. This was the subject of the first long conversation we had, two years ago, when he made the case that Bush could become the McKinley of his age, the harbinger of a long-term Republican majority. William McKinley, the 25th president of the US, won the presidency in 1896 and, after years of political equilibrium, ushered in a generation of Republican political dominance which only came to an end with the Great Depression and the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The first step towards securing that future has been to align the Republican Party with the most important expanding constituency in America: the devout. Since Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, Rove has been obsessed with the 4 million conservative Christian voters he calculates stayed away from the polls. He had banked on 19 million devout Christians turning out for Bush, but election returns showed that only 15 million cast their ballots.
The reason for the lower-than-expected turnout, Rove says, is that some have been turned off by the perceived corruption of politics, but others simply chose to stay at home after Bush’s drunk driving record was unearthed the weekend before the election. Not long after the election, Rove made clear to an audience at the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, that the Christian conservative community was a primary focus: “It’s something we have to spend a lot of time and energy on.”
And he has. Rove has only occasionally strayed from the Republican Party speaking circuit, but earlier this year addressed the graduating class of Liberty University, the Christian college founded and led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
He has made a point of tending to conservative groups such as the Free Congress Foundation, a think-tank dedicated to winning the Culture War by returning America to its “traditional, Judeo-Christian, western culture” and away from “the cultural and moral correctness”.
At a meeting in March 2002 at the Willard Intercontinental hotel, just a few blocks from the White House, Rove told a crowd of Christian political activists convened by the Family Research Council, an anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage group, that the Bush White House would stand with them to protect family values: “There’ll be some times you in this room and we over at the White House will find ourselves in agreement, and there’ll be the occasion when we don’t. But we will share a heck of a lot more in common than we don’t. And we’ll win if we work together far more often than the other side wants us to.”
Charlie Cook, the veteran political analyst whose own exhaustive knowledge of US politics borders on the omniscient, says the cultivation of the Pentecostalists, evangelicals and conservative Christian groups makes sound electoral sense.
Incumbents rarely win the swing voters. If they are not fans of the president by now, they are unlikely to be won over in the final weeks before the election. The rule for the incumbent, therefore, is this: “What you see is what you get.” The number of people who say they will vote for the president is the number of people who do - and not any more.
If you cannot bank on winning the voters in the middle, then expand your voting base on the right. Rove also learned from what he saw as one of George H.W. Bush’s signal failures, namely the relative disregard for the Christian base of the Republican Party. He left his right flank exposed, which allowed Pat Buchanan room to attack in 1992. And he turned off voters he badly needed to fend off Bill Clinton. The son - thanks, in large part, to Rove - is not about to repeat the mistakes of the father.
By ensuring that Bush cleaves to a conservative social agenda, Rove is choreographing a significant piece of political footwork - namely pampering the religious right, while luring the gun-loving, God-fearing, pro-life Democrats who no longer feel culturally at home in their party.
Brian Lunde, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee who has become a convert to the Republican cause and, more pointedly, the Bush presidency, now works with Rove to win over Democrats. Rove, he says, “probably understands micro-politics better than anybody in the country: how to work up from the voter to the candidate”.
And, the Rove formula for getting Democrats to cross the Republican threshold is to press social issues, rather than economic ones. “Take a blue-collar Democrat in Pennsylvania,” says Lunde. “You combine social values, such as gun control, with the war on terrorism.”
Under Rove’s instruction, the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign is “micro-targeting” Democrats. Republican officials are going into Democratic precincts - either in person or by phone - and identifying people susceptible to crossing the aisle. They find out what magazines people read, what television shows they watch, what cars they buy. In swing states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, for example, buying a hunting licence is a matter of public record. And “Sportsmen for Bush” is an offshoot of the campaign which targets hunters, Republican and Democrat alike.
Rove’s mastery of detail is born of his own expertise: direct mail. After his first, short-lived professional run in Washington came to an end, Rove moved to Austin and, not long afterwards, set up a direct mail business, Karl Rove Company.
In 2000 and 2004, the fundraising operation has, essentially, been run like a chain letter - rewarding individuals the more donors they recruit to the campaign. Voters are sifted and sorted, not just by zip code but also by financial profile, leisure interests and religious participation - much as a direct mail company targets a mass market. And the message is then tailored to meet the different, sometimes competing, mailing lists which make up the US electorate.
Rove’s chief contribution, though, has been macro, not micro. It is Rove, Republicans and campaign staff say, who has made the big strategic choices of the Bush campaign. He concluded that this is not a “change election”, that, as with Eisenhower’s re-election campaign in 1956 or Reagan’s in 1984, the American people were wary of switching commander-in-chief in turbulent times.
As a result, Bush has played up the fear of the unknown, which has meant stoking anxiety about new, untested leadership: Americans are right to be worried about terrorism, the Bush-Cheney message goes, and should be even more worried about John Kerry. And it has been Rove, too, who quickly latched on to the political potential of the war on terror.
On January 18 2002 - just four months after the terrorist attacks, less than two months after US troops moved into Afghanistan and as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were just beginning to work on the Iraq war plan - Rove gave what was the most revealing speech of his time in the White House.
As members of the Republican National Committee tucked into a sizeable lunch at their winter meeting in Austin, Texas, that year, Rove told them the party should run on the war: “We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America,” he said.
And that is precisely what they have done: Bush has styled himself “the war president”. He has made countless appearances before military crowds, thumping home to those in uniform his commitment to defend the US, a message that plays well both with the 26 million veterans, 1.4 million active military and 1.4 million members of the National Guard at whom it is directed, but also the soft Democrat women voters, the soccer moms of the 1990s who have become the security moms of post-9/11 politics.
He has framed the question of the 2004 election as this: who will make a better commander-in-chief in a time of war? Rove’s calculation is that the politics of fear will deliver victory.
So much for the high-minded stuff. From his time in Texas, Rove knows that a realignment comes one Democratic defeat at a time. When Rove came to the Lone Star state, it was still Democratic territory. Texan politics had been framed by such Democratic Party titans as Lyndon Baines Johnson and Sam Rayburn. Jimmy Carter carried Texas in 1976. At the time, it boasted just one prominent Republican, senator John Tower. James A. Baker III sought the office of attorney general in 1978 and lost.
”When I first arrived in Texas in January of 1977 in Austin, I went to work in the Texas legislature,” Rove recently told the political film-maker Paul Stekler. “Out of the 181 members of the legislature, I think there were maybe 15 or so Republicans. There were, I think, 12 Republicans in the House and three Republicans in the state Senate. And it really was a one-party state.” When Bill Clements was elected governor in 1978 - with Rove’s help - he was the first Republican to hold the office for 114 years.
Rove had left Washington after a brief and bumpy ride in national politics. He had waged and won a bruising battle to lead the College Republicans, which came to mean three things: he made some lifelong enemies and a reputation a controversial operator; he never graduated from college; and he got to know George H.W. Bush, chairman of the young Republicans’ group.
Rove was to become a central part of the Bush family history - a story which could hardly be more different than his own. Rove, who was born on Christmas Day in 1950 and is one of five siblings, witnessed his parents’ marriage break-up when he turned 19. Not long after, he discovered his father was not his natural parent. He remained close and loyal to his adoptive father, all the more so after the suicide of his mother when Rove was in his early 30s.
Loyalty and admiration have marked Rove’s relationship with George W. Bush from their first encounter. Rove was working for the father and had been asked to drop off the car keys when the son came down from college to Washington - and Rove recalled last year in The New Yorker that Bush had “huge amounts of charisma, swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile - just charisma... you know, wow!” It was a political love affair which developed into a courtship: it was Rove who approached Bush in the late 1980s to raise the idea of a run for the Texas governorship. And it has become an extraordinarily long and monogamous political marriage: when Bush took the White House, Rove moved into Hillary Clinton’s old office in the West Wing.
One of the early Rove legends came when Clements was fighting to regain the Texas governor’s mansion in 1986. It involved what appeared to be an infamous piece of foul play. As Mark White, the Democrat, appeared to be clawing back Clements’ lead in the polls, a story broke on the eve of the debate between the two men. Rove announced his office had been bugged. Who bugged him? The initial assumption, of course, was the Democrats.
But, as the Texas press reported at the time, suspicions still grew that the bug was planted by Rove himself, in an ingenious diversionary tactic drawing attention away from White’s gathering momentum and sullying the Democrats name. After an investigation, however, the FBI said that it had “no reason to believe that one of Mark White’s or Bill Clements’ campaign staff was involved in the bugging”.
Critics say that campaigns managed by Karl Rove have tended to follow a pattern.First there is message definition - Rove’s candidate adopts a narrow message, sticking to it relentlessly. Then, they say, comes the smear - a whispering campaign begins which suggests hidden filth in the opponent’s past.
This is followed by the counter-productive rebuttal - the opponent gets sucked into the gutter and responds by seeking to pin blame for the smear on Rove and his candidate, thereby only drawing more attention to the smear and away from his or her message. Rove’s candidate decries the smear and calls for a debate about the narrow issue he has chosen as the electoral battleground. By this time, say Rove’s critics, his opponent has lost time, momentum and control of the argument.
Rove has heard enough conspiracy theories to scoff at them. The allegations against him have become ever more elaborate, but the simple fact is that nothing has stuck. His own explanation of the claims of increasingly ingenious efforts to destroy his opponents is that people prefer myths to reality.
“There needs to be a myth by which this town operates, and if you want to believe that, like, the president isn’t that smart, you need to find an explanation, like I’m Bush’s brain,” Rove told The New York Times in August. “It’s just weird, the stuff I get credit for or blamed for that I just have nothing to do with. The things that people suggest I am saying or advocating, it’s just absurd. I’m not going get into it. I read about myself in the newspaper and I say they must be talking about someone else.”
Not so for Rick Davis, campaign manager for John McCain in 2000. In 2004, he has watched, as if reliving a car crash, the Kerry campaign derailed by a smear operation, much like the one detailed in Bush’s Brain that essentially destroyed McCain’s bid for the presidency.
It was the famous 19 days in South Carolina. McCain had just pulled off a thumping, if surprising, win in the New Hampshire primary. Rove’s candidate, George W. Bush, was slipping from favourite to also-ran. The view was that if McCain defeated Bush again in the South Carolina primary, then the Republican presidential nomination would be his.
Things suddenly got nasty for McCain. Fliers appeared on the windshields of cars in church parking lots suggesting McCain was the father of a black love-child, members of his campaign recall. (McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from Sri Lanka.) When McCain responded angrily to the slurs, the whisper went around that McCain was somehow mentally unstable after his seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The Bush campaign insisted it had nothing to do with the ugly criticisms being made of McCain. But the McCain team was sucked in, wasting time and energy trying to pin the dirty allegations on the Bush campaign. “We made a strategic mistake, which is the same one that Kerry is making, right now,” says Davis. “And that is to try and attach his trials and tribulations to the Bush camp.”
Much the same, Davis says, happened to the Kerry campaign this summer. “They squandered the month after the convention,” Davis says, “by trying to tag the Bush campaign with the Swift Boats.” The Kerry campaign fretted for a fortnight over whether or not to rebut the allegations levelled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group of Vietnam veterans funded by Texas Republicans. Eventually, Kerry weighed in, rejecting the charges that he had fabricated tales of his own heroism on the Mekong Delta and claiming the Swift Boat Veterans were doing Bush’s “dirty work”. “Ultimately, you are not picking up any votes by playing that game.”
Even Rove’s admirers acknowledge the president’s chief political strategist is willing to do what it takes to win. “He has been in a lot of campaigns and he has won a lot of campaigns,” says one senior figure on the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign, “and I don’t know what to say other than he is tough.”
Another former Republican presidential campaign adviser says, in Rove’s defence, that he has only ever been “singed, never burned” by his association with dirty tricks. Rove, in fact has endured many attacks but nothing has stuck. There may have been some unsavoury activities in the penumbra of Rove-managed campaigns, but Rove himself has not been found to be personally responsible. Scott McLellan, the White House spokesman, said the stories have “all been discounted and discredited”.
Like him or loathe him, people are extremely cautious of Karl. One person recalls Ted Turner, the CNN founder and big Democrat donor, making a trip to Washington for the screening of a movie he had helped produce about the Civil War. Someone in the administration suggested bringing Turner into the White House mess for lunch. It was nixed by Rove. “There is no noblesse oblige about Karl.”
But there is great bonhomie. A few weeks ago, Bush was out on one of his bus tours through Ohio and as the president headed over to the podium to give his standard stump speech, Rove appeared and the travelling White House press corps descended on him. He was peppered with questions - about the state of the race, the state of Ohio, the state of Kerry’s campaign... the usual.
After about half an hour, everyone had asked their questions and each others’ too. People started to peel away to return to jot down notes or listen to Bush. Soon, there were only a handful of us standing around Rove and the gaps between the questions and answers grew longer. He had said his piece. And the journalists, addled by too many consecutive pre-dawn starts or simply too unimaginative, seemed to have run dry of things to ask the closeted mastermind of the Bush campaign.
After another pause, a Japanese journalist pointed to Rove’s canvas shoulder case bulging with papers and manila folders and asked him, half-question, half-small talk: “What’s in the bag?”
”Secret shit,” Rove said, letting out a laugh and putting a hand protectively on the case. “The codes,” he went on, making his own silly, self-referential mockery of the Myth of Rove. “I have the codes... name any city you want.” And he chortled and we chortled, awkwardly and briefly at this stupid, borderline disturbing, fun.
Then Bush was done, Rove hurried back to the president’s bus to head to the next town hall meeting. The press scrambled to get on the buses that follow in convoy. And, sitting on the coach as it rolled through the small towns of western Ohio, the fields of corn, potatoes and soybeans, the streets of the small towns lined with people cheering the presidential motorcade or brandishing their own homemade Kerry banners, you couldn’t help wondering: what is in that bag?
James Harding is the FT’s Washington bureau chief.