He's the wizard of the West Wing, the most powerful political consultant ever, the maker of presidents, the destroyer of Democrats. But how did Karl Rove get that way? Take a little luck, a lot of skill, a few dirty tricks, and a quarter-century of hardball Texas politics, and it all adds up to genius.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, a legislator named Terral Smith received a phone call at his Austin office from a young political operative named Karl Rove. The two men knew each other casually. Both were Republicans with rising political ambitions. Smith was a state representative. Rove was a political consultant who owned a small company that raised money by mail for candidates. He was calling to ask a favor. He had a friend from Midland he was trying to persuade to run for governor. He wanted Smith to give his client a little friendly coaching on the subject of criminal justice. Smith, who had been the chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in the state House of Representatives, said sure.
He arrived at the small conference room at a downtown Austin hotel, where the meeting was to take place, and Rove introduced his pupil: George W. Bush. For the next hour, Rove listened intently as Bush, who chewed a cigar and propped his feet up on the table, asked questions and Smith held forth. Smith recalls that Bush seemed confident, almost cocky, as though he had already made up his mind on many of the issues. For Bush it was just one of many such meetings; Rove had lined up a full day of issue briefings in the same hotel room.
None of this might seem noteworthy, except for one thing: There was absolutely no reason to believe, in 1989, that George W. Bush could ever be elected mayor of Midland, let alone governor of Texas. He had little going for him beyond the fact that he shared three fourths of a name with the president of the United States. He was a 43-year-old who had never quite lived up to expectations: a mediocre student, a failed congressional candidate, an entrepreneur in the oil patch who had had access to a large pool of East Coast capital and still had not made it big. He was a hesitant, often ungrammatical public speaker. He had once enjoyed a reputation as a party boy. Though that year he helped organize an investor group to buy baseball’s Texas Rangers, it would be several years before he achieved success as the team’s managing partner.
Karl Rove had an entirely different notion of George W. Bush. He saw Bush as the future leader who would turn Texas into a Republican state. These briefings had been Rove’s idea, part of his campaign to try to get Bush thinking seriously about running for governor. Rove would push hard for Bush to run in 1990, to no avail. Five years would pass before Bush took the plunge, against the highly popular Ann Richards in a race that initially almost no one but Rove thought he could win. Others had seen in Bush the also-ran son of a prominent father. Implausibly, Rove had seen in Bush someone who could persuade millions of people to vote for him, and he was willing to spend whatever time was necessary on the effort.
The making of George W. Bush is merely the most visible of Rove’s lengthy list of achievements in Texas. By the time Bush was finally ready to run for governor, Rove had already been the driving, unifying force behind one of the great tectonic political shifts in American history: the Republicanization of Texas. When Rove arrived in Texas, in January 1977, Republicans held 1 of 30 statewide offices, John Tower’s U.S. Senate seat. When he left, a quarter of a century later, to become senior adviser to the president, they held 29 of 29. Most of them had been Rove clients. When he arrived, there were 21 Republicans out of 181 members in the state legislature. Today there are 107, and Republicans hold substantial majorities in both houses. It was a stunning transfer of power, and Rove’s fingerprints are all over it.
Rove’s singular talent was to see far and to see clearly into Texas’ political future, to understand the massive political and cultural upheavals that were transforming the state. That included an uncanny knack for seeing who would win a given race in a given year, even though few others initially agreed with him. His client list is full of people who were not supposed to win, among them Tom Phillips (chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, 1988), Rick Perry (agriculture commissioner, 1990), and John Cornyn (attorney general, 1998). Both of Texas’ current U.S. senators, Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, are former Rove clients.
Rove’s success then and now—at 52, he is arguably the most powerful political consultant in American history—has inspired a large and deep legend. Call it the Myth of Karl Rove’s Genius. Political genius is a complex thing: a great froth of truth and half-truth and fable and gossip and rumor and outright lies and good journalism and bad journalism and what people are willing to believe. Most of all, it feeds upon the human need to give credit, assign blame, and attribute causation to events large and small. In Washington today, as was the case in Texas for many years, the search for credit, blame, and causation more often than not leads to Karl Rove. He was the architect of Bush’s bumpy but successful campaign for the presidency. He conceived the electoral strategy last fall that resulted in the biggest presidential triumph in a midterm election in almost a century. His influence in the White House extends beyond politics to policy. If Rove is famous because of Bush, it is equally true that Bush would not be famous but for Rove, who picked him out of the crowd fourteen years ago. We know who Karl Rove is today, but how does a political genius get to be a political genius? The story starts not with a triumph but with a catastrophe.
KARL ROVE IS TALKING ABOUT the old days, back when his friend George W. Bush was just another guy hustling oil deals in the Permian Basin of West Texas. Rove, whose title of senior adviser conveys little of the power he now wields, is seated in his unimposing West Wing office at an antique table, wearing a crisp blue suit, blue shirt, and patterned tie. The beveled crown of the Washington Monument is just visible in the upper corner of a small window behind his desk. Scraps of historical memorabilia festoon the walls. The office, which belonged to Hillary Clinton, might be that of a moderately successful attorney in Lubbock, with the exception of several boxlike, dangerous-looking black telephones. Rove has just been asked about one of the worst political defeats of his life, and his expression teeters, as it sometimes does, somewhere between hard focus and impish amusement. Below his rectangular eyeglasses, he permits a small smile to appear. This is an interesting memory.
On November 2, 1982, the main client of Rove’s new consulting business, Governor Bill Clements, suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of Democrat Mark White, the state’s attorney general. Neither Rove nor Clements had seen it coming. No one had. Polls had shown the governor up by eight points the night before. For Rove, who was very likely the most ambitious person in Texas politics in 1982, a tireless, fast-talking young political consultant with big ideas and big plans for himself and for the Republican party, it was like being sucker punched by a mailed fist. In 1978 Clements had made history by becoming the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction. Rove had gone to work for Clements’ political operation in 1979 and had become a sort of bargain-basement political Svengali: His expertise was in the gritty, technical world of direct mail, which is used for fundraising and campaign ads. In 1981 an ebullient, optimistic Rove, seeing small gains as harbingers of a Republican future, had been so confident that he had gone into the direct-mail business for himself. His first client was Governor Clements. He had other clients too, including the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, agriculture commissioner, and attorney general. In the fall of 1982 things were looking up for Karl Rove.
On November 2 all that came crashing down. All Rove’s Republicans lost. It was a bloodbath. Not only were the winners Democrats; they were liberal Democrats. As a group, they were the most liberal Texas had ever seen. They were everything Karl Rove was against—people like Jim Mattox (attorney general), Ann Richards (treasurer), Jim Hightower (agriculture commissioner), and Garry Mauro (land commissioner). From Rove’s perspective, it looked like a career train wreck. Within a few days the vultures were circling.
“The Mark White operatives started calling my clients,” recalls Rove. “They were saying, ‘You’d be better off not being associated with the young lad.’ I felt completely devastated. It was a huge blow for my business, because it was nice having the sitting governor of the state of Texas as your client and friend. Suddenly that was all gone.”
But Rove’s personal disaster turned out to be the opposite of what it seemed. His bleak morning-after was in fact the beginning of the end of the Democratic party’s hegemony in Texas, roughly the moment when the state’s vaunted Democratic forces last achieved total domination before beating a slow but steady retreat before the Republican onslaught.
Rove’s political career is roughly bookended by the two men he has most loyally served: George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. Rove first met the elder Bush in Washington in 1973, when Bush was the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Rove was the 22-year-old executive director of the College Republican National Committee. Bush later hired Rove at the RNC. Rove repaid the favor by introducing Bush to Lee Atwater, a college student who had been Rove’s southern campaign chairman in his successful run for chairman of the college Republicans. Atwater would later become the architect of Bush’s 1988 presidential victory over Michael Dukakis and the leading political operative of his era. Rove’s work also included a family errand: He delivered Dad’s car keys to a young Harvard Business School student named George W. Bush. It was the start of a thirty-year friendship.
Rove, who had hit it off with Bush père, did not have to wait long for the connection to pay off. After migrating to Texas in 1977 to work for state representative Fred Agnich, of Dallas, he was hired by Bush to help run a political action committee named Fund for Limited Government. The PAC was located in a small office in a Houston bank building. It was headed by a Houston attorney named James A. Baker, who would later become Secretary of State and the White House chief of staff. Within two years it would morph into Bush’s first race for president.
Bush was the first big-name politician to see Rove’s potential. “I had been very impressed with him back in my RNC days,” he says. “I did not see him every day, but there was enough interaction for me to spot a rising star.” It is not surprising that Bush singled him out. Rove was not only bewilderingly smart, an encyclopedia of facts and figures but also utterly and irretrievably political, and devotedly Republican. He had grown up in the Mountain West, the adopted son (one of five children) of a mineral geologist, and went to high school in Salt Lake City. He was, by his own description, a nerd. He carried a briefcase every day, wore a pocket protector, and spent hours in the library preparing for debate club competitions. And he was a Republican, from an early age. When he was nine years old, he supported Richard Nixon for president against John F. Kennedy and got punched out for his beliefs by a neighborhood girl. His parents divorced when he was a freshman at the University of Utah. He dropped out the following year to move to Washington. He would drop out several more times, always for politics. Eventually he attended four colleges, but he would never finish.
At Bush’s Houston PAC, Rove found the ideal roost for an ambitious young political operative. Gearing up to run for president, Bush was raising and giving out political money and stumping the country in support of Republican candidates. Rove was involved in all of it. “He mapped Bush’s schedule and helped figure out which candidates Bush would speak for and which candidates the PAC would give to,” says David Bates, a colleague at the PAC. “Karl had a huge network of contacts from his college days. When Bush traveled, he would energize this network to meet him.”
For Rove it was an exhausting, exhilarating, consuming, headlong dive into national politics. Though he clearly adored it, it had its downside too. He traveled frequently, and his absences were hard on his fragile young marriage to Val Wainwright, a Houston woman he had met at the RNC. He knew that if Bush were successful, he would eventually have to move back to Washington. “As much as I loved Bush,” says Rove, “I didn’t want to go to Washington. I had been gone for eighteen months. My wife and I were starting to think about having a family.” In January 1979 he quit Bush’s PAC campaign and moved to Austin to take a job with the political committee of new governor Bill Clements. The committee’s main purpose was to pay off $7.2 million in campaign debt. Rove had again found a perfect launching pad. His marriage, however, would not survive. He was divorced a year later.
Rove had been hired to do direct mail, and he pushed hard to buy computers and high-tech ink-jet printers that would allow the Clements campaign to saturate the market. “He always wanted to be on the leading edge, and he was extremely computer literate by 1979 standards,” recalls Jim Francis, his boss at the time and later a Dallas political operative who chaired George W.’s first campaign for governor. “He argued the point. I disagreed. We had several shouting matches about it. He was right. I was wrong.” Rove, the archnerd, got his machines, and soon they were spitting out hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail. It was classic Rove: aggressive and totally sure of himself. The committee quickly paid off what Clements owed.
In 1979, acting at Clements’ direction, Francis and Rove recruited James “Buster” Brown to run against longtime incumbent Democratic senator Babe Schwartz, of Galveston. The 29-year-old Rove went to Lake Jackson in 1980, hired the campaign manager and the media consultant, and engineered a stunning upset of the twenty-year Democratic incumbent in an old-line Democratic district. “Island in Shock” read the headline in the Galveston Daily News. That same fall Clements assigned Rove to run the Texas arm of the GOP presidential campaign, an operation with a $4.5 million budget. Again Rove delivered: Ronald Reagan, with Bush as the vice-presidential nominee, carried the state by 55 percent to 41 percent over Jimmy Carter. Rove was rewarded with the job of Clements’ deputy chief of staff, charged with bird-dogging a complicated redrawing of the state political maps. He was already being talked about as the wonder boy of Texas Republican politics.
Newly divorced, Rove began rebuilding his personal life. His colleagues in the governor’s office—including Pat Oles, Dary Stone, Jim Francis, Tobin Armstrong, and George Bayoud, Jr.,—would become lifelong friends. Rove, the only one of the group who could cook, would sometimes fix dinner for the gang at his house. Twice a year they hunted quail on Armstrong’s enormous ranch near Kingsville. And Rove was always thinking big, talking big. He read intensively in American history and was not shy about telling people about it. The Republicans were going to rule Texas, he would say. Sooner than you think. His friends referred to this, simply, as “the Rove bullshit.”
In 1981 Rove told Clements that he wanted to go out on his own and wanted him to be his first client. “I said, ‘I am the age you were when you started Sedco [the offshore drilling company that made Clements megarich], and I want to start a business,'” Rove recalls. “This took him aback. He is a gruff old guy. He said, ‘Let me think about it,’ and the next day he said, ‘I am your first client.’ And he put me in business.” Rove, who had no capital of his own, pulled in $60,000 from friends in the Clements administration to start Rove and Company, a small direct-mail and political-list operation that would be at the center of his life for the next eighteen years. Within a month he was sending out a million and a half pieces of mail for Clements. Clements’ defeat was a blow to the small start-up but not a fatal one: By then Rove had used Clements’ prestige to develop a handful of steady clients outside of campaigns, such as the Gulf Coast Conservation Association, a politically active sportsmen’s group. After two years, Rove paid all of his investors back with interest.
AS GRUESOME AS THE REPUBLICANS’ defeat was in 1982, it was not total. One seed of hope was a conservative Democratic congressman from College Station named Phil Gramm, who had won the all-important Democratic primary with Karl Rove’s reluctant help. Rove had been ordered by Clements to help Gramm, who had co-sponsored Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts over the objections of the leaders of his own party. Rove ran Gramm’s direct-mail and phone-bank operations. After his victory in the general election, Gramm switched parties, then resigned and ran again in a special election. Rove spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in his office as he and Gramm signed 14,000 personalized letters explaining why Gramm was changing parties. Gramm won again, and when John Tower chose not to seek a fifth term in 1984, Rove helped elect Gramm to the U.S. Senate.
Though he could not have known it at the time, Rove’s timing had been perfect. Gramm was one of the early bellwethers of the political changes that were about to sweep across Texas. Counties like Collin and Denton, north of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and Fort Bend and Montgomery, near Houston, were booming with an influx of corporate relocations from the North. Gramm’s Senate victory had validated Rove’s belief that the rural electorate, long considered a sure thing for Democrats, could be persuaded to vote Republican. His business took off in the mid-eighties, first with direct-mail clients and then with bigger jobs where he was the general consultant, responsible for all aspects of the campaign. He made no more than $30,000 a year for his first four years—less than the people who worked for him—but he met his payrolls. His business grew beyond Texas, aided by his national connections. He did mail for U.S. senators Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and Connie Mack, of Florida, and for Governor John Ashcroft, of Missouri. But he never stopped doing the smaller, less lucrative races that helped broaden the Republican base. Most important, Rove was the general consultant in Bill Clements’ 1986 revenge victory over Mark White. “The Clements campaign was so focused and had such discipline,” recalls consultant Mark McKinnon, who worked for White (and later became a media adviser for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign). “We woke up every morning and got hammered. We were constantly on the defensive. We were constantly responding to something. We would wake up with Karl’s fist in our face.”
By the 1986 Clements campaign, Rove had become one of the top guns in his field. He was up to eighteen employees. “Karl was one of the earliest practitioners of political direct mail,” says John Colyandro, a political consultant who went to work for Rove in 1985. “Direct mail first caught on as a viable campaign tool in the 1978 off-year elections. Karl was one of the pioneers. He was very demanding. During the course of a political cycle, you would be there sixteen hours a day.”
After the Clements victory, in 1986, Rove became a full-fledged general consultant. With Gramm’s party switch, Rove had caught the rural-Democrats-turning-Republican wave; now, in 1988, he would catch the tort-reform wave. At that time the Texas Supreme Court consisted of nine Democratic judges, most of whom favored plaintiffs. Their ethics as a group had come under scrutiny in a 1987 60 Minutes report called “Justice for Sale?” Two judges had been disciplined by a state judicial watchdog commission. Sensing the opportunity, Rove went to work in 1988 for Tom Phillips, a former Houston district judge who had been appointed chief justice by Clements earlier that year. Rove ran Phillips as a clean candidate, sent political fundraising mail all over the country, and set voluntary limits on campaign contributions, which Rove and Phillips knew would allow the campaign to be outspent. “Karl wrote out a detailed plan for the campaign, how many votes we needed, where they were, and how to get them,” says Phillips, who won the race with 57 percent of the vote.
It is hard to understate the importance of this one victory in Karl Rove’s career. Not only was it a portentous Republican breakthrough at the top of the Texas judiciary, but it also foreshadowed a fierce, decade-long fight between Republicans, backed by business interests, and plaintiffs lawyers, who by the mid-eighties were providing much of the funding for Democratic candidates. By the end of the decade, all nine Texas Supreme Court justices were Republican. Rove had run the winning campaigns of seven justices—Phillips, Craig Enoch, Nathan Hecht, Priscilla Owen, John Cornyn, James Baker, and Greg Abbott. After the Phillips race, Rove achieved wide recognition as a strategic genius, the man who carried precinct and district maps around with him and could keep a mind-addling volume of election results cross-indexed by race, color, and creed in his head. “He got it down to a science,” says Mike Toomey, a former Clements chief of staff who now holds the same title under Rick Perry. “He had a map on his wall showing how many votes they had to get, what counties the votes were in, and how to raise the money.” Says Republican consultant Reggie Bashur, another former Clements hand: “He would draw them a picture. ‘This is how you are going to become a Supreme Court judge.'” Other consultants, such as Austin’s Bill Miller, worked on a few of these winning races. But Rove got most of the credit.
After the Supreme Court races, everybody went to Karl Rove. He became campaign central for statewide races. By 1990 Rove’s only real competition came from a Fort Worth consultant named Bryan Eppstein, who could later claim to have run seven hundred races in Texas. But Eppstein worked down-ballot, in legislative races. Rove dominated the top of the ticket.
He worked brutal hours, in his office or dashing around town in his old Mercedes wagon plastered with campaign stickers. He rarely socialized. “Even if Karl is your friend, there is not a lot of chitchat,” says Chuck McDonald, a political consultant for Governor Ann Richards who since has become friendly with Rove. Rove’s secretary scheduled appointments at ten-minute intervals. Success bred success: He ran Kay Bailey Hutchison’s 1990 state treasurer’s race and three years later ran her race for the U.S. Senate. Neither victory required the coruscating brilliance for which Rove was becoming famous; the opposition was weak and victory was likely. And yet, with Clements, Gramm, Phillips, and Hutchison, Rove had piled up victory after victory. It was beginning to look to some people that he was unbeatable.
BUT IT WASN’T ONLY BRILLIANCE that defined Karl Rove’s reputation. As he rose in power and influence, the conviction grew among Democratic opponents and competing consultants that Rove was playing dirty, that his power was rooted in sleazy politics, that there was a dark side to his genius. The legend of Rove as “evil genius” dates all the way back to 1973, with a Washington Post story that appeared after the Watergate break-in, reporting that Rove had taught “dirty tricks” to college Republicans. According to Bad Boy, a biography of Lee Atwater, these included sifting through opponents’ garbage to gather intelligence. The RNC chairman, the elder George Bush, conducted a month-long investigation and cleared Rove, which helps to explain Rove’s career-long loyalty to the family. Another story in Bad Boy—Rove acknowledges that this one is true—tells how Rove had once stolen an Illinois state treasurer candidate’s letterhead and put out flyers for a party that offered “free beer, free food, girls, and a good time.”
But these were mere preludes to the real stuff of Texas political legend. During Clements’ 1986 race against White, a bug was discovered in Rove’s office. Democrats believed that it had been planted by Rove himself to discredit the opposition. The story made the national news. There was never any proof that he had done it, the culprit was never found, and Rove roundly denied having anything to do with it. Clements’ campaign manager, George Bayoud, Jr., says, “The FBI told us that the company that had installed Rove’s security system put it there. That’s what they told us, and that’s what we believed.”
The campaign that permanently established Rove’s reputation for foul play was Rick Perry’s race against Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner, in 1990. Rove and media consultant David Weeks persuaded Perry, an obscure Democratic legislator from Haskell who had co-chaired Al Gore’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary campaign in Texas, to switch parties for the election. West Texas was swinging Republican anyway, and Perry, who was discouraged by his failure to advance in the House leadership and thinking of becoming a lobbyist, had nothing to lose. Hightower was the darling of the liberals, a wisecracking and outspoken populist who had been a big vote-getter for the Democrats in 1986. With Rove and the collective financial muscle of the Texas Republican community behind him, Perry ran a tough, negative campaign, charging that the agriculture commissioner’s office was rife with scandal and abuse and using photos of Hightower with Jesse Jackson to paint Hightower as a left-wing activist. Perry even tried to link Willie Nelson’s support of Hightower to a Kentucky candidate, also endorsed by Willie, who favored the legalization of marijuana.
A month before the election, Perry alleged that the FBI was investigating Hightower and his department. In the last days of the race, Perry claimed, in TV spots designed by Rove and Weeks, that “there will be people in the Department of Agriculture, going up to possibly its highest levels, who will be indicted.” Not only did the negative ads work—Perry narrowly won, 4948—but the information turned out to be eerily accurate. As a result of the FBI’s investigation, three high-ranking officials in Hightower’s administration were eventually indicted and convicted. But Hightower believes to this day that the FBI agent who investigated his department was really a pawn of Karl Rove’s. He also thinks that Rove sent the FBI to investigate the offices of Democratic land commissioner Garry Mauro and Democratic state comptroller Bob Bullock. In other words, he is convinced that Rove had his own personal FBI agent he could use as he pleased.
Rove denies that he had anything to do with starting the investigations. “We had heard rumors that some Democrats were being investigated, not including Hightower,” says Rove. “Then it comes out in the Dallas Morning News. Now, if I had met Greg Rampton [the agent], it was as you might meet someone who comes into the governor’s office. But I didn’t know the guy. After it pops out in the newspaper, Rampton makes an appointment and comes by and says, ‘Do you know anything?’ I said no.”
By this time Rove had won so many races and had played so rough that the Democrats, who still held most statewide offices and enjoyed large margins in both houses of the Legislature, were gunning for him. The FBI episode was brought up in 1991 during a state Senate confirmation hearing for Clements’ nomination of Rove as a regent for East Texas State University. A previous Rove nomination, during Clements’ first term, as a regent for Texas Woman’s University, had been rejected by the Senate on the grounds that Rove was “disruptive” and “abrasive.” That this one too was doomed became evident as Democratic senator Bob Glasgow grilled Rove on his relationship with FBI agent Rampton. But at least one prominent Democrat was wary of the perils of taking on Rove. In a story that former lieutenant governor Bob Bullock recounted to Jack Martin, the president of Public Strategies, an international communications firm, Bullock said he had confronted Glasgow during a break in the hearings. “Bobby Joe,” Bullock said, “this man Mr. Rove out there—you’ve made an accusation that he runs the FBI. Now, if that’s not true, then you owe that man an apology. But Bobby Joe, you poor bastard, what if it is true?” (Glasgow says he does not recall the conversation.)
Another story—this one acknowledged by Rove—from that era is also used to illustrate Rove’s alleged dark powers. In a 1992 battle for railroad commissioner, Rove gave the media the stunning information that incumbent Democrat Lena Guerrero, an Ann Richards appointee, had falsely claimed to have graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. The accusation was true, and Rove’s candidate, Barry Williamson, won the race. Rove says he got the information from someone who had worked in the Republican primary for Carole Keeton Rylander (now Strayhorn), whom Williamson had beaten in the primary. Rove had done nothing ethically wrong, but in the eyes of his opponents, he is the man who personally destroyed Lena Guerrero.
Rove gained a reputation for playing hardball with his fellow consultants as well, competing fiercely for clients. Indeed, if there is one aspect of Rove’s personality that his friends and enemies agree on, it is his aggressive territoriality. Rival Bryan Eppstein says that, after he ran Senator Bill Ratliff’s winning race in 1988, “Rove spent the next four years trying to convince Ratliff that he should use Rove in his reelection.” The strategy worked; Rove ran Ratliff’s 1992 race (though Eppstein has run subsequent races). Says leading Democratic consultant George Shipley: “Rove fought everybody. He was as much at war with Eppstein and [then- Republican consultant] John Weaver as with the Democrats. He sees the world in black and white terms. Good and evil. Democrats are evil.” Rove’s feud with Weaver—based on an incident neither man will discuss—was legendary in Texas GOP circles and was a subplot in the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, when Weaver was working for Bush foe John McCain.
Rove by now was someone you did not want to cross. “He has a couple of modes,” says Bill Miller. “He’s got a schmooze gear. He’s got a real tough business gear, and he’s got blow-the-house-down.” Cathie Adams, who heads the conservative Texas Eagle Forum, describes a hostile telephone conversation with Rove in 1995. “There was one phone call that was quite ugly on the workforce-development issue,” she says. “I had sent out a flyer and he disagreed with it and the phone call was quite ugly.”
Rove’s legend could cut both ways. During the 1992 presidential race, he was fired from the Republican state Victory Committee on orders from prominent Republican Rob Mosbacher for leaking a negative story about Mosbacher to commentator Robert Novak. The problem was that Rove was not the source of the leak, as Novak later acknowledged on CNN’s Crossfire. Says Rove: “As far as I know, Mosbacher still thinks I am the one who did it.”
All of this suggested a ubiquitous, prodigiously powerful political presence, a combination Machiavelli, medieval pope, and Rasputin, with a well-developed mean streak—someone truly, if you swallowed the myth, to be afraid of.
CONTRARY TO WHAT HIS ENEMIES believe, Karl Rove does have a personal life. This is one area where the collective legend, which describes him as a one-dimensional, work-obsessed grind, is wrong. Rove’s second wife, Darby, whom he married in 1986 and with whom he has a fourteen-year-old son named Andrew, once described him in an interview as a “combination of in-your-face and sensitive.” That is very much as his friends see him too. Rove is a tough political player, takes his politics personally, and is a formidable adversary. But he has a long and happy marriage, and those close to him say he also has a talent for friendship.”
Karl is very loyal, and he devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to his very close friends and family,” says Pat Oles, who runs Barshop and Oles, a real estate development company in Austin, and is perhaps Rove’s closest friend. The core of this group is his old rat pack from the first Clements administration. A lot of the time he spends with those friends occurs on quail hunts, which are a Rove passion second only to politics; he refers to his prey as “the wily bobwhite.” During one memorable outing, Rove assumed the character of a hunting dog and stayed in it all day long, aiming comments at the hunters. And in spite of the “evil genius” reputation, he also manages to be friendly with many people who are hardly Republican loyalists, including media critics like Austin American-Statesman columnist Dave McNeely; the two co-taught a course at UT, and McNeely’s wife, Carole Kneeland, who later died of cancer, helped coach Darby Rove through her own bout with breast cancer. Onetime Democratic nemesis Jack Martin, of Public Strategies, is a friend. Chuck McDonald, who worked for Ann Richards, says that Rove recommended him for a prized consulting job, and former Richards press secretary Bill Cryer says he finds Rove “friendly, funny, and a little cynical. I liked him then and now for his humor, which was quick and smart-ass.”
And Rove’s passion for details is often put to social uses. State senator Florence Shapiro, a former client, is amazed that, many years after they worked together, Rove still comments about her mother’s strudel. He sends get-well notes to friend’s spouses when they are sick. And when a photographer from London was assigned to photograph him for this article, Rove wore a tie that displayed a map of Old London.
His friends say they believe that Rove balances work and play fairly well. He reads histories and biographies, collects stamps, loves games like Scrabble and gin rummy and even has been known to bowl (terribly, Rove acknowleges) and play basketball with Chief Justice Tom Phillips. During his years in Austin, he was an active member of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. “I can tell you that this is a guy who does better at balancing what is important than most of my friends, including yours truly,” says Oles. “Sure, he is a workaholic. He never sits still. But when you are with Karl, he is engaged.”
KARL ROVE HAD WAITED A long time for George W. Bush. Bush had flirted with the idea of running for governor in 1990 but backed down, believing, among other things, that it was too close to his father’s 1988 presidential victory. But by 1994 Clinton was in, and everything had changed. Bush was ready, and Rove was his man. Rove believed, against all reason, not only that Bush could be made over into a decent candidate but also that the highly popular Ann Richards, whose approval ratings were hovering around 60 percent, was vulnerable as the result of the demographic changes he had been tracking.
The two men have always had an interesting, complementary relationship. The notion that Rove is “Bush’s Brain,” as the title of a new book has it—the implication being that Bush does not have one of his own—is patently false, as anyone who has been around the two men knows. Its origins were in the Richards campaign, which grossly underestimated Bush, and later in the Gore campaign, which did the same. Bush is the older of the two—one of his nicknames for Rove is Boy Genius (the other is Turdblossom)—and Rove is deferential though not obsequious; the relationship is servant to master. Or agent to principal: In 1999 Bush saw a group of reporters gathered around Rove, who was holding forth. As he passed, Bush snapped, “Is the Karl Rove press conference over yet?”
One telephone conversation overheard by a Dallas Observer reporter offers a telling look at their peculiar chemistry. Rove was sitting in his office. Bush had just delivered a speech in which Rove had instructed him to question Ann Richards’ use of state phones.
“You did good,” Rove said, even though he had just told someone else in the office that Bush had blown it. “I think you could have done better—” Rove began but stopped in mid-sentence, when, according to Rove, Bush interrupted him to acknowledge that he had blown it.
“I got it confused” was the next thing Rove said. “You did great.”
Even in a short conversation, you can see their oddball dynamic at work: humor, mixed with needling criticism.
As the race against Richards loomed, Rove began the process of grooming his candidate for the campaign. Bush had a long way to go. He was a mediocre public speaker whose reedy, tenor voice sometimes seemed to trail away. Rove decided to keep Bush out of the media centers in the early going so his client could hone his speaking ability in small towns.
Rove persuaded Bush to read two books that would become the ideological underpinning of his political career from that point onward: Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion and Myron Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare. The ideas in these books—that welfare, for example, did more harm than good and that churches could dispense social services better than government—became the basis for what Bush came to call in his presidential campaign “compassionate conservatism.”
By now discipline and focus—along with the liberal use of opposition research to discredit opponents—were the hallmarks of Rove-run campaigns. This one would be disciplined but in a new way. Rove and his policy gurus had taken roughly forty issues and reduced them to four: reform of juvenile justice, of public education, of welfare, and of that old GOP favorite, tort litigation. Rove’s strategy was to stick to those issues and only those issues, while scrupulously avoiding saying anything bad about Ann Richards. Bush stuck to the message, improved his public speaking, and emerged as a credible candidate, a feat many observers found remarkable. In communications director Karen Hughes, who ran an airtight ship and was even more disciplined than Rove, they found the perfect public voice.
As always, however, the dark side of his genius became an issue. Former Richards staffers attribute to Rove the fueling of a whisper campaign suggesting that Richards had surrounded herself with homosexuals and that Richards herself might be a lesbian. Rove denies it, though it was no secret that Richards had appointed a number of openly gay people to state boards and her own staff. “We thought he was behind it,” says former Richards campaign spokesman Chuck McDonald. “A concerted, ongoing drumbeat of criticism that Ann Richards is gay or likes gays or hangs out with gays—there is only one source ultimately to generate and continue to feed that beast. Did I think in 1994 that he was a dirty trickster? Yeah, I probably did. Do I think that now? No. I have done a lot more campaigns, and I think he did a good job.”
Bush hewed to Rove’s discipline and scored a major upset. Rove, the geologist’s son, had always seen the Republican takeover of Texas politics not as an event but as a process, a slow but inevitable erosion of Democratic power. And now it was done. His reward came not only as satisfaction: That year the Bush campaign paid Rove and Company $1.6 million.
KARL ROVE HAD BEEN ENORMOUSLY powerful before Bush was elected governor; almost all Republican politics in the state ran through him. Though his role in promoting Bush’s legislation is exaggerated—Bush’s legislative liaisons Dan Shelley and Terral Smith say Rove did little of that—he rode herd on Bush’s appointments, raised money, kept up ties to the religious right and other interest groups, and looked after elections all over the state. With few exceptions, such as the State Board of Education, Rove and Bush, but mostly Rove, said who could run for office and when they could run. “I knew a House member who wanted to run for agriculture commissioner,” says Smith, who gave Bush his first briefing back in 1986. “He was upset and said, ‘I want to know when Karl Rove is going to let me be somebody!'” Not that year: Rove’s client Susan Combs won that election.
Though Rove did not have an office in the Capitol—he was linked to Bush by dedicated phones—his sense of his own territory, and when it was being stepped on, occasionally provoked fights inside the famous Iron Triangle of chief of staff Joe Allbaugh, communications director Karen Hughes, and Rove. “Karl is extremely turf-sensitive,” says a close friend and associate. “He often feels threatened when there is no threat. He has an inexplicable insecure streak.”
When he was challenged by the right wing of his own party in 1994—new GOP chairman Tom Pauken had defeated the Republican establishment’s hand-picked candidate and publicly “fired” Rove from the party’s direct-mail account even though Rove had already resigned—Rove responded by raising and deploying political money without the party’s blessing. In Republican Robert Duncan’s key 1996 special-election runoff against Democrat David Langston in Lubbock, in which partisan control of the state Senate was at stake, Duncan says that Pauken shut down the party’s phone banks for the runoff. (Pauken denies it.) Rove financed his own operation, and Duncan won. “We couldn’t get Pauken to engage,” says Duncan. “We basically operated on our own outside the party structure.” Later, when Pauken ran for attorney general, Rove recruited John Cornyn to oppose him and got the lion’s share of the big Republican money—and votes.
Rove’s final Texas act was in some ways much like his first one. Back in the seventies he had worked for the nascent Bush presidential campaign; now he was working in another Bush’s presidential campaign, again raising money from all across the country, again drawing on his extensive political Rolodex for the names of prominent politicians. This time he had come up with a wildly unorthodox idea: Bush would simply stay in Austin, pleading the constraints of gubernatorial duties; Rove would bring the world, in the form of prominent politicians, to him, creating an aura of inevitability. He had gotten the idea from history, from reading about the candidacy of William McKinley. Bush initially hated the idea. “His father was neutered by being seen as the last holdover of an Imperial Presidency,” wrote Bill Minutaglio in his 1999 biography of George W. Bush, First Son. “Wouldn’t Rove’s plan be seen as the height of arrogance, one more arrogant power grab by the prince descended from a former king?”
Rove persuaded Bush that the answer was no. His now famous “front porch” candidacy worked. Soon millions of dollars were pouring into Bush’s coffers. Rove-arranged endorsements rolled in from prominent politicians across the country. By May 1999 the New York Times would write that “the party apparatus has concluded that Bush’s nomination is inevitable even though there are nearly a dozen contenders.”
Rove had believed in the inevitability of a Republican Texas. It had taken the better part of twenty years to accomplish, but he had been right, and he had been patient. He had been right about Bush too, though it had taken the most contested election in American history to make that happen. Waiting in his West Wing office while he takes a call from a U.S. senator, you can tell that he still believes it, all of it. It’s going to be a Republican world: his people, his beliefs. It is inevitable. And who will dare to tell a genius he’s wrong?