Genius

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.
Genius
Corridors of power: Rove photographed in the Eisenhower Exeutive Office Building on December 2, 2002.
Photograph by Gary Tanhauser

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

Tags: POLITICS

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week