My mental picture of Karl Rove is of him sitting with his back as straight as if he were wearing plywood instead of a shirt, his torso tilted forward with forearms resting on his desk, head erect, hands clasped with fingers interlaced, treating an interview as a quiz for which he is supremely confident that he will have the right answer. As the longtime political director for George W. Bush and the architect of the governor’s presidential strategy, Rove is famous for the discipline he imposes on the campaign, and he is not about to let his own body language be the exception. So it was startling one day this spring to see him end a telephone conversation—he had been barking out instructions about how to deal with yet another stupidity committed by yet another Republican functionary—by slumping over, holding his head by the temples, squeezing his eyes shut.”You can’t get tired now,” I said. “It’s only May.”
“That’s not bad news,” Rove said. “That’s good news. It’s been this intense since January of last year. Seventeen months down, only five to go.”
Now it’s only two to go—two months that will determine the fate not only of Bush but also of Rove. No other noncandidate involved in the presidential campaign has so much at stake. If Bush wins, Rove will stand at the apex of the political consulting profession, a status achieved first by a gent named Machiavelli and most recently by James Carville on the Democratic side and the late Lee Atwater on the Republican side. Rove’s singular achievement was to design and execute a game plan for seeking the presidency that broke the mold. During Texas’ 1999 legislative session, he orchestrated a parade of Republican politicos and fundraisers to Austin that amounted to a draft-Bush movement, crowding every rival off the stage and keeping Bush at home, away from premature national scrutiny. He successfully gambled that the campaign could raise enough money to fund the primary races without the help of federal matching dollars, thereby avoiding the spending restrictions that come with government largesse. After the GOP nomination was safely won, he unleashed a blitzkrieg of issue pronouncements by Bush, catching Al Gore by surprise and propelling the governor into the national convention season with a solid lead.
Once, American politics was run by backroom bosses who knew the secret of how to find good candidates and the votes to elect them. Today, after reform, television, and suburbia have decimated the big-city machines, consultants like Karl Rove have emerged as the new bosses—and are treated as such by the media. National reporters have probed his record and his psyche. He has been described as a “control freak”; he has been accused of running a dirty-tricks school for aspiring Republican operatives in his youth; his upbringing has been combed for clues to his personality; his failure to earn a college degree never escapes mention. Around the state capitol, he is regarded as a Rasputin whose ghostly presence explains every scenario: why a bill was vetoed, or an appointment made, or an issue embraced or rejected by the governor. (In fact, Rove seldom gets deeply involved in legislative business.) He is the elephant—the perfect metaphor for a Republican—and the rest of the political crowd are the blind men of Indostan in John Godfrey Saxe’s poem,each groping for a different part but none seeing the whole. I caught up with Rove during a rare break from the rigors of the campaign over the long Fourth of July holiday. He was staying at River Oaks, a combination bed-and-breakfast and personal retreat overlooking the Guadalupe River between Kerrville and Hunt that he and his wife, Darby, bought four years ago. At first they acquired two cottages, and two years later they added the lodge. “This was built in the thirties by an eccentric from Corpus Christi,” he told me as we toured the property. Rove’s political reputation as a control freak stems from his obsession with details, and the same quality was evident in his conversation about the history of the lodge. Everything seemed to stimulate a story: the oil-pipe fence that had once served as an irrigation system; the dappled limestone floor that had been cut from the riverbed long ago; the high-water point of the 1936 flood, when a piano had washed down the river.It is not surprising that he acquired a B&B; next to politics, his favorite conversational subject is travel. Growing up in Utah, he toured the Southwest with his father, a geologist, before his parents’ marriage ended in divorce. His family was apolitical. Rove was just the opposite; the first book he remembers reading was Great Moments in History. His involvement in Republican politics began in high school, where he served as youth chairman for a U.S. senator from Utah. He went on to join the College Republicans and rose through the ranks of operatives to become the group’s chairman. Later, in what turned out to be a crucial connection for himself and for George W. Bush, he was a special assistant to the elder George Bush at the Republican National Committee during the height of the Watergate scandal. In 1974 he quarterbacked his first campaign, a congressional race in Nebraska. He came to Texas in 1977 to do fundraising for Bush’s 1980 presidential bid. Soon he was the deputy chief of staff to Bill Clements, newly elected as the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
After two years with Clements, Rove was contemplating going out on his own as a political consultant specializing in direct-mail marketing. Clements brought the issue to a head by asking for Rove’s commitment for the next five years, through what everyone expected would be a successful reelection campaign. Rove replied that he had decided to go out on his own, just as Clements had when he was about Rove’s age. Then Rove asked his boss to be his first client. The answer was yes. Rove handled the mailings for Clements’ 1982 race, but the Texas