Executive editor S. C. Gwynne talks about Karl Rove and this month's cover story, "Genius."
texasmonthly.com: Why a cover story on Rove now?
S. C. Gwynne: In the past six months or so he has emerged as one of the most powerful presidential advisers in American history. In November he engineered the national electoral strategy that gave Bush the biggest triumph in a midterm election in almost a century. In Texas we have known about Rove for some time. We all knew him well when he worked here in Austin. We have written about him several times in Texas Monthly. But this is a new level of power and influence, and many more people now want to know the details of his career.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of access did you get for this story?
SCG: I interviewed Rove at the White House, which was both good and bad. Good, because I felt I absolutely had to talk to him in order to write a good story. Bad, because, as the second busiest government official in the Western Hemisphere, such an interview could be no longer than an hour. Obviously you can’t cover 25 or 30 years of a man’s career in an hour. So in order to put together what was going on in Rove’s life in, say, 1980, I drew on a combination of Rove’s own remarks and many hours of interviewing other people who were working with him at the time. I did more than fifty interviews for the story.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of this story?
SCG: Pulling together a mountain of research and trying to force it to be a coherent history of events. I did not move to Texas until 1994, so I was not here for much of Rove’s early career. To recreate it, I had to rely heavily on interviews with people like former governor Bill Clements.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story and what type of research did you do to get started?
SCG: I worked on the story for about two months. The last six weeks or so I worked on nothing but this story. The first thing I always do is to try to get my hands on everything that has been written about my subject. In this case it meant going to the Legislative Reference Library at the Capitol and also retrieving media stories from electronic databases. I then read four different books about Bush. I reread my own 1999 Time magazine cover story on Bush.
texasmonthly.com: In your story you mention that Rove has been called an “evil genius.” Do you think he will ever shake that reputation?
SCG: No. The myth is far too deeply embedded in Texas (and now national) politics. It has even become a sort of cottage industry: Two new books about Rove are starkly negative. One of my jobs as a political reporter is to try to filter out the tons of gossip, rumor, and myth that surround major political figures. There are many different legends and sub-legends about Rove. One is that he is “Bush’s Brain.” As I say in my story, this is a myth that grew out of the campaign of Ann Richards, which hugely underestimated Bush. It was further spread by the Gore campaign, which similarly underestimated Bush. It is simply not true. And while Rove is an extremely tough opponent and has run some very negative campaigns, this notion of “evil genius” is mostly conjecture; there is just not very much hard evidence for it. Nor is Rove behind every rock, bush, and tree in Washington, as many of his detractors there would like to think.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you while working on the story?
SCG: There were two things. One was the hour and a half I spent with former governor Bill Clements in his magnificent office next to the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas. He was an ornery, imposing, dominant figure in his day. Today, at 85, he is still enormously engaging. The other was the act of walking from the northwest gate of the White House across the lawn to the West Wing for my interview with Rove. I have been a reporter for a long time and have interviewed many famous and powerful people, but there is something about the White House that is on a completely different level.