Published July 14, 2005
Bush's Brain. The Architect. Boy Genius. Fired?
Karl Rove (search), the 54-year-old political maverick who helped mold George W. Bush (search) from the aimless son of an influential politician into the most powerful man in the world, now finds himself at the center of the president's second-term scandal: the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's (search) identity.
President Bush said last year that if someone in his administration leaked the name of a CIA agent, that person would no longer be in his administration. But the fate of Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff who discussed the agent with a Time magazine reporter in 2003, remains to be seen.
Many who've been at the receiving end of a Rovian political pummeling say they believe the scrutiny of their former nemesis is a long time coming.
"The character flaw or strength, whatever you want to call it, that got him in this jam is his win-at-any-cost philosophy," said Democratic strategist Ray Strother.
Strother, author of "Falling Up: How a Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting," has faced off against Rove more than once since the two first met in 1984 in Texas. Still, he counts himself a friend and admirer.
"I find him a very pleasant guy and good guy to drink beer with," Strother said.
As a political operative, Rove inspires awe and fear, often simultaneously. He is credited with transforming an overwhelmingly Democratic Texas into GOP country. And he is most famous for getting Bush, a self-described C student with no foreign policy experience, elected to the highest office in the land.
Along the way, he has been accused of everything from planting a bug in his own office to make the other guy look bad, starting a racist whispering campaign against onetime Bush rival John McCain and using homophobia to turn Texans against former Democratic superstar Ann Richards.
After dropping out of college and then becoming head of the national College Republicans at age 22, Rove is said to have sworn by the mantra "Don't get caught." Biographers say his bloodlust was apparent early on — as Watergate was unfolding, The Washington Post reported that Rove trained College Republicans in dirty-tricks campaigning for his hero, Richard Nixon.
Rove's legend has since reached mythic proportions. Democratic foes see him as the lone reason for Bush's success — the guy who always wins because he is able to engage in the dirtiest politics without leaving a fingerprint that could be traced back to his candidate.
But those who have observed Rove for years say opponents give the Denver-born, Utah-raised operative more credit than he deserves.
"In talking to Karl over the years, he's told me he's been blamed for many more things than he ever could have been involved in," Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News senior political reporter and co-author of "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential," told FOXNews.com.
Slater recounted an incident for which Rove was wrongly fingered. During the 2000 presidential campaign, the press corps immediately blamed Rove after videotapes of Bush being prepped for debate were handed to Democratic nominee Al Gore's campaign. It turned out that Rove was not involved.
"They were completely wrong, but it was instructive the reporters immediately thought Rove did it," Slater said. "It reminded me of all those years in Texas in which whenever something [suspicious] happened Rove was blamed for it. "
But, Slater added, Rove's reputation as a master manipulator and schemer is more or less deserved.
"The overarching reason Democrats and critics of Rove blame him for this pattern of activity is that there is a pattern," Slater said. "Throughout his political career, bad things happen — sometimes involving dirty tricks — to his enemies or rivals, and good things happen to his clients and candidates."
But, Slater continued, that doesn't mean Rove is the practitioner of black magic that his critics make him out to be.
"He's amoral. He doesn't set up a plan to damage, defeat or destroy his enemies because he's evil. He does it because he's so unbelievably competitive and amoral that that's the result," Slater said. "He happens to be a genius, a political genius. Whatever gifts Bush has, he needed the political genius of Rove."
Despite a failed congressional run that was unaided by Rove, Bush's political life has arguably been charmed. He was re-elected despite facing charges of manipulating the causes for war in Iraq at a time when his job-creation record was being compared to Herbert Hoover. The victory still confounds Democrats, whose frustration after John Kerry's loss last November has led to months of soul-searching.
That the Massachusetts senator, a decorated Vietnam veteran with years of political experience, was handed such a decisive defeat has only added to the myth of Rove. But ascribing near-supernatural prowess to a political operative may not do Democrats any good.
"That's from Democrats — 'Bush's Brain' — their way of simultaneously making Rove into a puppeteer and Bush into a dum-dum. It's intended to screw Bush, but that's where the myth diverges from the facts," said Carl Cannon, National Journal's Washington correspondent and co-author of "Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush."
In fact, many who have followed Bush's career closely, from the time he was an owner of the Texas Rangers, say the president is far more capable and in control than his critics are willing to believe.
"Inside the White House, nobody thinks Rove is in charge. Bush is the unquestioned leader of that place. They think Bush is indispensable, not Rove," Cannon said.
Strother, who has consulted for Gore, former President Bill Clinton and former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, agrees that Rove's reputation is overblown.
"It's almost like an excuse for losing. Karl's given credit for more than he's due," he said.
But that is not to say Rove, whom Bush affectionately calls "Turd Blossom," isn't incredibly important to the president. It's difficult for many inside the Beltway to imagine one without the other, which is why Rove's predicament has become the biggest story in town.
"Unless he has lied to the grand jury or unless there is an obstruction of justice issue," there is little chance Bush will fire his old friend and partner, Slater said. The longtime Texas journalist, who has been at the receiving end of many of Rove's leaks, said he does not believe Rove intended to blow Plame's cover.
Prominent Democrats, including Kerry, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, have called for disciplinary action against Rove. Bush's vow that whoever committed the leak would be dealt with is being thrown back at him; watching White House spokesman Scott McClellan squirm under reporters' questions these past few days is reminiscent of Mike McCurry's defense of Clinton before the former president admitted his affair with an intern.
With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least one Supreme Court vacancy and a looming Social Security crisis, a second-term scandal is probably the last thing Bush needs. But having to fire Rove may actually dispel distortions about Bush's command of his office.
"[The late French President] Charles de Gaulle said, 'The graveyards are full of indispensable men.' The world will go on," Cannon said of a Rove departure.
Moreover, a Rove exodus may not give Democrats the boost they think it will.
"I think they do themselves a disservice," Cannon said of the tendency to exaggerate Rove's role in the administration. "I also think it's inaccurate and I don't think it's a very productive way to do politics. They continually underestimate Bush and who does that hurt? Not Bush."
Slater said he believes that Rove's mark on politics will last even if he doesn't.
"I didn't see a Democratic strategy in 2004 that was even close to the depth and detail of the Rove machine. The way he has changed politics is not that the tactics are different; he has simply raised it to a new level."