There is no more compelling subject in contemporary American politics, and perhaps in our country's electoral history, than Karl Christian Rove. In everything he's done, George W. Bush's senior political and policy adviser has had a transforming effect on how democracy functions in the United States. Rove's grand vision, complex strategies, and knockdown tactics exceed everything dreamed up by other consultants. Rove may just be very, very good at what he does, or he might exhibit genius.
The evidence argues in favor of the notion that Karl Rove is unique in both intellect and ambition and that his accomplishments have been transcendent for the American democracy. He is the architect not only of George W. Bush's political success but of a considerably larger goal-a generation of Republican hegemony. His arsenal of skills includes an ability to analyze and act under unexpected contemporaneous conditions while also managing a mid- and long-term strategy. What Rove does on a Monday is inextricably connected by design to what he'll be doing on another Monday four, six, and even eight years in the future. Nothing is without a plan. No detail is too small. All eventualities have been considered. Mistakes, though they have happened, are rarities.
Rove's ability to think and act in the moment while also seeing beyond the event horizon is the peculiar characteristic that makes it difficult to write and report about his many endeavors. If nothing else, it has informed our decisions regarding the construction of this narrative. Although this story does have a traditional arc, which carries it from Rove's early years in Texas with George W. Bush to the leak of a CIA operative's identity, Rove's approach to politics has necessitated a different narrative style.
The chapters that follow have not been arranged strictly by theme and subject matter, partly because Rove's history has never been simply linear. As an example, the decidedly pro-Israel attitude of almost every senior staffer in the White House and in the vice president's office is not simply a product of Rove and the president's making these hiring moves after taking office. This sort of "Israel-first" ideology took root for Rove and Bush back in their political salad days in Texas.
Understanding Rove and how he's guiding President Bush also requires backward glances even as the narrative follows contemporary events. For example, it's impossible to truly grasp the power of the gay-marriage controversy as a political wedge issue without looking back from the 2004 election to how Rove used homosexuality, not just as a wedge but as a bludgeon, when dealing with opponents earlier in his career. We consider the gay question in microcosm in Ohio and also study its implications for the national political debate. The early reporting in our narrative on this also helps deliver an insight into how Rove reached his conclusion that he had to both divide voters and motivate the conservative base by using homosexuality as a monster under the bed. This, too, requires looking forward to gain a picture of the contemporary landscape while also pausing for the occasional reminder of how we got to a particular political locale.
To the average voter, a political event, campaign, attack, or controversy that is Karl Rove's handiwork is something to be judged without context. Within Rove's universe, however, nothing occurs without prodigious planning and meticulous execution. In other words, voters should know that the exquisite feast of an election prepared by Karl Rove is the product of many, many years. Often, though, voters do not. Again, consider the theme of religion in this narrative. In Texas, Rove quickly understood the value of a motivated Christian voter, and he figured out how to get that support in Bush's gubernatorial races. While he was doing that, however, he was also taking the initial steps toward making Christian evangelicals and other social conservatives a powerful tool for the delivery of votes in the presidential contest he was preparing for his premier client. Therefore, religion, as a theme, will recur in our story because it explains so many successes at every point of the Rove and Bush alliance. In Ohio, the reader will be reminded of Texas, and in Texas, the reader will get a foreshadowing of what is to come in Ohio and beyond, though not always in a strictly linear sequence. Rove took specific, carefully considered measures beginning in Texas a decade earlier to make gay marriage and religion the wedge issues that helped Bush succeed in Ohio and nationally in 2004.
By visiting the early Rove in different time periods, we hope to more fully illuminate the Karl Rove of 2004 and 2005. By the time the reader approaches the final third of this narrative, it will be readily apparent that Karl Rove, through all of his preceding endeavors, was determined to protect all that he'd built in the Bush White House and, as a result, could be expected to do whatever was necessary to render critics and political detractors irrelevant. Within the context provided early in the book, the reader can easily reach a conclusion as to whether Karl Rove can be reasonably suspected of having leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak as an act of vengeance. The evidence is not polemical and speaks loudly for itself.
Although, as we write, Rove is certainly exhibiting his talents on a much larger stage than during his Texas days, he still, nonetheless, has shown that he's willing to take almost any political, ethical, and even legal risk in pursuit of power. His record reflects this and prompts the question of whether the Bush administration, determined to invade Iraq, used Roverian deceptions in pursuit of that goal, including the acquisition of false documents to build a political case for war. Rove and Bush's proclamations of innocence require us to assume that the best and brightest of this administration and intelligence operatives with decades of experience were easily duped by bad forgeries. Rove's résumé demands that we analyze closely the possibility that he and the administration were collaborators in a colossal fraud.
By now it has become cliché in American political discourse to say that Karl Rove is unique and all-powerful, the "brain" that the president's accusers suggest he lacks. The truth is that the president is neither as intellectually challenged as his detractors insist nor as capable as his followers believe. Bush would, however, not be in the White House without Karl Rove, and no one knows that more intimately than the president himself. Perhaps no other political consultant has played such a close role in the ascension of a president. In the context of our most recent history, Rove is without parallel among White House advisers, likely the most powerful unelected official of our time. In a sense, he created George W. Bush; gave him policies, politics, and strategies; and twice got him elected as a governor and then twice to the presidency. For all of his many and manifest political skills, the president, who is at his best in the retail side of politics, has relied on Rove to assist him in varying capacities. In the process, Rove has redefined the role of the adviser.
Historically, the presidential political adviser has maintained a certain distance as his newly elected client begins running the country. Counsel has been offered from an outside office. Generally, the adviser's insights are narrowly confined, in most cases, to politics. Rove, however, went into the White House on the federal payroll and eventually merged his political expertise with a considerable knowledge of policy to create an unprecedented hybrid creature. The political strategy Karl Rove helps George W. Bush execute is defined by the policy Rove and the president have determined will serve GOP goals. Rove is best suited to the martial arts of political combat and thus has pursued public policy as if it were a campaign rather than a public debate on the merits of any proposal.
Much as presidents leave legacies dissected by historians, Rove will leave a legacy. In many ways, Bush has served as a voice and face for the products Karl Rove has manufactured in his little shop of politics. One piece of that legacy is transforming government into a vestigial, almost debilitated entity, a change whose consequences might have hurt Rove and the president-and, by extension, their party-after Hurricane Katrina, but that remains a longer-term goal: government must be shrunk. The rolling back or elimination of regulations concerning the environment and business will have effects across decades. Programs to expand military reach, often at the expense of education and the poor, will profoundly define who we are as a nation, and it will only be later that we recognize Rove as the minstrel who sang us happy songs we chose to hum.
Ultimately, though, Karl Rove, we think, will be a man who's remembered for figuring out how to game the American political system. Under Rove, the politics of deception has become a conventional political tool. By drumming up the cash he needs from corporate supporters, Rove has been able to fill the ether with television and radio ads that create an alternative reality. When parents, busy over the kitchen table with their children, glance at the television flickering across the room and see their smiling president beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner, they assume the worst is over. Image trumps truth. The stage is more important than the facts. The polls go up.
Democracy, to Karl Rove, is like a very large board game. The winner is whoever gets the most money and controls the message and dominates the game in perpetuity. The challenge of the game is to create sufficient doubt about opposing ideas and candidates that voters are drawn to their historical default positions. Maybe John Kerry was not the lousy, embellishing soldier the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claimed him to be. Maybe he was a medal-winning patriot. But a barrage of critical ads moved Republican moderates and independents to reconsider whether they might stick with President Bush. Many did; enough to reelect him.
We're not suggesting that Rove is the first political operative to lie, nor that deception is the only ax he swings. Rove works with the truth, if and when it's an advantage. We are insisting, however, that he is American politics' most talented, prolific, and successful dissembler. When his policies and their merits, supported by his candidates' rhetoric, are not enough to succeed, Rove will do whatever is necessary to win.
His history is to attack opponents by working through cutouts, surrogate organizations, and various third-party operatives. When Rove's fellow campaigners such as Mark McKinnon insist there is not a detail of any contest or policy that goes untouched by Rove, they are, as a result, indicting him in the long history of undignified acts by surrogate groups and operatives that always seem to accompany Rove's campaigns. Are we to suppose that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spontaneously arose to attack the characteristic strength of John Kerry and that Rove had nothing to do with the development? Do we think that all of the untruths spread in South Carolina in 2000, meant to portray John McCain as a mentally unstable, biracial adulterer, rose up from the grass roots without any guidance and became the stuff of push polls and busy citizens placing flyers on windshields in church parking lots? Of course not. If Karl Rove is master of all, then he is master of both the artful political strategies of victory and the ignominious slurs used against those who oppose him and his candidates.
But what is the proof? In politics, the evidence tends to turn on the consequences. No one ever found Richard Nixon's fingerprints in the Watergate apartments, and no one is likely to discover "Karl's Been Here" signs on the smash-mouth politics directed at his political enemies. Rove is cautious about being interviewed and going on the record unless in controlled conditions such as when giving a speech. He is, after all, the best, and like Newton's example of God as divine mechanic, the best political expert sets operations into motion and creates environments that produce specific results. His distinctive talent is marshaling the most effective attacks against his political enemies without leaving fingerprints. Over the years, Rove's political campaigns have followed a pattern: bad things happen to his opponents, often by anonymous leak or third-party attack. For his part, Rove has always managed to maintain several degrees of separation between himself and the bad actors carrying out his plans. Catching Karl doing anything, as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has learned, is not easy. Deniability is a perfected skill. In Rove's practice of it, even incontrovertible proof can be insufficient to compel admissions. Up until the moment that it appeared Matthew Cooper of Time was going to testify before the federal grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, Karl Rove was insisting he had had no communication with Cooper until after the secret agent's name was already published. When he was finally confronted with his e-mail to the deputy national security adviser, which gave the lie to his assertion about Cooper, Rove conceded the communication must have occurred. If the e-mail had not existed, Rove would have persisted in his denial. Rove has been manufacturing alternative realities to fit political needs for so long, one has to wonder whether he, at least on occasion, confuses the real world with the alternative one his political imagination insists exists.
Ultimately, Karl Rove will be measured not just by the tactics and strategies he uses to achieve his goals but by whether he reaches his distant visionary finish line. Rove wants nothing less than Republican dominance of American politics, a GOP realignment so powerful it creates a virtual one-party nation. Rove's plan was to guide George W. Bush to the White House, but his larger mission was to establish an enduring Republican majority, not just for eight years but for a generation.
He may soon achieve his great goal. And the evidence that follows will show that Rove is willing to do just about anything to get the job done. The construction of a Republican castle on the Potomac, however, will require the sacrifice of much that is already shining and valuable in the American way of life. Karl Rove is not asking us to give up anything, though; as he has done in the vigorous pursuit of political victories, he will take it. And then he expects America to follow his party toward a far horizon. But before we take another step, let's look closely at where our country is heading and how Karl Rove became our guide.