A presidential appointee left Washington this week; and although he had never led a government agency or been elected to public office, his departure dominated both of the capital's daily papers.
Pay no attention to the curtain in front of the man, the quirky humility of his title as deputy chief of White House staff. Karl Rove was widely regarded as the third most important man in the federal government after President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Rove loomed this large partly because so many people held him responsible for Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney being in office at all. Yet his importance transcended his expertise in fundraising and turnout and issue framing. He occupied his extraordinary place in Washington because he had so much to do with how the Bush administration operated AFTER it came to power — and how it still operates today.
This lingering imprint of Rove's influence was evident in Democrats' response to the news of his going. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Rove had been Bush's adviser inside the White House, now he would be the same from outside. "No change," she said.
Other Democrats echoed the sentiment, and it's not hard to understand why. Maybe they hate to lose Rove as a useful goad to their base (only the names of Bush and Cheney are as galling). But they also find it hard to believe their longtime nemesis is really leaving the game.
Rove is hardly ever seen without cell phone in one hand, Blackberry in the other. No one sees him retiring — protestations of "time with family" not withstanding — and surely the president will have his number.
So Democrats assume that as this president presses his war in Iraq, vetoes their bills and stonewalls their subpoenas, he will be doing it in cahoots with Karl.
Rove himself revels in the fear and loathing he instills. For example, he tells the Wall Street Journal he thinks the issue of warrantless wiretapping (what the administration calls its "terrorist surveillance program") will deeply divide the Democratic Party this fall. He knows how many Democrats already believe the wiretapping issue has been manipulated to do exactly that from its inception. He also knows how many see his hand in the current troop buildup in Iraq (known as "the surge") and even in the invasion of Iraq itself.
In each case, he is seen driving aggressive, bellicose policy so as to force the Democrats to push back. That sets up a dynamic that makes terrorism a partisan issue and even makes the concept of national security itself a polarizing question. Needless to say, Rove sees this dynamic working to the GOP's advantage and the Democrats' detriment.
Perhaps the best example of such a stratagem at work was the sudden reversal of the initial White House opposition to a Department of Homeland Security. Minority Democrats on the Hill were pushing the idea of creating one unified anti-terrorism department after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At first, the president was down on the idea. Then the White House embraced it, while insisting there be special work rules to give managers more flexibility — and more power over government employees in this department. Employee unions objected and Democrats in the Senate went to bat for them in a series of floor votes.
What followed was a remarkable 2002 midterm campaign in which Democrats were clobbered for "opposing the Homeland Security Department" and, by extension, siding with terrorists. The egregious case was in Georgia, where veteran Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet and triple amputee, saw Republican TV ads morph his face into that of Osama bin Laden.
Cleland lost that November to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had no military record. Chambliss rode to victory on a turnout wave generated by Ralph Reed, the head of the Georgia Republican Party and former head of the Christian Coalition (and close ally of Karl Rove).
Even before that, Rove had attracted far more attention than campaign consultants usually do. One reason was the excoriating attack he supervised on Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries. Another was his apprenticeship with Lee Atwater, the fierce operative who piloted the 1988 presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush.
Atwater was the guy who looked at Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and promised to "tear the bark off that little bastard." Atwater delivered on that promise, and 16 years later Rove performed a perfect reprise against Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Rove had first come to Washington in the early 1970s, dropping out of college to work for the re-election campaign of Richard Nixon (coordinating outreach to first-time voters after the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18). The following year, he became the national leader of the College Republicans. He has been in and out of Washington ever since, most recently as a power broker with influence rarely matched in the 218 years of the republic.
Throughout his career, Rove has shown a mastery of politics at both its highest end and its lowest. To meet him is to be struck with his love of history, his detailed knowledge and intricate theories of American politics. He conceptualized on a grand scale and planned in long cycles.
Bush liked to call Rove "the architect." For his part, Rove saw himself building not just two terms for a Republican president but a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court to last a generation and a GOP majority in Congress to last for decades. He saw Republican governors and state legislators as far as the eye could see. Rove had the vision thing with a vengeance.
But he was also consumed by the politics of the small, the barbed political invective of direct-mail fundraising and the block-by-block battles of redistricting. He gloried in the cut and thrust of news leaks and media spin. He believed in retribution against those who crossed him. And, finally, he saw it all as his personal struggle, not just for a cause but also against an enemy — an enemy who would always be The Enemy.
Rove was good at this other kind of politics, and that may be what people remember most about him. If his grander notions of realignment and permanent majority have eluded him, his passion for the brawl of it all will remain.