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Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5761

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Consumer Reports

The Impresario: Karl Rove, Orchestrator of the Bush White House


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN late July, Bill Bennett, the former education secretary and drug czar, got a telephone call from the White House. Would he be interested in serving as special presidential envoy on Sudan, where Christians are persecuted and slavery thrives? The caller wasn't Clay Johnson, President Bush's personnel director, or a State Department official. It was Karl Rove, senior counselor to Bush and political adviser. Bennett thought about the offer, then said no.

Weeks earlier, a senior Republican congressman recommended to the White House a nominee to serve on the part-time oversight board of a quasi-governmental corporation. The job paid $20,000. Johnson said there would be no problem. But the nomination never came about, and the congressman later discovered what had happened. Rove had substituted another choice for the post.

That Rove plays a major role in staffing the Bush administration-every appointment, even the most insignificant, crosses his desk-is startling enough. He's a campaign consultant by trade, and his line authority at the White House is limited to political operations, strategic planning, and public liaison. What's more startling is that personnel matters and his official duties are only a tiny part of what Rove does.

Cocksure, decisive, feared in Washington and inside the national political community, Rove is first among supposed equals in advising Bush, cabinet members included. His ideas animate the Bush presidency. His political maneuvering propels Bush's agenda. Rarely has a president's success depended so much on the skill of a single adviser. It's only a slight exaggeration to say: As Rove goes, so goes Bush.

Rove is the conceptualizer of Bush as a "different kind of Republican," whose presidency transforms the GOP into a majority party by adding new constituencies (Latinos, Catholics, wired workers) to a conservative base. Rove charts the long-term (90-day) White House schedule, including which issues Bush will stress. This, in effect, makes him both Bush's chief congressional strategist and the man behind Bush's message. For the fall, Rove's scheme calls for Bush to play up his "compassionate conservative" side, emphasizing education and conservative values. The aim is to counteract Bush's image as a conventional Republican, which Rove believes was created by the president's stress on tax cuts during his first six months in the White House.

Rove and boss

There's still more, much more, to Rove's vast portfolio. He's both policy adviser and policy implementer. He took over the simmering issue of U.S. Navy bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and engineered the decision to terminate it (against the Navy's wishes). He became the leading White House expert on stem cell research and arranged for a stream of outsiders to meet with Bush, including Leon Kass, the University of Chicago professor whom the president tapped last week to head his council on the ethics of biomedical research. When Bush's faith-based initiative stalled this spring, Rove stepped in at the president's behest and, along with faith-based director John DiIulio, rejuvenated the effort and won House approval. He's a major force behind the president's plan to reform Social Security with personal investment accounts. He lobbied critical Republican House members from New Jersey to back Bush on a patients' bill of rights (most did).

Then there are Rove's more mundane political chores. He picks out prospective Republican candidates and encourages them to run. "That's my job," Rove says. The latest: congressman John Thune of South Dakota, who now appears likely to challenge Democratic senator Tim Johnson. When Tom Davis, head of the House GOP campaign committee, told Rove that Randy Forbes, not the candidate favored by governor Jim Gilmore, offered the best chance to pick up a Democratic House seat in a special election in Virginia in June, Rove responded, "I know." Rove dispatched a spate of Bush administration officials to stump for Forbes, who won.

A balding 50-year-old with glasses, Rove has become the hottest speaker on the Republican circuit. When he addressed the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Minneapolis in July, he drew a more enthusiastic response than Vice President Dick Cheney. "He's a hero to Republicans," says former congressman Vin Weber, who attended the conference. That same weekend he spoke at a fund-raiser for Kentucky representative Ann Northup in Louisville and a Republican National Committee event in San Francisco. In Virginia in June, he addressed both the state party convention and a gathering of well-heeled Republican donors hosted by Gilmore. Rove, by the way, negotiated the selection of Gilmore as RNC chairman last winter with the governor's chief of staff, Boyd Marcus. Gilmore had balked at being "general chairman" with little authority. He got the full chairman's job, but Rove assigned Bush loyalist Jack Oliver to the committee in the newly created post of deputy chairman.

Rove assigned himself one of the most important tasks at the White House: keeping the Republican party's conservative base solidly behind Bush. This is virtually a full-time job. He stays in almost daily contact, by phone or e-mail, with important conservative players in Washington, like National Rifle Association lobbyist Chuck Cunningham. He meets regularly with a group of conservative intellectuals in Washington, listening to their ideas and saying little himself. He talks to conservative journalists. He attends conservative gatherings. When attorney general John Ashcroft balked at addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference last February, Rove volunteered, though his family was moving from Austin to Washington that weekend. On August 1, he briefed the weekly meeting of Washington activists hosted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform on congressional reapportionment. As Rove spoke, House GOP whip Tom DeLay entered the meeting, and Rove gently poked fun at him. Rove's appearance was warmly received.

All this activity, plus Rove's long and trusting relationship with Bush, has made him not only the most influential adviser to Bush, but one of the most powerful presidential aides since the advent of the modern White House under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The media, however, tend to treat Rove as a top adviser whose duties are purely about gaining popularity and winning elections. As reporters see it, to use an analogy from the Clinton era, it's as if campaign consultant James Carville had joined the president's top staff and begun to throw his weight around. When Rove gets involved substantively in an issue, reporters treat that as proof the issue has become tainted with politics. But in truth, Rove is not Bush's Carville. He has always advised Bush on substance-while Bush was governor, during the campaign, and now. It was Rove who organized the teams of policy advisers who prepped Bush in the campaign and now fill high-level jobs in his administration. "Rove's a generalist," says Weber. "He's one of those rare people who operate at the intersection of policy and politics. When you get someone who's really good at both, that's the indispensable person."

Rove's official title is "senior counselor," but he refuses to spell out all that entails. David Keene of the American Conservative Union says Rove is the "central point" in an otherwise compartmentalized White House. Norquist calls him the "Grand Central Station where everything switches through." Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute, an ally of senator John McCain and critic of Bush, says Rove is "perceived as the nerve center of the administration." Roy Blunt of Missouri, the deputy GOP whip and Rove's chief contact in the House, says of him: "He's everywhere."

The aides from earlier White Houses who rivaled Rove in influence had a distinct advantage: They served as chiefs of staff. But neither John Sununu in Bush's father's White House nor James Baker in Ronald Reagan's had the long personal relationship with the president that Rove has with Bush. And neither had devised the themes and masterminded the campaign of the president he served, as Rove has. "We're used to a White House that's not built on a long-term relationship," says Blunt. One like Clinton's or Richard Nixon's. In the Nixon White House, only the combination of H.R. Haldeman, the chief of staff, and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman matched Rove's clout. Perhaps Harry Hopkins in FDR's White House was more influential. And Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower's chief, probably was.

The case of Adams is instructive. He exemplifies the peril of being a highly visible White House aide in a partisan environment. With Eisenhower immune from attacks as a war hero, Adams became the target for political foes and reporters and was forced to resign for improperly accepting gifts. And now Rove is under attack from Democrats and the media. "It's dawned on people he's the leading conservative in the administration and he's the leading policy adviser to Bush," says Republican consultant Jeffrey Bell. "The press and the non-Republican institutions in this town have found out how important he is to Bush's success," says Charles Black, a Washington lobbyist and Bush campaign adviser. That alone makes him subject to scrutiny, and he's all the more a target because criticism of Bush as a lightweight or a radical conservative hasn't caught on. Since foes of Bush view Rove as the president's brain, their strategy is decapitation: Cut off the head (Rove) to kill the body (Bush).

From all appearances, Rove doesn't take the attacks very seriously. Some he shouldn't, such as the barbs of Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe, who routinely zings Rove in his speeches and TV interviews. At a Los Angeles fund-raiser in July, he indicated that Rove was getting away with unethical conduct and that Democrats would increasingly go after him. He cited a meeting Rove had at the White House with corporate officials of Intel, who were seeking approval of the merger of a supplier and a Dutch company. "Isn't it a shame that's come to light," McAuliffe said sarcastically.

McAuliffe has no credibility, especially on ethical issues, but Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, does. Waxman is a fierce partisan, but he's also smart, relentless, and taken seriously by the press. On the basis of media accounts of Rove's meetings at the White House with executives of companies in which Rove owned stock, Waxman has sought a congressional inquiry. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales informed Waxman that conflict-of-interest rules don't apply to those meetings. Waxman responded that even if there's merely an appearance of conflict, the question must be turned over to the Justice Department for investigation.

There the matter stands, but only for now. Waxman has been stymied by the White House in seeking related documents and a full list of those with whom Rove has conferred. And Dan Burton, the Republican who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, has refused to conduct an investigation. Waxman, however, does not give up easily. His recourse is the Senate, controlled by Democrats. Majority leader Tom Daschle has said he doesn't favor a Rove probe. But Waxman aides insist, after talking to Daschle's office, that he was referring only to an investigation to retaliate against Republicans for badgering the Clinton White House, not a legitimate inquiry into Rove's dealings.

Should the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, headed by Joe Lieberman, take up the matter, that could be trouble for Rove. He could be interviewed under oath by committee investigators, forced to turn over documents, and pressed into testifying at a public hearing. All that may sound far-fetched, but it's not implausible. Democrats have always been good at "oversight" hearings that turn into gotcha sessions with a partisan payoff. And for the moment, Rove is the biggest game in town.

The outside advisers who talk to Rove every other week-Washington veterans Weber, Black, Ed Gillespie, Haley Barbour, and Bill Paxon-are worried about the attacks. Rove, who says the attacks are "part of the political game" in Washington, may be more concerned than he lets on. He says he's finicky on ethical matters. He told me he walked out of a session with New York governor George Pataki when the topic of dredging the Hudson River came up. That issue specifically involved General Electric, another company in which he held stock. The other meetings, including several with John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, consisted only of general policy discussions or friendly chats, not matters that directly affected any company. Thus, he and Gonzales insist no conflict of interest arose.

Rove has not been accused of exploiting his office to boost his stocks. In a June 15 letter to Rove, Waxman said: "I am writing not to make accusations about your conduct but to seek more information about your involvement in policy matters that may involve your holdings." In fact, Rove sacrificed millions in earnings by selling his political consulting firm and joining the Bush campaign in 1999 and now the White House staff. (Carville made millions by not joining Clinton's staff.) As an outside adviser, he could have collected lucrative fees for placing Bush campaign ads. With Bush as president, he could have signed a consulting contract with the RNC and worked for other clients, political and corporate, as well. Instead, Rove makes $140,000 a year as a government employee.

Absent White House dawdling, the trouble over Rove's stock would have been avoided. Rove says he offered to sell all his stock (worth $1.6 million at the time) before joining the administration but was told to wait for a certificate of divestiture to be issued by the counsel's office. He badgered White House lawyers, Rove says, but they didn't produce the document until June 6. He sold his stock the next day. In the interim, he'd met with Intel and other corporate executives. The delay in selling his stock proved costly to Rove. A Bloomberg News analysis found his stocks dropped 8.6 percent from January 20 to June 6, a loss of roughly $138,000.

Besides Democrats, Rove has the press gunning for him. When James Jeffords of Vermont quit the GOP in May and Democrats took control of the Senate, Rove was widely criticized for heavy-handedness in dealing with Jeffords. Howard Fineman of Newsweek said Bush would have to "rein in Rove" to recover politically. Actually, Rove had little to do with Jeffords's defection. Rove's attachment to conservatives is particularly annoying to the Washington press corps, which believes Bush must move to the center ideologically. Meanwhile, the Washington Post has gotten on Rove's case, hyping his minimal role in a bid by the Salvation Army for an exemption from anti-discrimination laws, then reporting he'd become the focus of critical attention.

There's another potential trouble spot for Rove: the White House staff. Rove says he was leery of signing up because internal feuds are chronic in Washington. "I'm not good at internecine warfare," he says. As things have turned out, Bush's staff is famously collegial. But the organizational structure is a recipe for competition, envy, and backbiting. At the top are four generalists-chief of staff Andy Card, deputy Josh Bolten, communications chief Karen Hughes, and Rove-plus an active vice president. Rove dwarfs Card in influence. He and Hughes worked together for Bush in Texas and during the presidential campaign, and are close. But they also compete for Bush's favor-with a lot at stake. Rove urged Bush to vow to veto a liberal patients' bill of rights. Hughes argued against the use of the word "veto." She lost and Rove was vindicated, as the veto threat aided Bush in getting a patients' bill more to his liking through the House. Rove and Hughes also disagreed on embryonic stem cell research. She was for it. He made sure that Bush heard the concerns of pro-lifers and social conservatives. In the end, the compromise Bush announced last week was one Rove had floated months before.

On the Navy's bombing of Vieques, Rove took control of an issue that initially had been under Card's supervision. A binding referendum loomed, in which Vieques residents were likely to bar the Navy. Bush was already irritated at protests over the bombing. Rove persuaded him to call a halt to bombing runs. Rove has insisted he didn't force the Navy to go along, but what a participant in Vieques deliberations calls the "ultimate-decision meeting" was held in his office. Rove, of course, has as a top priority luring Latino voters. Bombing a Puerto Rican island wasn't helping.

Rove didn't have to grab the faith-based initiative. Bush handed it to him-and not to Card or Bolten or a White House aide with less on his plate. The president had chatted with Michael Joyce, the ex-president of the Bradley Foundation, about it during a White House ceremony in May. Bush was fearful the issue was languishing. He called Rove, instructed him to talk to Joyce, and told him to get the issue moving again. Joyce, on his own, was ready to start an outside lobbying effort to assist John DiIulio, the college professor who runs the program. Rove helped energize GOP leaders in Congress. The initiative, watered down, defied expectations and passed the House in July, beginning a winning streak for Bush proposals.

So what's the problem in all this? Nothing yet, and maybe nothing ever. But Rove's remarkable ascendancy in Washington brings expectations. If they aren't met, Rove will be held accountable inside the administration, on Capitol Hill, and by the media. White House aides won't blame the president. They'll finger Rove. Some congressional Republicans are squeamish about Bush's insistence on pressing ahead with Social Security reform. Rove thinks the issue is no longer an effective club for beating up Republican candidates. Tom Davis, the House campaign chief, isn't so sure. Young voters like the idea of investment accounts funded by payroll taxes, Davis says, but "the intensity is with older voters." If the issue polarizes seniors against Republicans, "it kills us." Davis frets this could occur in congressional elections next year.

The 2002 race is the next big test of Rove's skill. He is the man with the plan. It calls for a "compassionate conservative" president who holds his conservative base while attracting a wave of new voters to his party. One of Rove's specific duties is outreach-to Latinos, new economy workers, Catholics, suburban women, union households, and what he dubs "resource dependent communities," where coal mining or farming is dominant. His goal is to reproduce what President William McKinley and his adviser Mark Hanna achieved at the turn of the 20th century, namely a broadly based, majority party.

It's a dazzling vision, more appealing and perhaps more realistic than anyone else's. The first test was whether Bush could emerge as a successful president. He has. Another is to shape Bush's image to woo non-traditional Republicans. "I think he is viewed as being more conventionally conservative than he is," says Rove. So Bush will now stress education and values, not taxes and defense, and hope to be seen as an unconventional conservative. If Republicans hold their own in the 2002 elections, Rove will deserve at least a small measure of credit. If they suffer badly, he'll face cries for his ouster.

Finally, there's the reelection test in 2004. Never before have a president and a party had so much riding on a single person whose name won't be on any ballot. Rove could wind up as one of the greatest political strategists in the past century. But it's a risky business and there's little margin for error.



Fred Barnes is Executive editor at the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.

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08/07/01: The new conventional political wisdom
07/31/01: The crusade for a patients' bill of rights has one big problem: patients

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