Karl Rove obviously keeps his portrait in the attic, like Dorian Gray, with deep lines in a furrowed brow and a taut mouth frozen in anger. Those things must be in the attic because they're not in his face.
The White House political strategist, now 55, is demonized with every category of epithet, but it doesn't show in his demeanor, either. The balding, graying adviser to the president, who has been called "evil genius," hypocritical manipulator of policy, puppeteer pulling the president's strings, looks younger and trimmer up close and personal in the most trying weeks of his life than when he first arrived in Washington nearly six years ago.
Over a lunch of chicken Caesar salad with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, he's jovial and optimistic going into the midterm elections that conventional Washington wisdom says are going the Democratic way. Recalling that one newspaper account described him as "inexplicably upbeat," we asked if he could be merely "explicable." He replied: "I'm confident we're going to keep the Senate. I'm confident we're going to keep the House." A moment later he amended this to "pretty confident," and added, "I liked it better before Foley."
He was stung by a new book by David Kuo, the former No. 2 man in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The author accuses the Bush administration of exploiting the church folks on the right for political ends, while ridiculing evangelicals by calling them "goofy" and "nuts." The munchkins in the Rove office are singled out for showing particular contempt for evangelicals.
Mr. Rove characterizes this description as "ridiculous," and says, "I can name three of my principal deputies who are evangelical. If somebody was running around their offices [with such behavior] I would hear about it." He describes the environment in the White House as "almost de Tocquevillean" in its appeal to small societies of faith where everyone looks after each other's spiritual concerns: "One of the things about this White House is how individually rooted so many people are deeply observant, Jews, Protestants, Catholics." After a pause of a minisecond, he quickly adds: "And a couple of Muslims."
He finds it difficult to assess the damage coming next month, as well as the suggestion that the party is suffering from a split between fiscal conservatives and social values conservatives. That will depend on how each candidate handles these questions. It's a mistake to lump all evangelicals together or to think that a specific leader represents everyone in a specific group. These are people who are less of a unified community than one bound by a "spirit of faith," driven by shared values and shared priorities that don't always overlap, but who have a view of what's important in politics. They can identify candidates who support their issues, or who don't.
He's bemused by a description in another recent book, "The Architect," by James Moore and Wayne Slater, that he's not only President Bush's brain but his policy Svengali as well. "The underlying theory," he says, "is if we can't prove that Rove was involved with it, then Rove was involved with it."
They accuse Mr. Rove of acting as an exorcist in the West Wing, eager to purge the left-wing ghost of Hillary, and as the madman in the kitchen: "As in everything Rove pursued his cooking with manic relentless attention." He scrambles eggs with, of all things, cream. (Yum, yum.)
He's the little boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the bad poll numbers, and he thinks the polls on Nov. 7, the only ones that count, will vindicate the Republicans if their candidates can draw starkly the choice between between national-security weakness and national-security strength. Noting that nearly 90 percent of the Democrats in the House voted against the terrorist surveillance program, that 75 percent of the Democrats in the Senate and more than 80 percent of the Democrats in the House voted against the CIA interrogation program, "something is fundamentally flawed."
Mr. Rove enraged Democrats in early summer for sneering at the Democratic response to terror as the work of wimps. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war," he said. "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy for our attackers."
But if the Republicans hold both houses of Congress (or maybe even one), he'll rise above the smear and nonsense as the man most responsible. If the Republicans lose both (or maybe even one), he'll be the man with scrambled egg (with cream) on his face.