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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The Many Faces of Karl Rove

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 8, 2004; 11:46 AM

The political press is obsessed with Karl Rove, and here are some of the adjectives they have been using lately:

Bright, brilliant, capable, charming, funny, generous, ingenious, omnipotent, powerful, shrewd, skilled, thoughtful and visionary.

Oh wait, I left some out. There's also:

Crude, devious, dorky, evil, feared, foolish, mean, repellent and vindictive.

Almost everyone, it seems, is giving Rove an enormous amount of credit for winning his boss a second term last week. From his office in the West Wing, Rove has been President Bush's senior adviser and chief political strategist.

What people don't tend to agree about, however, is whether Rove won it elegantly -- or down and dirty.

Even President Bush has two entirely different nicknames for Rove: "Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom," a Texas phrase describing a flower that grows in manure.

"He very rarely calls me 'Boy Genius,' " Rove said just yesterday on Fox News. "He generally calls me the other name."

Rove Targets Gay Marriage

In what AFP called a "victory lap around the U.S. talk shows," Rove yesterday explicitly added a big item to Bush's avowed second term agenda.

Jim Drinkard writes in USA Today: "President Bush 'absolutely' will use his second term to push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, his top political strategist said Sunday. Karl Rove, who oversaw Bush's re-election victory, said Bush will renew the effort, which failed in Congress this year but may enjoy new support after 11 states approved bans on same-sex marriage on Election Day."

Here are the transcripts from Rove's appearances on Fox News Sunday and NBC's Meet the Press.

Here's Rove on Fox News with Chris Wallace:

"WALLACE: So the president intends to go ahead and push for the constitutional amendment?

"ROVE: Absolutely. . . .

"WALLACE: Explain to me why civil unions can be handled at the state level but marriage can't.

"ROVE: Well, marriage is a very important part of our culture and our society. If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for the ideal. And the ideal is that marriage ought to be and should be a union of a man and a woman.

"And we cannot allow activist judges to overturn that. We cannot allow activist local elected officials to thumb their nose at 5,000 years of human history and determine that marriage is something else.

"And the people have a right to be involved. And since this was forced upon the political process by activist judges, we need to do everything we can to keep it from being decided by activist judges.

"WALLACE: OK."

Thalia Assuras reports for CBS News: "This will be the president's second bid for a constitutional amendment on marriage. Now analysts say it has only a slim chance of succeeding, but the effort is clearly a reward to the conservative base that helped the president win his second term."

On Fox, Wallace also asked Rove to respond to criticism from a liberal critic, Robert Borosage, that Bush "survived by waging the most negative and dishonest campaign that we have witnessed by an incumbent president, at least since Richard Nixon."

Rove's response: "Well, I think it's a sad commentary. This fellow seems to think the American people are driven to vote in record numbers by fear and an appeal to base emotion. . . .

"Look, this happens after every election. And he's due his moment of whining and complaining, but that's not what the election was about."

And on "Meet the Press," Rove said Bush does indeed have a mandate.

"It's a mandate for you to do in office what you said you would do on the campaign trail. And the president has an old-fashioned notion that campaigns ought to be about describing what it is that you hope to achieve and what the principles are by which actions might be guided."

The Architect's Next Project

Dan Balz and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Admired, disparaged, respected and feared, Rove joins an elite cadre of political strategists who can claim two presidential victories. Bush's adviser can now look toward the goal he has pursued since he was an obscure direct-mail specialist in Texas: the creation of a durable Republican majority in Washington and across the country. . . .

"Rove declined to speculate on his next act. . . . But those around him expect he will stay at Bush's side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. 'Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that's where real power is exercised in a White House,' said a Republican official who works closely with him."

Allen will be Live Online today at 2 p.m. ET responding to your questions and comments about the article.

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "His savvy and loyalty are big reasons why Rove -- whom Bush describes as 'the Architect' -- will probably be the single most important member of the White House staff during the second term. Rove thinks his boss could be a 'transformational leader' who can make the GOP into an enduring majority, just as William McKinley transformed the Republican Party, under the guidance of his counselor, Mark Hanna, a century ago. . . .

"Rove has always participated in White House policy discussions, adding his conservative voice on issues ranging from opposition to gay marriage to pushing for massive tax cuts. Now his portfolio will expand to the issues on top of Bush's second-term agenda, including partial privatization of Social Security and tax reform."

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Now Rove, 53, who has spent more than a decade helping to refashion George W. Bush from a baseball executive and former First Son into a two-term president, is preparing for his next project, building the Republican Party into a durable national majority.

"Admirers describe Rove as shrewd and ingenious, familiar with the political climate down to the county level, skilled at knowing where to find untapped Republican voters. Critics call him devious and willing to use smear tactics or distortion."

In person, Greene writes, "Rove comes across as the dorky prankster from junior high who now has the last laugh, along with an office in the West Wing."

Evan Thomas was the lead writer on Newsweek's exhaustive retelling of the campaign. It's full of insider tidbits, and jam-packed with none other than Karl Rove.

In this section, on Bush's inner circle, Newsweek writes: " 'Bloviate' is a favorite Rove-ism. Others, often expressed by e-mail: 'Yeah baby!' 'Attawaytogo!' and, more obscurely, 'It's Miller time!' Rove was the unquestioned boss of the campaign to re-elect the president. Everyone reported to him; even local GOP bosses checked with him before making a move. The group he gathered around his dining-room table this December morning was the tight little inner circle -- Dowd, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, campaign Communications Director Nicolle Devenish. The group was secret at first; other top staffers only gradually learned of its existence. As winter turned to spring, Rove would occasionally add other guests. For a Republican, there was no greater call to duty than an invitation from Rove to join the Breakfast Club.

"King Karl, ruler of a vast domain, was held in awe by all (except Bush, who from time to time referred to his chief political adviser as Turd Blossom). Rove had never stopped campaigning since the 2000 squeaker. From the moment he walked into the White House in 2001, he had been building the Republican base, the vast Red State army of evangelicals; flag-waving small-town and rural American Dreamers; '60s-hating, pro-death-penalty, anti-gay-marriage social conservatives; Big Donors -- the new Republican majority, or so Rove hoped. A steady wave of e-mails (appropriately studded with Rove-isms), notes, photos, anniversary cards and White House Christmas-party invitations stroked the faithful. But discipline was the key: Rove set up a reporting system designed to hold accountable party bosses and volunteers alike. He created the mystique of an all-seeing, all-knowing boss of bosses; if the emperor had no clothes, no one particularly wanted to find out.

"A Rove colleague called him 'five-dimensional.' His friends as well as his enemies described him as generous, crude, charming, repellent, thoughtful, vindictive, funny, mean, brilliant and foolish."

In a section on the presidential families, Newsweek writes: "The First Lady was a benign presence in the campaign. She was amused by the omnipotent Rove. 'I love Karl,' she told a Newsweek reporter. 'He's fun to be with. He reminds me of Pig Pen [the 'Peanuts' character who walks around in a cloud of dirt]. Like ideas come off of him, the dirt . . . you know how his hair kind of all stands up at the top.' She thought Rove got too much credit and too much blame."

ABC News on Friday named Rove the Person of the Week.

Andrew Gumbel writes in the Independent: "Depending who you believe, Karl Rove is either a visionary instrumental in the drive towards a permanent Republican revolution in US politics, or else an evil genius who has dragged campaigning into the gutter and so compromised the very foundations of American democracy.

"Either way, it is clear that no mere campaign consultant has wielded such power in more than a century."

Rachel Clarke reports for the BBC that Rove "is far more than the bully or evil genius as he is often portrayed.

"Mr Rove is also the prankster-in-chief, darting back to the press cabin on Air Force One to make jokes and interrupting a live broadcast on CNN shortly before the president's post-election news conference, when the correspondent was talking about his role.

"Those jokes may be at the expense of a hapless reporter or a political opponent or even a colleague, but it is part of his job and aim to charm the media. And while journalists may be sceptical of his spin, they still want to hear what he has to say."

More on the Second-Term Agenda

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "In Mr. Bush's first term, 'he had two insecurities,' said [a Bush] adviser, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

" 'There were a large number of people who did not view him as a legitimate president, and there was the specter of his father's loss,' the adviser said. 'He didn't vocalize them, but those two things hung over him and all of his advisers.' "

Now, Bumiller writes, Bush's friends and advisers say his governing style may change, "although they acknowledge it is too early to tell if victory will lift what critics call the chip on his shoulder and make him more magnanimous -- or whether it will simply create a more imperial president."

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "Karl Rove, his White House counselor, told U.S. News: 'It is a center-right country, and we will govern from the center-right.' Rove said Bush will try to win support from Democrats and independents, and rejected 'the idea he somehow won the election by appealing to a narrow base in the party.' "

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Odd things can happen when presidents no longer have to worry about re-election. George W. Bush embarks on another four years in the White House unleashed from election concerns for the first time in his presidency, raising questions about what he will do with the freedom of a second term."

Loven writes that "there's no disputing at least two things: He'll have lots of extra time now that he no longer has to devote time to raising money and campaigning for re-election. It also won't be long before attention will turn to the 2008 presidential contest and he'll be considered a lame duck."

What About the Path of Healing?

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "As President Bush mulls what to do after winning re-election, voters say his first priority should be resolving the situation in Iraq, where the fighting is growing more intense. They also want Bush to cut the deficit, which ballooned under his watch, rather than pushing for more tax cuts, according to an Associated Press poll taken right after the election.

"The voters' concerns stood in contrast to the priorities Bush cited after he defeated Democrat John Kerry. Bush pledged to aggressively pursue major changes in Social Security, tax laws and medical malpractice awards. Terrorism was a chief concern both for Bush and many voters in the poll."

Bob Deans writes for the Cox News Service about "some ideas analysts proposed for helping to unify a divided nation."

They include: invite Democratic leaders in Congress to the White House; swap Social Security privatization for some increase in premiums; put to rest a four-year feud with African-American political leaders; name a moderate as chief justice; make peace with the United Nations; and so on.

Today's Calendar

The Associated Press reports: "Bush's first week as a second termer-elect begins slowly. No public events were scheduled Monday or Tuesday and the only thing on Wednesday's calendar is a dinner. The public schedule picks up Thursday when he meets with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his steadfast ally in Iraq."

Tomorrow morning, Laura Bush participates in the re-opening of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to pedestrians.

The Blair Visit

Kate Kelland writes for Reuters: "British Prime Minister Tony Blair will seek this week to use his support for President George W. Bush in Iraq as a lever for greater U.S. commitment to the quest for peace in the Middle East. . . .

"In a speech congratulating Bush on his election victory last week, Blair stressed that revitalising Middle East peacemaking was 'the single most pressing political challenge in our world today.'

"A spokesman for Blair's Downing Street office said the two leaders' talks, scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Washington, would focus on the agenda set out in that speech."

Here's the text of that speech.

The BBC reports: "Tony Blair will seek a 'signal of intent' on the Middle East peace process when he visits George Bush."

Foreign Policy Outlook

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush faces an array of difficult foreign policy issues in his second term, but he appears unlikely to change the overall direction of an assertive diplomacy that has riled some key allies and led to rising anti-Americanism around the globe, according to administration officials and outside experts.

"Administration officials acknowledge that they are considering stylistic shifts and will look for opportunities to reach out to estranged allies. With the election behind them, officials hope policy toward Iraq will not be as politicized, and that nations that have withheld assistance in the hope that Bush would lose will rethink their position."

Warren P. Strobel writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Hints of Bush's intentions will come soon, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said. He must choose the lineup of his foreign policy team and decide how to deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's likely departure from the Middle East. Arafat is gravely ill in a Paris hospital."

Tax Policy Outlook

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that as Bush considers changes in the current tax system, "he is confronting an issue that is more ideologically explosive, politically risky and economically complex than he let on during the campaign.

"He has been vague about what he has in mind, but Republican advisers to the administration say the White House is debating whether Mr. Bush should back ambitious, even radical proposals like a national sales tax or a flat tax on income. By doing so, he would blast away a philosophy that has governed tax policy since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House: that higher levels of income should be taxed at higher rates. . . .

"Among those who favor scrapping the current system -- a group said to include Vice President Dick Cheney -- there is a raging debate over what should replace it, with the basic options being some sort of national sales tax or a single-rate flat tax on income."

Incidentally, the last time there was a lot of talk about changing the tax system was 1998. It didn't happen, of course, but I did write a really nifty primer on tax policy at the time that you may still find useful -- if you just ignore all the dates and don't mind a few broken links.

Turnover Watch

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush will not ask his appointees for the mass resignation letters that sometimes have been requested with a change of term but instead wants the aides to keep doing their jobs unless they are told otherwise, White House officials said yesterday. . . .

"The decision reflects both Bush's view that his government is working well, and his determination to move aggressively to pass ambitious legislation before he starts being viewed as a lame duck, officials said. . . .

"Although Bush plans no administration-wide housecleaning, not everyone who wants to stay will be able to. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow was subtly given the idea that he would not be staying for all four years but could take all the time he wanted to leave, administration officials said."

Allen writes that other high-profile changes could create significant turnover, but that White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. "is insisting that Cabinet members stagger their departures to minimize disruption."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Robert D. Blackwill, the tough-minded diplomat brought to the White House last year to take charge of the administration's troubled Iraq policy, unexpectedly announced his resignation yesterday. His departure deprives the administration of a key figure involved in the effort to ensure that Iraq holds elections by the end of January."

Terror Watch

David E. Sanger and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "President Bush's senior counterterrorism advisers held an urgent meeting last Saturday morning to consider elevating the country's terrorism threat level, one day after the broadcast of a videotape by Osama bin Laden, administration officials said on Friday.

"At the previously undisclosed meeting, in which senior counterterrorism officials assembled via a White House video conference hookup, Attorney General John Ashcroft and others favored ratcheting up the alert level because of the bin Laden tape, the officials said.

"But others disagreed, the officials said. . . .

"[S]everal of the president's advisers expressed concern about the timing of a possible alert. Some acknowledged that the broadcast was potentially worrisome, but without more information they were reluctant to issue a public alert, fearing criticism that the White House was spreading unfounded fears of an attack three days before the election."

Bulge Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Now that the election is over, there remains a piece of unfinished business: Whatever was that strange bulge in the back of President Bush's suit jacket that was visible during the three debates?"

She visited the unhappy presidential tailor, Georges de Paris, who some have said is to blame.

"Mr. de Paris, 70, had been visited a few weeks earlier by The Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, and had told the reporter seeking to solve the bulge mystery that the protuberance was nothing more than a natural pucker that occurs when a man's jacket is pulled taut against his back. The Internet quickly deemed Mr. de Paris's assertion nonsense, and by last Thursday, so had The Hill. Citing sources in the Secret Service, The Hill reported that the bulge was the outline of a bulletproof vest.

"The White House had earlier denied that it was, and stuck to that statement on Friday. A spokesman for the Secret Service, Tom Mazur, shed no further light. 'I can't comment on our protective measures,' he said. But Mr. de Paris, for one, now believes the bulge was a bulletproof vest. At the least, a bulletproof vest would get him and his supposedly bad work off the hook."

But Bush himself is on the record as saying it was his shirt.

And Karl Rove -- remember him? -- just put the onus back on the unfortunate tailor. Here's the exchange on Fox News:

"WALLACE: All right. Truth to tell, the campaign's over. What was under the president's jacket at the first debate?

"ROVE: You know, the poor -- I'm not going to mention his name, because I know him and he's a wonderful fellow, but the poor tailor has just got to be horrified. Nothing was under his jacket.

"WALLACE: Well, I've had a lot of jackets, you've had a lot of jackets. You've never had something like that under your jacket.

"ROVE: Well, the poor -- again, he's an awfully nice fellow, he's a rather flamboyant dude. And I'm not going to use his name, but he's just -- he's horrified. And, you know, it's -- there was nothing there.

"But it certainly got a lot of commentary on the Internet."


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