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Frontline: Karl Rove -- The Architect

Michael Kirk
Producer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; 11:00 AM

President George W. Bush called him "the architect" of his reelection victory and he has been the president's chief strategist from the beginning. But Karl Rove is much more than a political guru, he is the single most powerful policy advisor in the White House. Frontline and The Washington Post joined forces to trace the political history and modus operandi of the man who has been on the inside of every political and policy decision of the Bush administration, including the current battles on Social Security, taxes, and tort reform. For Rove -- observers say -- enactment of the Bush agenda is a way to win the biggest prize of all: a permanent Republican majority.

Consult "Karl Rove -- The Architect" for program information. Producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, April 13, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the report.


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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any idea on what's the next step for Rove?

Michael Kirk: From his powerful position in the White House I'm certain he will continue to have a hand in policy and politics surrounding the efforts by President Bush to leave a large footprint on the nature of government and individuals in this country. That of course includes a formidable domestic agenda and daunting challenges internationally. In addition he will no doubt play an important role in the 2006 midterm election campaign and it would not surprise many observers if almost every Republican presidential hopeful at one point or another passed through Karl Rove's office on their way to the primaries in 2008.

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Dallas, Tex.: How is it that someone as overtly political as Karl Rove -- the "chief architect" of Bush's reelection campaign -- is paid by the taxpayers for running a campaign and trying to create a permanent GOP majority? Why should my tax dollars go to put a political strategist on the government payroll? Are there any restrictions on this?

Michael Kirk: Mr. Rove is unique in recent political memorandum as both a political strategist and a policy guru, his skills in the later category are at least as important as his political skills. Add to that his personal relationship and understanding of the goals of the president and it may well be that the taxpayers are getting a pretty good deal for their dollar.

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Houston, Tex.: I found Rove's strategy of "attacking the opponent's strength" fascinating. Do you see recent examples of Democrats co-opting this strategy?

Michael Kirk: Most experienced political strategists have studied greek heros...and know about strength also being weakness...whether they have the skill and willingness to utilize this knowledge is another matter.

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Annandale, Va.: I was surprised to learn how involved Rove was in politics from early on. He is obviously an ambitious guy. My question is why does someone who is so politically smart (not that I agree with his politics) stand in the shadows of presidents instead of running for POTUS himself? Any clue?

Michael Kirk: The people we talked to about rove like to tell stories that he could have chosen either path...my sense from months of thinking about him and talking to as many people as possible about him is that he likes the behind-the-scenes role...where he has time to strategize and think matters through in a way that is free of the demands of public appearances (though we've all seen a lot more of him lately than in the past).

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Sterling, VA: In your opinion, how accurate is the book (and movie) "Bush's Brain"?

Michael Kirk: I read portions of "Bush's Brain"...I never saw the documentary. Often, when I'm working on a subject I like to read about them, and prefer primary sources (people who actually know them) to having my conclusions "infected" (for lack of a better word) by the in-depth work of others (especially documentary filmmakers).

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Vancouver, B.C.: Has Karl Rove been able to identify and mobilize a natural conservatism of the American people? We read that the right-wing now has disproportionate power, but it appears as though Rove may have just checkmated a disproportionate Democratic Party dominance in the post-war era.

Michael Kirk: Many observers of the American political system that we talked to believe the nation has always had a healthy strain of libertarian conservatism. They were not as surprised as many in the media by the "red-state phenomenon" in the last few election cycles. Karl Rove, I think, was among the earliest to understand and capitalize on this trend in american politics.

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Athens, Ga.: What ideology drives Rove? He doesn't appear to be a religious man, but he hammers socially conservative issues in order to win elections. The national security issue was handed to him on a platter and seems to spring more from the neocons who are influential in the administration. Does he just take advantage of ideologically motivated people in order to help those he favors into power? Is it personal ambition? Other than a dominant one, what kind of Republican party would Rove most want?

Michael Kirk: Your questions form the heart of every recent inquiry into karl rove. In our report we came to understand his ideology as a combination of Barry Goldwater's common sense conservatism, with a strong dose of Ronald Reagan's ideas...and of course, the philosophy articulated by president bush himself. As to religion--the people we interviewed did not sense that Karl Rove is himself deeply religious in the way, for example, that President Bush is...but they all say rove is quite effective talking with and understanding religious conservatives. I believe Karl Rove's Republican party in the future would be one that was much like the current party with the addition of younger people (hence some policies as part of the social security debate), Catholics, women, African-Americans, and, perhaps most essentially, Hispanics.

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Reno, Nev.: My impression of Rove is that he's a ruthless megalomaniac... what's yours...?

Michael Kirk: I have been observing individuals involved in public behavior for a long time...they are, like the rest of us, complicated. rarely are they as simple as you suggest Mr. Rove is...and in his case, those we talked to who have been observing him for decades say that being in the midst of the rough and tumble of many important policy and political choices during his long career--Mr. Rove has revealed many sides to his personality and a variety of motivations for his behavior.

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Atlanta, Ga.: So, does Karl Rove have a personal life?
What are the influences that shape his
views?

Michael Kirk: We talked to many people who know him well. They told us that he has a stable personal life with his wife and son...that he is a type-a workaholic...but that he is often seen at his child's school. Mr. Rove is, according to those who know him, a voracious reader, a student of political history, and loves to talk about politics and political behavior in great detail.

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Denton, Tex.: I know that the Swiftboat Vets were funded, at least partially by rich Texans who were friendly to the Bush campaign. But has any proof arisen that Rove was actually behind the Swiftboats?

Michael Kirk: The efforts by journalists and the democrats to directly connect Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney campaign to the Swift Boat Veterans have not yielded, as far as I know, any evidence that supports that allegation. Of course, there have been reports that indicate Rove would not have had to have direct contact with the 527 groups since many of them have, at one time or another, worked with or around Karl Rove.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Hypothetically, if the election had gone Kerry's way, what would Rove be doing now? Riding that golden parachute known as being a lobbyist?

Michael Kirk: I've actually asked this question of many who think they know the answer. Some have said he would be happiest working on his undergraduate degree, then a doctorate in political history. He would surely make an interesting addition to a university faculty somewhere, someday.

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Cambridge, Mass: Is Rove behind Bush's gingerly approach to immigration, in the hopes of winning over Hispanics. Has the policy of courting Hispanics proven efficacious?

Michael Kirk: Some of the reporters we worked with from the Washington Post and the political observers we met in Ttexas say the immigration issue is critical if the republicans are to maintain a durable majority in the next decade and beyond. I we know that, you can bet Karl Rove and the president do too--and that policies are being forwarded that will address that important issue.

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Evanston Ill.: Would Rove really look so smart or Bush have been re-elected in the absence of 9/11? Even so, Bush had an 80+% approval post 9/11 reduced to about 51% at re-election and down to record lows (for him) now? So was it the event or was it Rove's celebrated brain?

Michael Kirk: Very good question...one that is fun to argue about...clearly both things are true--the administration believes the president's leadership skills, demonstrated, from their point of view, after 9/11 were a big reason for his victory. Of course,Mr. Rove's formidable campaign machine didn't hurt either.

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Lynchburg, Va.: Does it seem to you that Karl Rove, and successful Republican campaign strategists in general (Lee Atwater also comes to mind when asking this question) tend to evoke far more negative reactions from the other side than successful Democrat strategists such as James Carville and Paul Begala? For example, it seems that Republicans such as Rove are more likely to be described as ruthless, while Democrats such as Carville are more likely to be described as hard-hitting. These two descriptions can often be used interchangeably, but one obviously has a far more negative connotation than the other one. Have you ever noticed the same thing?

Michael Kirk: It evokes the old axiom--where you stand is where you sit. I've heard many Republicans describe James Carville as "ruthless" (among other things)...Rove occupies a different place than a Carville or Atwater...because of his policy role...so the adjectives applied to him take on a different meaning...and a perception by some, that the president is something of an "empty vessel" has led to calling rove a "svengali"...(a name never, as far as i know, applied to carville or atwater...)...

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Baltimore, Md.: Although I am a Democrat, I have immense respect for Rove's clarity, ability to resonate populist beliefs, and impose a finely tuned organizational model on campaigns. His strategic and tactical approach to politics is nearly identical to the way a forward-thinking executive would manage a business. The way he manages campaigns seems fairly intuitive though. From your experience, would you characterize presidential campaigns as being historically unorganized and lacking focus?

Michael Kirk: It was very interesting to talk with Mark Mckinnon, Mathew Dowd and Ken Mehlman about the chaos of campaigning and how Karl Rove managed it. He was, as you indicate, the extremely focused on details and completely interested in control.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why was there no discussion of Rove falsely accusing the opponent of a gubernatorial candidate he was working for of planting an electronic microphone in his office?

Also why were there few interviews of liberal critics of Rove, such as Max Cleland, amongst all the conservative admirers of him?

Michael Kirk: The alleged wire tap incident you describe--while a well known story about Rove--wasn't something time would allow us to include in our broadcast.

When we make one of our political biographies we try to interview primary sources close to the subject in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the motivations and actions of the subject. Interviewing political opponents would reveal, from my perspective, less useful information of a partisan nature.

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Munich, Germany: Is Karl Rove present when Rice, Rumsfeld, Goss or Negroponte give the President their briefings? How much influence does Karl Rove have on policy in the White House these days?

Michael Kirk: Not entirely sure about Rove's presence in all meetings. Those we interviewed said that he would have a direct hand in most of the domestic policy matters and would certaintly be available to advise on international matters if the president wanted him to...he has, as we reported, a larger brief than during the first term--the dimensions of that brief as probably being defined in different ways almost every day in the West Wing...

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New Haven, Conn.: Are you saying that Rove doesn't have an undergraduate degree or is that a typo?

How do you see Rove's role evolving for future neocon political leaders? Do you think he will sabotage McCain's bid for president in 2008 like he sabotaged his primary run in South Carolina in 2000?

Michael Kirk: Karl Rove did not graduate from college. As we reported in our program last night he was hooked on politics in the late 60s and early '70s, dropped out of college (the University of Utah) and eventually became chairman of the College Republicans during the Nixon administration in Washington.

I would assume Mr. Rove will, at some point, have influence--directly or indirectly, on every potential Republican candidate, including Senator Mccain.

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Michael Kirk: Thank you all for your questions and for supporting Frontline and PBS...we exist to provide serious journalism at a time when that is in short supply...and we could not exist without you.

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