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Mary McGrory

The Karl Rove Show

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, January 26, 2003; Page B07

People who wonder what George W. Bush and his genius adviser Karl Rove have in common need look no further than their attitudes toward the press.

President Bush has held a grand total of seven solo news conferences since he took the oath of office.

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The seance between his political helper, Rove, and the writing Washington press corps -- conducted under the aegis of the Christian Science Monitor -- took eight months to arrange.

Usually the Monitor has the scribblers in for breakfasts -- artery-clogging cholesterol extravaganzas. Sometimes, for special eminences, lunch is offered. These alternatives had been heavily negotiated since May, and briefly an unprecedented early dinner was considered. Finally, accord was reached, and the group threw the first high tea in its history, with petits fours and tiny chocolate eclairs.

It was a sellout at the St. Regis, and it brought out all the ham in Rove. He put on a stellar performance in a one-man sketch that could have been subtitled "Life With George." It had a considerable element of fantasy, and it showed that the consigliere shares another major trait with his capo: audacity.

Bush's audacity in presenting an economic package that looked like a handout to the rich -- and then rounding on his critics with charges of class warfare -- was breathtaking. Rove went him one better: He claims his boss is a "populist."

And, he added, amid dropping jaws and lowered eclairs, "Give him a choice between Wall Street and Main Street, and he'll choose Main Street every time."

Rove, who has been celebrated in innumerable magazine tributes and in a book called "Boy Genius," played down his White House role. He wins some, he loses some. It's only the clunky Capitol that has mistaken these two good old boys looking for a chance to help the little guy as having a Svengali-type relationship.

Despite his strenuous efforts at self-effacement, Rove took questions about foreign policy and showed that his writ is worldwide.

In dealing with matters of state politics, he demonstrated another shared Bush quality: aggressive inconsistency. Like Bush, Rove wants it both ways, and he doesn't want doctrines or principles drawn from highly disparate dealings, as was the case with Iraq and North Korea. One bad country is slated for Hellfire missiles, the other for lectures on disarmament. The way Rove is handling internal political crises in two U.S. states is comparable.

Rove was asked about a California fight over the state chairmanship. The front-runner is a Republican who shares Trent Lott's nostalgia for the Old South. His name is Bill Back, and he once distributed an article to party faithful suggesting that the country would have been better off if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Considering the recent Lott rumpus, which Rove handled so masterfully, you might have expected a little pious protest. Rove's answer was cool. "That's up to the California delegation," suggesting deference to state sovereignty.

But minutes later, he was asked about a domestic dispute in Illinois, where, he said, "We asked to be consulted on the party leadership. . . We just wanted to be part of the process." He was asked why. "Because Illinois is a big state with a lot of electoral votes." The same could have been said of California, even more so. It has 54 electoral votes, compared with Illinois's 22.

The difference is that the California squabble involves the base. Bush's conservative base was not pleased by the sacking of Lott, and his non-intervention in a similar case perhaps soothes and mollifies these touchy constituents. Bush would almost rather die than offend them.

Rove's show offered a picture of a White House where improvisation is the preferred method of operation. Policy is made up as they go along. Please don't mention politics. He established himself as a policy wonk with a filibuster on Bush the environmentalist, who endorses clear-cutting to save our national forests from fiery death. He described hearing beetles consuming a dead tree in Oregon. Teddy Roosevelt would be cheering W. on, Rove said, in one of his most adventurous spins.

One of the few reminders that Rove is a disciple of Lee Atwater -- the senior Bush's chief horse whisperer and perhaps the foremost cutthroat operative of his time -- was an answer about the Democrats. Asked if he shared the New Yorker's opinion of them as "cowed and incoherent," he declined to comment.

Asked who was the best Democratic speaker, Rove replied readily, "Ted Kennedy." It was a perfect answer -- dismissing the Democratic presidential pack and singling out a Democrat who is no threat to Bush and a money-raising buzzword to Republicans.

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