By Thomas B. Edsall and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 10, 2003
Karl Rove, the most powerful adviser in the White House, serves as President Bush's eyes and ears. But who serves as Rove's eyes and ears while he toils in the bubble of the West Wing?
Methodically and ambitiously, Rove has developed a web of contacts in Washington and across the country to give him the latest intelligence on politics and policy -- which he then synthesizes and forwards to the president in private meetings.
From California to New Hampshire and from think tanks to Wall Street, Rove's network of 150 politicians, lobbyists, strategists, academics and executives -- the most influential among the many Rove speaks with, according to those familiar with his thinking -- have so far helped him to help Bush exceed expectations about his political power. In an administration that is highly centralized and highly secretive, Rove's network of informal advisers explains much about how the White House decides on politics and policy.
With access to Rove's ear and e-mail, these advisers help fashion everything from abortion to tax policy, shape the content of legislative initiatives, propose appointees to key boards and commissions and suggest political strategies and tactics. Though invariably discreet about their ties to Rove, many of them receive significant benefits in return, including White House favors and attention to the interests of clients, donors and associates.
The largest group, more than half, are the Republican senators and House members Rove speaks with, such as Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.). An additional two dozen are well-known Washington political hands. A score of them are Rove's old business and political associates from Texas. After that, it is a smattering of governors, corporate executives, state GOP officials, legislative staffers, scholars and conservative leaders. There are even a few Democrats, although the overall ideological tilt is decisively to the right.
Some are obvious, such as former White House colleague Karen P. Hughes or Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot (he and Rove meet each Monday at 6:30 a.m. over oatmeal in the White House mess). Less obvious are Dirk Van Dongen, of the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors, and California interior designer Katie Boyd.
Few would suspect that Rove regularly trades tips with Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager; she tells Rove how Bush's proposals are faring among Democrats, while Rove makes sure her clients are included in White House events.
"We're not drinking buddies, we're allies; we both know where we want the country to be 10 years from now," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, describing his relationship with Rove. "In working with Karl, I can look over and Karl and the White House will be riding parallel to where the [conservative] movement is."
GOP pollster Ed Goeas likens Rove's contacts to "a radar system constantly going on out there. We have our radar on all the time." Goeas is not one of the pollsters for the White House, but Rove checks in with him monthly to see what trends Goeas is picking up, and to see, as Goeas puts it, "what's sticking and what's not sticking."
In putting out feelers across the country, Rove is following the model of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich, however, developed a network of idea producers and policy strategists that spanned an ideologically wide range. Rove's confidants tend much more to be in sympathy with his thinking and the Bush agenda. They may challenge and dispute Rove on specifics, but, with few exceptions, they share the goals of Bush's reelection and the achievement of a Republican majority.
Or consider Magnet's recommendations on public housing. Magnet sent a memo and an article to Rove about how policies Bush was pursuing -- including the Section 8 housing voucher program and Hope VI, a program Bush publicly praised that rebuilds public housing -- "ran counter to compassionate conservatism" because they did not encourage "personal responsibility." Magnet learned that Rove had sent the article to a deputy secretary of housing, and Bush's new budget would phase out Hope VI and convert much of Section 8 to block grants to states.
"I understand the circle gets completed," Magnet said, expressing pleasure that his "pronouncements from the mountain," usually forwarded to Rove in e-mails, have influenced Rove and, in turn, the administration.
For many on the list, the Rove connection is a mutually beneficial two-way street. Brian Lunde, former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and one of the few Democrats on the list, helped the Bush 2000 campaign round up Democratic supporters.
After Bush took office, Lunde has recommended Democrats for White House appointments, especially in cases requiring selections from both parties. During consideration of trade proposals and protective measures for the steel industry, Lunde could suggest to Rove potential Democratic supporters, which, in turn, advanced the interests of such Lunde clients as the Business Roundtable and Nucor Steel, which backed the administration initiatives.
Conservative Catholic activist Deal Hudson has found that on a host of fronts, he and Rove have a shared agenda. "Karl is intuitively sensitive to an amazing degree. Karl can read my mind," Hudson said.
Hudson is working with the Bush administration to make sure that none of the money in the $15 billion African AIDS initiative can be used indirectly to help finance abortions by groups active in abortion and HIV prevention. Hudson said he has recommended a number of prospective appointees to key health boards. Hudson said he has been "pleased with the outcome."
Hudson, in turn, has helped put together a letter to the president signed by 46 prominent Catholics challenging the church hierarchy's criticism of a preemptive attack on Iraq, arguing: "If, in your careful and considered judgment, no alternative can be found capable of removing or disarming a proven aggressor . . . then the norms of justice permit -- and your obligations of civic leadership require -- you to act with the force of arms."
Rove's Rolodex includes political activists in strategic states across the country. In the South, he checks in with outgoing Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed and South Carolina House Speaker David Wilkins. In California, it is financiers Gerry Parsky and Brad Freeman and state Sen. Jim Brulte (R). "I communicate by e-mail or phone at least once a week," Brulte said. He forwards information about Democrats and California happenings that "the president should know about."
In the first caucus state of Iowa, state Senate President Mary Kramer (R) makes Rove's list. Because there is no GOP challenger to Bush, Rove peppers Kramer with questions about Democrats. "He's looking for intelligence on the candidates -- what kind of things they're saying, how do we think it's going over," Kramer said.
In New Hampshire, Rove's point of contact is Joel Maiola, an aide to Gregg who was Bush's New Hampshire campaign director. Maiola rarely goes more than a few weeks without talking with Rove, and sometimes they talk several times a week.
Other Rove sources are longtime friends and allies. In Illinois, it is Republican national committeeman Bob Kjellander, who was Bush's Midwest chairman in the campaign. Thirty years before that, though, he worked with Rove and the College Republicans. Others on Rove's list from his College Republican days are Kentucky national committeeman Robert "Mike" Duncan and Reps. Robert W. Ney (Ohio) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).
"Karl, when he went to Washington, was very dedicated to the notion that they weren't going to get locked inside the Beltway," Kjellander said. "It's a concerted effort to talk to people who aren't caught up in daily hustle and bustle."
One is Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, whose specialties include terrorism and the Middle East. His latest book, according to the official summary, asserts that "America must topple the regimes of the terror masters to eliminate the threat of terrorism."
The two met after Bush's election. "He said, 'Anytime you have a good idea, tell me,' " Ledeen said. Every month or six weeks, Ledeen will offer Rove "something you should be thinking about." More than once, Ledeen has seen his ideas, faxed to Rove, become official policy or rhetoric.
The few K Street lobbyists on Rove's list -- Ed Gillespie, Haley Barbour, Charlie Black and Don Fierce -- are particularly fortunate because their influence makes them more valuable to corporate clients. Rove also keeps in touch with the major business lobbies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. The chamber's Bruce Josten helps Rove navigate the many and sometimes conflicting wishes of different industries. (High-tech and old-line companies, for example, often take opposing positions on tax policy.)
"Somebody has to filter through all that," Josten said. "I'm a sounding board for him."
Josten and Rove are in touch every few days and meet monthly. About Bush's recent $670 billion tax-cut proposal, Josten said, "We're pleased to see everything we tossed up topically as ideas got included one way or another."
The NFIB's Jack Farris, similarly, shares with Rove the group's many member surveys that indicate problems and priorities for small companies. When the administration was putting the tax package together, the two men spoke often. NFIB wanted Bush to propose a permanent $100,000 break on capital investment; Bush went along but set the limit at $75,000. "We've not had a president of either party talk so much about small business," Farris said.
Rove's contacts are not all supporters or natural allies. Rove checks in regularly with Michael Novak of AEI, who knew Rove for years but backed Steve Forbes in the GOP primary. "Karl's a sponge," said Novak, who has offered advice on welfare and Social Security. "He loves ideas, he loves information -- and he loves adversarial stuff, too."
Brazile, the former Gore campaign manager, knows about that. The two first started talking in January 2001, with a "good-natured taunt." Now, Brazile said, "I respect him, I admire him, and though we come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, I enjoy the conversation."
Brazile tells Rove how Bush policies are playing and checks in with him before her television appearances. "He bounces things off me, and I'll say, 'That's going to get you in a lot of trouble,' " she said.
In exchange, Rove has been kind to Brazile's friends and clients, such as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and District Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). When she complained that one of her consulting clients was excluded from a White House event, "he sent me a three-page memo." Rove invited Brazile to the White House mess, "so we can get people wagging their tongues."
The two stopped their discussions three months before the midterm elections, then got back in touch to do an election postmortem.
"People think I'm crazy talking to Karl Rove," Brazile said, but "there's something about this guy." Still, Brazile draws the line at advising Rove about appealing to minorities, her specialty. "Hell, no," she said. "He'd have to pay for that advice."