By Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Karl Rove took leave yesterday of the man he helped put in the White House nearly seven years ago, and in the process he opened a new phase of the politically battered Bush presidency as it heads into its final months without some of the central players who shaped it.
Rove, the primary author of President Bush's two successful national campaigns and perhaps the most influential and controversial presidential strategist of his generation, became the latest Bush adviser to head for the door, announcing that he will resign Aug. 31.
The wave of departures signals a broader transition as Bush shifts away from the sweeping domestic initiatives on taxes, education, Social Security and immigration that Rove favored, and refocuses his presidency to a more defensive posture in the face of an opposition Congress and sunken poll ratings.
During the last 17 months of his presidency, Bush's domestic front will consist of trying to preserve programs enacted in his first term, finding opportunities for discreet victories, and engaging in veto battles with Democrats over spending and taxes. Much of the focus will center on foreign policy, where the stakes remain greater and the outcome more uncertain, particularly regarding Iraq.
The White House labored to dismiss the sense that Rove's resignation underscores a lame-duck presidency, even as it felt like an era was coming to an end on the South Lawn yesterday morning.
"Karl Rove is moving on down the road," Bush said as the two appeared together for an emotional coda to their 14-year political partnership. A few moments later, he turned to Rove and added: "I'll be on the road behind you here in a little bit." Rove's voice quavered as he spoke, and the two hugged before flying off to Texas together for vacation.
Rove, 56, who holds the titles of White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, said he had been thinking of leaving for more than a year and has wanted to spend more time with his family. Although he is the object of multiple investigations by the Democratic Congress, Rove scoffed at the notion that they prompted his decision.
"I'm leaving on my own terms, and I'm leaving with a clear-eyed realism that this isn't going to mean fewer investigations or subpoenas or weird comments by members of the Democratic caucus," he said in an interview. "These guys are obsessed with me, and they think I'm a convenient and easy target to play to their base and raise money."
Even when he returns to Texas, Rove said, he expects to be under attack for his role in advising Bush. "I realize that some of the Democrats are Captain Ahab and I'm the great white whale," he said. "I noticed the other day some Democratic staffers were quoted calling me the big fish. Well, I'm Moby-Dick and they're after me."
Democrats welcomed Rove's resignation and vowed to continue probing his involvement in the firings of U.S. attorneys, political briefings conducted at various agencies and the use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts by White House officials.
"The list of senior White House and Justice Department officials who have resigned during the course of these congressional investigations continues to grow, and today Mr. Rove added his name to that list," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.).
Other Democrats blasted Rove as an apostle of division. "Karl Rove was an architect of a political strategy that has left the country more divided, the special interests more powerful and the American people more shut out from their government than any time in memory," said Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) was more succinct: "Goodbye, good riddance."
Funny, gracious, energetic, crafty, acerbic, cutthroat and tempestuous, Rove has been the administration's most celebrated and polarizing aide. A college dropout who worked in the 1970s for George H.W. Bush, he got to know George W. Bush and later orchestrated his rise to the Texas governor's mansion and the White House. "The Architect," the younger Bush once called him. "Bush's brain," derided the critics.
Rove became famous for a brand of politics that emphasized turning out his party's conservative base and painting Democrats as weak on national security. With an eye on history, he hoped to realign national politics with far-reaching plans to steer taxpayer money to faith-based groups, rewrite immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population, and redefine government to favor more market-based approaches in Social Security, taxes and other arenas. But his second-term agenda collapsed as the popularity of the president and the Iraq war declined, and his winning streak was punctured when Democrats captured Congress last November.
"It is dangerous to put political consultants in charge of policy," said former Texas Republican Party chairman Thomas W. Pauken, a longtime Rove critic. "The combination of big-government conservatism and the extraordinary neoconservative influence on foreign policy has been devastating."
Rove was investigated for his role in leaking the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA covert operative whose husband had publicly criticized the handling of prewar intelligence. Although the White House initially denied that Rove was involved, the probe determined that he divulged or confirmed her identity to two journalists. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald did not charge him but indicted fellow White House official I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose lawyer asserted at trial that his client was being sacrificed to protect Rove.
But colleagues heaped praise on Rove yesterday and dismissed what they called the public caricature. "There's this notion that there's this devious puppet-master in the back room pulling all the strings," said Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, a former White House colleague and Texas compatriot. "It's just absurd to all of us who have worked with Karl closely."
At the same time, Rove was at the heart of nearly every decision. "Basically, any important policy of the president has been something that Karl has been involved in the development of," said fellow Deputy Chief of Staff Joel D. Kaplan.
Rove follows other top aides in departing since the midterm elections, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, deputy national security advisers J.D. Crouch and Meghan O'Sullivan, and budget director Rob Portman.
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has told senior aides that they should leave by Labor Day if they do not plan to stay until the end. "It's a transition," Bartlett said. "There's still a lot of familiar faces. But fresh faces, fresh legs is not a bad thing."
In an interview, Bolten said that he expects a couple more departures by next month and added that he will probably redistribute Rove's responsibilities rather than hire a successor, because "I don't think Karl can be replaced by one person." More of the burden of political advice will probably fall on Ed Gillespie, who succeeded Bartlett.
Bolten acknowledged that the administration is entering a new phase. "The window for legislation is narrower than it was," he said. "But it's not closed, on the one hand. And on the other hand, there's a great deal to be done, especially in the foreign policy realm, but also in other realms, without the need for actual legislation." He added: "Even if the next 18 months don't result in enactment of the president's agenda on every one of these items, it's still important to set the terms of the debate."
Republican strategists said Rove's departure will hurt the White House, but not as much as it would have earlier in the presidency. "This is always the most difficult time of any president's term," said Indiana Gov. Mitchell Daniels, who served as Bush's first budget director. "Effectiveness is most likely to come in the foreign policy realm, if at all."
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a Rove ally, said a once free-spending White House has retreated to the familiar ground of opposing expansion of the government. "That's the battleground for the next year," Norquist said. "You don't need Karl Rove as your general if you already have your battle plan."
Rove said he plans to quit politics for now; move back to Ingram, Tex.; write a book on the Bush presidency; and maybe teach. He said he will not join any presidential campaign but will give quiet advice if a candidate wants it. "I'm not going to play any formal role," he said.
He was not ready to define his legacy: "I'm going to have to sit on a beach to figure out . . . what I'm most proud of. But I felt like I contributed and I worked hard at trying to be a good colleague."
Most of his colleagues expected him to stick it out. "So did I," Rove said, sounding wistful. "I wanted to. But I just can't. About a year and a half ago, it became apparent talking to my family that there are things happening, that it was time to go."