Team Bush: The 'Iron Triangle'
By Dan Balz
Bush was explaining why he had selected a trio of political advisers with virtually no experience in presidential politics to guide his candidacy.
Their names are little known outside Texas. Some among Bush's extended family have grumbled that the inner circle may not be up to this challenge. But as he prepared to leave the cocoon of Austin that day, the candidate had no second thoughts.
"This campaign is going to have rough spots," Bush said. "These polls aren't going to be quite as glamorous as they are now. There are going to be instances where people [say], 'The Bush campaign's wheels are coming off.' Those are the moments when your friends stand up, and every one of these three people are friends. We've grown up together politically."
Known as the Iron Triangle, the three--Karl Rove, Joe Allbaugh and Karen Hughes--have formed Bush's political inner circle since he first ran for governor in 1994. Their control over the campaign is near absolute--as others are learning. Last week, for instance, Washington veteran and campaign spokesman David Beckwith was forced to resign over differences with the Bush team.
Rove is the campaign's chief strategist, Allbaugh the campaign manager and Hughes the communications director. But Allbaugh has a more colorful description. He calls them: "the brain, the brawn and the bite."
Before there was Lee Atwater, there was Karl Rove.
Back in 1972, the 22-year-old Rove was a candidate for chairman of the College Republicans. The rambunctious Atwater was his Southern regional coordinator. For a week, they drove the blue highways of the South in a mustard-brown Ford Pinto, scouring the region for support, running out of gas and courting coeds.
"Somewhere between Tallahassee and some university in Alabama, we stopped for breakfast at 6 o'clock in the morning," Rove says as if it were just last month. "Atwater orders cornflakes and pours Tabasco sauce on them because he's lost his taste buds."
In a bitterly contested election, Rove defeated John T. "Terry" Dolan, who later headed the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), the organization that helped define the scorched-earth politics of the late 1970s.
Atwater rose to national prominence ahead of Rove, serving as presidential campaign manager for Gov. Bush's father in 1988 and later as chairman of the Republican National Committee until he died of a brain tumor. "We both cut our teeth at the same time," Rove says. "He rose much faster, much farther than I did."
Now it is Rove's turn. As Republican strategist Don Sipple sees it, "He's been working his entire career for this time, and so far he's been doing very well at it."
Rove is Bush's whirling dervish, a man in perpetual motion. No part of the campaign escapes his eye--strategy, organization, message, polling, media, issues or money. "He dominates a campaign," says friend and fellow Republican strategist David Weeks. "Nothing ever happens that he's not aware of."
For 20 years, Rove has been at the center of a political realignment that has transformed the Lone Star State from one-party Democratic dominance to an era of Republican ascendance. He is smart, aggressive, shrewd and funny, and the rollout of the Bush campaign bears his imprint. His admirers speak of him as the Bush strategist most likely to emerge as a national player from this campaign. "The rest of us are reasonably competent," a Bush supporter says, "but Karl's the real genius of the operation."
But as a practitioner of the take-no-prisoners politics common to Republican operatives of his generation, Rove also has detractors. They say he is ruthless and power-hungry, that he will do whatever it takes to win.
One of the few critics willing to speak for the record was conservative Tom Pauken, who regularly fought with Rove--and Bush--when he was Texas Republican Party chairman during Bush's first term as governor. "Karl's very capable and wants to be the next Lee Atwater," Pauken says. "He's very much what I would call a control freak."
Rove pleads guilty to being an intense competitor, and his game plan has helped Bush dominate his GOP rivals in the early stages of the 2000 campaign. "I get revved," he says. "I'm a competitive guy. I like to win."
But he challenges those who claim he has a win-at-any-cost approach or that his competitiveness turns personal. "Life's too short to stay focused on settling scores," he says. "I'd like to think that I have been associated with people who have run campaigns that, while they've been strong, they've been fair."
Some Democrats agree. "I think he fights fair," says Kirk Adams, who battled Rove on behalf of former Democratic governor Ann Richards in the 1994 campaign.
Bush has pledged to run a positive campaign, and so it is perhaps no coincidence that Rove says the era of attack politics has run its course. "I think we've gone through a period in American politics from the '70s and '80s where the negative campaign worked to where it doesn't," he says. "I think what does work in politics is the counterpunch rather than the punch."
Rove, 48, was born in Colorado, grew up in an apolitical household and caught the political bug after the family moved to Utah. In 1971 he quit the University of Utah and moved to Washington to become executive director of the College Republicans.
In 1973, he and the College Republicans were accused of encouraging dirty tricks during the Watergate campaign year of 1972. The Republican National Committee, which was then chaired by Bush's father, investigated and eventually exonerated Rove, who blames political opponents from his chairmanship race for spreading false allegations.
But Rove acknowledges that, in 1970, he used a false identity to gain entry to the campaign offices of Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, who was running for state treasurer. Once inside, Rove swiped some letterhead stationery and sent out 1,000 bogus invitations to the opening of the candidate's headquarters promising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing."
"It was a youthful prank at the age of 19 and I regret it," Rove says.
He has had a Bush connection for 25 years, having first met George W. Bush while working as an assistant to Bush's father at the RNC in 1973-74. In 1977, he moved to Texas to work for the elder Bush's political action committee, and in 1978 helped George W. Bush in his unsuccessful race for Congress. Rove left the elder Bush's presidential campaign and moved to Austin in early 1979, in part to try to save a failing marriage. There he went to work for Bill Clements, the first Republican governor of Texas elected in this century. The marriage eventually dissolved, but the move to Austin launched Rove on a 20-year crusade to remake the political face of the state.
Despite knowing each other for two decades, Rove still calls the governor "sir" when they talk on the phone. And Bush seems to enjoy tormenting his chief strategist, keeping Rove's hyperkinetic energy in check and occasionally rebuking his top strategist for speaking too freely to the press. And earlier this year, Bush required Rove to sell his consulting firm and direct-mail company to concentrate full time on the presidential campaign.
But Bush is as loyal to Rove as Rove is to his candidate. "He's a friend," Bush said. "He is a very unique and very smart and very capable person. He is--he's just Karl, and when everybody understands what 'just Karl' means, we all get along."
Rove remarried in 1986. He and his wife, Darby, a graphic artist, have a 10-year-old son and live in a house in the hills overlooking Austin. They are also renovating an old lodge on the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country southwest of Austin. He is an avid quail hunter. "That's Q-U-A-I-L," he says.
A student of political history who teaches part time at the University of Texas, Rove has been provisionally accepted into the university's doctoral program in government. Not bad for someone who hasn't finished college. "I lack at this point one math class, which I can take by exam, and my foreign language requirement," he said.
His recent undergraduate course work prompted him to delve into William McKinley's presidential campaign in 1896, and he sees parallels between that election and the campaign of 2000.
McKinley, says Rove, correctly analyzed the political significance of the new, industrial-based economy and understood that the wave of immigration at the turn of the century was creating a diverse population that would require a new kind of politics. He says McKinley also sensed that the campaign of 1896 represented the passing of an older generation from political power.
"He saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the 1860s had sort of worn themselves out," Rove says. "Neither party could successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances. All those issues had either become resolved or irrelevant."
Rove says there are clear differences between then and now, but his description of McKinley's campaign almost writes the script for Bush's campaign of "compassionate conservatism." "A successful party," Rove says of the GOP under McKinley, "had to take its fundamental principles and style them in such a way that they seemed to have relevance to the new economy, the new nature of the country and the new electorate."
The first thing you notice about Joe Allbaugh is how much of him you notice. He stands 6 feet 4 inches, weighs 275 pounds and wears his hair in a brush. "It's a flat-top," he insists, "not a crew cut."
That is a rare display of vanity for the notoriously press-shy Allbaugh. At meetings of the National Governors' Association, he is sometimes mistaken for one of the ubiquitous security officers and seems to prefer it that way.
Until last month, Allbaugh was Bush's gubernatorial chief of staff. He is the behind-the-scenes man and the calming force between two strong-willed and powerful personalities in strategist Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes. His main role, he often jokes, was that of "the enforcer of the governor's will and the moderator of staff egos."
"Joe listens," Hughes says. "Both Karl and I talk a lot. Joe does not. He's quiet. But when he speaks, it's always well thought out. Joe's very fair and very balanced. He gets things done."
Allbaugh has prospered in part because he has a constituency of one--Bush. "There isn't anything more important than protecting him and the first lady," he said. "I'm the heavy, in the literal sense of the word."
Still, it was not preordained that he would become Bush's campaign manager. Bush considered giving the job to former Iowa representative Tom Tauke. There are several versions of what happened: One is that Bush didn't want to force Tauke to give up a lucrative salary in Washington and move to Austin. Another is that Tauke worried that he could never fully control the campaign, particularly given Rove's power and long relationship with Bush. Still another is that Tauke proposed a top-down campaign structure that would have limited staff access to the candidate and with which Bush was not comfortable.
The outcome was a decision to make Allbaugh the campaign manager and leave Rove in the role of chief strategist.
Allbaugh is a nuts-and-bolts manager who enjoys saying no. "Joe is a really good bad cop," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser.
McKinnon recalls asking Allbaugh to inspect the new, Spartan offices the media team has established in Austin, which have no running water and the ambiance of a fallout shelter. "His response was, 'How much were those fancy chairs?' " McKinnon says.
As Bush's fund-raising team, led by Midland business executive Donald Evans, piled up a record $36.3 million in contributions in the first half of the year, Allbaugh kept a tight lid on expenditures, deferring the hiring of staff and denying some requests for travel. Of late he has taken to walking around the campaign headquarters with a megaphone, admonishing the staff not to spend money.
"It's not what you raise, it's what you have in the bank," he explains. "So what if you raise it all if you don't have it when you need it. So yes, I'm pretty frugal."
Allbaugh, 46, was raised on a farm about 100 miles north of Oklahoma City. His family abruptly moved to town the day his mother found a rattlesnake in a dresser drawer. "She found it in the morning and we became city farmers overnight," he says. Despite his size he never played football beyond junior high school. "By the time I got to high school, not only was I burned out, I was severely hurt," he says.
He studied political science at Oklahoma State University, becoming the first male in his family to graduate from college, and thought about law school. Instead, he was bitten by the campaign bug and started to do volunteer work. "It was enjoyable and it kept me off the farm," he says.
His first campaign was an Oklahoma congressional race in 1968. He did a gubernatorial campaign in 1970, worked on a Senate campaign in 1972 and in 1974 got his first paid campaign job as a driver and aide-de-camp for Republican Henry Bellmon.
He worked on the political field staff in the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984, but "was burned out of the traveling" by the time it ended and moved back to Oklahoma City. In 1986, he helped Bellmon win election as governor and spent 18 months in the governor's office, where he first met George W. Bush. "I was the Karl Rove of Bellmon's operation," he says.
Early in 1994 Allbaugh got a call from Bush, who had been referred to him by a mutual friend. Bush was concerned that his gubernatorial campaign was not operating smoothly, and he was looking for someone strong enough to make decisions stick. "Fortunately," Allbaugh says, "that's one of my strengths."
Allbaugh has been married twice. His current wife of almost 15 years, Diane, is an Austin lawyer. They have three children: one from his previous marriage, one from hers and one together. He likes to ski and go fly-fishing. But his planned Alaska vacation last month gave way to the responsibilities of launching the Bush campaign. He managed to grab a few days at Yellowstone National Park around the Fourth of July.
Allbaugh counts himself lucky to be where he is, knowing he has come a long way from the farm in Oklahoma. "This is the chance of a lifetime," he said. On Jan. 20, 2001, "George Bush will be inaugurated president of the United States and I'll have had a small role in it. It's almost unimaginable."
Around the time of Bush's second inauguration last winter, the governor and his press secretary met in his Capitol office. Bush was leaning toward running for president, but was still worrying about the impact a campaign might have on his family. Karen Hughes was worried about her family, too.
The two talked at length about their own values and whether it was possible to conduct a campaign that would not have a destructive effect on their families. Bush wanted to make sure that Hughes would be at his side if he decided to run. "If you're not going, I'm not going," Bush told her, according to another campaign official privy to the conversation.
That's a remarkable statement for a politician to make to a staffer and indicative of the significance of Hughes's role. Bush advisers say that, on a personal basis, Hughes is probably closest to the governor of the three, and they say Bush always seems more confident and relaxed when she is around. "It can't be understood how important she is to the governor," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser.
Hughes has a big laugh and an outgoing personality, but she is also the governor's staunchest defender. More than anyone in the campaign, she is always "on message."
"People have either got good instincts and good antennae or they don't," Bush says. "Karen has got good instincts. She can spot a phony a mile away. Her voice is one of reason and honesty. Plus, Karen is someone who knows that it's so important to be proactive as opposed to defensive."
Hughes helps on more than just communications strategy and press relations. When Bush was in the final negotiations with legislative leaders at the end of May over his tax cuts and education spending, Hughes was one of three people he brought to the table. (Joe Allbaugh was another.)
"I think the governor--I don't want to put words in his mouth--I think he values my advice," Hughes says. "I think he trusts me. I think he likes to get my read on situations, so he frequently involves me in situations like that."
Some Bush supporters, fearing that Hughes's lack of national experience might hurt the presidential campaign, tried to have a more experienced communications director brought in above her earlier in the year. They got nowhere.
Hughes did help recruit Beckwith, a former Time magazine reporter and later press secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle, to be the campaign spokesman in Austin. But last week Beckwith was forced out over what were euphemistically described as "cultural" differences in "style and tone" in dispensing information to the press.
Beckwith had long relationships with many Washington-based reporters and the complaint inside the operation was that he had damaged the campaign's credibility by low-balling the amount of money Bush had raised and had been too chatty with reporters. Defenders say he was never disloyal to Bush but simply had a different way of operating than Hughes and others. Asked about his departure, Hughes declined to comment.
Hughes, 42, is an Army brat who was born in Paris. She graduated from high school in Texas and went to college at Southern Methodist University, where she began as an English major with an eye on law school. Then she stumbled into journalism.
At SMU she took a journalism course from Bob Mann, a Democrat who over the years has worked as a press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and for Garry Mauro, the Democrat who ran against Bush last year. On the first day of class, he handed everyone a slip of paper, each with a different address. The assignment was to go to the address and write a story about what was there.
"Mine was the It'll Do Club," Hughes says. It was a combination truck stop bar and lonely-hearts club. "Let me say in an understated way it was a far different world than anything I'd ever seen or experienced in my world, or certainly at SMU. And I had to write about it and I probably didn't do a very good job. But it stands out very vividly."
Later she found she enjoyed "writing to pictures" more than writing newspaper stories, and eventually pursued a career in television news after graduation. "I was a reporter for about 7 1/2 years and I loved . . . every minute of it," she said.
She covered murders, hurricanes and school board and city council meetings. But what she liked best was covering politics. In 1980 she followed the Bush presidential campaign to Iowa and New Hampshire. "What I loved was being live on Election Night at some candidate's headquarters or live when President Bush was elected vice president in Houston."
But in 1984 she made the switch from covering politics to practicing politics, going to work as the Texas press coordinator for the Reagan-Bush campaign. "Obviously that was a big jump," she says. "But I had come to love politics. I had gotten married and I had a new stepdaughter. I remember when I was doing the wedding invitations, I got called and sent to a hurricane. I was driving toward the coast and everybody else was driving the other way. I remember thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' "
After 1984 she continued her political endeavors, doing political PR and helping candidates around Dallas, including Fred Meyer, a Dallas businessman, in his campaign for state chairman. In 1992 she moved to Austin to become executive director of the Texas Republican Party--and, along with Karl Rove, a thorn in the side of then-Gov. Ann Richards.
When Meyer decided not to run for reelection as chairman, Hughes moved to Bush's gubernatorial campaign. Over the course of many months on the road with the candidate, they developed a close working relationship.
"When you're together for long days in very high-stress situations, you either end up not liking each other or liking each other a lot, and we ended up liking each other a lot," she says. "He is funny, he is irreverent, he has a great big-picture view of things so he doesn't take himself too seriously. If there's a minor glitch, he has a great sense of humor about letting it roll off."
Bush supporters say Hughes has been irritated with Rove at times when the strategist has revealed campaign news in the media before sharing it with everyone else, but she plays down their differences. "We disagree from time to time," she says. "It's probably more a matter of both being busy. Karl is very smart and I have enormous respect for him. On matters of political strategy, I totally defer to him."
Hughes teaches Sunday school and serves as an elder in her Presbyterian church in Austin. Her husband, Jerry, is an Austin attorney. She has a 12-year-old son and a 25-year-old stepdaughter and prides herself on being a mom as much as being the governor's press secretary. "I am proud that this spring, when we were obviously in a critical legislative session and we were launching the exploratory effort for president, I've been to every one of my son's Little League games except one," she says.
Hughes is the first to admit she has stepped into an enterprise that is likely to be overwhelming at times. "I hope some of the same things that served us well here will serve us well nationally," she says. "But I plead guilty to the fact that we're not nationally experienced political consultants. Now Karl's got quite a bit of experience and Joe has national experience from his days at the RNC. But almost all of my experience has been in Texas.
"I know I don't know a lot," she adds. "I know the governor. I know where he stands. I know his principles and I try to be a pretty effective communicator of what he believes. But I don't make any pretense that I know how to do this nationally."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company