BOY GENIUS

Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush

By Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon

PublicAffairs. 253 pp. Paperback, $15 It's unlikely that George W. Bush would buy into the characterization of Karl Rove as the sole "brains" behind his political rise, nor the assertion that Rove single-handedly "remade" the Texas political landscape during the 1980s and 1990s. The president, who hates being upstaged by aides, has two nicknames for Rove: "boy genius" and "turd blossom," a reference to the flower that sprouts out of a cowpie. Bush's contrasting monikers actually provide a more accurate summation of his political adviser's importance than do this trio of biographers.

The authors of "Boy Genius" hype their subject as a brilliant political thinker who reshaped American politics, first by transforming Texas into a Republican state and then by catapulting the conservative Bush into the Oval Office. In fact, what Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon portray is an astute operative skilled at raising money and playing political hardball. Rove is less a strategist who shifted Texas's political sirocco than one who understood how to fill his candidates' sails with its gusts. In 25 years as a Texas political consultant, Rove also proved adept at growing the blossom of victory out of the dung of political dirty work.

"Rove remade Texas by methodically and ruthlessly eliminating the Democratic Party from the top down," the authors write. "He targeted Democratic candidates he believed he could defeat. He undermined them to make sure they would be defeated. He recruited Republican candidates who would win and remain in office. He lured conservative Democratic members of Congress into the Republican Party, with bankable promises of support in races for higher office."

Born to apolitical parents, Rove worshiped Richard Nixon, dreamed of running for president, and dropped out of the University of Utah to work for a Republican Senate campaign in Illinois. As the authors recount, he demonstrated an early penchant for campaign pranks. In 1970, pretending to be a volunteer for state treasurer candidate Alan J. Dixon, he swiped Dixon letterhead and mailed 1,000 copies of a letter promising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing" at the Democrat's campaign headquarters.

As chairman of the College Republicans in the mid-'70s, he was reportedly training young activists in Nixon-style dirty tricks -- prompting a worried GOP chairman, George H.W. Bush, to send an FBI agent to question Rove. (Bush's frustrations with the tactics of the College Republicans persisted into the 1980s, when he was vice president, and Rove's successors -- Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist -- proved a constant source of embarrassment to the party establishment.)

Nothing came of the FBI questioning, and Rove went on to build a respectable career at the center of Texas politics. Despite the dominance of the Democratic Party in Texas, he envisioned a Republican future for the state, starting with the 1978 gubernatorial win of Bill Clements, his first client. Clements lost in a 1982 Democratic sweep but ran again in 1986. During that campaign, Rove held a pre-debate news conference claiming that Clements's opponents had planted an eavesdropping device in the Clements campaign offices. Accusations surfaced that Clements's own campaign had actually planted the device, and a federal grand jury considered charges against Rove. But the investigation was dropped. Near the end of that same race, Rove's candidate mailed out a fake newspaper with an account of Gov. Mark White's drunk-driving arrest as a college student. Six years later, when Rove ran George W. Bush's successful campaign against Gov. Ann Richards, "push polls" stirred the infamous lesbian rumors about the sharp-tongued governor.

There's more to the Rove picture, though. The authors demonstrate Rove's instincts for building donor bases, running winning campaigns and finding appealing candidates. He recruited such figures as Phil Gramm and Kent Hance from the Democratic Party. In 1995, he concluded that George W. Bush would be a "fabulous" presidential candidate. After the 1996 election, the authors write, Rove began "to cultivate the impression of a spontaneous groundswell of people eager to support Bush." Governors, academics and overseas emissaries were brought in for carefully choreographed news conferences at the governor's mansion.

Rove's campaign successes in Texas, and with Bush, should be understood in the context of a national mood swing in the 1990s -- a growing acceptance of conservative ideas, a backlash against liberalism, and public anger over the personal behavior and hairsplitting ways of a Democratic president. There are other factors behind the rise of Bush's political career that deserve more investigation than the authors provide. For example, what was the role of the elder Bush and his circle of advisers, who stayed in the background while Rove produced a new-generation candidate unfettered by his father's reputation as a loser? "Boy Genius" is long on news clips and short on original reporting.

This book is not the place to go to fully understand the human side of Rove. Brief mentions of his mother's suicide, of his own lack of religious faith despite his clientele, of his "escape" from the Vietnam draft -- all hint that there is a more vivid portrait of the president's political adviser yet to be painted. Last fall, with the Republican midterm sweep, Rove attained the celebrity status of his mentor, the late Lee Atwater. He demonstrated an astute understanding of Democratic vulnerabilities, particularly on homeland security. But the glow of that victory should be tempered by the outcome of 2000, in which Bush lost the popular vote despite the weak candidacy of Al Gore.

Rove's place on the national scene is probably best summed up by Bill Miller, the Austin political consultant quoted in "Boy Genius." Describing Rove as the most focused, disciplined and organized political consultant he ever met, Miller says simply, "Karl was the right guy at the right time."