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'Boy Genius': Bush's Éminence Grise


January 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

The role of éminence grise is so well established in American presidential politics and myth that almost every White House has an aide who becomes world-famous for ''working behind the scenes.'' Karl Rove, President Bush's 52-year-old policy adviser, may exercise influence beyond even that of Michael Deaver under Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater under Bush pere or Dick Morris under Bill Clinton. The Navy has stopped bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques because Rove thought it would help Gov. George Pataki with Hispanic voters. European and Japanese steel makers face heavy American tariffs because Rove thought trade unions would appreciate them. And it was Rove who in November engineered a stunning Republican takeover of the Senate, by insisting -- in the teeth of contrary advice from other Republican consultants -- that candidates could win running on just taxes and terrorism. In the wake of that triumph, three writers have assembled a slapdash biography that charts Rove's rise, examines his tactics and makes extravagant claims for his clout. According to the Texas magazine journalists Lou Dubose and Jan Reid and a veteran White House correspondent, Carl M. Cannon, ''If Bush is the virtuoso, then Rove is the composer.''

Rove arrived in Houston to run the elder Bush's political action committee at just the moment in the late 1970's when the Democrats' control of Texas politics was starting to break, releasing gushers of conservative money to those who knew where to drill for it. Texas politics, the authors show, is unusually money-driven: the state's 181 legislators meet only every two years, and during their brief sessions are waylaid by thousands of lobbyists wielding hundreds of millions of dollars. But Rove sought money everywhere. Early on he saw that computerizing direct-mail lists could kill two birds with one stone: the Texas Republican Party became not only one of the country's best financed but arguably its best organized. Rove also had a gift for luring conservative Democrats into the fold -- dozens of them, including the longtime (now retired) senator Phil Gramm and the current Texas governor, Rick Perry. Finally, Rove was one of those rare political operatives -- the authors invite comparison to George Stephanopoulos -- as gifted in devising policies as in selling them. It is this versatility that earned Rove the ''Boy Genius'' sobriquet from his serial-nicknaming boss. When Rove, in 1978, got the lackluster Bill Clements elected Texas' first Republican governor since Reconstruction, his reputation was established.

The husky, balding Rove, son of an itinerant geologist, grew up all over the West. He is an avid reader who dropped out of the University of Utah, a not particularly religious man who long drove the politics of a pious state. In short, he remains something of a misfit, and this may be why the authors have a hard time placing him ideologically. They toy with presenting him as a right-winger ''drawn into party activism by the presidential candidacy and conservative philosophy of Barry Goldwater,'' at a time when ''groups like the John Birch Society perceived in socialist ideology a danger to the country.'' But Rove has never been that kind of Republican. The authors are more on target when they compare him to Richard Nixon. Rove's style, like Nixon's, is to keep his opponents off balance, by forming unpredictable alliances, co-opting much of the liberal program and -- above all -- avoiding issues and candidates vulnerable to the Democrats' campaign playbook. (Hence Rove's role in the recent ouster of the Jim Crow-extolling Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, which came too late to be included in the book.)

The authors invoke Nixon, too, when they seek to tar Rove as the lowest kind of political dirty trickster. Here they fail. Even a reader coming to Texan political hardball for the first time will find their evidence weak, their narrative slanted and their sources motivated by sour grapes. In a 1990 race to unseat the Democratic agriculture commissioner, Jim Hightower, Rove raised Hightower's liberalism (citing his support for Jesse Jackson's presidential run) and the corruption of his staff (for which three aides were convicted and sentenced). The authors blame Rove for Hightower's liabilities and his loss. Rove, they write, ''had taken a smart, ambitious popular statewide official and 'drove up his negatives,' replacing him with a rural legislator who had achieved nothing of great distinction in two terms in the Statehouse.''

Then there is the 1992 re-election effort of Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerrero, Texas Democrats' great Latina hope. Guerrero had panache, superb fund-raising contacts and a resume that included Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Texas. Unfortunately, Guerrero had never graduated from college. For her subsequent loss, the authors blame . . . Rove again! ''Once the transcript was delivered to Rove,'' they write, ''there was little doubt that it would become part of the public record. Rove was ever the colleague and disciple of Lee Atwater, who had elevated smear tactics to an art form.'' The authors overindulge this habit of presenting run-of-the-mill political tactics as uniquely innovative, inspired or devious: ''Rove,'' they inform us, ''has a crack team of opposition research specialists whom he calls his 'oppo dudes,' '' who dig for compromising material on political opponents. (Every campaign has an opposition research team.)

''Boy Genius'' has its virtues. It never swallows the liberal cliche that the Bush presidency is a sort of TV-age regency, in which Rove serves as guardian to a telegenic but incompetent ward. In March 1999, the authors note, Bush gave Rove an ultimatum that he'd have to sell his consulting firm if he wanted to stay with the campaign. This isn't how puppets talk to puppeteers. There are also some vivid examples of Rove's campaign-trail savoir-faire (viz. his pre-emptive purchase of vulgar Internet addresses that used the Bush name) and his unsentimental frankness (viz. his analysis of the 2000 race as resembling that of 1896, an election in which ''each party's agendas were largely irrelevant or in danger of becoming irrelevant'').

But a lot goes missing. Rove has been more convincingly described by James Carney and John F. Dickerson of Time, by Richard L. Berke and Frank Bruni of The New York Times and by Carl M. Cannon himself, writing with Alexis Simendinger, in The National Journal. Don't look to this book to find out that Rove occupies Hillary Clinton's old West Wing office, that he doesn't drink, that he keeps his Rolodex and e-mail system on a BlackBerry on his belt, that he calls environmentalists ''greenbeans,'' that he hollers ''Feed the monkey!'' when he draws a card at gin rummy, that White House staffers call his Strategic Initiatives office ''strategery,'' in homage to the ''Saturday Night Live'' imitation of a tongue-tied President Bush. In leaving out so much that belongs in and putting in so much that should be left out, this book does not get the measure of Karl Rove.

As our president would say, it misunderestimates him.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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