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King Karl; It's No Big Deal, Insists The White House. But Rove's New Duties Will Help Fix Bush's Place In History.

By Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff; With Holly Bailey in Washington

21 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Newsweek. All rights reserved.

Saudis thrive in the heat, but not the Washington kind. In July 2003, they were looking for protective cover. A congressional panel had issued a report on the roots of the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudis. The report contained 28 superclassified pages that described evidence of possible Saudi funding for two of the hijackers. In reaction, the Saudis descended on the capital, eager to dispute the charges and reassure George W. Bush and his administration. Prince Saud al-Faisal sat down with the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Later that same day, the prince met with national-security adviser Condi Rice.

But there was a third White House base to touch--up a narrow flight of stairs on the second floor of the West Wing. On July 29, according to lobbying records reviewed by NEWSWEEK, the Saudis' leading Washington fixer, Adel Al-Jubeir, met with Karl Rove to, among other things, "give a status briefing on the Kingdom's reform efforts and war against terrorism." The sit-down was arranged by former Texas congressman Tom Loeffler, an elite fund-raiser for Bush's campaigns who had been hired as a lobbyist for the Saudis. The meeting was Al-Jubeir's second with Rove; the first was three months after 9/11. A source close to the Saudis insisted that the sessions were a mere "courtesy." But since Rove's domain was politics--not foreign policy--why arrange them at all? "Isn't it obvious?" the source replied.

Now it is--more than ever. For much of Bush's first term, not to mention the 2004 campaign, the administration denied what everyone in the capital knew to be the case: that, on policy, Rove was a man to see. Last week the White House made it official, announcing that The Architect of the 2004 victory--indeed, of Bush's entire political career--would become a deputy chief of staff, while keeping his existing titles of senior adviser and assistant to the president. White House aides were intent on downplaying the importance of the move, even leaking names of obscure functionaries who supposedly had been considered for the job. Andy Card--known to fear the gravitational pull of Rove's close relationship with the president--will remain as the chief of staff, they insisted; a source close to him said that Card will stay at least through 2006. Rove, insiders said, wouldn't want Card's job anyway, at least in its current configuration, which is more paper flow than policy.

But the spin spun back onto itself. Rove has always had a major role in formulating policy, officials now suddenly were eager to concede. A bit too strenuously, they insisted that Rove would be excluded from hard-core matters such as the Pentagon, intelligence and counterterrorism--and that he would not be in the Oval Office when the president gets his ultrasecret morning intel briefing. And yet, officials said publicly, Rove will "coordinate policy within the various councils" of the White House--including national security and homeland security--while he "continues to oversee the strategy to advance" Bush's agenda. As usual in bureaucratic Washington, the real story lay not in the nomenclature but in the real estate: Rove is moving from upstairs to down, just around the corner from the Oval Office. "In a way, the appointment just confirms reality," said GOP consultant Charlie Black. But, in a city in which the biggest secrets are the open ones, "this is still a big deal."

In the first term, Rove focused his laser-like attention to detail on the fine points of domestic policy, the better to woo and win voting (or contributing) constituencies. He was up to his spectacles on issues ranging from legislation to limit steel imports to energy-efficiency standards to tax policy. Behind closed doors, Rove was a leading advocate for abolishing federal taxation of stock dividends. The president put forward just that proposal in late 2002; Congress went along halfway.

Nor has Rove been afraid to venture offshore when the matters at hand have special resonance for certain voting blocs. He brokered a deal in 2001 to end the U.S. Navy's use of a training ground in Puerto Rico--a sensitive issue with Hispanics--and Rove has steeped himself in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Rove helped to draft Bush's pivotal speech on the issue in 2002--in which the president declared Yasir Arafat persona non grata. He traveled with the president to Egypt in 2003. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, Rove has privately expressed interest in traveling to the region on his own this year.

Rove was a player on Iraq, too. In the run-up to the war, Rove was a full--and, colleagues say, impressive--participant in the colorfully named WHIG (White House Iraq Group). The panel members shed their cell phones and BlackBerrys to meet in a secure National Security Council conference room, sifting through classified evidence (much of it now discredited) for data that might win public support for Bush's hard line against Saddam Hussein. Rove seemed to come into the room knowing more than his political brief, said a fellow WHIG. "He'd say, 'I've got a feeling' about something, and he was usually right."

Democrats last week were crying foul. As he handed the baton to Dr. Howard Dean, outgoing party chairman Terry McAuliffe declared that Rove's new role proved that "Bush cares more about political positioning than honest policy discussion." But, in a way, the Democrats were missing the point. Rove constructed Bush's career as a marriage of policy and politics, playing down Bush's manor-born bio in favor of "game-changing" ideological agendas designed to bring breakthrough electoral success. It's worked so far.

But why the Rove move now? Bush is a loyalist, but also a former baseball exec who values new blood in the lineup. He can satisfy both impulses by shifting trusted players into different roles. Rove has his own reasons. A brilliant autodidact who lacks a college degree, he has always been eager to prove publicly that he is more than a political consultant. More important, Rove has to know that his most crucial "campaign" still lies ahead in his 32-year partnership with Bush. Rove has to help him avoid the usual second-term presidential morass--not to mention another attack on the homeland. He has to help him build a lasting legacy--and retire to Texas before the heat sets in.

Big Dog: Rove's job is to help Bush beat second-term blues

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