TOPICS > Politics

Presidential Adviser Rove to Leave Post

August 13, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And next, Karl Rove says the end is here. Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Karl Rove is moving on down the road.

KWAME HOLMAN: He’s been the central figure in the political life of George W. Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve been friends for a long time, and we’re still going to be friends. I would call Karl Rove a dear friend. We’ve known each other as youngsters interested in serving our state. We worked together so we could be in a position to serve this country. And so I thank my friend. I’ll be on the road behind you here in a little bit.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the White House South Lawn this morning, the man considered the president’s most influential adviser, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, explained why he is stepping down at the end of the month.

KARL ROVE, Deputy White House Chief of Staff: Through all those years, I’ve asked a lot of my family, and they’ve given all I’ve asked and more. And now it seems the right time to start thinking about the next chapter in our family’s life. It’s not been an easy decision, as you know, from our discussions that started last summer. It always seemed there was a better time to leave somewhere out there in the future. But now is the time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rove’s resignation comes amid a political firestorm over the firings last year of several federal prosecutors. His role in the dismissals is a focus of ongoing congressional investigations. White House claims of executive privilege have kept him from testifying to date.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: Where is Karl Rove? Why is he hiding?

KWAME HOLMAN: Rove also was named in the criminal investigation into who leaked the identity of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame three years ago. He never was charged with any wrongdoing. The investigation led to the conviction of Vice President Cheney’s aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Called the “architect” of his political victories by the president, Rove guided Mr. Bush’s successful 1994 campaign for Texas governor, defeating popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards. He then masterminded Bush presidential campaign victories in 2000 and 2004. Rove was credited with a unique understanding of the Republican base and with galvanizing it to help gain GOP congressional seats in 2002 and 2004.

But the 2006 midterm elections brought an end to Republicans’ and Rove’s successes, as they lost control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. Renowned for his optimism, Rove characterized that as a temporary setback for the GOP agenda.

Karl Rove's mixed legacy

David Gergen
Former White House Adviser
I think he's going to be remembered as the architect, first, of an extraordinary success, a political success on the part of the president, and then an extraordinary series of failures.

JIM LEHRER: More now from David Gergen, who has served as an adviser to five presidents. He's now a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, director of its Center for Public Leadership. And Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine.

David, how should Karl Rove's work for George W. Bush be remembered?

DAVID GERGEN, Former Presidential Adviser: The final chapters have yet to be written, Jim, of course. And he put a very positive gloss on it in his resignation statement that appeared first today in the Wall Street Journal with Paul Gigot.

But I think he's going to be remembered as the architect, first, of an extraordinary success, a political success on the part of the president, and then an extraordinary series of failures. And it's the rise and fall, in effect, of the Bush presidency, which traces this relationship.

He will certainly be remembered as the most influential political strategist we've had in the White House for, I would say, almost 60 years. You have to go back to Clark Clifford with Harry Truman or perhaps Louis Howe with Franklin Roosevelt to find someone as influential as he has been, because he's been at the intersection of both politics and policy. He's had a loud voice and important voice in both.

But it's the last couple of years with the failures in Iraq, the defeat in '06, this growing sense of scandal that's engulfed the administration, of course, that's going to mark his reputation. And so we've had this boy genius, this boy wonder who came in, and I think held Republicans in awe and dazzled Democrats, who now goes out as loathed by Democrats as a svengali figure, an evil one who manipulated politics, and Republicans as someone they still respect, still like, but some of the glow is gone.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the glow gone, Mark? How would you characterize how this man should be remembered?

MARK HALPERIN, Senior Political Analyst, Time Magazine: Well, there's no question that some of the glow is gone. I think, on the one hand, in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections you saw Karl Rove as one of the best political operatives probably in the history of modern American politics, someone who wanted to bring conservative change and felt that it was more important to win power and try to make conservative change than it was to seek bipartisan compromise.

But I think, in the later Bush years, he saw two things that will be part of his legacy, and not the proud part. One is that he was perhaps a little tone deaf to the mood of the country and that he was too partisan, sought partisan victories and to defeat and destroy his enemies rather than to seek compromise.

And then there were basic questions of competence, not just in the 2006 election and to the extent he's played a role in the Iraq war in communications and legislative strategy, but also things like Hurricane Katrina response, the nomination of Harriet Miers, the Dubai ports matter, all of these things I think contributed to a sense that, if Karl Rove was going to be part of political team that was partisan and tough and trying to change the country, they had to keep winning.

Once the losses began -- and he's responsible for part of that -- the thing started to fall apart, and I think it makes what was unimaginable before, Karl Rove leaving George Bush's White House, not only imaginable, but understandable.

Work on policy, campaigns

Mark Halperin
Time Magazine
Part of Karl Rove's strength was he could play a very high level in policy discussions, more than your average campaign strategist, by far. He could also operate as a congressional liaison, as a strategist on major national and international issues.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's pick out some of these things. David, let's go back to what Mark said. He said one of the best political operatives of his time. First of all, do you agree with that? And how would you define political operative, in Karl Rovian terms?

DAVID GERGEN: I think he had one of the best minds in modern political times, and certainly within the Republican Party. He is the equivalent of Bill Clinton in the Democratic Party, having an extraordinary sense of American politics, what the openings are.

When you say best operative, that also carries the connotation of practicing a possibly very good level of politics. And I think on that score there are many, many Americans who feel, "Wait a minute, this was an artist of the smear. This was a guy who played politics of destruction. This was a guy who played hardball right from the beginning." He was very much in the Lee Atwater school of American politics. And so I don't think most people would say he was one of the best operatives; I do think he had one of the best minds.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what would you add to that, mind or operative, mind and/or operative?

MARK HALPERIN: A little bit of both. Part of Karl Rove's strength was he could play a very high level in policy discussions, more than your average campaign strategist, by far. He could also operate as a congressional liaison, as a strategist on major national and international issues.

At the same time, like Bill Clinton, he had the ethos of a Chicago ward boss. And when he was working on politics in 1999, in 2001, 2002, and then into the re-election campaign, he could get down to a very tactile level of voting patterns in individual counties, of whose endorsement mattered, of direct mail, which is where he got his start in the business.

So he played on lots of different levels at a very high level, and that's, I think, his greatest strength as a political operative, as someone working on elections, which is, he knew how to do many different things very well. As David points out, a lot of his critics would say he used all of that ability to further a partisan, conservative agenda, often using negative politics. And there's lot of truth to that, as well.

Power for a purpose

David Gergen
Former White House Adviser
But now the tide seems to have turned. And I think, at the end of the day, you have to say that this dream they came to the White House with has gone smash in the deserts of Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, is it correct to say and fair to say that Karl Rove was willing to do almost anything to win and that was his number-one objective?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, there's a lot of charges that have been made against Karl Rove over the years that have not been borne out. It is clear, though, that he was as hard-nosed, as tough-nosed, was willing to push the limits of what was acceptable and sometimes perhaps to go over it as anyone I've covered in either party.

But what he was trying to do -- and this is where I think some of his critics hate him so much that they don't think clearly about him -- he was trying to change the country in a conservative direction as George Bush wanted to do. He was not trying to destroy people for the sake of destroying them. He was not trying to win political victories for the accumulation of power. He believed in George Bush's agenda and believed to achieve that agenda they had to be tough, hard-nosed, and achieve political victories, gain political capital.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David, he was agenda-driven more than power-driven?

DAVID GERGEN: I think he was both. I do think Mark is right; he wanted power for a purpose. And I don't think he was unique, as a sort of a hardball advocate. You know, we've seen in the Lyndon Johnson administration on the Democratic side, you know, people who were more than willing to go out and destroy if that's what it took to get power. And we saw this with Franklin Roosevelt using IRS records to go out and smear people. But what I do think is that Karl played it right at the edges and sometimes in the eyes of his opponents he went way beyond the edges.

The larger point -- and I hope that part of his legacy we can leave behind -- I think the larger point of his legacy is, though, that the dream that he and George W. Bush brought to the White House, the large political enterprise was that of creating a durable Republican majority, a majority that might last 30 or 40 years, the kind that William McKinley created back in the late 19th century, when McKinley had his Mark Hanna. And it appeared for a while that Karl was the new Mark Hanna of American politics.

I think what we now see is that dream has gone smash, after some remarkable gains in 2000, 2002 in the Congress, 2004 in the Congress, something that no president has done since Franklin Roosevelt, to build his party's strength up in two straight elections, off-year and then his re-election, Karl Rove really helped pull that off with Bush. But now the tide seems to have turned. And I think, at the end of the day, you have to say that this dream they came to the White House with has gone smash in the deserts of Iraq.

Closeness with the president

Mark Halperin
Time Magazine
His friendship with Karl Rove, their mutual respect, and Karl Rove's understanding that he was there as a proxy for George Bush to carry out his wishes I think was a great source of his influence and power.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, to pick up on an earlier point of David's, the other part of Karl Rove, which is the adviser to the president -- and, David, I'm characterizing what you said, David, but essentially he said he was the most, if not the most, one of the most influential presidential advisers in modern history in the last 60 years. Do you buy that, Mark?

MARK HALPERIN: Oh, I think without question, obviously, Jim, that's a hard thing to measure. But based on his closeness to the president, based on the tasks he was given across a range of both policy and politics, and based on his capacity to do a lot of things and to work very hard, I don't think there's any question that he was as influential as anyone, certainly in modern times.

And the closeness with the president can't be overstated. President Bush is an intimidating and demanding guy, and his friendship with Karl Rove, their mutual respect, and Karl Rove's understanding that he was there as a proxy for George Bush to carry out his wishes I think was a great source of his influence and power.

JIM LEHRER: David, what drew them together and kept them together, Bush and Rove?

DAVID GERGEN: I think the president said it quite well. They both set out to change Texas politics. And it's worth remembering that, when the two of them got started in Texas politics, it was a state, as you well know, that was totally dominated by Democrats. Democrats held every statewide political office. They controlled the state legislature by a nine-to-one majority. They controlled the State Senate. They basically controlled the appointments to the judiciary to a very large extent.

And the Bush-Rove team, along with others, set out to transform Texas politics. And as you know, today in Texas every state officeholder is a Republican and the state legislature is Republican. So they succeeded in that.

And their large enterprise was -- political enterprise was to do to the United States what they did to Texas, to transform the United States government. And in the beginning, it looked as if like they might get there.

But I think through a number of serious policy mistakes, as well as a number of practices, you know, trying to run over the opposition, deciding to govern, in my judgment, with a mistaken view of governance, and that was, "If we can just get to 51 percent and just ram something through, we can get our bills and we can change the way we live, America lives," and to live up to Mark's vision or what he described as a conservative America.

And clearly that was a losing strategy, not only in Iraq, but a losing strategy for governance here at home.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, would you agree with that overall analysis, Mark, that that was the losing strategy that caused the problem?

MARK HALPERIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. The country wanted bipartisanship, and you can't just will yourself to a conservative majority. You have to be popular and find positions that will grow that majority and strengthen it. And they made too many choices that were too partisan and too negative.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you, Jim.

MARK HALPERIN: Thank you.