MARGARET WARNER: When President Bush goes to Capitol Hill tonight to give his state of the union address, White House senior adviser Karl Rove will be nowhere in sight. But his fingerprints will be all over what Mr. Bush says, and how he says it.
Few Americans know his name, but the 52-year-old Karl Rove is the president's single most influential adviser, his chief strategist on matters of politics and policy. The president calls him "boy genius."
Born in Colorado in 1950, Rove dropped out of the University of Utah 20 years later to work in an Illinois senate race. He came to Washington in the early 70s, serving as executive director and later chairman of the College Republicans. His Bush family ties began in the mid-1970s, when Rove became an assistant to then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, George H.W. Bush.
In 1977, Rove moved to Houston to run the elder Bush's political action committee. But he advised other Texas Republican candidates too, even playing a minor role in George W. Bush's failed 1978 run for Congress. Rove's first big victory came that year, when he helped elect Bill Clements the state's first Republican governor in 100 years.
Other successes followed. Rove clients included current Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Governor Rick Pick Perry, and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm.
In the early 1990s, rove began tutoring George W. Bush, then managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, to take on Democratic Governor Ann Richards. Bush won in 1994, and rove immediately began laying the groundwork for a Bush run for president. As chief strategist of the 2000 Bush presidential campaign, Rove sounded upbeat speaking with Gwen Ifill at the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
KARL ROVE: It's a great agenda. It's one that will win in the fall elections, and it's one the American people will applaud and enjoy.
MARGARET WARNER: It came as no surprise afterwards when President-elect Bush said Rove would serve as his senior adviser in the White House.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Karl has got a fantastic mind. He is one of the reasons I was elected governor and one of the reasons why I was elected the president. He comes to Washington with a wonderful sense of history, a great understanding of the presidency as an institution in America. He will bring good judgment, good humor and good advice to the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: As head of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, Rove is said to influence the president not only on political matters, but on most policy issues. Rove also helped plan his party's 2002 campaign to retake the Senate, recruiting successful GOP challengers and putting President Bush's popularity on the line to campaign for them.
Rove works at maintaining a low public profile. Last week, in a rare on-the- record session with print reporters, Rove downplayed his influence with the president, saying: "I have to get my say like others. Sometimes I am on the side that prevails; sometimes I am not."
The press exaggerates his role, Rove said: "This town can only operate successfully through myth, and one of those great myths is that there has to be one great Svengali person sitting in the White House."
Myth or not, that hasn't kept the press from writing about Rove as the most powerful presidential adviser, perhaps ever. And in what may be a first for a sitting presidential aide, Rove is now the subject of two new books. The titles: "Boy Genius" and "Bush's Brain."
MARGARET WARNER: And with us now is one of those authors, Lou Dubose who co-wrote Boy Genius, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush. He's been editor of the Texas Observer and political editor of the Austin Chronicle. And David Sanger, White House correspondent for the New York Times. Welcome to you both.
Lou Dubose, help us understand the roots of this relationship between the president and Karl Rove. What does and did Rove do for President Bush or then Governor Bush or pre-Governor Bush that makes him so apparently indispensable?
LOU DUBOSE: Well, Margaret, he essentially created George W. Bush as a political candidate. You know, when James Carville hooked up with Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton was already a fully developed political wonk and a political animal. George Bush wasn't. He had run one unsuccessful campaign for Congress in the Texas panhandle in which Karl Rove was marginally involved, which Bush denied at the time because Rove was described as too liberal for the Texas panhandle.
But then he entirely shaped Bush as a candidate, tutored him. I mean there was one celebrated moment in the... not so celebrated, celebrated by the press in the 1994 campaign in which Bush got off message and Rove took him off the campaign, off the campaign trail into East Texas for a week in the wood shed and when he returned he was a candidate entirely on message.
It's almost a Pygmalion like relationship between Rove and Bush-- not to understate the president's intelligence. Karl Rove is a great autodidact and Bush is admittedly a person not read broadly or widely. He has admitted that. So you have a relationship in which he essentially shaped the candidate as governor and got him elected governor.
MARGARET WARNER: How would you describe it, David Sanger, here in Washington?
DAVID SANGER: Well, I think, Margaret, that the most remarkable thing to me about Karl Rove is that he has helped teach the president how to be comfortable with the tools of the presidency and to use them. Mr. Rove gives a wonderful account of how one uses Air Force One, the first and biggest symbol: Landing in a town during the election campaign in the fall, totally dominating local media for the entire day. You know, the president may go off and give a speech in which the White House correspondents are all rolling their eyes because they've heard it 500 times, but in Karl Rove's hands the whole bit from the way down the stairs until the time the speech is given and the interviews with the local press sell marvelously. You saw it work in these elections. He's also got a very good ear for where the president ought to be. And I think that you'll see a good deal of that in tonight's speech. We see it just in some of the excerpts that the White House has released this evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to give us an example.
DAVID SANGER: Well, there was a moment here where on the economy the president is supposed to say, "Jobs are created when the economy grows. The economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest, and the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have money is not to tax it away in the first place." This rises above this whole question of whether the tax cuts are mostly aimed at the wealthy or not. Tax cuts aren't really tax cuts. They're really all about growth. No mention of deficits. That's not an issue that he would want to dwell on.
MARGARET WARNER: Lou Dubose, talk about Karl Rove's... what kind of conservative is he? He's known as the conservative's friend in the White House. But it's a fairly complicated picture, isn't it?
LOU DUBOSE: It is a complicated picture. And Karl Rove started out as a Richard... as a Barry Goldwater conservative as a young man as many Republicans did -- then sort of became something of a Richard Nixon conservative.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you mean a pragmatist?
LOU DUBOSE: I think above all, yeah, above all, Karl Rove is a pragmatist and has been known to do whatever needs to be done to win elections and to govern. One example is the takeover of the Texas, the machinery of the Texas Republican Party by the religious right at the convention in 1994 just as Mr. Rove's candidate, George W. Bush, was about to kick off his first statewide race. It was shocking for Karl Rove, and they made the mistake of running against the religious... the evangelicals who dominated the convention.
What they learned from that, in terms of policy in Texas, and I think even in terms of national policy, what they learned from that is how to accommodate the religious right while governing on behalf of the economic conservatives and keeping both of those forces in harness. I think that's real important. I think he's an agile candidate, able to adapt to changing circumstances. I think Texas was a good place to rehearse this campaign for the presidency.
MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that in terms of the role he plays for conservatives in this White House and what kind of conservative he is.
DAVID SANGER: Well, he has championed in many cases some of those movements that the president has gone out and offered up to conservatives, the judges I think are a good example, a very conservative stable of judges. I think another example is the faith-based initiative -- a program that really hasn't gone very far and hasn't gone any place in Congress -- may not make a difference, Margaret, that it goes any place in Congress. It's important that the president is out talking about it. At least it's important to Mr. Rove.
Education is a quirky one because remember in the mid 1990s the Republican position on education was let's kill the Department of Education. Under George Bush, it's been a much more subtle and much more progressive kind of approach. He passed an education bill that you may say is a success, you may say is under funded but it put him out on the leading edge of it instead of the trailing edge of it.
MARGARET WARNER: I read an interview that he gave with the Times of London in which he said in the post Cold War era conservatives have to learn to talk about what they're for and that there are issues-- I imagine education would be one of them-- that they didn't used to talk about that now they do.
DAVIS SANGER: Another big one is trade. Now, the old Republican position was, "we're just free traders." But there was Karl Rove sitting in the Oval Office in every single meeting on whether the president would impose tariffs on imported steel and ultimately drove the president to what seemed to many to be a very non-free trade position. The president announced it, won a lot of support for that, and has quietly eroded it by giving exemptions to many imports, something that doesn't reach the headlines.
MARGARET WARNER: But meanwhile as you said got support in key electoral states that....
DAVID SANGER: And from some unions that he's been able to split away from the Democrats.
MARGARET WARNER: Lou Dubose, how would you describe the personal relationship between the president and Karl Rove?
LOU DUBOSE: I think I mean George Bush describes him as a friend. I think it is a very close relationship. It again goes back to him, you know, Karl Rove has told... has said to a reporter -- Miriam Rosen of the Dallas Observer -- that this is the kind of candidate that a political hack like me dreams of.
The relationship is extremely close -- as we saw it here. It was a relationship in which, in which Rove really created the candidate. You know, it can be antagonistic. I mean, you know, Karl Rove said... Mr. Rove last week said, as was quoted in your lead-in, there's this myth of a Svengali. I would like to think he's reacting to our book in creating that myth, but it's a complex relationship. It can be contentious in the sense that there was one occasion when then Governor Bush said Karl Rove continued speaking after a press conference and Governor Bush very testily and publicly said I hope the Rove press conference is over. He has been his sole political adviser, his best counsel and a close friend. The governor....
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you here before we go, David. So, bring this now to the White House. It's always said that he has great influence on domestic policy, not just politics but domestic policies. How about on foreign policy?
DAVID SANGER: Well, this is an interesting area of mystery. We wrote a story back in May that described his growing influence in foreign policy and the trade decision I discussed was, in fact, partly a foreign policy and partly a domestic policy issue. On issues of more pure foreign policy-- Iraq, North Korea-- there's a lot of nervousness in the White House and among the Pentagon, some in the State Department, that he not be in the room when the policy is being made. In fact he's not at the National Security Council meetings, but he certainly is in those meetings about how this policy is conveyed to people.
And in recent times as the White House has confronted the fact that the president has not yet made a convincing case on going to war with Iraq, you have begun to see little bits and pieces of the Rove handprints on how the president begins to cast this. Now you've also seen others though. You've seen Karen Hughes, you've seen, of course, Condoleezza Rice.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Lou Dubose, David Sanger, thanks both.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you.
LOU DUBOSE: Thank you, Margaret.