But what really began to take place then was a kind of a seismic shift in the landscape. And Texas was one of the tougher places, because the Democratic Party had been so locked in there with the entire business establishment of Texas that it was very hard initially for Republicans to find real support in the part of the financial community, business community, where in other states it was easiest for them. And I think that it was not until really about the time that Karl started working effectively on the scenes as a consultant and with his company that the Republican Party in Texas began to become anything more than a presidential party.
There had always been presidential Republicans in Texas. The first time I went to Texas as a reporter in 1960, I went to a state Democratic convention in Austin, where they were endorsing Lyndon Johnson as their candidate at the Democratic convention coming up. And the Dallas County delegation walked into that Democratic state convention wearing "Nixon for President" buttons. So there had always been presidential Republicans, but to think about the state becoming a Republican state was a pretty novel idea when Karl started working. ...
This term "Yellow Dog Democrat," what does it mean?
It means, classically, "I'd rather vote for a yellow dog on the Democratic ticket than any Republican I ever saw."
And a lot of Texans were Yellow Dog?
Absolutely. Yes. Right.
How do you go about, if you're Karl Rove, remaking, recasting, renaming, if nothing else, the political persuasions of people in a state the size and scope of Texas?
Well, the story really revolves around personalities, I think. And the dominant ones were, first, John Connally [Democratic governor from 1963-1969]. Well, really, if you want to go back historically, you go back to Allan Shivers [governor from 1949-1957], who had been a Democratic governor of Texas who became an avowed Republican and took some of the folks with him. But John Connally was a much larger figure, because he became a mythic figure after his part in the [John F. Kennedy] assassination day. And when Connally joined the Republican Party, it sent a signal, a huge signal, to a lot of other Texas business establishment people that there's no point trying now to turn the Democratic Party back from the liberal course that it's been on. I remember talking with Connally about how he thought that his old friend Lyndon Johnson had been led astray by the likes of Bill Moyers and those Kennedy people up in Washington, and had forgotten what they had all believed, he thought, and had joined in with the liberal crowd, and how this was never going to sell in Texas. So that was an enormous breakthrough.
But when they were finally able to win the governorship the first time, with Bill Clements, who was, again, an outside figure -- kind of forgotten, I suspect, to history now. But Clements was a character. When he was on the stage, he dominated the stage, not quite to the extent that Connally had. But Connally had been elected as a Democrat, and Clements finally was elected as a Republican. And of course, when George Bush came along, as the son of his father, the man who had been the president, he had an identity that, again, was larger than the party. And so the party found individuals that they could elect to the top of the ticket and then tried to build down off of their coattails, if you will. …
I gather in there somewhere in this process are issues, politics, policies that have to play a role. What are they?
Well, the underlying theme is hostility to big government and keeping taxes down. That was, at the state level, the unifying theme. Everything else was sort of to dress it up. But the basic appeal to business and to the new realm of voters that they recruited was that "We're going to keep the damn government out of your hair, and we're going to keep it out of your wallet." And that message resonated very clearly, particularly in a state like Texas, where the economy tied to oil resources and so on is automatically an up-and-down economy. So either people have made a lot of money that they want to hold on to, or they've just lost a lot of money, and they don't want to pay any taxes, because they don't have the money to pay the taxes with. That was the basic message.
Then there were other things that fit in with it as well, including, when George Bush came along, and to some extent foreshadowed by Clements, but really made a major theme with Bush, with trying to keep the lawyers in check on tort reform and trying to do something about the schools, which was the real appeal to the suburban housewives and mothers that were not the easiest ones to convert on the economic issues.
Where does tort reform come from? How does it get rolling?
Tort reform came from right straight out of the Chambers of Commerce and all of the businesspeople who have this morbid fear, based on either experience or anecdote, that somebody is going to slip on their property, or some employee is going to get a hand caught in a machine, and they're going to get sued in a way that's going to just put them out of business. It's a real fear. It's not something that the politicians invented. If you talk to any small-business people, men or women, who own their own companies, they have this genuine fear of a lawsuit. And because there were, at least anecdotally, some fairly outrageous awards that were given by juries, they really felt that the system had run out of control.
This is one of Rove's big issues. In '88 he starts to say, "This is a horse I can ride, with or without a candidate."
Yes, exactly. Right.
How does that get going?
Well, I don't know when the first campaign was where he used the issue, but it's been a staple of his conversation as long as I can remember. And it may be that it goes to his own experience running his own small business. I just don't know where it really began.
Another area he moves around in a lot is judges, judgeships, trying to plant the right people in the judicial branch in Texas. Tell me about that.
Again, I don't know the first time he got involved in a judicial campaign there, but I know that his belief is that the Democrats -- and he's not hallucinating about this -- that the relationship that had been built up historically between the law firms in Texas, the Democratic Party and the state government was an incestuous relationship. People made a lot of money out of that nexus. And I can remember back when Price Daniel [1957-1963] was the Democratic governor of Texas, the Democratic Party was run by a lady who had a desk in the law office of Price Daniel's old law firm, and if you wanted to do business with the governor, you went to that law firm. And that was also of course where the source of the Democratic Party campaign funds was centered. So it was a long-standing and intimate and incestuous relationship, which Karl, I expect, being a very clear-eyed young man, saw: "We have to somehow break up this partnership if we're ever going to be able to run the state."
And he went after it.
He strikes me as a guy who thinks of things at a couple of levels. Take tort reform: good issue for Chamber of Commerce people, good issue for small-business people, presumably good issue for one of his employers at one time, Philip Morris, but also has the added advantage of taking out of the game Democratic attorneys who might want to give money to the Democratic Party in Texas, might want to support them by drawing the fire and making the argument go. That's classic Rove.
That is classic Rove.
How would that happen?
Well, what you do, I think, is by stigmatizing a group of people, making them the targets of a campaign that you're explaining in other terms, you also raise the price for them in terms of their own political participation, and you force them to think, well, do I really want to antagonize these people? Maybe if I'm not quite so politically involved myself, they won't come after me.
Punishment as a political --
And the potential of, you know, "We'll leave you alone if you don't cause us problems."
When do you hear about this alliance that's formed between Karl Rove and George W. Bush?
I did not cover much of Bush's first campaign for governor, but I remember a conversation with Karl at the time that Bush was beginning to run, where he described, in what I thought at the time were pretty exaggerated terms, the qualities that he thought would make Bush a winner. And those qualities are things that have become very familiar to us now: One, he's very disciplined; two, he will work as hard as anybody that you've ever seen work at the job; and three, there is something about his personality that people just kind of like. And my recollection is that implicit in what Karl was saying was, he won't antagonize people the way that Bill Clements did, and cut short his own career by doing that.
Do you think he knew he had captured lightning in a bottle, that he really had something, that he could take it all the way?
Well, I don't know whether he thought at the time that he could take him all the way, but it was clear that he had a much earlier and a much higher sense of Bush's political abilities and marketability than almost anybody else that I talked to.
What happened with Ann Richards [governor of Texas, 1991-1995]?
Well, she was a dazzling personality, is a dazzling personality. The comment that you heard about Ann Richards from people, other Democrats in the state, was that she never really organized the job, never really seized the potential of the job in governing terms. It's a weak governorship constitutionally and on paper, and I don't think she ever figured out how to go beyond the confines of the job in governmental terms. And beyond that, the comments from other Democrats [were] that she was very much a one-person operation in the sense that her goal involved whatever the projects were that were on her plate at that moment. Party building was not really ever part of it, and I think they had a sense that all around her, Republican strength was continuing to build, and Republican sentiment was continuing to build in Texas, and that she did not seem mindful of the risks.
You mean things like the Kay Bailey Hutchison [Senate race], the [Republican] Rick Perry vs. [Democrat] Jim Hightower [race for agricultural commissioner].
All of those things.
All of those things that were taking place during the four years of her governorship, and that she basically overestimated her own strength, and clearly underestimated what kind of a challenger she faced in George W. Bush.
He forms an alliance with Bob Bullock, the lieutenant government, very powerful Democrat, really the guy who ran Texas and the legislature. How much of that was Rove's idea?
I don't know. I do not know. And my hunch is that Bush probably didn't need too much instruction to figure out that this was somebody worth cultivating. You know, he's pretty shrewd about personal relationships and sizing up where there's a potential ally and where there's somebody that he needs to be wary of crossing. If Karl had a particular role in that, I'm not aware of it.
Karl, Karen, [Bush's gubernatorial Chief of Staff] Joe Allbaugh are the kind of iron triangle around Bush at the very beginning, and they go more or less all the way to the White House with him. How did the relationships work?
Well, there's no question about who's in charge. I mean, these are not peer relationships. The one with Karen Hughes may be the frankest. I think somehow, in their relationship, she has earned the right to be very candid with him. But I think that he expects and demands and gets a lot of respect and deference from the people that he has chosen to bring into his close circle. And as far as I can tell, there was never any mistake about who ultimately had to be served and whose interests were uppermost.
So this really isn't a case of Rasputin or Merlin the Magician, Karl Rove, behind the empty vessel, George W. Bush.
No. That's, I think, a total misunderstanding of the way that that works. I mean, this is really all about George W. Bush, his ambitions, his agenda, and the others are there to help him achieve his goals. I'm sure that they furnish ideas, that some of the things that we now identify as being Bush initiatives may have started with a memo or a suggestion or a sentence out of one of their mouths, but they happen only because he said, "That's what I want to do, too."
What does Rove bring to that relationship?
Well, Karl, I think, brings a couple things, at least as far as you can see from the outside. One, he does have a really clear mind when it comes to discerning political strategy and figuring out the tactics that make sense in terms of that overall strategy. There's a comment that I've heard made about other people, but I think it applies to Karl: He doesn't let you chase too many rabbits. He keeps the focus on the things that are really important.
Secondly, I think that he makes a point of being in touch with a lot of people. Particularly when you reach the presidential level, that's awfully important to a president, to have somebody in the inner circle that is reachable by a wide variety of folks on the outside, because the president himself obviously doesn't have time to do that. And I think Karl probably brings a good deal of the reality factor into those White House discussions. He has an interest in policy that's deeper than most people who see him only as a political tactician would guess. And I think that that also helps in this job.
Is Karen competitive to Karl, or are they part of a team?
I think at some point in the White House, there's always a little bit of tension about whose ideas and whose thoughts resonate most with the president. But Bush has clearly worked out relationships with these close-in people that limit the amount of infighting that takes place. My sense is that he just doesn't put up with a whole lot of it, and so even to the extent that they may feel personal jealousies or rivalries and so on, they know better than to let that become a problem in anything that they're supposed to be doing for the president.
One of the old saws is, you get elected governor of Florida, California, Texas, maybe New York, Pennsylvania, especially for a second term, everybody says, "presidential material." Is that when George Bush crossed your radar screen as a potential president, second-term election, or was it before that, or was it even then?
I think it had to be before that. Dan Balz I'm sure has told you the story about the dinner that they arranged for us down in Austin when [Bush] was running for his second term. And the only reason that they took an evening of his time, Laura's time, with Rove and Karen both sitting at the table, with two reporters from The Washington Post, was that they had in mind that he would be going national after this election was out of the way. I'm sure that that matter had been discussed before that event ever got onto his schedule. So I have to believe that the prospect of a national race was very much on their minds before he was elected for the second time. How much before that, I couldn't tell you.
When you have a dinner like that as a reporter, what was it like?
Well, the dinner was fascinating, because it was three hours of exposure to the conversation of somebody who we thought was a potential presidential candidate. And among the things that I learned, which I did not know before, was, one, the depth of his fascination with the politics of politics. I mean, among other things, during that dinner, he went through the other 35 or whatever it was races that were taking place at all for governor, and [he] knew an amazing amount about the dynamics of every one of those races. He had clearly made it his business to know what those other Republicans who might be governors were going through. You didn't have the sense that this was laborious for him, [but] that he really liked to know that stuff, and that this was something that he was really into.
The other strong impression was that there was a point in the conversation where we suggested -- Dan or I -- that there were some parallels between something that he said and something that Bill Clinton might be thinking, and the intensity with which that possibility was rejected gave you a very clear sense about how much of the pain or the burn of having seen his father lose to Bill Clinton still was there in the younger George Bush.
How was Rove during the dinner?
Didn't say much. I mean, it was really a chance for George W. Bush to deal with these reporters. I think he knew sort of who we were, but we'd never had, either of us, that kind of time with him. And again, it was very clear this was about him, not about the staff people who were there, and not about Laura Bush, who was very pleasant and gracious and so on, but did not at any point really try to take up the conversation. ...
When the 2000 campaign happens, are you at all surprised by the way they attack the problem of getting elected? With Clinton, things are pretty good. You're going to have to talk people into making a change to an inexperienced Republican. Are you surprised by the way Rove and the troops approached that candidacy?
There were a couple things that I thought would be real dilemmas for them that they managed pretty quickly to solve. Having watched what he had done on the education front as governor, I rather expected that he would try to make a big push on education as a candidate for president, since one, because he seemed serious about it in policy terms, and two, because it obviously had worked so well for him as part of the Texas message. But I thought he faced a real dilemma in the sense that Republicans don't want to see the federal government taking over education in this country. And I remember asking, in talking with colleagues about, how do you think he's going to finesse that problem? Well, he did it very skillfully. They managed to say, "We need to have the standards that are measured everywhere, but the states and the local people have a lot of say about what those standards ought to be. But we're not going to just promote kids without being sure that they've learned what they need to know."
The other thing that I thought they did with great skill was that there was obviously an opportunity out there to try to satisfy the public's need to know that the president, whoever it was, was not going to embarrass them again or force them to explain to their kids what they were seeing on television about the president of the United States. And they hit that on the opening day of the opening trip of the campaign, with that wonderfully simple gesture about "When I raise my hand to take the oath of office, I will promise not only to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, but to protect the honor and dignity of the office of president." Didn't have to say any more than that. Everybody got the message. You don't have to worry about scandals, if I'm the president, of the kind that embarrassed you, embarrassed the country, embarrassed everybody with this fellow Clinton. They had clearly absorbed that need on the part of the people and hit it right in the beginning.
What happened in New Hampshire? [Sen. John] McCain kicked his butt, 19 points. Why? How? He was the front-runner. He had all the money.
And had what should have been the winning side of the issue, the tax issue, in a state that is notoriously tax-averse. And I think part of it was that they were focused on the wrong opponent. They thought going into the race, and particularly in New Hampshire, that Steve Forbes was the real threat to them. He had as much money by opening his wallet as they did. He had a tax plan that would have appealed, they thought, to New Hampshire people. So they were really focused on Steve Forbes, and for a long time they didn't take the McCain threat seriously. And by the time they did, with Bush splitting his time between Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain had the advantage of having become, in effect, New Hampshire's candidate by thumbing his nose, as McCain did, at the Iowa caucus and saying, "I'm going to put my trust in the people of New Hampshire," which was enormously flattering.
And the other thing that I think probably they underestimated was the advantage that McCain would gain from having a primary that was open to independents. And when the Democratic race turned out to be less than exciting, between Gore and [former Sen. Bill] Bradley, and Bradley and Gore were also off in Iowa, John McCain for many days was the only active candidate campaigning in New Hampshire, and that always makes a difference.
When you watch what happened in South Carolina, what did you learn about the Bush campaign, Karl Rove and their crew?
That they would do whatever was necessary to turn things around.
What did you see?
It was an ugly campaign in the undercurrents. What Bush himself did, including, in my view, the visit to Bob Jones University, was not out of the ordinary. I've been with many Democratic candidates in South Carolina races who had also spoken at Bob Jones University, so I did not regard that as sort of the beyond-the-pale kind of thing that many others did. But there was an underground campaign in South Carolina that was thoroughly ugly. And we'll never know for sure how much of it was that because South Carolina was Republicans and not independents voting and how much of it had to do with Bush's getting his campaign message in better shape and how much of it had to do with the underground campaign. But it was not a pretty campaign as it unfolded down there.
What were the aspects of the underground campaign?
Well, the thing that you heard people talking about were the questions that were raised about John McCain and the other POWs. And for anybody who had read Bob Timberg's book about McCain in the POW camps that was pretty hard to justify. The suggestion that [McCain] had sought preferential treatment and so on was so far from the truth that it was offensive, but apparently there may have been people who believed that.
How much of that do you lay at Rove's feet, the underground campaign?
I don't know. I mean, I simply do not know. There was enough talk about it that you had to believe that, at the very least, the Bush people were aware of what was going on. Whether they instigated it or sanctioned it or encouraged it goes beyond anything that I know.
But the lesson from it is what you said earlier: They know how to fight a tough campaign.
Oh, there's no question about that.
And if they wouldn't have won?
Well, I took George Bush seriously as saying he didn't have to be president. That's what he always told us -- that he had a good life in Texas, and would go back to that good life. I think that's probably true of him personally. I don't think that he had that much of his ego involved in the thing that defeat was unacceptable to him in personal terms. But I do think, and I've thought from the beginning, that it was not an accident that this fellow who had not particularly shown any interest in or aptitude for politics decided to make a campaign for a difficult race for governor of Texas the very year after his father lost the presidency. I think there was a sense that the family did not want the saga to end on a losing note.
So he had to win, in some respects.
Well, I think it would have been hard for the Bushes to accept that the judgment that the public made on father Bush in 1992 was the final judgment on the family. Of course, it is a fact also that Jeb was coming along in Florida, and I think if George Bush had lost the presidential nomination to McCain, or lost in the fall to Al Gore, that Jeb would have probably begun planning his campaign for the presidency somewhere down the line.
As it is, Bush does win -- contentiously, but he wins. And Karl Rove comes to Washington with him and occupies an office, formerly Hillary Clinton's office. How surprised are you about the way that power is accumulated around Karl Rove in this particular White House in 2001?
Well, it's certainly not a surprise that he was part of the senior staff of the White House. He had clearly by that time proved his usefulness to Gov. Bush, and now President Bush. So I would have been much more surprised if he had been left behind in Texas and not brought to Washington with him. Whether he would have wound up in the White House or running the Republican National Committee I would never have been able to predict, but I certainly expected him to be part of the picture.
And sitting at that place at the intersection of policy and politics seems an unusual -- it's not the first time it's ever happened, but I think back to [James] Carville and [Paul] Begala. Those kind of purely political guys stayed outside of the White House. Is it relatively rare for a guy to have both hats, politics and policy, that close to a president?
Politics and policy, when you reach the White House, are absolutely interchangeable and so closely linked that everybody in the White House does policy, and everybody in the White House is political. If they're not, they're not doing their jobs. There are no nonpolitical decisions in the White House, and there is nothing that doesn't impact on policy, because so many important decisions are being made under the roof.
Does that relationship continue like it did in Texas, with Rove in the White House? Is he reflecting policy and turning it into politics? What is his job?
Well, I think all of the above. He clearly is a political contact point for all of the constituencies that are important to this White House, and that obviously embraces a big part of American society. And beyond that, I think because all policy is also political, his voice, I assume, is heard on almost every policy decision that's made in the White House, because there's nothing that they decide there that doesn't have political ramifications and political dimensions and political consequences.
How good is he at it?
Well, you'd have to be in those meetings, which obviously we are not, to know how good his judgment is. I think, like most people, he's got a mixed record in terms of his political judgment. In the campaign context, that's where we can see it and judge it most accurately. In 2000, he overestimated what they had put together in terms of coalition and operations. In 2004, he was almost precisely on the button, and his assumptions that he made early, in terms of a plan for the campaign, were largely fulfilled.
How good is he as a campaign strategist? Bush calls him "the architect." I take it that's a positive thing to call somebody.
Well, I would say if you judge by the results, going back to the first race that Bush ran for governor of Texas, where he was certainly not the favorite, and coming right through until this last one, where he was running for re-election at a time where the country was in a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular and looking unwinnable, and an economy that was shaky, and to actually improve on his performance over the first race under those conditions shows a good deal of skill.
And the skill is what?
Knowing where to go for votes and how to find those votes, and particularly, I think, how to use the strengths of the candidate in ways that seem genuine and comfortable. I mean, Bush is a good candidate for a manager to have, because once you give him something that he is comfortable doing, he will do it as often and as efficiently as any candidate I've ever seen. But to understand exactly what you have in that candidate, and be sure that that's what you are asking him to do, that takes skill. That takes the ability not to be sort of so infatuated with the candidate that you don't ask him to do things that are not comfortable for him, and it also takes skill to recognize what his real strengths are and what his vulnerabilities may be, so you steer away from those things.
I think I may have told you once before that the moment that I thought, "I understand how they see they're going to win this race," came in August of this year, when I was on vacation, and Bush did an event in Traverse City, Mich., one of a thousand such small-town events. And the headline on the Traverse City Record-Eagle the next morning was a quote from Bush's speech, Bush talking about himself, and the quote was "a plainspoken fellow." And I thought, OK, in contrast to John Kerry, where you have to almost diagram the sentences to understand exactly what the meaning is -- that's the campaign.
Those guys, they love to talk about metrics, getting out the vote, enlarging the base, not going to the vital center, that that's all shrunk, talking about the mechanics and tactics of politics. How important was that?
Well, it was very important for this campaign to know where you expected to get the vote, because if you look where they went, these were not the traditional locations for a presidential campaign. Usually you take the president, who is the biggest draw, to the biggest cities, to the biggest places where you can put together the biggest audiences. That is not what they did. They were in a lot of small towns, rural areas that had never seen a presidential candidate before. And they were there for a reason, because that's where they wanted to build their vote and where they knew they had to build their vote. ...
When you project out to the midterm coming up in two years and the legacy beyond, what do they have to do to do what they keep saying they're all about, which is turning the Democratic Party into a marginalized or at least smaller percentage of the electorate, Republican dominance of both houses, maybe even the Supreme Court and the courts in America, and obviously the White House?
Well, they have to do something about this war, because the longer it goes on, the more it drains his political capital. I mean, this is a continuing wound at this point. And they have to figure out some way to deal with that war, or nothing else, I think, will work for them.
Beyond that, I think they've got a lot of potential challenges and opportunities, starting with the issue that the president has chosen to put at the top of his domestic agenda, the Social Security [reform]. That's a big gamble, but it's not necessarily a losing gamble for them. And if they can figure out how to put together the coalition that they would need to move that through Congress, that's a coalition that could also change American politics for a long time to come.
So it's not enough that they won this election, because they didn't win it big enough, I guess. …
Politics in this country look to be very competitive still. I mean, when the losing candidate has won 48 percent of the vote in a very large turnout, that's hardly a massacre, and so they can't take anything for granted. But they have the advantage now of being able to set the agenda, at least here at home. The war is the great exception, because there they are at least as much at risk to external forces as they are in control of that environment. But here at home, it's theirs to choose, and they've chosen a place where the challenge is great, but the potential is very large, in terms of being able to rebuild a different kind of political coalition in this country.
Presidents, after they've won their re-election, are never finished. I mean, Bill Clinton said in '96, "This is my last campaign," but it wasn't, because as he said, "Whether I have a legacy or not depends almost entirely on whether Al Gore wins or not." George Bush, whether he has a legacy or not will depend very much on whether he can help a Republican successor win in 2008. And who that successor is is not at all obvious at this point. ...
Regarding Social Security, how do you make that move? You talk about insurmountable. And when do you have to make it move by? Do they have to have it in play in some significant way by 2006?
Well, in terms of moving the legislation, they have this year and next, '05 and '06, to do it, because if they can't get it done then, then it all gets swept up into the politics of 2008. And at that point, George Bush has less and less control even of what's on the Republican agenda, let alone the national agenda. So it's this year and next that it will be critical for Social Security.
And what you hear them saying is that they believe that there is a clear generational factor in this debate, young people being much more open to the idea of looking to their future security through private accounts rather than a government pension plan. And they will now, I believe, try to mobilize what is the hardest thing in the world to do, which are younger voters, to make their voices felt on Capitol Hill on a legislative fight. That's what makes it such a tough gamble for them.
But that's in a way where all the metrics and all that practice that happened in the campaign could come into play and be useful.
And that's why I don't discount their chances of making it work.