Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of sam gwynne
interviews: sam gwynne
Karl has this gift of somehow being able to see things, or see the importance of things before other people do.  Karl has been able to see the long view.

What did Karl Rove do to be the Karl Rove that we all talk about?

Well, it started back in the '70s, started in 1977, when he came here. He came here to go to work for a guy named Fred Agnich [a Texas state representative] up in Dallas. He had worked for the College Republicans, who had an office in Washington right near the Republican National Committee, the chairman of which at the time was Big Bush, George H.W. Bush. And Karl came down, and Karl got a job with this PAC that was being run out of a little one-room office in Houston. And I can't remember the name of the PAC, but the PAC was being run by this guy named James A. Baker, a Houston lawyer [and later George H.W. Bush's secretary of state]. And the PAC's idea, what it morphed into eventually was the Bush for President campaign in 1988. …

Rove worked for them for a while, made a lot of contacts, but his Texas career per se started in '79 when he went to work for then-Gov. Bill Clements. This is an interesting moment, because Texas, if you look at Texas history, this place has been Democratic since the Civil War. The party of Lincoln was not the party that was popular anywhere in the South, including Texas. And so for all these years, you had Democratic dominance in the state of Texas. In fact, when Karl first came to the state, and in 1977 or '78, of the statewide offices held, I think one of 29 was held by a Republican. Of the entire 181-member Texas House and Senate, only 21 seats were held by Republicans. You basically had a complete domination of the state by Democrats forever.

In 1978, this guy named Bill Clements comes in. He was kind of a rich guy who had made a lot of money with his company called SEDCO. [He] gets elected as a Republican governor kind of out of left field. Rove goes to work for Clements in '79, and that is sort of the beginning.

If we're tracking Rove in Texas and what happened in Texas, it begins in 1979. If you look at that as Karl's entry point into Texas, and you look at his exit point, if you will, let's take the exit point when he goes to Washington with George W. [Bush]. Basically you're looking at one of 30 when he came in, [and] 29 of 29 when he left, OK? Complete, almost 100 percent needle swing to the Republicans. In the House and the Senate, from 21 out of 181 to now in the 110 range, something like that -- a complete shift. Eventually the congressional delegations, the senatorial, everything switched.

And this happened on Karl's shift, and he was involved in an enormous amount of it. If you look at the statewide races -- being the Senate race, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, land commissioner, Supreme Court justices, all those folks -- he was involved in almost every single one of them. So in a way, you can see this great tectonic shift in American politics, and maybe the greatest of an age, because, taken as a region anyway, Texas with all of its electoral votes in effect swings entirely Republican over a period of 22 years, and one man is really at the core of it.

Before becoming the executive editor of TEXAS MONTHLY, Gwynne was Austin bureau chief for Time magazine, where he observed the rapid ascent of George W. Bush and the Texas Republican Party. Here, he talks about how Republicans captured the state's executive, legislative and judicial branches and how Rove both encouraged and capitalized on those changes. "Karl happened at the right time," he says. "In other words, the Republican switch was going to happen in some way, but Karl happened to be right there at the beginning. He sort of midwifed it. He helped it begin. He got it going. He sustained it." Gwynne also discusses how Rove groomed George W. Bush as a candidate and postulates how Rove's Texas experience may be a template for his plans at the national level. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 8, 2005.

What did he do?

It's interesting. It's sort of like if you look at the '60s, and you say, "Did the Beatles cause the '60s, or did the '60s cause the Beatles?" Somebody at one point wrote and said, "The Beatles were just the soundtrack of the '60s. They were just playing all the time," and the idea being suggested is the two things kind of happened simultaneously, although, to extend that metaphor, the Beatles obviously helped it along.

Karl, I think, happened at the right time. In other words, the Republican switch was going to happen in some way, but Karl happened to be right there at the beginning. He sort of midwifed it. He helped it begin. He got it going. He sustained it.

It's unclear exactly to me why it happens just when it happens. I mean, there are different things that are going on in the '70s and in the '80s that begin to change the Texas electorate. I think the biggest thing you can see is Reaganism. Ronald Reagan comes in in 1980. Look at the fundamental idea of Texas being a conservative state: Back in the old days, when all the Democrats ran everything, it was never a liberal state. You had conservative Democrats, and you had liberal Democrats, and the conservative Democrats here were quite conservative. In fact, if they had been in Connecticut or Massachusetts, they would have been called the Republicans. …

In the '70s, Roe v. Wade became an issue nationally. If you take Massachusetts or New York as a place where they [are] kind of mini-welfare states -- that's the way Texas would look at it, anyway -- [they] believed in taking care of poor people, and they believed in even taxing people to provide high levels of public services. In Texas, we've never believed that here. Texas didn't want a lot from their government. Their government is basically unpaid or paid very little money. They sit only once every two years. They're citizen legislators. People here have never wanted a high [level of public] service. They've never wanted to pay a lot. They never wanted to be taxed. As a result, we have no income taxes. They have never wanted high services. They've never believed that that's what there should be. They've never wanted a lot of pork. They never expected a lot of their government, and it's just the way Texas is.

And it's this way today. If you look at our rank -- and Bush just took hell for this, of course, during his campaigns for the presidency -- Texas ranks 47th, 48th, 49th at all levels of social services. Well, that's not accidental, and it certainly wasn't George Bush's fault. Those levels were there when Ann Richards, a liberal, was there, too. Texans are just this way.

... [Meanwhile,] Ronald Reagan is now president, so certain values have now become in vogue nationally. Among them are small government, low taxes, relatively low services -- all the things that Reagan is pilloried for by liberals. These things were always true in Texas. So I think what was happening is you had a confluence of various factors that began to unmask Texas as a place that was, yes, Democratic, but fundamentally conservative. ... You began to see [this] starting with the election of Bill Clements in 1978, accelerating slowly through the '80s. There were [the] landmarks in the early '80s: Phil Gramm got elected and switched parties and then ran for Senate and won -- that was kind of a watershed here. There was a lot going on. There were big shifts going on anyway. And what Karl did is Karl began to run candidates as a political consultant -- Republican candidates that, starting roughly in 1986, began to win.

And that creates a kind of cascade effect where they're palatable enough as Republican candidates. It's basically a label change; it's not a political change.

In a lot of ways, that's correct. In a lot of ways, the difference between a conservative Democrat and a Republican was very small, particularly in Texas, where there's a strong religious strain here. There is small government. "Don't tax me. I don't want big government. Get out of my face" -- that's [the attitude]. And so those conservative Democrats would suddenly start to look very much like mainstream Republicans. So what Karl did is Karl saw that you could, by picking certain issues, drive a wedge in here. You could run conservative Republicans and win. ... He ran Clements in '86. Clements actually lost in '82 to a fairly liberal Democrat. Rove ran him again in '86, and he won.

Again, efficient government, small government, low tax -- this was the setup. There was also a component of education reform in that, too. Anyway, 1988 is in many ways a watershed for Rove. It shows you how an issue can be brought to bear to help things along, to help Republicans accelerate this trend towards Republicanism, and this was the issue of tort reform. I think that the country's about to get a big dose of this, but we've been having big doses of this for a long time, in fact, since Karl Rove started to run Supreme Court justices back in the late '80s. The Supreme Court basically swung 100 percent, too. Rove ran almost every single one of them.

The kind of cases that would come to the Supreme Court would be, somebody works for an oil refinery down in Corpus Christi or something, and somebody gets hurt or, let's say, claims long-term poisoning by the atmosphere -- big case like this, your typical tort case. So a worker for the company would be poisoned or claiming he was poisoned, and then he would sue the company. And of course, the trial lawyers, the tort lawyers, would come in behind this guy, and the corporate defense lawyers would take [on] the major oil company that was being sued. This, then, would go up through the various lower courts, state courts and appellate courts. And some of these cases would get to the [Texas] Supreme Court.

So let's say the Supreme Court sided with the little guy all the time, which they did in the '80s. It became, in effect, a plaintiff's court. The Supreme Court in Texas was ruling almost every time in the favor of plaintiffs. The effect of this ... is you get higher malpractice rates for doctors; insurance costs a lot more money. Some people perceive it as an ill to society to have too many verdicts in favor of plaintiffs. If a woman gets scalded by McDonald's coffee, maybe she shouldn't get a $5 million award. This is the realm that we're in now.

So Karl comes in and says, "You know, we're going to run [with] tort reform," and he does for a whole decade.

Is he the kind of guy that has a eureka moment like that? How does he come up with [tort reform]?

He wasn't the first one to think about it, but he understood what it was, and he understood how it could be used. He began deliberately to work for candidates for whom that issue was important. I think one of the reasons perhaps that someone in Texas would think of tort reform before someone in Iowa is because we have some of the most famous plaintiffs venues in the country here. In the Golden Triangle of Beaumont area of Texas, you have a lot of plants that made asbestos and other things or that used a lot of chemical and oil refinery. The border is perhaps the most notorious place. That's where the famous McDonald's verdict came from. Texas was a place where a smart trial lawyer could venue shop and get himself a good jury and get, you know, a $30 million verdict against a large company and win it and then take obviously half of it. This was the place where that sort of thing happened. So I think that Karl ... saw it as a coming issue, and a big one. And believe me, not everybody saw this.

The other side of it was, it happened in the '80s that the major financing of the Democratic Party in Texas and elsewhere, but particularly in Texas, began to be done by trial lawyers. If you looked at the biggest givers to the Texas Democratic Party in the '80s and the '90s, you would see at the top of that list trial lawyers. So it became this giant pitched battle, because it wasn't just necessarily about the kind of verdicts and the ease with which someone might get a verdict for a plaintiff, but it was also about the back end, which was the financing of the entire Democratic Party. Karl saw it as an adversary proposition in that particular way, and he also saw, through these Supreme Court candidates, that this was the wave to ride. And he rode it.

Now, the Supreme Court candidates in the state of Texas or almost anywhere else are "down ballot," as they say in the business. We're not talking about governor; we're not even talking about agricultural commissioner or anything really important. We're talking about something that is important to a certain group of people: business interests, trial lawyers, a handful of other people. ... How does he figure out that this is the vulnerable spot? Is that Rove's genius at work or what?

I think it's Rove genius at work. I think he understands the significance of the issue before most people do. Most people do not understand that it's going to be this giant, pitched battle, which it becomes in the '90s -- I mean, a real pitched battle. It's a battle for the soul of Texas politics because it's a battle for the money, the lifeline money of Democrats, which is now drying up. …

Shock and amazement abounds, right?

Yeah. If you look at from '88, when [Republican Tom] Phillips was elected [to the Texas Supreme Court], through to 2000. … It was the harbinger of the beginning of the end of the liberal Supreme Court in Texas. And then Rove went on to run all nine of them, and they swept everybody out. It was a complete, 100 percent turnover in the Supreme Court, entirely pretty much caused by Rove. … And it completely redefined the way tort was tried in the state. In fact, at one point, people thought it had swung entirely too far the other way.

There were other things that Karl saw, too. For example, Karl, back in the middle '80s, saw and believed that his friend George W. Bush was a viable candidate for governor of Texas. Nobody believed this. This guy was not a successful person. He had been unsuccessful in his oil company with a whole bunch of East Coast capital to work with. He had an unexceptional military service. He was known as a party boy. When Karl first spotted him, George W. had not yet gone to the Texas Rangers, where he did a pretty good job and actually did pretty well [financially].

But Karl saw this before that, and truly, I don't think anybody thought he could be mayor of Odessa, let alone governor of Texas, besides Karl. So Karl has this gift of somehow being able to see things, or see the importance of things before other people do. When he had W. run against Ann Richards in 1994, even then nobody gave George W. a chance. So Karl has been able to see the long view.

In my reporting on [Rove], talking to his friends, they all said that when he was this brat politico back in the late '70s and early '80s here in Texas, that's all they talked about -- you know, "The Republicans, we're going to rule, man. It's going to happen sooner than you think," and over and over again. One of them said to me that that was known as the Rove bullshit. They tuned it out at some point. It was just Rove talking about how he was going to change the world. And trust me, back then, they were hunting Republicans with dogs and torches. There were very, very few Republicans anywhere, very few county chairs anywhere, not only elected Republicans, but just few Republicans in any official capacity around the state. So he was to some extent working in a void. ...

... What does Rove do to get Bush ready to run [for governor]?

Rove took this seriously from a very early time. In talking to people who knew him back then, the first time that he really took Bush under his arm and started taking him around was probably 1987, '88. He was trying to convince Bush to run for governor. He would take Bush down to Austin, and he would line up a whole day of briefings for him, five, six, seven briefings all day long. Having run the 1986 successful Republican gubernatorial campaign of Bill Clements, Rove was now kind of the big deal, so Rove pulled in favors. People would come in, and they would tutor the young Bush. ... And it would be: "Now we're doing criminal justice, and now we're doing health and human services. Now we're going to look at tort reform, and now we're going to look at water rights." So he would just [have him tutored] right on through all these various issues. One of the tutors that I interviewed said that he just looked at Bush, and Bush just came in, put his feet up on the table, chewed his cigar, was kind of cocky and self-assured and asked questions, and this would just go on.

Anyway, so this was as early as 1988 that Rove saw this. He tried to convince Bush to run in '90, but Bush said no, Bush probably correctly believing that he was too close to his father's own victory. That would have been two years after [his] dad won the presidency, so Bush preferred to wait, and did wait four more years. In the meantime, Bush had a career. He went to work for the Texas Rangers and did a pretty good job and made a lot of money. But all through those years, this process was going on, and Rove believed that this guy was going to be governor of the state. And truly, when he went into the '94 race, nobody believed it then. I went up to hear Bush at Baylor [University] as late as September, and boy, I came out of that thinking, there's no way this guy's going to win this election.

Why did you think that?

He just seemed an inept public speaker. Now, let me tell you, the distance between his speech at Baylor that day and his speech after 9/11 -- which I think is his best speech -- is just night and day. It's beyond comprehension. I just saw somebody who did not look gubernatorial at all, as opposed to his brother, who we were all out covering at the same time who seemed very gubernatorial. He just didn't seem like he had it. He got better, and there were moments in his debate against Ann Richards [when] he surprised people. They thought he was going to be terrible, and he wasn't. The very fact that he wasn't reversed expectations.

Did it help that he was Rove's guy among the in crowd? If Rove's got him, the guy's got something going?

Oh, absolutely. One of the things that Bush did is he cleared the boards [of opponents]. He could have faced a nasty primary in 1994 because a lot of people didn't take him that seriously. One of the ways that you scare people off ... was to get rid of everybody beforehand. Now, you do that in several ways. You do it in meetings, one-on-ones, and you say, "Hey, come on, please." You can beg and plead, and you can ask nicely, and you can do various things.

Another thing you can do is be obviously the guy who controls the money. There's a certain small cadre of Republican financiers in this state. They tend to follow the leading consultants, and Rove was the absolute top-dog leading consultant. So what it meant for a challenger, or a potential challenger to Bush, was that not only did he have the name George Bush, but he had Karl Rove, and therefore [he had] money, and a lot of it. So yes, it was a big deal in scaring people off. Bush then had a clear shot at Richards with no primary where, if he had a primary, he probably wouldn't have won.

So George W. Bush is elected to the governor's office. The way the story goes, Rove helps him figure out four or five hot-button issues, bell ringers that he can always fall back on. Tell me about those and what well they sprang from.

We've got criminal justice -- juvenile justice -- tort reform, welfare reform and education. Those became the four main food groups. It was actually one of the most brilliantly disciplined campaigns I've ever seen in my life. I've covered politics off and on for 25 years, and I've never seen anything quite this pure and brilliant. Bush wasn't that great a candidate, but he had this message, and it was four things. You could not get him to talk about a fifth thing unless he would say, "Five: Remember the first four." That was his joke, but it was Rove [who] came up with [the four issues].

Rove [ran] a little direct mail company. They all sat down ... and they said: "OK, this is what it's going to be. We're going to distill everything down here." And like other things in Rove's career, Rove doesn't invent things out of the blue. These things are happening. It's kind of a wave that's coming. Imagine Rove as a surfer who's going to catch the wave. Rove catches waves, and he gets out in front of the wave. Education reform was something that had been really boiling in the state, kind of boiling up from the grassroots level ever since Ross Perot tried to reform the system back in the '80s with his "No pass, no play." That was a big wave that he caught.

Welfare reform was a national wave, of course. That was part of it. Tort reform we've talked about, but tort reform was cleaning up these unfair lawsuit awards. And juvenile justice was more of a standard, red-meat Republican issue jazzed up a little bit, although it was also timely because of what had happened. But if you look at those, tort reform [and] education were excellent issues. Rove caught them at the right time. He caught the welfare reform issue at the right time, but I'm not sure he was alone in that. That was the main issue, or one of the main issues, of the '94 congressional victory of [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and all the gang.

This was an intensely disciplined campaign that only talked about these four to the extent that many average voters knew them. You know, it stuck in your mind. I haven't really thought about the four main food groups in five, six, seven years, but I can remember them. It was a great little mantra that he had going. ...

Is it your sense about him that he's a policy maven, a policy guy, or is he really a political numbers/consulting/manipulate-the-electorate kind of a guy? I realize they're not mutually exclusive --

No, they're not. But if you take someone like Lee Atwater -- the two were not present in Lee Atwater. Lee Atwater was a gunslinger. Lee Atwater would beat you. I mean, that was his goal, was to beat you. No matter how, he'd beat you. He could beat you through dirty tricks; he could beat you through an issue. But it wouldn't make any difference to him what he did. He wasn't a policy guy, didn't think in terms of policy and issues and big thoughts. Karl was absolutely, totally policy.

And this is one of the problems that people who don't like Karl have with Karl. If he were just Lee Atwater, nobody worried that Lee Atwater was telling Ronald Reagan what to do about prisons in America or taxes. Lee wasn't that kind of a guy, even though he was the leading consultant of his era. ... Karl was absolutely a policy guy. He's really good at it. He thinks in terms of policy, and I've interviewed him in the past; Karl doesn't see a disconnect between policy and electioneering. Karl's idea is you're running the four main food groups, and then you get to office, and then you do it. It's real simple. Therefore, [what you say in the] election, the campaign, becomes policy. In Karl's mind -- it's a stupidly simple and overly simplified [description] -- that's the way he sees it. So he is very good at it, always was good at it. ...

So this is a guy who is not a college graduate, never went to the Ivy League. ... What is he, an autodidact? What's his story?

I think so. He was irretrievably political from the get-go. I think [there is] a story he told about himself [where] some girl beat him up for voting for Nixon when he was a kid. It was some neighborhood girl who was older than he was. But Karl has just been completely political, and one of the reasons he didn't make it through college is he kept dropping out to run somebody for presidency of the College Republicans, and then he ran for it himself. In fact, that's when he and Lee Atwater first worked together. He ended up working in Washington as head of this collegiate Republican group that had its offices in the Republican National Committee. In those years, he was only 20 or 21 years old, and he just kept getting pulled into what he really liked to do, which was to run candidates. He's a pure political animal.

It's interesting that in his business, you don't find very many people who can do everything. In other words, if you find somebody who's really good at direct mail, phone banking -- these are not high intellectual pursuits, right? ... It's rare when you get one person who can do everything, from the highfalutin intellectual policy -- in fact, Bush's policy tutorials came out of Rove, too. Rove would bring these guys, [authors] Myron Magnet and Marvin Olasky, [but] Rove was also Bush's policy tutor. So you had a guy who can do the most basic grunt work of politics and also formulate the high and fancy policy.

When he ran campaigns for candidates in Texas -- and he ran many, many of them, and he won almost all of them -- he was the jack-of-all-trades. He could do everything. And I think it's one of the reasons that his enemies fear him, because you can't be afraid of a Lee Atwater who's just a gunslinger, but you can, I suppose, really fear somebody who's affecting policy.

When we first went into Iraq, I remember there was a lot of talk: "Well, the reason we're there is Rove." I don't think anyone believes that anymore. I don't believe that Rove was pushing Colin Powell or Condi Rice around, but people believed that. Such was his grasp of policy that it would extend into foreign policy as well. He is the kind of guy that you can believe that [about]. But I'm sure if you probably let Karl Rove run the foreign policy, he probably could do that, too.

Everybody who talked about why Bill Clinton had so much trouble in the White House, especially in the early going, was that he didn't know how to punish people up on the Hill who were trying to roll him. He never had that part of politics that's busting people's kneecaps if they screw around with you. Does Rove have that quality?

Rove is an extremely tough guy. If you met Karl and you talked to him, if you just sat down in a room with Karl, he can seem like your favorite history professor. He's wonderful. I love talking to Karl. In fact, all of us in the press, we all love Karl. Karl was great. Karl would give you great stuff that you didn't even ask for. He was full of information, knew everything that was going on. And he had this mode where he would kind of kick back and start talking about Woodrow Wilson or McKinley's presidency. He had this wonderful professorial [quality]. He's a very smart man, a well-read man. It would be like you were sitting in your room with your favorite college professor, and he would be holding forth on some early theme in American 20th-century politics. If you didn't know any better, if you didn't know that he never finished college, you would say he's a Ph.D. You would say, "Well, of course he teaches at Harvard or something, a guy like that."

Well, Karl is that, but Karl is also a very, very tough operator. And everybody from the press onward has found out over the years that if you cross him, or particularly if you do something that he thinks is unfair or truly just wrong, you're getting a phone call, and it's happening very quickly, and the volume is turned way up. He's not known as a screamer for no reason, [among] people here in Texas anyway. He's not the sort of person who irrationally screams at people. When he yells at people, there's a reason: Somebody didn't do what he asked them to do; somebody who's working for him on a campaign didn't do what he asked them to do; somebody crossed him; a journalist printed something that he felt was wrong and unfair. Very quick with retribution. But I think that probably serves him in good stead, because people who are working for him on campaigns didn't stray very far. Karl was too attuned to what was happening in a campaign, and if the direct mail was off track, they heard about it quickly and negatively, and they'd get back on track.

The good thing I think about Karl anyway, at least from my interviews, is that people believed that he didn't hold grudges, that Karl wasn't someone who would then hate you forever or never return your phone calls again. He would come back. It was sort of an ad hoc problem that needed to be fixed. And I think that's shared by a lot of people. There have been a lot of people chewed out by Karl in this state over the years, but I think if that was a problem of Clinton and/or Clinton's operatives, it is certainly not a problem of Rove.

What about dirty tricks?

In my reporting, I just didn't find evidence of [it]. There are two big ones, if I remember these correctly. One, a bug was found in his office, and his critics believed that he had put it there.

Why would he do that?

To discredit the opposition. It was a dirty trick on himself in order to discredit the opposition. It's a nice story. ... The FBI found the bug, and no one knows who put it there, and I don't know that Karl didn't put it there. ... There is no evidence that he did put it there, either. Period. There just isn't.

In another case, it was alleged by the other side that -- this was in the 1990 run for agriculture commissioner -- Rove somehow knew in advance that some of these guys on the other side were going to be indicted, and he let that out, and it came to be known, and people began to believe that Karl had his own FBI agent, or an FBI agent was in Karl's pocket because he had known about this. Again, I don't see the evidence. There is no evidence for Karl having his own private FBI agent. It just doesn't exist.

There's some other real dirty tricks that he did when he was younger. He took the letterhead of some opposing campaign and ran off advertisements for beer and girls and parties and put that out. He admits to that. That was a dirty trick done much earlier in his career.

My impression of Karl is that Karl is not a dirty trickster in the way that I think some other Republican operatives have been over the years. He is feared, and because he is feared, people ascribe these things to him. People believe that Karl does these things because they believe that Karl is powerful and he's going to do these things.

There are other things where people say, "Well, he was behind the whisper campaign against Ann Richards in East Texas in 1994." Now, what that was all about was it was kind of the gay whisper campaign; Ann Richards had gays working for her and this sort of thing. Well, I think that was true, except it was also true that Ann Richards had proudly appointed many gay officials. So it may have been a whisper campaign, [but] it wasn't as though, I don't believe, that people were out saying anything that weren't true. ...

So in other words, Karl is a tough, hardball campaigner. He's absolutely willing to use something like that against Ann Richards in East Texas. I have no problem with that. He's absolutely willing to put a picture of Jim Hightower shaking Jesse Jackson's hand in the 1990 agriculture commissioner race and put it out there for everybody to see. Well, it happened. It wasn't a [fake] photograph; they actually shook hands. And in fact, Hightower was as liberal, as politically liberal, as Jesse Jackson is.

So my conclusion of Karl is that he really wasn't a dirty trickster. He was just a very, very tough son of a bitch as a campaigner. He was very difficult to run against. Somebody described it as you would wake up each morning with Karl's fist in your face. If there was an advantage to be gained, he took it. This is just what my own reporting showed. I don't believe that he himself was a dirty trickster. ...

Go back a little bit. You were talking about Rove as a policy guy, and when Bush gets elected, he's got the "four food groups," and he says, "It's simple; now we've got to get it done."

And he does. Bam. ... It was like four for four. He went in, and they did it. It was stunning -- as I said, the most brilliantly disciplined campaign I have ever seen with a guy who I thought was a pretty mediocre candidate followed by absolute passage of the four things in a time frame that everyone could see in the 1995 legislature. We went, "Excuse me?" I mean, politics doesn't work that way. You don't say you're going to do it and then do it precisely as you would. That was the foundation of the political career of the man you now see as president of the United States, was that first session in 1995 when they did exactly what they said they would do, and his popularity rating went to about 80. Bam. And that was all Karl.

I don't buy the idea that Karl is Bush's brain. I just don't. If you see them together, it's servant to master, and it always has been. They needle each other. They have an interesting and complicated relationship, and Bush is nowhere near as dumb as people think he is. But Karl set the table. He really did. …

And how does it work between these two guys? ... Everybody's got a kind of henchman who's there whispering in his ear. ... Is Rove one of those kind of guys, or is it looser than that?

On matters strictly political, or shall we say strictly related to campaigns, I think Rove is absolutely that person. Bush has always pretty much let him do what he wants, and Rove runs things. I think Rove has been less so on the other side, the execution of policy and/or the running or operation of government. I don't think he had much to do with [that]. He really didn't have anything to do with going over and haranguing senators or representatives. He just didn't do that. But when it came to political issues, relationships with the right-wing political groups or Christian groups, or whatever it might have been, I think Karl absolutely was the guy in Bush's ear. Was and is. ...

The relationship with the father, George H.W. Bush and Rove's relationship, was it close? Was it mentor/protégé or what?

Yeah, a bit mentor/protégé. Big Bush met Rove when Rove was working for the College Republicans [and] had an office inside the RNC building in Washington [when] Bush was head of the RNC. He spotted Rove, who was this kind of know-it-all. The thing about Rove is, Rove just knows more than anyone. He has one of these encyclopedic brains, particularly in politics. He can outthink anybody. His computer is larger. And that was true from an early age.

So Rove would always stand out. He was very aggressive and tough, but he knew more than anybody about anything. So Bush saw him and sort of found him, and he had him do errands. One of the errands that he had him do was to take the keys of his car to give them to his son, George W., who was at Harvard Business School and visiting for the weekend. ...

Talk about an odd couple, right? The swaggering son, the nerdy [College Republican].

They don't make a lot of sense to me necessarily. I guess it's probably because they've known each other for a long time, but they needle each other, and there's a kind of a dry wit that operates back and forth. I don't know exactly what the core of the friendship was, but it was a friendship. They liked each other.

Now Karl, I think, is three or four years younger than Bush, but they absolutely hit it off, and they were friends, and they kept in touch, and they would see each other in and out of various national campaigns. [Rove] ran Reagan's campaign in the state of Texas. Clements asked him to do that. Of course, Bush was the vice president, and I think he saw George W. in those years. They would run into each other as time went by [at] political things. But yeah, by the late '80s, Rove was lining him up for governor. ...

So when do people know that Bush is thinking presidency, and Rove has already got it kind of figured out?

Certainly in the first term the subject comes up. It's certainly there. In other words, it isn't talked about openly before the '98 election because, for obvious reasons, he didn't want people to think he was running for president, but running for governor. He ran for governor, and he won by an astonishing margin and with enormously high approval ratings across the board. This guy was perceived to be a really good governor. Sitting here in Austin -- Austin is a nasty place; it's blood-sport politics here and always has been -- Bush had a lot of people on his side here of both parties. Anyway, in '98, he ran against Garry Mauro and won by an enormous margin. I think pretty much from the moment that was over, it was clear that we were talking about [a presidential run].

Now, Karl [had] not designed the kind of front-porch strategy yet, which was radical at the time. ... The old front-porch strategy, where Bush didn't leave Austin -- this was back in 1999 -- [was that] he just allowed people to come to him. Karl kept him here and allowed financiers and politicians to come. And he, in effect, mounted his presidential campaign sitting in his office in Austin. No one had done that since McKinley. An amazing idea. ...

Did those of you who were watching closely from [Austin], did they think Bush really had a chance? What was he up against?

I have to say, I really thought Bush was a good governor. I was amazed. I was a correspondent for Time magazine in those years, and I wrote a cover story in [June] of 1999 that basically reviewed his career in Texas as a politician very favorably. … My assessment of Bush was that he had been a good governor and that Rove was an excellent political guru [and] had been right about everything. My view, anyway, as Time magazine's bureau chief then was, this guy absolutely has a shot at the presidency if he only runs on his record. He's got a good record. He's never been terribly articulate, he's never been a great public speaker, [but] he has a good record, and people like him, and he's got an 80 percent approval rating. ...

And he had Karl Rove.

And he had Karl Rove, which was not lost on anybody. We had our little doubts about George W. that he could really play on that scale and get in front of the national [audience]. I certainly had doubts about that. [But] nobody doubted that Karl Rove was capable of running a national campaign. Nobody had the slightest doubt on that one. He had worked in national politics before, obviously. But I don't think there was a person in Texas who thought he wasn't up to that task.

… Do you think he will stay in Washington or return to Texas?

... I don't know. If you look at Karl in Texas, Karl came here in '77; he stayed to 2000. He really adopted this place. He was here for 23 years, during which time the Republican Party took over. Texas became his area of expertise, and he knew it better than anybody. So in some ways, Karl became a Texan. I think he grew up in Utah partly and partly somewhere else, but this was his adopted home, and I don't think anybody thinks that Karl will stay in Washington. Maybe he will, but I get the sense that there's a pull in Texas for people who've lived here, particularly in Austin. Karen came back, and I think you'll see Karl coming back here, too.

What from the Texas template instructs us about what's going to happen in terms of Social Security, tort reform, tax reductions? ...

Well, Social Security is a purely federal thing for which there is no kind of state comparison, but the rest of it all looks very familiar. ...

[Tax reduction] -- Bush is a low-tax guy. He's a mainstream Goldwater Republican in his view on taxes. ... He comes out of a Texas heritage, as does Karl, politically, where taxes are verboten. You just don't do them. We want the lowest tax burden possible, and we're willing to take cuts in social services in order to get it. …

Education reform is one of the reasons that Bush feels the way he feels about education, is that the South was the worst of all when the reform started in Texas to kind of hold the schools accountable and not promote kids socially. We were one of the worst school [systems] in the world. They were awful. The Deep South and Texas -- terrible schools. So then, to some extent, his education reforms are coming directly out of a Texas experience, too.

Again, tort reform, as we were saying, if you look at the unbelievable sort of venue shopping done by plaintiffs' lawyers in places like Beaumont and the border, [where] large damages and lawsuits were part of life, these things are conditioning the way Bush views the world, because campaign issues evolve out of the actuality. So when I look at them, I see familiar things.

Is part of the reason that Bush got his entire agenda passed by the 1995 legislature -- even a Democratic legislature -- because they knew that their constituents had already been sold on his ideas? Is some of this maybe a harbinger of things to come in America?

Exactly right. I think that's how you have to look at it. The brilliance of the campaign was the simplicity of the message, and we'll see if he can pull it off on Social Security, because right now everybody's overwhelmed, and nobody can understand it. But it's the simplicity, the repetitive simplicity of that message. Let's hear these four things: This is what we want to do when we get in, and by God, we're going to go do them. I don't know the mechanics of how Karl got this out there; I honestly don't. But that message got out, and it really got out there, and it took a dark horse past a popular sitting governor in the campaign. ...

One of the things that Karl is good at is getting out a mass message and getting it out effectively. He was known to be a brilliant writer. It's sort of like being a brilliant ad copywriter. Serious writers might not think it was beautiful writing, but it is really good at boiling down the big issues to a persuasive, simple argument. Of course you could say that about fascism, too. That's what Albert Spier and the Nazis did, but I think that that's true with Karl. He has this ability, and it is an ability to reach a mass audience with a simple message. Direct mail is the classic case of it.

[For example], somehow he persuaded people in a race for Supreme Court justice in 1988 to vote for Tom Phillips on a simple issue that he framed. In this case, tort reform was not that simple an issue, ... but they made it simple, and they got it out there. So if you see a concerted effort to sell Social Security reform -- and I can't wait to see it, because people don't understand it right now -- there is enormous precedent in his life for doing this. He's really good at it. It's going to be great to see, actually. ...

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posted april 12, 2005

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