What motivates and fascinates him? What's he like to be around? What is the Bush-Rove personal relationship like? What makes Rove such a unique political strategist? Commenting here are: Sam Gwynne, editor of Texas Monthly; Dan Balz, Mike Allen, Thomas Edsall and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post; and Ken Mehlman, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Editor, Texas Monthly
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 [a view] shared by a lot of people. …
Reporter, Washington Post
[Rove is] a historian. He's a historian of American history and politics, and so Karl always wants to know what happened under similar circumstances before. What happened during the '80 campaign or the '76 campaign, or after 2001? What happened after Pearl Harbor? He's always looking for historical analogies to see how individuals acted, to see how presidents acted, to see how public opinion moved, to see what forces shaped things. …
I've heard that part of how they decided where [a] speech would happen, or when they'd time the release of something, was they'd comb through the history books, find an important date -- "That's an important historical moment in Social Security history or whatever; let's make the speech there, at the labor hall at the so-and-so." All true?
I think that is true, yeah. When Rove created the office of "strategery" in the White House, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, that was a new entity in the White House. Nobody had ever done that before. And that was an effort to bring that sense of forward-planning and historical analysis into the center of White House operations. In a sense, it's kind of a no-brainer: All White Houses do this. But I think no White House has done it so systematically as they've done it in the Bush White House, and I think that was Rove's idea to put it in there.
Well, for one, Karl Rove loves information. He loves to be inundated by information, and the more information he can get, the more comfortable he feels about the decisions they're making. Second, because he is a student of history, he's just fascinated by history. But he's also fascinated by polling data, and he's fascinated by voter registration data and by precinct data and everything else imaginable, and by articles that an influential conservative columnist or academic has written. And in one way or another, they try to sort of infuse that into the daily life and the DNA ofthe White House. So their establishment of that gave them an extra dimension to the normal domestic or economic policymaking apparatus that you would normally have, which goes through the traditional, rigorous analysis of what the policy ought to be. It brings a layer that a lot of White Houses haven't always had so systematically. …
Reporter, Washington Post
What surprises you about Karl Rove is how nondescript and low-key he is. He's the last person to slip into the room before the president. He's in the back. He's quiet. He's usually talking to someone. The time that we usually see him in person on the campaign is walking down the front steps of Air Force One. They all wait for the president; he walks down; [the photographers] take the shot; and then the senior staff walks down. ...
You see Karl Rove walking down the stairs right behind the president. There's always local political officials there to greet him, and Karl knows all of them. He's as big an attraction as the president. Everyone wants a picture taken with Karl Rove.
What had you heard about him before you'd actually met him?
Well, people attribute everything good and bad in their mind that this administration does to Karl Rove. Mr. Rove recognizes that it has a certain use for the president. He gets blamed for things that otherwise the president might [get blamed for]. Now, quite often he's behind those things, but not always.
When the president was giving his victory speech -- his acceptance speech, as the White House called it -- he described Mr. Rove simply as "the architect." And everyone in the room knew what that meant. He was the architect of the public policies that got them there. He was the architect of the campaign platform. He was the architect of the fund-raising strategy. He was the architect of the state-by-state strategy. He was the architect of the travel itinerary. His hand was in all of it.
Do you agree with that assessment?
What gives Karl Rove unusual sway is that his portfolio includes both the public policy and the political strategy. Most people are surprised to find that Mr. Rove is a government official. His title is senior adviser to the president. He's paid by the taxpayer, and yet he's in charge of the political aspect as well.
The other best known political strategists -- Lee Atwater, James Carville -- they stopped where the White House began. In most cases, the political strategist's power stops when the campaign stops. With Mr. Rove, it's just the beginning. He's the gatekeeper to the agenda. He's the gatekeeper to the president.
One of the myths about Karl is that he makes the decisions. You talk to people in the White House, and there's no question about who really makes the decisions. In the end it is the president, but Karl Rove performs the important gatekeeping function. He narrows down the topics that will be discussed with the president. He narrows down the policies that will be brought to the president. He and others -- you have to count in [Chief of Staff] Andy Card and [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and Condi Rice -- there's five or six people who determine what the president ultimately sees. …
What is Rove and the president's personal relationship?
What's interesting about Mr. Rove and the president is Karl is always very careful to be subservient around him. There's no question about who's boss. Behind the scenes, every once in a while, you hear stories about the president reminding him who is the boss. There was some talk that Karl Rove and not the president was to be Time magazine's Man of the Year, and a couple of us were fantasizing about what the president would say when he was told that. And the winning answer was, "Oh yeah?"
Are they friends?
People speculate on that just out of ignorance. It's not something that anyone on the outside can know for sure. They are friendly. One thing that will surprise you as you see Karl out and about, he's always smiling. He's the merry prankster. People think of him as Darth Vader -- not true at all. He's always the one that's going to be joking around on Air Force One. He enjoys playing around with the press. One time during an economic summit, he came over to my computer and sat down at my computer and started typing what he thought the lead should be, and I put it in my story because I realized that that was what they thought the event was about. But he teases the reporters, plays with their phones, plays with their computers. It's meant to be disarming. He knows what his image is. But behind the scenes, we're told he's fun. …
Karl's a great show, and he can make precinct strategy in Ohio entertaining. Plus, we knew that it was important. Even though it was something that we had not mastered, he clearly had. One thing that you learn about this crew's approach to politics is that everything matters -- small things, big things. You could hear Karl talking about that. He could talk about the can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees strategy, and he would talk about a particular county.
Where does that come from? Why is he that way?
Karl Rove believes that politics is both an art and a science. The art part is familiar. The science part is where Democrats think that this president won, and that is the mastery of the construction of his massive volunteer force, the scientific precision with which the president's travel was determined and the very elaborate system they used of targeting precise potential voters. They looked at not just who their voters would be; they looked at who their voters should be and then went after those people.
How much of [their strategy] springs from Rove, and how much of it springs from the president?
Karl Rove is very passionate about history. You've heard him talk about the McKinley campaign. [Editor's Note: Read a 2002 University of Utah speech in which Rove talks about the overlooked McKinley presidency.] This White House pays a lot of attention to history, whether it's scheduling the date for the State of the Union address or the content of the State of the Union address. After 9/11, Karl studied World War II and what was done with bomb drives and what was done to mobilize the populace in those days.
So they looked at history to inform the decisions, and they're proud of the fact that they don't do things the way they're always done. They're proud of the fact that they always look at all the options for everything. They quickly choose the obvious option, but it's a big deal to them that they look outside the box and consider other things.
Reporter, The Washington Post
You saw fellows like Rove who fit the job description all over America when you reported politics. How was Rove different than those other people when you'd sit and talk to him, when you met him?
One, he is smarter; he just plain is. He is well read. I had written a couple of books; he had read them. That's always a nice thing. He wanted me to make a presentation to his staff on one of these books. I had done a lot of work at that time on the whole rise of the conservative movement. That's been sort of my one claim to fame. And he knew this inside out, not just in Texas but everywhere. And he was acutely aware of what the pressures were, what conservatives capitalized on, what helped drive this whole movement, from race to taxes, to the whole '60s sexual revolution.
So the pleasure of dealing with Karl was that this was a tough, savvy political guy. And I would not call him an intellectual, but smart -- I mean, someone you could have a good conversation with.
Self-educated, I'd gather, more or less?
More or less. He went to college; I don't believe he ever got his degree. He, though, has taught himself and read voluminously. He has some real focuses, like the McKinley administration back in 1896, and some quirks of his own that would make him kind of unique as an academic. But he has looked at the stuff. But more importantly from a political point of view, he has looked at sort of the whole fabric of precinct data, of election results, poll results.
He was a direct mail specialist, and in direct mail, one of the things you look for, the word they now use -- I don't think they used it back in his day -- [is] "anger points." You try to get what makes somebody angry. And if you can then target one set of mail to that constituency that gets angry about the high payments that go to trial lawyers, or the late-term abortion, or whatever the issue is, you push that button. And it takes very complex technological advances to target those constituencies. You have to find them by using things like their magazine subscriptions, books that they buy, all kinds of information, consumer data and voting data, in order to find voters who fit your target group.
That's really what Karl has done a lot of work on, and [it's] been very helpful to him as a strategist, unlike many of these guys who come out of the media side, where all you're doing is sort of big picture. And he understands the sort of micro level of politics in addition to the macro level. I don't mean to glorify him too much, but you've got to give him a fair amount of credit. …
His personal political ideology, can you tell?
I think he's conservative-ish, but I really don't know. He can make a very strong case for a lot of the conservative legislation that the Bush administration is pushing through, probably a better case verbally, because he's much better verbally than the president. What he believes in is hard for me to tell. It's just hard. In some ways he comes across, for example, as a much more secular person than a lot of the religious right. But he works very effectively with religious conservative, religious leaders. … It may be that his interest in winning is the dominant consideration in his calculations, which may not be a bad thing for someone who's in the business of politics. ...
Reporter, The Washington Post
Karl Rove came to town with one goal, and that was this massive Republican realignment in the nation's politics, trying to do what President McKinley did a century earlier. So by definition, his policy issues shift depending on what the needs of the moment are. ... It's all driven by politics and the need to create that enduring Republican majority. Once that is done, [the policies] will take care of themselves. So it's very hard to say it's one or the other.
What I've found to be true of Karl, contrary to what many people believe, [is that] he's not an ideologue. He's certainly not a religious conservative. I think he's not even that much of an ideological conservative. He's a loyal-to-George W. Bush conservative, and he's a partisan in the sense that he's in to boost the Republican Party rather than a particular philosophy of limited government. That's why I suspect Karl Rove is not overly concerned with the size of the government, which has grown rather than shrunk under President Bush.
So I'd say it all starts in the politics, not in the politics of, can we win 51 votes or 60 votes in the Senate, but in terms of cementing a political majority for the party for the long term so you can do whatever you want with policy. …
What is it that makes Karl Rove Karl Rove?
I think it's flexibility. He has succeeded in a wide range of campaigns with sometimes conflicting or contrary ideas. As I was saying earlier, the notion that you run a man for the presidency on a compassionate conservatism agenda, but basically run against the base, rhetorically, against the far right of the party in 2000, reaching out to the middle and saying, "I'm the man; I'm a centrist candidate here," ... and in 2004 running a campaign almost entirely aimed at that same base, [that] both campaigns worked, that's extraordinary. To have two presidential victories is a big enough achievement, and a very small club has achieved that. To achieve these two victories under entirely different circumstances and with almost an entirely different message is, I think, makes it a little bit more extraordinary.
As a reporter, what is Rove like to cover? How does he handle you?
Well, Rove, before the president was elected, was accessible. You could get him on the telephone. He enjoyed argument, so he'd like to argue a point with you. He seemed to enjoy the give-and-take. That all changed, certainly for me and for most of my colleagues, after the election. He layered himself away from the press. Maybe he picks one, maybe two [people] at each newspaper [or] large publication that he designates as the person he'll take a question from, and he will occasionally volunteer e-mail responses and an occasional interview to all the rest of us. But he has become a more distant figure to us, sort of adding to the mystery and the Rove mystique.
Is it a mystique?
Well, what's a mystique? It's a mystique in the sense that he gets credit and blame for things that he has nothing to do with. I remember not long ago I was covering a story about the wine producers getting ready to argue about direct wine shipments in a case before the Supreme Court, and the winemakers all thought the White House [was going to] weigh in on their side. They find out at the last minute that they're not going to. So immediately they blame Karl Rove: "Oh, yes, he called his friends on this side; they got everything moving." I actually got Karl Rove to do a little e-mail exchange after that. [He] presented a clear enough argument that I was convinced that he had absolutely nothing to do with this whole thing at all, finding out about it only after the fact.
So yes, that's the Rove mystique. He'll get credit or blame. Nothing's too insignificant or too great, from an argument in a legal case about wine up to the Iraq war.
Does he nurture that kind of Rove-mystique image?
We've seen a couple of different sides of Karl Rove. At times he really seems to enjoy the Svengali image, times when he will be almost antic when we're traveling: clowning around, throwing snowballs at the press corps and joking about his elevated role in all kinds of sinister events. And other times he will be completely removed. So my guess, based on watching him, is he alternates between loving this image that he has in town as the second most powerful man in America, and knowing that it's bad for him because it makes him a giant target. So it seems that he's pulled between those two things. ...
Chairman, Republican National Committee
Give me a sense of [Karl] Rove. We all hear some myths, some realities.
Karl is first and foremost loyal. That is the most important quality about him you need to know. He's loyal to the president in a way that very few people have ever been as an adviser to a president, loyal. Karl doesn't view his own agenda as separate apart from the president's, but his agenda is serving the president.
Secondly, he's someone who's very curious about and interested in policy. A lot of people in the political, professional world are interested in the game of politics. And Karl is good at the game of politics, but he is much more interested in policy than he is about the specific blocking and tackling of politics. I've always found that to be interesting about this guy, that policy was what motivated him as much as politics.
Third, there are a lot of people who work for him -- I've had the opportunity to work for him now since 1999 and have always found him to be very loyal to myself and to others who work for him. He's got a good sense of humor. He, like the president, takes his job seriously [but] does not take himself seriously. Unpretentious.
You walk around the White House and you see folks who are not the political staff, but the people that make the White House work -- whether they work in the mess or they work in the parking lot or they drive you, people that are critically important; people who too often a lot of people in politics don't know. And Karl Rove knows their names, knows who they are, knows their stories and treats them with the respect they deserve.
So in a practical way, what did you learn from him when you started that job down there?
Well, I learned a lot of things. First of all, he teaches you a lot about politics, about how things work; about the importance of grassroots, something I had believed in, but then my belief was reinforced. You learn to treat everybody you deal with [with] respect. You learn to get a lot of information out there. You learn that the most important thing you could have in politics is metrics by which you can judge whether things are successful or unsuccessful, all those things. …
home · introduction · the mastermind · republican party · interviews
texas · join the discussion · producer's chat · teacher's guide
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi
posted april 12, 2005
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation