Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
chronology - karl rove's life and political career


A very young Republican

Karl Rove is born in Denver in 1950. His father, Louis, is a mineral geologist and travels extensively for work, and the family moves several times during Rove's childhood. At age 9, Rove is a vocal supporter of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign -- so vocal, in fact, that an older girl, a would-be Kennedy voter, beats him up.

"Karl Rove, I think, was a Republican before he was anything else," says Wayne Slater, author of Bush's Brain. "His sister recounts a story when he was a little kid and other kids had posters of football players or basketball players and sports heroes on the wall, Karl had a poster on his wall, she said, that said, 'Wake Up, America!' He was a conservative, politically conservative person I think well before he could vote."

Late 1960s

High school politics

Karl Rove (with arms outstretched) on high school trip to capitol

Rove's family moves to Salt Lake City, where he enrolls at Olympus High School. Often seen at school carrying a briefcase and wearing a coat and tie, he hones his skills in debate tournaments. He is good at intimidating his opponents -- sometimes bluffing by bringing boxes of index cards that are actually blank. He quickly becomes one of the state's best young debaters. Running successfully for president of the student senate, he beats out a more popular rival with a campaign that pokes gentle fun at professional politicians' tactics. And for a class project, Rove helps out on Senator Wallace Bennett's re-election campaign.


A Senate campaign

Rove enters the University of Utah and joins the College Republicans, who send him to Illinois to work on the successful Senate bid of Ralph Smith. Rove will later admit that during the campaign, he goes into the offices of a Democratic candidate for state treasurer, steals stationery, and uses it to mock up fake invitations advertising a party with "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing" -- at the same time as the Democrat's campaign headquarters is scheduled to open. Rove distributes the invitations at hippie communes, concerts, and soup kitchens, and twice as many people as expected show up at the opening.

Rove's reputation grows in the College Republicans, but at home he is going through a difficult time. During his first year of college his parents divorce and not long after, he learns that Louis Rove, the man he thought was his father, is not. He does not meet his biological father until he is in his 40s.


A talent for direct mail

Rove serves as national executive director of the College Republicans. A master at condensing a complicated message into a few forceful points, he puts together direct-mail programs and brochures for the organization. "I didn't know anyone of his age that could put together these type of materials," says Joe Abate, who was chair of the College Republicans at the time and was a mentor to Rove. "It turned out [that it] became his business, his direct mail. And I could see why he became one of the best direct mail political consultants in the country years later. But, his energy, I mean he was 24/7." During this time, Rove also travels extensively, teaching weekend seminars for campus conservatives across the country.


"Dirty tricks" for the College Republicans?

Rove leaves school to campaign for chair of the College Republicans and he gets help from a young Lee Atwater, who would later run George H. W. Bush's presidential campaign. The heated campaign splits the College Republicans into warring factions at the national convention where Rove and his team challenge the credentials of delegates who oppose them. Both Rove and his opponent claim victory and the matter is sent to Republican National Committee Chairman George H. W. Bush for resolution. In the meantime, one of Rove's opponents leaks a tape to The Washington Post of a Rove college seminar, in which Rove recounts a tale of dirty tricks. At Bush's request, an FBI agent questions Rove. Atwater signs an affidavit swearing that the dirty tricks story was told only in jest. A GOP investigating committee eventually clears Rove, and he takes the reins of the College Republicans. Politics has become his passion. But because of this, Rove never gets his college degree.

As the College Republicans' chairman in Washington, the 22-year old Rove also performs small tasks for Bush, who is becoming one of his mentors. In November, Bush asks Rove to take a set of car keys to his son George W. Bush, who is visiting home during a break from Harvard Business School. Rove is instantly taken with the young Bush's charisma. The two hit it off.


Raising money -- and his profile

Rove moves to Virginia in 1976 to serve as finance director for the state GOP, which does not have a single fundraising event on its schedule. Within a year, Rove has pulled in more than $400,000 through direct mail.

Oil well in Texas

In January 1977, he relocates to Texas to work as a fundraiser for George H. W. Bush's presidential-exploration political action committee. Rove also serves as an informal adviser to George W. Bush, who is making his first run for Congress. Money flows into the young Bush's campaign, but Texas is a tough ground for Republicans -- the state is so dominated by Democrats that the number of Republicans in its senate can be counted on one hand. Bush loses.

Rove fares better with another of his candidates, Bill Clements, who is running for governor. Clements wins, becoming the first Republican elected to that office in 104 years, and he makes Rove his chief of staff.

Shortly after his move to Texas, Rove marries a Houston socialite, Valerie Wainwright, who is friendly with the Bush family. But Rove's busy schedule keeps him away from home much of the time. She files for divorce in 1979. Two years later, Rove's mother commits suicide.


A growing business, a growing political party

Rove opens a direct-mail business, Rove + Company, in Austin in 1981. He handpicks Republican candidates to run for statewide races and throws the firm's efforts behind them. At first, he is widely regarded as backing hopeless cases -- "funny, charming, but in a futile situation that no one thought would change very soon," recalls Kim Ross, a lobbyist for the Texas Medical Association. In 1982, every Republican running for a statewide office loses (including Gov. Clements, who is seeking re-election).

But Rove sees that demographics in Texas are beginning to shift, and the burgeoning suburbs are fertile ground for Republicans seeking new voters. In 1983, Rove engineers U.S. Representative Phil Gramm's switch to the Republican Party and helps him win a Senate seat a year later. By the mid-'80s, thanks to Rove, the Texas GOP has the nation's first voter database and Rove has become a key player in state politics.


A blueprint for winning

Rove, eager to see Clements in the governor's seat again, drafts a memo that foreshadows future Rove campaigns. He quotes Napoleon, advising candidates to put forth "a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, [sic] followed by rapid and audacious attack." In a later memo, he tells his candidates to focus on suburban voters, emphasizing education, traditional values and lower taxes and to take pains to appear "compassionate." Using Rove's strategy, Clements regains the governor's office in 1986. That year, Rove marries Darby Hickson, a graphic designer who works for his company.


Rove helps remake the Texas Supreme Court

Rove finds a neglected issue, tort reform, and turns it into a campaign weapon. The state Supreme Court, dominated by Democrats, regularly issues rulings that reward plaintiffs with huge amounts of money. The story is pushed to "60 Minutes," which runs an expose probing the influence of campaign money, particularly from Democratic trial lawyers, on judicial decisions in Texas. The issue receives widespread attention. Aided by an aggressive grassroots campaign called "Clean Slate '88," Rove engineers the election of a Republican as the state's chief justice, and conservatives go on to win five of the six open seats on the court that year. The judicial wins also help Rove build up a group of donors in the business community, and it has the added benefit of shutting down the trial lawyers -- and cutting off their money to the Democrats.


Bush puts off a run for office; Rove focuses elsewhere

Rove begins to nudge George W. Bush toward a run for Texas governor, bringing in experts to tutor him on policy and introducing him to local reporters. But Bush worries that voters will cry nepotism if he runs during his father's presidency and he postpones his candidacy. Rove backs another Republican for governor, but his candidate loses in the primaries and Democrat Ann Richards ultimately wins office in 1990.

Still, Texas Republicans are increasingly finding that they can succeed in statewide races. Other Rove candidates are winning: Rick Perry, the future governor of the state, becomes agriculture commissioner, and Kay Bailey Hutchison becomes treasurer. "[Rove] ultimately, by the early 1990s, was the single most powerful political figure in Texas in determining who was on the ballot and who was not …" says Wayne Slater, author of Bush's Brain. "Karl's imprimatur was absolutely needed. Because unless you had the okay from Karl … then it was clear to the rest of the Republican Party that you would not have the money you needed to run a successful campaign."


Bush wins the governorship

Rove helps Hutchison win a special Senate election in 1993. He also has interests in Alabama, where he helps the GOP try to take control of the state Supreme Court, much as he did in Texas. But his real focus is still on George W. Bush.

In 1993, he again urges George W. Bush to run for governor against Richards -- and this time, Bush agrees. According to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, Rove gives Bush a book, The Dream and the Nightmare by Myron Magnet, that will later form the basis of "compassionate conservatism." He also relies on many of his time-tested strategies, such as campaigning in small towns and the growing suburbs. Bush runs on four major issues: juvenile justice, tort reform, welfare reform, and education.

Ann Richards

"So you had this model of four issues," says Slater, "so whenever George Bush was asked in the governor's race about a fifth issue or a sixth issue or a seventh issue, he invariably stayed on message, and moved back to these four issues." Bush is a longshot to beat Ann Richards, the extremely popular incumbent. But he rides a wave that also sweeps Republicans into power at the federal level, and in 1994 becomes Texas governor.


Power in Texas and victories in Alabama

Newly installed as governor, Bush pushes hard for the policies he campaigned on, but he also reaches out to Democratic legislators. Soon, buzz begins about an eventual presidential run. Rove's influence is still felt in the state legislature; in 1996, with the victory of Rove candidate Robert Duncan, Republicans gain control of the Texas senate. Rove's efforts in Alabama also bear fruit. According to The Atlantic Monthly, Rove allegedly arranges for the printing of anonymous fliers viciously attacking Harold See, his own candidate for a state Supreme Court seat. The ploy makes See's opponent look bad, and See wins the race.


The bigger contest ahead

Running for re-election in 1998, Bush wins by a wide margin and Republicans also win every other statewide office. But Rove has a bigger contest on his mind: the presidency. Rove turns his full focus toward a Bush presidential run. As he did with Bush's gubernatorial campaign, he brings in teams of experts to tutor the candidate. He also ensures that reporters see Bush talking with luminaries from across the country -- a tactic modeled on William McKinley's 1896 "front porch" campaign.

A year later, Bush officially announces he will run for president. By June of 1999, he and Rove have raised $36.3 million, nearly triple the previous record. According to the New York Review of Books, around this time Rove begins making national media contacts and forges an alliance with anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, a renowned coalition builder within the Republican Party.

February-March 2000

Embarrassment in New Hampshire, success in South Carolina

Sen. John McCain surrounded by the press

Partly due to his fundraising juggernaut, Bush becomes the early favorite to win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. But he faces unexpectedly stiff competition from Arizona Sen. John McCain, a "straight-talking" Vietnam War hero who appeals to moderate Republicans and independents -- and whose campaign is being run by one of Rove's biggest rivals from his Texas days, John Weaver. Rove underestimates McCain's appeal, particularly in a state with open primaries, and is caught off-guard when McCain trounces Bush in the New Hampshire contest. "I think that any almost other campaign would not have survived that defeat. We lost by 19 points," says Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. "Guys that worked with me in that campaign who have worked on other presidential campaigns were literally packing their bags."

Instead, Rove and Bush move on to the South Carolina primary, where they run a much tougher campaign, questioning McCain's commitment to pro-life policies, baiting him into going off message, and co-opting his own image as a reformer. In South Carolina, McCain faces a brutal whispering campaign about his mental health, his wife's admitted battle with a dependency on prescription drugs and whether he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. (The McCains had adopted a Bangladeshi child from Mother Teresa's orphanage.) Bush, whose campaign denies any role in the rumors, wins by a wide margin in South Carolina, and by March, McCain is out of the race.


The 2000 Campaign

Rove feels that although the GOP is divided into several factions, the special interests within it can be brought together by their common views on certain issues. As a result, George W. Bush runs on some of the same planks that served him well in his Texas campaigns -- particularly education, which complements his "compassionate conservative" image -- and Rove encourages him to also emphasize faith-based initiatives.

"They felt that the compassionate conservative notion provided an umbrella that let them not only speak to the base, but to speak to others who might be swing voters, others who might be a little more moderate in the party … ," says Washington Post reporter Dan Balz. "[The] issues always fit in, but it was always a sense of those issues as a way of stitching together the strongest Republican base you could have and build out from there."

Nov. 7, 2000

Election Day

Despite the last-minute revelation of Bush's 1976 DUI charge -- a development that Rove blames for a sudden dip in Bush's numbers -- the Republican camp projects confidence on Election Day. "You have Karl Rove travelling with the press, throwing a football around with the press, giving these predictions of these amazing Electoral College totals," says Washington Post reporter Mike Allen. "And it was an effort to build momentum."

As the exit-polls and election results come in, and the networks first give Florida to Gore and then recant, Bush grows worried and calls his parents to warn them it could "be a long night." Rove, watching the results, knows that the networks are forgetting the Florida Panhandle, which he expects to show strong turnout for Bush. At 2 a.m. the morning after Election Day, the first of many Bush staffers are dispatched to Florida.

November 2000-January 2001

Already the plan for re-election…

With votes still being counted in Florida, Bush operatives are already planning their strategy for the 2004 election. Bush finally gains the presidency on Dec. 12. A month later, Rove -- now a senior adviser to the president and occupying the White House office that formerly belonged to Hillary Clinton -- launches the "72-Hour Task Force," an experiment in using grassroots efforts to win a campaign in its last three days.

Rove has already realized the importance of evangelical Christians to the Republican coalition. He believes that 4 million of them failed to vote for Bush in 2000, partly because of the Bush DUI charge. Rove begins to formulate a new strategy: Energize the conservative base and go after the evangelicals, Hispanics, Catholics, and other potential affinity groups to build a Republican majority.

"The 72-hour project was designed, in a way, to get a piece here and a piece there," says Washington Post reporter Dan Balz. "How do we get social conservatives more significantly than we've been able to get them? How do we get people who have just moved into an area, who ought to be our voters, but who may be irregular voters? How do we get Hispanics? How do we get Roman Catholics? And there are pieces for all of that."

Arriving at the White House, 50-year old senior adviser Karl Rove sets up an informal network -- comprised largely of consultants and unknown state legislators around the country -- to keep him abreast of political opinion in their regions. He also calls meetings once a week with the chiefs of staff at the cabinet agencies. "This is a White House that very much made sure that each one of [the agencies] out there is a mouthpiece for the president [and that they] do exactly as they've been told to do," says Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. "So as another layer of White House control Karl has these meetings to find out what's being planned at the Cabinet agency, and more importantly, to tell them what they should be planning in the Cabinet agencies."

Summer 2001

Gearing up for '02 and '04

In seminars with White House officials, Rove lays out his goals for the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, including appealing to minority voters, union households, and technology-sector workers. But Bush, who has by now withdrawn from the Kyoto Treaty negotiations and decided to limit stem-cell research, is already becoming a polarizing president. In reaction to Bush's policies, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont leaves the Republican Party, eliminating the Republican majority in the Senate. The increasing opposition to Bush influences Rove's new strategy.

"They made this decision that there was going to only be a 7 percent swing vote," says Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall. "Given that, it was much more important to shift the focus from past focuses on persuasion … and switch it to motivation … of your own people, but ones who are not getting out there to vote, either because they're not registered or because they're just too lazy."

September-November 2001

Sept. 11, 2001; Rove steps back

President Bush at Ground Zero, a few days after 9/11

Domestic policy and politics take a backseat after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. "I think what you felt in the early moments at least, after 9/11, was the absence of Rove," says Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. "He has plenty of things to say about welfare, economic policy and taxes. He's not a military guy. … He receded quite a bit as a public figure."

But Rove continues quietly planning for Bush's re-election. In November, the 72-Hour Task Force tracks five different elections around the country. The chief finding: grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts really can work.

April-June 2002

The return of Rove

With the war in Afghanistan won, Rove starts to re-assert his influence. Karen Hughes, Bush's campaign communications director who sometimes competed with Rove for power, resigns as a White House counselor and is replaced by Dan Bartlett, a Rove protégé since the age of 22. Some observers notice a more confrontational tone emanating from the White House and more aggressive appeals to its conservative base.

In June, a PowerPoint presentation written by Rove -- and describing the war on terror as a crucial campaign issue -- is mysteriously found in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.

November 2002

The 72-Hour Task Force and a historic victory

In the 2002 midterm elections, the GOP focuses on turnout, volunteer activity, and early voting, implementing lessons it learned from the 72-Hour Task Force's experiments the previous year. Rove, who handpicked many of the candidates and the issues they have run on, also hammers Democrats for their opposition to the Republican homeland security bill. Conventional wisdom is that the president's party typically loses seats in the midterm elections, but Republicans pick up seats in both houses, winning back control of Congress, and enhancing its numbers in statewide races in North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. The president's approval ratings are also still high in the wake of 9/11.


Laying the groundwork for Bush's re-election

Rove's original plan for Bush's race now looks outdated. In May, Rove meets with the president and lays out a new strategy: Raise $170 million or more. Maximize the turnout from the base. Energize suburban voters.

In July he tells Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie that the key will be registering previously unaffiliated voters as Republicans. By the end of the year, Rove has resolved to bury Howard Dean (he is less concerned about John Kerry) and is pushing Bush to raise ever more money. Dean's loss in the Iowa caucuses -- and his resulting infamous "scream" speech -- is only a month and a half away.

May-June 2004

Reconciling with old foes -- and making new ones

Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry

Rove finds himself in an awkward position. After pounding McCain in the 2000 primaries, he must find a way to bring the senator, who is also being pursued by John Kerry, into Bush's camp. To do so will require Rove to make peace with an enemy from his days in Texas politics: John Weaver, McCain's chief adviser. Rove succeeds, McCain publicly embraces the president the next month.

Meanwhile, Rove and the Bush campaign turn their efforts to discrediting Kerry, emphasizing the candidate's seeming "flip-flops" in his position over the war in Iraq. [For more on this, see FRONTLINE's interview with Bush strategist Mark McKinnon.]

August-October 2004

The last big push

Rove pushed for the Republican convention to be in New York so as to capitalize on the memory of 9/11, and he gets his wish. He is also pleased with Bush's performance in the presidential debates. He begins to make more time for personal appearances and talking with the press. But as the election gets closer, he feels the stress of the campaign and obsesses over "metrics," or precise, constant measurements of voter registration numbers and many other indicators of voter turnout for those groups the Republicans have targeted.

A week before the election, some Republicans are concerned, but Rove predicts victory. "They had it, in their own mind, down to a science," says Washington Post report Dan Balz. "Call this many people, you'll get this percent vote. … They seemed to believe they had more options on the table than Kerry did."

Nov. 2, 2004

Election day

The Bush family on election night, 2004

Rove is initially upset by the early exit-poll numbers, which he receives via phone on Air Force One. They indicate a Kerry landslide. But he quickly realizes that they are not an accurate picture of the actual results. His get-out-the-vote strategy is in full swing, and he has recruited hundreds of thousands of volunteers, particularly in fast-growing rural and suburban areas, a throwback to his early success in Texas. Crunching numbers late into the night, Rove deduces Bush will win both Ohio and Florida. Around 10:30 p.m., he tells Bush to hold back on declaring victory -- but he nonetheless makes his own triumphant announcement to the senior staff.

Nov. 3, 2004

"The Architect"

Rove in his White House office, Dec. 6, 2004

In his acceptance speech, Bush thanks Rove, calling him simply "the architect."

"Everyone in the room knew what that meant," says Washington Post reporter Mike Allen. "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 fundraising 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."

A few days later, Rove tells reporters this has been his last presidential campaign. A week later, he backtracks, noting that people in the White House have told him it was "a really stupid thing to say."

February 2005

"They aren't kidding around"

Rove is promoted. President Bush announces that he will now be assistant to the president, deputy chief of staff and a senior adviser, the title reflecting influence over both politics and policy. Rove also gets a new office, just steps away from the Oval Office.

With Bush re-elected, Rove is thinking long-term. He intends to use both politics and policy to create a permanent Republican majority. He designs a legislative agenda that he hopes will lead to future Republican gains. High on the list: an overhaul and partial privatization of Social Security, and the appointment of "strict constructionist" judges who will reverse what many Republicans see as judicial activism. "I think what they are trying to do is bigger than the Great Society, and approaches the New Deal," says Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall. "They aren't kidding around."

Sources: This chronology was compiled from articles and excerpts from the following magazines, newspapers, television reports, Web sites and books:

Bush's Brain, by Wayne Slater; Frontline's "The Choice 2004;" The New Yorker; The Washington Post; Boy Genius, by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon; Newsweek; The Los Angeles Times; The Atlantic Monthly; U.S. News & World Report; Esquire; The New York Review of Books; PBS's P.O.V. program on Texas politics.

And FRONTLINE's interviews with:

Sam Gwynne, Wayne Slater, Thomas Edsall, Dan Balz, Bill Miller, Christine Todd Whitman, Grover Norquist, Mary Matalin, Joe Abate, Rick Davis, David Weeks, David Broder, Kimble Ross, Royal Masset, Reggi Bashur, Ken Mehlman, Ralph Reed, Matthew Dowd, Tom Philips, Ed Gillespie, Mark McKinnon, Laura Blumenfeld, Dana Milbank, Mike Allen, Terry Nelson, Sara Taylor, and Mike DuHaime

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posted april 12, 2005

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