Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

Most politicians find the cult of the political consultant annoying, but George W. Bush always seemed to find it very annoying. When he began running for President, he insisted, as candidates rarely do, that all his top advisers work only for him. So Karl Rove sold the business he had spent his adult life building up, went to work for Bush as an employee, and remained one until he announced, last week, that he would be leaving the White House.

This arrangement says a lot about both Bush and Rove. For someone like Bush, with a strong need to feel in control, to tolerate a mere staff aide's becoming as big a celebrity as Rove shows how deeply he must appreciate Rove's contribution to getting him elected to office--to the point, perhaps, of doubting that he could win without him. For Rove's part, the arrangement demonstrates that power and a place in history mattered more to him than money, and that he was a true believer in his boss in a way that most consultants are not. It's hard not to think that if Bush had insisted that Rove stay on until the end of his Presidency he would have complied; the President, with no more campaigns left to win, must have come to see that the costs of Rove--who, lately, has often been a focus of congressional inquiries and rarely victorious in political battles--were outweighing the benefits.

Before Rove joined Bush full time, he had maneuvered himself into a position in Texas that was about as close as it is possible to get to being an old-fashioned political boss. The state, thanks in part to his efforts, was solidly Republican, and candidates at every level of elective office--the governorship, the congressional delegation, the state Supreme Court, the legislature--begged him to consent to be hired by them. If he agreed, he would run a typically ruthless and hyper-organized campaign, and usually win.

In Washington, Rove's style didn't play as well. While he was winning electoral battles--in 2000, 2002, and 2004--he was accumulating enemies. He insulted members of Congress, terrified people who worked for him, and forcefully entered the airspace of executive-branch officials who were used to being left alone by the White House political operation. (If Congress ever succeeds in getting Rove to testify, we may learn that the United States Attorneys were among them.) But it was Rove's failures to deliver legislative victories on major Bush initiatives like Social Security and immigration and to keep the House and the Senate Republican in 2006 that made him just famous and controversial, rather than that plus unstoppable.

It would be a mistake to think of Rove as an entity separate from Bush. The President has behaved with the same overreaching swagger in realms that weren't Rove's as he has in realms that were. It was surely Bush's decision, after the 2004 election, to spend political capital by launching the grand, doomed attempt to privatize the Social Security program. That plan generally gets credited to Rove, as the war in Iraq gets credited to Dick Cheney, but they are Bush's failures, and not just by virtue of his having stood idly by while his aides manipulated him. The similarity of his mistakes demonstrates that he really is the decider.

In a city run by people who have spent their lives endlessly reenacting their election as class president, Rove was un-dull: he was the fabulist, boundary violator, autodidact, mean boy, schemer. It wasn't always easy to tell when he was kidding, or being disingenuous. An example is his professed admiration for William McKinley, one of the country's least memorable Presidents. …

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