The Rove Warrior

No adviser has ever dominated the White House like Karl Rove. So what does the President see in him, and what's he planning to do next?

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There can be an odd sort of solace in the idea that there's an evil genius behind a President you don't like. Without the image of a manipulative tactician calling the shots, how could the left live with the fact that the country has elected him again? Even if you're a conservative who loves the President, the occasional apostasy--like steel tariffs or that election-eve endorsement of gay civil unions--is easier to take if you can convince yourself that it's not him talking but that unprincipled operative, who has been whispering in his ear. No one knows better than Karl Rove how useful it is to have an easy explanation for George W. Bush when the real one is inconvenient. Being Karl Rove, he even uses a fancy word for it. "Heuristics," he says. "It's a shortcut to explaining something complex--or in this case, explaining away something complex."

That something--the relationship between the President and his friend of 31 years, whom Bush credited in his victory speech as "the architect" of his re-election--has never quite been seen before in Washington, which is why there is much intrigue around it. Modern presidential campaigns have made legends of message men like James Carville and Lee Atwater, pollsters like Dick Morris, imagemakers like Michael Deaver. Earlier ones would not have succeeded without power brokers like Mark Hanna, whose 1896 campaign plan for William McKinley provided Rove with the model for part of Bush's 2000 strategy, and devoted handlers like Louis Howe, who discerned and nurtured F.D.R.'s political talent when everyone else dismissed him as a lightweight.

But for all the credit they got for putting their chosen ones in the White House, none of those geniuses had anything close to Rove's influence on how their President went on to govern. Even Bobby Kennedy operated from the Justice Department, not from the White House. Rove "has more bandwidth, I think, than any presidential adviser has ever had in history," says Bush-campaign media consultant Mark McKinnon. The intentionally banal title "senior adviser" tells you everything and nothing about what Rove does from Hillary Clinton's old office in the White House. His Office of Strategic Initiatives is responsible for giving coherence to Bush's domestic agenda and turning it into reality. Rove was once asked to name a domestic issue he doesn't have a hand in, and his wisecrack answer was not so far off the mark: "Anything involving baseball."

There is no significant political relationship--with Congress, the G.O.P., Governors, mayors, special-interest groups--that isn't overseen by the Architect. He has gone around the country handpicking Republican candidates for Governor and Congress and clearing the field of those he deemed less suitable. His chessboard moves sometimes cross party lines. In a creative though unsuccessful maneuver that would have further reduced the Senate's Democratic minority, he sounded out Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson last month about the possibility of becoming Agriculture Secretary. Democrats are worried that Rove might still find a way to persuade Nelson to switch parties.

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