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Media consultant McKinnon, then making ads for Democrats, knew how it felt to be on the wrong end of Rove's wrecking ball. Like just about everyone else who did politics in Texas back then, McKinnon says the state's political shift would have come about without Rove but not nearly as quickly. "What Karl did was just accelerate it by a lot, probably by a decade," McKinnon says.
The time Rove gave to politics killed his brief first marriage, to a Houston socialite, in the late 1970s, but it sparked the one that has lasted 19 years, to Darby Hickson, who was a graphic artist in his direct-mail business. The two have a son Andrew, 15, and friends say she's a perfect foil and counterweight to a man who demands a strategic plan even for pancakes. (In their struggle for control of the kitchen, she argues that the blueberries are perfectly fine mixed into the batter; Rove, who considers himself an expert cook, insists they should be sprinkled on top after the batter is in the skillet.)
Of all the opportunities Rove discerned before anyone else, there was never one like George W. Bush. When Rove in the late 1980s started touting the President's son as a future Governor and introducing him around the state, George W. was not yet an owner of the Texas Rangers, and others saw little to recommend the failed oilman beyond his famous name. Still, "he kind of fit the model of what Karl saw as the growth in the party and in politics in the state. A conservative but someone who could appeal to a lot of people," recalls Reggie Bashur, a longtime G.O.P. strategist in Texas. "I can honestly say with Bush, it was different for Karl. Karl is committed to all the candidates he works for, but this was special."
Rove insists that Bush's quality was not that he fit a political formula but that he came up with one. As Bush finally got serious about running for Governor in 1993, he took a few days to consider what kind of race he wanted to conduct and made a list. "I wish I'd kept it. He wrote it down on a yellow pad," Rove says. "It was like the template for what followed."
Bush came up with three issues: education reform, welfare reform and juvenile criminal justice. "I remember being particularly struck by the second issue on there, where he said, 'A dependency on government saps the soul and drains the spirit,'" Rove says, the wonder fresh in his voice nearly a dozen years later. "You know, this was not 'Welfare is bad because people cheat and drive around in Cadillacs.' And when he talked about juvenile justice, it wasn't 'Lock the little buggers up.' It was 'We're going to lose a generation of children to lives of despair and violence unless we intervene, and our object is to show them love.' I thought it was very unusual. You had a Republican candidate for Governor talking about criminal justice, and his answer was 'Show them love.'" That was all the more remarkable at a time when the rest of the Republican Party was falling under the tough-but-no-love sway of Newt Gingrich. Bush's list became the basis of what would come to be called compassionate conservatism.