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His hair may be a tad thinner and grayer, but the face is still boyish, and the voice still booms. This is the old Karl: whimsical, funny, a tad manic, relishing the fight. Life is the best it's been since Bush's re-election, when Bush notched his hard-fought win despite the headwinds of the Iraq war and conservatives hailed Rove as an undisputed political genius.
Then everything went to hell. Iraq and Katrina crushed Bush's poll numbers, Republicans lost the Congress, and Rove became a focus of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Multiple grand jury appearances and the prospect of an indictment sapped his morale while producing six-figure legal bills. Masked protesters appeared outside his house. The evening he learned he wouldn't be indicted, Rove sobbed at his White House desk. A celebration cake from his neighbors, he later recalled, "tasted like ashes. Everything had lost its flavor." His marriage, too, was failing.
As the Republicans collapsed in the late Bush years, even former allies revised their opinions of Rove. In August 2007 the conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that Rove had come to be seen as "part of the problem" afflicting his party. Democrats taunted their former tormentor. One 2008 Obama campaign spokesman likened political advice from Rove to "health tips from a funeral-home director." When Obama thumped John McCain in 2008--an election Rove publicly sat out--many conservatives blamed the Bush-Rove legacy. Rove prefers not to dwell on the past but states the obvious. "Losing is never fun," he says.
Today, life has regained its flavor. Rove, 61, earns as much as $40,000 per appearance on the speaking circuit and is paid handsomely for his opinions by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. This summer he got married for the third time, to Karen Johnson, a transportation lobbyist from Austin. They flew to southern Italy for their honeymoon on a jet belonging to billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, a 2008 Obama supporter who recently donated millions to Crossroads and other conservative groups.
Some things are the same. At public events, hecklers call him a murderer and a war criminal. Strangers are still a crapshoot. When he recently introduced himself to a neighbor who was walking his dog, the man snapped, "I know who you are. You ruined our country!"
"I'm not a human being," Rove says in wonderment. "I'm a myth."
Rove at the Crossroads
He seems something less than dazzled by Romney. After the GOP candidate caused a stir with his musing in London that Britain may have been unprepared for the Olympics, Rove said on Fox News that "you have to shake your head." When Romney recently demanded that Obama apologize for questioning his record at Bain Capital, Rove pronounced him "whiny." Still, Rove believes Obama has a "record of failure" that leaves him vulnerable, especially if turnout dips among young voters and minorities. "It's going to be very close," he says.