The Busiest Man in the White House

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Photograph for TIME by Brooks KraftGamma

Bush trusts 'Boy Genius' with a huge portfolio

As George W. Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove is supposed to keep the President in a healthy political glow. But on one key issue recently, Rove stood by while Bush turned as gray as a hazy day in Houston. Bush abandoned a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, rejected the Kyoto global-warming treaty, suspended new arsenic standards for drinking water — and began to look suspiciously like the eco-villain Al Gore warned us about. Moderate Republicans were getting jittery. So last week Rove and other aides pulled out the green paints and brushes and set to work on Bush's environmental makeover — a series of announcements meant to add some much needed chlorophyll to the President's image. The White House said it would uphold strict regulations on lead contamination, left in place a Clinton rule expanding wetlands protection and backed a treaty banning a dozen harmful chemicals found mostly in poorer countries (but not in the U.S., which made signing it easier for Bush). Rove huddled with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman before she faced the press, and he told reporters how misunderstood the President is on this issue.

Solid p.r. work. But if Rove's theme week is followed by any more bad environmental news from the White House, the spinning won't have a prayer of changing public perceptions. Which is why the private meeting that took place in Rove's office last Tuesday tells you more about his value to Bush than anything about the publicity blitz. Rove — the Man to See for GOP favor seekers — was joined at the meeting by Mary Matalin, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who has been working with oil companies to help sell Bush's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Castellanos feared that bad press about the environment was weakening resolve inside the administration, and he was right. Armed with polls and videotapes, he tried to make the case that the policy could be a political winner, but he failed. Rove told him Bush wasn't exactly dropping the position, but he wasn't going to push for it either. The President was already engaged in too many big fights with Congress — over tax cuts, spending, education reform — that he might not win. He didn't need another one. "For Karl, it was a matter of priorities," says a source familiar with the meeting. "Why fight all the battles at the same time?"

Setting priorities and delivering bad news to friends is just a sliver of what Rove does as Bush's top political gun. It was Rove who shaped the agenda, message and strategy that got Bush — the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times — into the White House. Now it is Rove's job to keep him there through 2008. "My job," Rove told TIME last week, "is to pay attention to the things that affect his political future." That's why, in the first week of Bush's presidency, Rove was bringing political advisers from New Hampshire to the White House to plot strategy for the 2004 presidential race.

No one, with the possible exception of the President, will be more responsible for the success or failure of Bush's presidency. Which is fine by Rove. This is, after all, the culmination of a life's obsession. It began even before the mid-'70s, when Rove, then a college student in Utah, hit the young-Republican circuit with Lee Atwater, who became George Bush Sr.'s 1988 campaign mastermind. Rove, who dropped out to become a full-time operative, also worked for the father and thus met the son. He became the top consultant in Texas and eventually saw in Dubya a natural politician who — guided by Rove, of course — could not only reach the White House but also usher in a permanent Republican majority. "When the President was growing up, he wanted to be Willie Mays," says Mark McKinnon, the Bush campaign's admaker. "But when Karl was growing up, he wanted to be senior adviser to the President."

In a 30-year career, Rove, 50, has worked on hundreds of Republican races throughout the country. So when Bush sits down with congressional leaders, he can nod at Rove and say, "You all know the Boy Genius," and they all do. (Bush's other nickname for Rove is less flattering: Turd Blossom.) Like some of his predecessors — Atwater, James Carville — Rove is turning into a Washington celebrity. When he and his wife, Darby, step out for dinner, maître d's offer them private dining rooms. Strangers on the street ask for his autograph. Congressmen drop his name and quote things he may or may not have said. He even has the dubious honor of being the only aide lampooned on the Comedy Central series "That's My Bush!"

Inside the White House, Rove can't match Karen Hughes' gift for channeling Bush's voice or Cheney's experience in foreign policy and Executive Branch management, but he has an equally acute sense of how issues will go over with Republican and swing voters. As a top adviser puts it, "If Bush asks Cheney and Rove, 'What's your take on China?' he's asking two very different questions." From Cheney he wants to know how foreign leaders, the military and the State Department think. From Rove he wants to know how the issue is playing with the faithful. Officially, Rove has no role in foreign policy, but during the China spy-plane crisis, he advised Bush on how various actions would be received by a key GOP constituency — the anti-China hawks.

In the past week alone, while working on Bush's environmental makeover, Rove plotted strategy at meetings on how to proceed with health-care reform, stem-cell research and the tax-cut debate. He worked on recruiting candidates for office in two states and orchestrated the withdrawal of a candidate in a third. He attended a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to discuss policy toward Sudan, a country that persecutes Christians and is therefore of particular interest to evangelicals. And he helped conceive what the Bushies call the "Echo Chamber," a plan to use the media's obsession with marking the first 100 days in office to flog Bush's accomplishments.

Ever since FDR laid out the first installment of his New Deal, every President has had to pass the 100-days test; Bush's 100th falls on Sunday, April 29. Rove, an autodidact and amateur historian, insists that presidents should be judged on a 180-day timetable, since the legislative calendar follows one. That theory won't stop the barrage of analysis that will begin this week, so, to feed the media beast, Rove and Hughes met with GOP surrogates in the Old Executive Office Building last Thursday to hand out a script. The central message: Bush will not overhype the moment. The White House is presenting its achievements as a celebration of the joint accomplishments of Bush and Congress. The President will entertain members of Congress and their spouses at the White House on Sunday.

The case can be made that Bush, while off to a smooth start, doesn't have all that much to hype. A President without foreign policy experience got the stranded crew home from China, and his public statements have generally been in key. But by the yardstick of Rove's ambition — creating a locked-in Republican majority — Bush has a long way to go. The Great Transformation was to begin with passage of his education-reform plan, which the Senate is set to debate this week. The vouchers and testing proposals at its heart have been washed away and diluted, respectively. Still, enough tough-sounding language will survive for Bush to claim victory.

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