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

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Rove's other overarching goal for 2001 is to have Bush sign a tax cut close enough to his $1.6 billion proposal that he can call it his own. Were the President's arguments and powers of persuasion as strong as he and Rove pretend, his tax bill would be law. But after more than 20 road trips to pressure Senators to support it, Bush was unable to turn a single vote his way. Again, Rove can paint with a broad brush. When Bush came to Washington, no one thought Congress would support such a large tax cut. If he gets 80 percent of what he wanted, that's enough to call it a win.

Despite last week's show of eco-friendliness, Rove's biggest image failure is the environment. The White House complains that some positive decisions have been underplayed by the press. But such spin doesn't approach Rove's usual gold standard. Why didn't the master strategist see this coming? He knew Republicans scored badly on education, and he hatched an effective plan to fix the problem. But when it came to being green, he was as blind as Bush.

Rove is never blind to the needs of religious conservatives, because he saw how their coldness toward Bush Sr. doomed his reelection in 1992. Rove has spent the past eight years making sure Dubya doesn't feel the same chill. The task has been made easier, of course, by the fact that the younger Bush is more conservative and sympathetic to the Christian right. But Rove doesn't take chances. He not only constructed a policy agenda that would satisfy conservatives, but during the campaign — while marketing Bush as a moderate — he also used a weekly conference call to reassure evangelicals that the candidate was one of them.

The courtship grew more intense when Bush and Rove got to the White House. Each Wednesday Rove dispatches a top administration official to attend the regular conservative-coalition lunches held at Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. When activists call his office with a problem, Rove doesn't pass them off to an aide. He often responds himself. When Weyrich heard a few weeks ago that Bush's budget slashed funding for a favorite project called the Police Corps, which gives scholarships and training to police cadets, he complained to the White House. To Weyrich's surprise, Rove called back. "We've taken care of it," Rove said. "The problem is solved." Weyrich, who says his memos to the Reagan and Bush Sr. White Houses were rarely read, was impressed. "That," he gushes, "is what it means to have friends in the White House."

Rove is intimately involved in the selection and nomination of federal judges, a project conservatives are watching closely. Bush's first round of nominations will be announced in May, and many on the right view it as the most important early test of his commitment to rescuing American culture from liberalism. Already there is grumbling about the process. "The emphasis on racial and sexual quotas is as pernicious in this administration as it was in any other," complains a conservative involved in the discussions. In meetings of the White House Judicial Selection Task Force, Rove has to make sure that the choices satisfy not just the purists of the conservative legal community but also the desires of local politicians. At one meeting, Rove turned to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush's most conservative Cabinet member, and joked, "John, did you ever think that you and I would represent the left in a meeting like this?"

Rove seems embarrassed about some of the attention and perks his new life has brought him. But there is one he clearly enjoys. Last Thursday night, with his boss upstairs and most likely asleep, Rove ushered a group of old high school friends from Salt Lake City through the White House for a private tour. Rove's tired, pale-blue eyes danced as he showed off the Cabinet Room. "I love this painting," he said moments later, unspooling the history of a Norman Rockwell that hangs next to the Oval Office door. In the Roosevelt Room, he told how FDR used the space to house his aquariums. Down the hall he expounded on a print showing Lincoln at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout, he was a manic bundle of energy. Near the end of the tour, Glade Curtis, an obstetrician, had to laugh. "Karl was always really into politics and history," Curtis said. "And he was always a nerd."

Rove conceded that he was "the biggest dweeb in my high school" and allowed as how he hasn't changed much in the intervening 32 years. But as he walked to his car outside the West Wing, it was clear that at least one thing had changed. Famous for driving beat-up heaps in Austin, Rove climbed into a metallic-blue Jaguar and roared into the night.

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