Does Anybody Still Like Karl Rove?
In his new book, the architect of the Bush era is busy trying to spin his boss’s troubled legacy. But with even name-brand conservatives taking shots at him, it’s an uphill fight.
As the "Turd Blossom" peddles his new book, even name-brand conservatives are taking shots at him. Plus, Rove's secret stint as Harold Ford's guru.
Is the blossom off the turd?
Former White House strategy guru Karl Rove—famously nick-named “Turd Blossom” by the nicknamer-in-chief—was once considered a political genius, the vaunted “Architect” and “Brain” behind George W. Bush’s rise to power. To the Democrats who feared and loathed him (and incanted his name in their direct-mail fundraising solicitations), he was the diabolical wizard who contrived their ruin.
“I don’t know very many people who have accused Karl Rove of being a conservative,” sniffs right-wing icon Richard Viguerie. “And I’m not sure ‘courage’ is a word I’d use for him either.”
But these days, that ol’ Rove magic seems to have vanished. On Tuesday, his candidate for governor of Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, went down in flames in the Republican primary--the latest in a series of indignities. Since leaving the Bush White House in 2007, Rove has been publicly shamed as one of the top administration officials who vengefully leaked to Robert Novak, hauled before the House Judiciary Committee to explain his role in the politically-motivated firings of various U.S. attorneys, and even blamed for the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
Out of power and off the hot seat, the 59-year-old Rove has been doing a fair impression of a high-priced hack—spinning the party line in the press, toiling as a standup on the ham-and-raisin-sauce circuit, and defending his dented legacy and that of his damaged patron. Yet as he gets ready to hawk his new memoir, immodestly titled Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, Rove finds himself a pariah among some of the very conservatives he hopes to romance.
“I don’t know very many people who have accused Karl Rove of being a conservative--I’d like to know what the evidence for that would be,” sniffs right-wing icon Richard Viguerie. “And I’m not sure ‘courage’ is a word I’d use for him either. Karl Rove has always been a political operative. He has never been a conservative. And he is one of the people who hijacked the conservative movement and is largely responsible for the betrayal of the conservative cause by the Bush team.” (Rove loyalist Dana Perino, the last of the Bush White House press secretaries, passes on Rove’s response: “I remember Viguerie called Ronald Reagan a ‘sell-out’ in 1980 and wanted to form a third party.”)
But even Rove’s pal, David Keene—the godfather of the Conservative Political Action Conference—acknowledges that his old friend is carrying so much baggage that he might have been less than welcome at CPAC’s convention a couple of weeks ago. “Karl is a very smart, articulate guy,” Keene says. “He wasn’t at CPAC this year—he has been in the past. But we weren’t trying to link ourselves any more than absolutely necessary with what went on between 2005 and 2008.”
Those were the years that spoiled Rove’s carefully laid plans for a permanent Republican majority. Even so, such was his reputation as a kingmaker that shortly after the 2004 election, no less a Democrat than Rep. Harold Ford Jr.—back then a four-term congressman from Memphis—requested a meeting to discuss his political future in Tennessee. According to a knowledgeable source, Rove sat for three hours with the young congressman at the Washington home of mutual friends, where Ford floated the idea of switching parties to run for the Senate in 2006 as a Republican—that is, if President Bush could “clear the field” and prevent a contested primary. According to my source, Rove responded encouragingly, but nothing came of the secret session, and Ford ended up running—and losing—as a Dem.
Ford has an entirely different recollection, according to his spokesman: "Rove invited Harold to dinner. Harold went. Rove asked Harold to consider switching to the Republican Party. Harold said no. They finished dinner." But Perino says: “As Karl recalls it, the meeting lasted for less than an hour. He stopped by on the way home as more of a ‘get to know you’; it was the hosts that had visions of Ford running as a Republican. Karl thought it unlikely.”
Rove, obviously, has bigger fish to fry in his book—which, judging by the advance publicity, is a predictably self-serving account of his life and times inside the Bush dynasty.
“He’s trying to salvage the Bush legacy and, by extension, his own,” says Rove biographer and Dallas Morning News senior political reporter Wayne Slater, co-author of The Architect and Bush’s Brain. “There’s no question that George Bush would never have been president or governor without Karl Rove. But now that the presidency is over and so tarnished, Rove is doing his best—working with the Bush Library and on Fox News—to basically justify the mistakes and the problems of the Bush years…I expect there will also be plenty of score-settling.”
In one deliciously wacky instance, reported by the Associated Press which obtained an advance copy, Rove attempts to shift blame for the botched handling of Katrina from the Bush White House and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael (“Heckuva job, Brownie”) Brown to Louisiana’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans’ Democratic mayor, Ray Nagin. He also derides President Obama, according to the A.P., as “a stereotypical Chicago politician who plays fast and loose with the facts.”
Republican activist Grover Norquist, the impresario of the famed Wednesday Group meeting of Washington’s top conservative lobbyists, says Rove is at a crossroads, turning from the grubby business of politicking for a single client, Dubya, to something finer and more substantial.
“Think of the George Stephanopoulos model—he was the guy who worked for Bill Clinton and now has carved out an independent career. I almost never hear anyone say, ‘There’s that Clinton guy.’ In the same way, Karl was Bush’s Brain for a long period and now he’s becoming just Karl Rove.”
There are some, of course, who are skeptical that Rove is capable of such a transformation—not that this will stop him from making a fortune and getting a good table at a trendy restaurant. “This is a country,” says Joe Wilson, “that welcomes the Elmer Gantrys and the snake-oil salesman.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.