Deputy chief of staff for U.S. President George W. Bush
Born December 25, 1950, in Denver, CO; married Valerie Wainwright, 1977 (divorced, 1979), married Darby Hickson, 1986; children: Andrew (from second marriage). Education: Attended the University of Utah, the University of Texas at Austin, and George Mason University.
Addresses: Office—The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20500.
National executive director, College Republicans, 1971-72; chair, College Republicans, 1973-74; worked for the Republican National Committee, 1973; finance director, Virginia Republican Party, 1976; worked for campaigns of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clements, 1977; chief of staff for the governor of Texas, 1978-81; founded the direct-mail business Karl Rove & Co., 1981; adviser to George W. Bush's campaigns for governor, 1993-94 and 1998; adviser to Bush presidential campaign, 2000; senior political adviser to President George W. Bush, 2001-04; deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush, 2005—.
Karl Rove, the foremost American political strategist of his time, has wielded unprecedented power since George W. Bush, whom Rove advises, became president of the United States. Unlike strategists who served other presidents, and focused only on helping them win elections and influence the public, Rove followed Bush to the White House, where he helped form much of the Bush Administration's domestic policy agenda. "Rove is the administration's indispensable man, the connective tissue between the policies and constituencies needed to win elections and govern," wrote John D. McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal. Rove receives extensive credit for Bush's political success; one book about Rove was entitled Bush's Brain.
Before reaching the national stage with Bush, Rove developed a cutthroat reputation by developing a winning strategy for Republicans to take over and dominate politics in Texas. According to the Guardian's Julian Borger, one political consultant, Mark McKinnon, called Rove "the Bobby Fischer of politics" (a reference to the former chess champion), because "he not only sees the board, he sees about 20 moves ahead."
Rove was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1950. He became politically aware and a staunch Republican at a very early age. At the age of nine, he was such an outspoken fan of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign that he was beaten up by an older girl who preferred John F. Kennedy. His family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Rove attended high school and became a champion debater, going to school in a coat and tie and scaring his debate opponents by bringing boxes of index cards to debates (they did not know the cards were blank). He was elected president of his student government and worked on a U.S. senator's reelection campaign as a class project.
In 1969, Rove went to the University of Utah, where he joined the College Republicans. Through the group, he went to Illinois to work on a U.S. Senate campaign. By 1971, he became the College Republicans' national executive director. He showed a talent for writing short, simple, effective political messages and became a specialist in creating political literature and direct mail. He also traveled across the country on weekends, teaching seminars on activism to college conservatives. Meanwhile, Rove's parents divorced, and Rove learned that the man who had raised him—Louis, a mineral geologist— was not his biological father. (He did not meet his birth father until decades later.)
Rove never finished college. He left school to run for chair of the College Republicans in 1973, with Lee Atwater (who went on to run George H.W. Bush's campaign for president in 1988) as his top assistant. The bitter campaign for the chairmanship ended in a disputed election, and George H.W. Bush, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was asked to resolve the dispute. Bush not only ruled in Rove's favor, but got Rove a job with the Republican National Committee and became a mentor to him. While running an errand for Bush in 1973, Rove met Bush's son, George W. Bush, and the two became friends.
The Virginia Republican Party hired Rove in 1976 as its finance director, and Rove quickly demonstrated his fund-raising talents, raising $400,000 by mail within a year. His friendship with the Bush family took him to Texas in 1977, where he helped raise money for the elder Bush, who was thinking about running for president. He also informally advised the younger Bush in his unsuccessful campaign for Congress, and helped Bill Clements with his successful run for governor. Clements then made Rove his chief of staff.
Meanwhile, Rove's personal life continued to be troubled. He married Valerie Wainwright, a friend of the Bush family, in 1977, but his job did not leave him much time for her, and she divorced him two years later. In 1981, his mother committed suicide. In 1986, he married Darby Hickson, a graphic designer who worked for his direct-mail business.
Rove had started the business, Karl Rove & Co., in 1981 to aid Republican candidates in Texas. At the time, Texas was a Democratic state, and his candidates usually lost. His former boss, Clements, lost the governor's office in 1982. But Rove correctly predicted that the politics of Texas were about to change thanks to the growth of conservative suburbs. He helped U.S. Senator Phil Gramm switch to the Republican Party in 1983 and win reelection in 1984. Soon after, Rove wrote key memos that outlined a path to victory for Texas Republicans and formed a blueprint for campaigns he advised later. According to Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly, one memo, citing the French emperor Napoleon, told Clements to combine a "well-reasoned and extremely circumspect" defense with a "rapid and audacious attack." Another memo advised Republicans to appeal to suburbanites with a platform of lower taxes and support for education and traditional values. The strategy helped Clements get elected governor again in 1986. Rove followed up that victory with a Republican takeover of the Texas Supreme Court in 1988 by using the issue of tort reform, having Republican candidates argue that the court's Democratic judges were awarding too much money to plaintiffs. By the early 1990s, Rove was extremely influential in determining which Republicans became candidates for statewide office.
In 1993, Rove convinced George W. Bush to run for governor of Texas to unseat popular Democratic incumbent Ann Richards. With Rove's advice, Bush campaigned on four issues meant to appeal to suburban voters: welfare reform, support of education, tort reform, and juvenile justice. Bush stuck relentlessly to his message throughout the 1994 campaign and won. Next, Rove helped Republicans take over the Texas state senate in 1996 and helped Bush win reelection by a large margin in 1998. Meanwhile, Rove was also advising candidates for judgeships in Alabama. Green's Atlantic Monthly profile of Rove attributed several dirty tricks to him or the campaigns he managed there. For instance, in 1996, Rove arranged for vicious fliers to be distributed attacking his own candidate for state supreme court, Harold See, correctly guessing that voters would blame See's opponent for the offensive attack and elect See.
As George W. Bush began to explore a run for president of the United States, Rove recruited experts to tutor Bush in issues he did not understand well and made sure that Bush met various important people in full view of reporters. In 1999, Bush announced he would run for president. By June of that year, with Rove's help, he had raised an intimidating $36 million, making him the front-runner for the Republican nomination. When the 2000 primaries began, Bush was almost upset by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who beat Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire. But Bush (again, with Rove's help) recovered in South Carolina, attacking McCain aggressively on abortion and other issues. McCain also faced a dirty rumor campaign questioning his mental health and falsely claiming he fathered an illegitimate child, though the Bush campaign denied involvement. Bush beat McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the Republican nomination. During the general election, Rove encouraged Bush to stick to similar themes as those he used in Texas: education, faith-based initiatives, and a promise to be a "compassionate conservative." The election ended up very close, with Vice-President Al Gore leading in the popular vote but Bush winning the most electoral votes, and the presidency, after being declared the winner in the disputed state of Florida.
Bush named Rove a senior adviser, and Rove immediately began strategizing for the 2002 congressional elections and the 2004 presidential campaign. In January of 2001, he announced a plan called the 72-Hour Task Force, meant to organize grassroots efforts to get out the vote in the last three days of a campaign. Rove also developed a new political strategy, focused less on suburban swing voters and more on mobilizing core Republican supporters, including evangelical Christians, since Rove's statistics on the 2000 presidential election showed that four million evangelicals did not vote. To minimize dissent and mixed messages in the Bush Administration, Rove held weekly meetings with the chiefs of staff of all the departments in Bush's cabinet.
By mid-2002, Rove was stressing that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the war on terror could be a powerful campaign issue for Republicans. Sure enough, Rove and many Republican candidates attacked Democrats for opposing Bush's plan for establishing a homeland security department. As the elections neared, Rove decided to have Bush campaign in person for candidates for Senate in close races in states such as Georgia and Minnesota. At the grassroots level, Republicans executed Rove's voter-turnout strategies. The plans worked. Republicans won big in the 2002 elections, winning back control of the U.S. Senate. Time named Rove its Person of the Week after the election, with writer Jessica Reaves calling him "one of the country's sharpest and most instinctive political minds."
Rove's influence as Bush's political adviser was vast. He reportedly met with the president daily whenever both were in Washington. New Yorker journalist Nicholas Lemann reported that Rove "appears to have supervisory authority over the Republican National Committee, … functions as a national personnel director for the Republican Party, hand-selecting candidates for governorships and seats in the Senate and House, … closely supervises political fund-raising," had proteges installed in several Cabinet departments, and was playing an important role in forming Bush's domestic policy. James Carney and John F. Dickerson of Time agreed. "There are few decisions, from tax cuts to judicial nominations to human cloning, in which Rove is not directly involved," they wrote.
But Carney and Dickerson discounted the common view of Bush critics that Rove was the mastermind behind Bush. Instead, they argued, Bush's partnership with Rove reflected the president's view that politics and policy were closely linked. "Bush and Rove share a mutual irreverence, a deep conservatism, a belief in the individual and in America's moral superiority, a disdain for northeastern elitists, and a revulsion against the if-it-feels-good, do-it liberalism of the '60s and '70s," Kenneth T. Walsh of U.S. News and World Report wrote.
When Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts won the Democratic nomination in 2004, Rove devised a strategy to beat him: attacking him for his Senate votes on the war in Iraq by accusing him of changing his position, or "flip-flopping." By contrast, Rove told Walsh of U.S. News and World Report, during the war on terror, Americans "want to know the president is not going to get up in the morning and change his beliefs because of what he thinks is fad or fashion." Rove also successfully advocated for the Republican National Convention to be held in New York City, again believing that reminding voters of the 9-11 terror attacks would help Bush politically. In August and September of 2004, when an organization called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth aired ads suggesting Kerry had lied about his Vietnam War record, the Kerry campaign blamed the Bush campaign for the ads by pointing to Rove's friendship with Bob Perry, a major donor to the Swift Boat veterans. But Rove and the Bush campaign denied any connection.
Bush beat Kerry in the 2004 election by winning the key states of Florida and Ohio. Bush called Rove "the architect" in his acceptance speech. "Everyone in the room knew what that meant," Washington Post reporter Mike Allen told the PBS documentary program Frontline. Rove "was the architect of the public policies that got them there, he was the architect of the campaign platform, he was the architect of the fund-raising strategy, he was the architect of the state-by-state strategy, he was the architect of the travel itinerary. His hand was in all of it."
In February of 2005, Bush promoted Rove to deputy chief of staff. He began devising a legislative strategy that he hoped would help create support for an enduring Republican majority, including appointing conservative judges and reforming and partially privatizing Social Security.
But by the summer of 2005, Rove was back in the news for reasons he had not engineered. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was investigating whether Rove had committed a crime by leaking the identity of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Valerie Plame to reporters in 2003. Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, believed that Bush administration officials had plotted the leak to retaliate for Wilson's public debunking of part of the case for war in Iraq, and Wilson declared that he wanted to see Rove "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs," as quoted by Nancy Gibbs of Time. In 2005, reports in Newsweek and Time confirmed that Rove had told Time reporter Matthew Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA. Rove had long denied leaking Plame's name, but this turned out to be a technicality: he had described her to Cooper as Wilson's wife instead of using her name.
But on October 28, 2005, Fitzgerald announced only one indictment, that of I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to vice-president Dick Cheney. The prosecutor informed Rove he remained in legal jeopardy, the Wall Street Journal reported, but Fitzgerald appeared to have considered indicting Rove on charges of perjury or false statements, then backed away. By mid-November, Rove began to emerge from the lowprofile stance he had taken during the Plame affair. He gave a speech in Washington, and White House staff reported that he was running meetings again and trying to recruit candidates for the 2006 elections. But at the end of November, Fitzgerald called a second Time reporter, Viveca Novak, to testify before the grand jury, a sign that Rove was still under investigation, though one news report suggested Novak's knowledge might actually be key to Rove's defense against possible charges.
After the 2004 election, Rove declared that he would not be involved in any more presidential campaigns, but he retreated from the statement soon after. Even if he is never the dominant strategist for another presidential candidate, few observers expect his ambitions to end with Bush's presidency. That is why so many Democrats were hoping, in late 2005, to see the Plame affair end Rove's career. Rove's ultimate goal, wrote Lemann in the New Yorker, "is creating a Republican majority that would be as solid as, say, the Democratic coalition that Franklin Roosevelt created—a majority that would last for a generation and … would wind up profoundly changing the relationship between citizen and state in this country."
Atlantic Monthly, November 2004.
Guardian (London, England), July 22, 2005.
New Yorker, May 12, 2003.
New York Times, August 23, 2004, p. A1; October 26, 2005, p. A1; October 29, 2005, p. A14; November 11, 2005, p. A19; November 28, 2005, p. A17.
Time, November 7, 2002; November 18, 2002, pp. 44-45; July 22, 2005, pp. 25-40.
U.S. News and World Report, September 6, 2004, p. 30.
Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2005, p. A4; October 28, 2005, p. A3.
Washington Post, November 29, 2005, p. A1.
"Karl Rove—The Architect: Mastermind: Chronology," PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/architect/rove/cron. html (November 15, 2005).