Karl Rove Likes What He Sees
Karl Rove Likes What He Sees
With his new gig at Fox and a seven-figure political memoir in the works, Karl Rove has officially crossed over from shadowy 'Wizard of Oz' territory to somewhat approachable public personality. But as Lisa DePaulo finds out, that doesn't mean he's any less…pointed with his opinions
i can see karl rove standing outside the restaurant, on the phone, yakking, pacing, occasionally peering at me through the etched-glass window and sticking a stubby finger in the air to indicate that he'll just be just one more minute. Eighteen minutes pass. He enters brusquely, with apologies and a crack about my "bright red purse" but also with the clear message that he is in control. Uncomfortable in this position, somewhat wary, constantly checking his watch ("Gotta go soon… Gotta go… Couple more minutes…"), not diggin' it, but always in control. Karl Rove is not a guy who kicks back with a drink—even coffee's a stretch ("I'm a decaf guy," he says)—and shoots the shit for a few hours. This isn't about a charm offensive—he gives the impression that he's not even sure why he's doing this. But: To be with Rove is to listen to a man who is utterly articulate and insightful and at the same time utterly…what's the word? Plain? Normal? Caucasian? If you didn't know he used to be Bush's Brain, if you didn't know he is widely credited/blamed with leading the Republican Party to an era of total world domination, if you didn't recognize him (as numerous gawkers inside the Muse hotel restaurant do) as the man W. famously dubbed "Turd Blossom," you'd think he was a middle-management sales lackey in town to sell Ginsu knives or something. The nondescript gray suit and overcoat, the geeky glasses and bald-on-the-top-with-peach-fuzz do, the briefcase (in middle school, he was the only kid with a briefcase, which pretty much sums it up). In what ways is he cool? We can't help but ask. "None," he says. "I am the antithesis of cool." We should also point out that Rove is exceedingly polite and well-mannered and, at moments, as prickly as the little cactuses on his tie. He has the demeanor of a man who had more power than he'll ever admit but is never really far from the 9-year-old who once got into a schoolyard fight over Richard Nixon, and lost. To a girl.
karl rove: Sorry to be late. I have a lunch with the Big Boss shortly.
gq: The Big Boss?
Ah, that big boss. Does that mean you'll be getting more money out of Fox?
No, it doesn't.
Do you like being a TV analyst?
Uh, it's odd. You know, it's weird for me. But it's interesting.
Do you think Fox News is fair and balanced?
I do. I think they go out of their way to be fair and tough in questioning. I'm really impressed with the people I've gotten to know. Brit Hume is a very bright person; Chris Wallace has got a lot of integrity.
You also sold a book recently.
What'd ya get?
And you're doing speeches, too, right? I read that you just gave one at Penn—
I like speaking to the college campuses.
And the first question, someone called you a cancer.
Right. Oh, sure.
You must get that all the time.
Uh, I get it some. When I go to campuses. But did you hear what I did? I just let him rant. And when he was finished, he had no question, he just wanted to accuse me of undermining the Constitution and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And I said, "Thanks for your thoughtful rant." And he sat down. And I said, "Now do you feel better about yourself?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, I want you to feel better about yourself." And everybody laughed, and we went on.
But is it hard when people—
No. No. Look, everywhere I go, people say nice things to me. I don't live for that. I appreciate it, and I'm grateful for their kind words, but I don't live for it. And similarly, when people say ugly things? It doesn't affect me. They want their words to affect me. And as a result, I'm not gonna let 'em.
But when people say, "You've created this climate of fear—"
Yeah. I laugh. Sure. How? What, exactly? I'm not apologetic about what this administration has done. It's protecting America. It has won important battles in a war that we as a nation better win or we will leave the future to our kids, a much darker and dangerous future.
What's the biggest misconception about your role in the Bush White House?
That it was all about politics.
If that's the misconception, what's the overlooked truth?
Look, I'm a policy geek. What I've most enjoyed about my job was the substantive policy discussions. Being able to dig in deeply and, you know, learn about something, ask questions, listen to smart people, and form a judgment about something that was from a policy perspective.
When you look back at your career, especially in the Bush administration, what's the worst thing you did?
I'm not gonna be good at answering that.
But is there anything you feel guilty about? Or wish you did differently?
[exasperated laugh] Off the record?
No! Don't go off the record.
Off the record.
Okay, let's look back, to the very beginning of the Karl Rove story, when you got handed the keys [from Bush the father, to deliver to Bush the son] until now. And you look at where the president's approval ratings are today—
What did you do wrong?
Oh, look, I did a lot of things wrong. But the main thing is, we're fighting an important but unpopular war.
You still think it was the right thing to do?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, one of our biggest mistakes was, the first time Harry Reid got up and said, "You lied and you deliberately misled the country," we should have gone back immediately and hit back hard, and we didn't. We let that story line develop. In reality, you go back and look at what Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore—I'd be happy to supply you the quotes—what they said about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction.
What are you most proud of?
Being part of a group of people I have a great deal of respect and admiration for in service of the country.
If you had to make a bet, can Hillary pull it off?
The odds are long, but improbable things have happened almost every month in this race. She wasn't supposed to win New Hampshire, and she did. So we'll see. You know, she's got a lot of strengths, and he does, too. We got two wellmatched opponents going at each other hammer and tongs. It's fun to watch.
If it's mathematically impossible for either of them to get enough delegates, how will this get resolved?
Somebody can get to a majority, but they're gonna have to get to a majority with superdelegates. Neither of them can win enough delegates to win it on just simply the elected delegates.
So if it comes down to superdelegates, doesn't that become a question of who can be more ruthless?
Well, you know, people will have to decide whether they're going to act as reflectors of the popular vote in their districts or states, or whether they're going to exercise independent judgment. I think this is the big dilemma the Democrats face: Are they going to choose a nominee who essentially is chosen, validated, by a minor aristocracy, by essentially an undemocratic group? Because, look. Does anybody think that Patrick Deval [sic], governor of Massachusetts, and Senator Ted Kennedy are gonna respect the wishes of their home-state crowd and go for Hillary Clinton, who won their state? No.
So how ugly is it gonna get?
Well, I—we don't know. We have geological ages that are gonna pass. It's not that ugly today. The wounds are fresh, but there's plenty of time for them to heal. The question is, will the wounds get deeper and more difficult to heal? We don't know. My gut tells me it happens, but I don't know.
If you could run one of their campaigns, which one would be the dream campaign to run?
Because I don't believe in what they say.
But just as a strategist, just to get in there and—
Yeah, well, see, for me it's not divorced from who they are and what they're all about and what they would do.
What did you think of the red-phone 3 a.m. ad?
It was a gutsy, dangerous move. She figured out that she had to do something to raise the issue of: Is he fit to be president? And this was a way to do it. I happened to be in Texas a week before the ad popped, and all of her surrogates were hitting him pretty hard on the thinness of his experience. They were pretty brutal. And this ad sort of fed into that.
Isn't that the kind of ad you would have done?
Uh, look, that's the problem. She can't run an ad—you know, the more powerful ads she can't run against him, because she's afraid of looking too moderate. He's got essentially… His argument is twofold. "Vote for me because I'll bring Republicans and Democrats together; we're not red states, blue states, we're the United States." And second of all—and he said this most passionately in the Wisconsin victory speech: "There are big issues facing the country, and it requires leadership and energy to solve them." Well, the two best counters to those are Hillary saying, "I've actually worked with Republicans and Democrats to get things done." Or McCain saying, even more pointedly, "On all the big issues where Republicans and Democrats have come together, I've been in the middle of bringing them together, and you've been way out there on the fringe. When we pulled together the Gang of Fourteen, you were out on the fringe. When we pulled together a bipartisan answer on the terrorist-surveillance program, you were way out there on the fringe. When Democrats and Republicans, regardless of where they were on the war, came together to give our troops everything they needed while they were in combat, you were way out there on the fringe." Now, she can do some of that, because she's actually tried to work with Republicans over the years. He has not since he got there. He's been coolly detached and sitting on the side. His fingerprints are on, at most, a couple of small items. And then, on the leadership issue, she can say, "Look, I've been in the middle of these big battles. I've been providing the leadership. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. But at least I've been involved." And McCain will be able to sharpen that even more.
It seems like you're talking about authenticity here. Are you saying Obama is inauthentic?
I'm saying that he has adopted two themes for his campaign that are not supported by his actions.
Do you think Obama would be easier to beat?
I try not to think about those things. Because that inevitably leads you to believe, I would like to have A or I would like to have B. You need to keep your mind open about both of them.
You've said—what was the phrase you used about Hillary? "Fatally flawed"?
Fatally flawed. I just thought her flaws would show up in the general election. I didn't know they'd show up as early and as strong as they have.
Uh, calculating. You know, she went through the period where she had the calculated laugh, she went through the period where she had the calculated accents, and you build that on top of a person who already has the reputation that anything she says is calculating, you know…
Is calculating a terrible thing?
It is if people think it's phony. And that's what her problem is. That and the sense of entitlement. You know, the sense of "This is mine, I deserve it; we're the Clintons, this is ours." And I think that really caused a lot of people to say, "You know what? It's not yours." And do we really want to go back? The '90s were nice in a lot of respects, but do we really want to go back to all that drama?
There is something ironic about Karl Rove criticizing someone for being calculating.
Right. Look, it's one thing to calculate and say, "What's the best way for me to do this?" It's another thing to say, "What's the best way to do this, even if it means the sacrifice of my fundamental principles?" When she stood up there and said, "I'm in front of an African-American group in Alabama, so let me adopt a phony southern accent!" And when she sat there and said, "You know what? I need to warm myself up, so for the next weeklong period I'm gonna sit there and laugh and cackle at anything that is even remotely funny." You know, when both she and he, who are free traders by instinct, went to Ohio and said, "We're gonna renegotiate NAFTA," when they know that (a) there's no provision to renegotiate NAFTA, and (b) the Canadians and the Mexicans are not gonna want to renegotiate NAFTA, and (c) when both of them understand that trade liberalization, particularly with our neighbors, has been to our economic advantage, who are they kidding?
But when people call you calculating, do you take that as a compliment?
Look, what I'm charged with is, in politics, taking the material that I have to work with—which are the views and values, convictions and principles, of my candidate or client—and charting the best path to victory. That's different than saying, "How am I gonna take a fundamental belief or a reality of me as an individual and discard it?"
So there's good calculating and bad calculating?
If Hillary pulls it out, will Mark Penn [her chief strategist] be considered a genius?
Mark Penn is a very smart guy regardless of whether or not she pulls it out. He's a very smart guy.
But don't you think there've been a lot of mistakes?
Sure. But if you have to lay them at the feet of one person, you lay them at the feet of the candidate. The candidate sets the tone.
Are you surprised at how Obama exploded?
You know, I want to be careful—I think we need to be careful about not getting carried away with a narrative that doesn't truly exist. Like the story this morning in The New York Times about "the Obamacans"—the Republicans who support Obama.
You don't buy that?
No. Do I buy that there are Republicans who support Obama? Sure, I do. But take a look at the last four polls on which there are cross tabs available. There are twice as many Democrats defecting to McCain as there are Republicans defecting to Obama. In the Fox poll, Obama takes 74 percent of Democrats and loses 18 to McCain. And McCain keeps 80 percent of Republicans and loses 10 to Obama. And in every one of the polls, it's nearly twice as many Democrats defect to McCain as Republicans defect to Obama. And against Clinton, it's three times as many. Know why? Well, there are a lot of different reasons why. There are Democrats, particularly blue-collar Democrats, who defect to McCain because they see McCain as a patriotic figure and they see Obama as an elitist who's looking down his nose at 'em. Which he is. That comment where he said, you know, "After 9/11, I didn't wear a flag lapel pin because true patriotism consists of speaking out on the issues, not wearing a flag lapel pin"? Well, to a lot of ordinary people, putting that flag lapel pin on is true patriotism. It's a statement of their patriotic love of the country. And for him to sit there and dismiss it as he did—
You're not wearing a flag pin, Karl.
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. But I respect those who consciously get up in the morning and put a flag lapel pin on.
Do you see the elitist thing in other ways?
Obama is coolly detached and very arrogant. I think he's very smart and knows he's smart, but as a result doesn't do his homework.
So the Dems have two rattled candidates?
Right. Now, you got one candidate who's got an appeal to the blue-collar Democrats: Clinton. I call them the beer drinkers. And then you got the white-wine crowd, which Obama appeals to. There's a brilliant article by Ron Brownstein in the latest issue of National Journal in which he charts the change in the nature of the Democrat-primary vote, and it's becoming younger, more affluent, and more liberal. And that means that blue-collar Democrats, whatever's left of them, are on their way out of the Democratic Party.
What do you make of this whole thing where Hillary was talking him up as a vice president and he came back saying, "Wait a minute, I'm winning—why are you asking me to be your number two?"
Very calculating on the part of the Clintons, and a mistake for him on his part.
Because they wanted him to get down to their level. They want him to look like, you know, not the golden inspiring figure but instead, you know, like an average ordinary pol who's got three years in the United States Senate. So they lay it out there. And rather than having it be dismissed by a surrogate, instead he goes out there! And rather than having an inspiring, forward-looking message, instead he's out there as an ordinary pol saying, "Hey, I'm number one, I'm in first place! I won more states than she did. I won more delegates than she did. What the hell's she doing offering it to me? That's insulting." And he did it in an arrogant way that I don't think made him look that good.
So you don't think his response played well?
No. Take a look at the footage. Turn the sound off and look at it. You can tell that he is arrogant, and you can tell that he's a little bit angry, and you can tell he's very dismissive. He takes his hands and he sort of, you know, waves his hand like, "I'm dismissing something." That was the moment to say, you know, "Look, I know what my opponents are saying, but you know what? I'm focused on one thing and one thing only, which is to help bring Republicans and Democrats and independents together to move America forward." Instead of "Hey, lemme just remind you, I'm winning! I'm beatin' her!"
So he took the bait?
He took the bait.
Have you gotten to know Hillary or Barack to any degree?
Yes, I have.
What have been your dealings with them?
Well, you know, I used to have her office at the White House. And I got to know [Obama] because we have a mutual friend, Ken Mehlman, who was his law-school classmate at Harvard. And so as a result, whenever in the last three years he's been around at the White House, I've gotten to see him, and we sort of would hang around and chitchat about things. I'm actually in his book. He wrote that "people like Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Ralph Reed, and Karl Rove say we are a Christian nation." And I did not say that. I confronted him about it. At the White House.
And what did he say?
Well, first he denied that I was in the book! And then he denied that it said that I said that it was a Christian nation. And then when I pulled out the thing [he had a copy of the offensive page with him] and showed it to him, he sort of blah-blah-blah-blah-blah- blah-blah. And I thought, That's who he is. I mean, look, he may claim that he's for a different kind of politics, but that was a cheap shot. And I'm not certain if any of the four said it either. But it was like, you know, Let's just strap it in there and see if it goes someplace. Another example: Him saying, "We honor John McCain for his fifty years of service" was a cheap shot. He was going out of his way to say John McCain's old.
Is John McCain too old?
Do you think Obama's gotten a free ride from the press?
I don't think they hold him to the same standards. You know, look, his Web site is full of all kinds of proposals written by academics galore. But he's not required to defend them. He's not required to explain what it is he wants to do. Now I think that's changing. I think, when you have an editorial in USA Today that says, in essence, Where's the beef, what's the substance? When reporters start asking him tough questions about his relationship with Tony Rezko—you know, what was the value of the lot? What was the price that you paid? How many fund-raisers did he do for you? How much money did he raise at those fund-raisers? When they start asking him those questions, then it starts to change. I mean, the kind of questions that have been routinely asked of other candidates—about their background and associations and involvements—have only recently begun to be asked of him.
I get the sense you respect Hillary more than you respect Obama.
Off the record?
Please don't go off the record.
Off the record… [Yeah, it's good. Sorry.]
Damn! Now say that on the record.
No. Nope. Nope. Nope.
Let's try again, then: on the record. I get the sense you respect her more than him.
Uh, I know her better than I know him. And I just, uh—she has been around public life a lot longer and has demonstrated, you know, more involvement than he has.
Let's talk about Bill. You've gotten to know him better, right?
What do you think of him now?
He's a very entertaining rogue. He's a larger-than-life character. You can't help but sort of like him. But boy, he has made some missteps in this campaign.
Yeah, what's up with that? He's supposed to be this political genius. What's going on?
He's all wrapped up in it. He's lost his detachment. Sometimes you can be more detached about yourself than you can be about members of your family. He's all revved up about her and making mistakes.
Do you buy any of the pop psychology that there's a part of him that's sabotaging her?
I—I—that is way beyond. I have never… I don't have a couch that anybody could sit down on, and… I don't know, I don't know.
But you were surprised to see how he handled the South Carolina thing?
Well, it may have been calculated, I don't know. Maybe they made a calculated decision that, Hey, we need to send a message that all he can do is win states with African-American voters. But I don't think it played—even among Democrats.
Recently, in a meeting with some people from the Republican National Committee, you said, "Do not use 'Barack Hussein Obama.' "
Right, right. Um, in politics—
Is that because it's not right?
It's wrong. But not only that, it's counterproductive. In politics, there are arguments that are seen as not factual and not fair, or trivial, and they blow up in your face. And this is one that people look at and say, "You're trying to imply something about him that's not true. I think you're going a bridge too far, and I'm reacting negatively." I mean, he didn't pick his middle name, somebody else did. And he doesn't go out of his way, like Hillary Rodham Clinton to, you know, emphasize it.
You probably never thought, eight years ago, that John McCain would be the nominee.
You know what? In politics, second acts are either really bad or really good. And so the question was gonna be, Who might want to succeed Bush? McCain was always a possibility. He's always harbored a desire.
What do you think of him now?
I like him. We bonded in the '04 campaign.
Do you have to hold your nose to vote for him?
No, no, not at all. I enthusiastically voted for him. I just sent in my absentee ballot [in Texas], and I gave him $2,300.
So what's your life like now, Karl? Are you based in Washington still?
We're splitting our time between Washington and a place we have in the panhandle in Florida. And a little place in Texas. We're looking to be in Texas more permanently starting this fall. We've enjoyed Washington, but look, I don't wanna be like… I got a guy, lives around the corner from us in Washington, who had a prominent role for six months in the Reagan administration, and he's still living off of it twenty-some-odd years later. I don't intend to do that.
What do you intend to do?
I'm trying to figure that out. I've got a couple years between the book and the speeches and Fox and my Newsweek column and my writing for the Wall Street Journal and some things I'm doing in politics under the radar.
What do you do for kicks?
I read and go hunting. And travel with my wife.
Tell us about your wife.
She's a terrific, courageous person.
Is it hard being married to you?
Uh, I don't think it's hard being married to me. I think it's hard being married in public with me.
Let's talk about the last couple of scandals you've been involved in. Don Siegelman in Alabama [the Democratic governor whom Rove was recently accused of trying to sabotage by forcing U.S. attorneys to bring corruption charges against him prior to an election]. What happened?
[rolls his eyes] Will you do me a favor and go on Power Line and Google "Dana Jill Simpson" [the Republican lawyer who told 60 Minutes that Rove asked her to take a picture of Governor Siegelman cheating on his wife]? She's a complete lunatic. I've never met this woman. This woman was not involved in any campaign in which I was involved. I have yet to find anybody who knows her. And what the media has done on this… No one has read the 143-page deposition that she gave congressional investigators—143 pages. When she shows up to give her explanation of all this, do you know how many times my name appears? Zero times. Nobody checked!
Then how did this happen?
Because CBS is a shoddy operation. They said, "Hey, if we can say 'Karl Rove,' 'Siegelman,' that'll be good for ratings. Let's hype it. We'll put out a news release on Thursday and then promo the hell out of it on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday." And Scott Pelley—the question is, Did [60 Minutes correspondent] Scott Pelley say to this woman, "You say you met with him. Where? And you say that he gave you other assignments earlier. When did he begin giving you assignments, and what campaigns did you work with him in? What evidence? I mean, this woman, she said she met with him: Okay, you met with him—where? Did you fly to Washington?" Now she says that she talked to me on the phone and she's got phone records. Of calls to Washington and Virginia. But what's Virginia? I don't live in Virginia. And it's 2001. What is in Virginia? It's not the Bush headquarters; that was in Austin, Texas. What is in Virginia? So—but look, she's a loon.
What about the U.S. attorneys? Should you have had a role in hiring and firing?
[a little peeved now] What was my role in firing those U.S. attorneys?
Your position has been—and tell me if I have this wrong—that you basically relayed complaints?
To the counsel's office. Correct.
And that was an appropriate thing to do?
Oh sure. Sure it is. Sure it is.
What's your relationship with the president now?
Good. Really good.
Do you talk a lot?
Did you know that Laura called you Pigpen?
Yeah. [laughs] Laura Bush intimidates me. All the Bushes—well, most of the Bush men marry incredibly strong women, and they all intimidate me. Barbara Bush I've lived in fear of for thirty-seven years.
What's your goal with this book? You intend to set the record straight, as you see it?
Absolutely, absolutely. Sure. You bet. I intend to set the record straight.
I imagine you're going to have a lot to say.
Yeah, exactly. Available soon for $29.95…. I gotta go! I gotta go!
Wait, quickly: Do you believe Roger Clemens?
Um, yes, I do.
If he gets nailed on perjury charges, is that the kind of guy Bush might pardon?
Do you think if he got nailed, that would be the type of person Bush would pardon?
I'm not gonna answer that. I mean, he's done nothing wrong.
Should Scooter Libby be pardoned?
I'm not gonna answer that. Just not. Just not. But thanks for asking.
lisa depaulo is a GQ correspondent.