The Man Who Would Be Kingmaker

Karl Rove has masterminded all of Bush's political victories. Now he faces his toughest challenge: convincing you that the presidential front-runner owns his own soul.

Consider the challenge: It's your job to sell a presidential hopeful who, compared with his rivals, possesses only the skimpiest national resume. Even magazine publisher Steve Forbes, running for vanity, notoriety, whatever, has driven around the block once before as a presidential candidate.

But your guy, despite his youthful good looks, easy smile and winsome personality, boasts only a meager five years in politics, all at the state level. While he has done an admirable job as Texas governor, he hasn't logged any time on the national political scene -- unless you count the time George W. Bush spent hanging around his dad's presidential campaigns, where he undoubtedly soaked up quite a bit of knowledge.

But you, Karl Rove, chief political strategist for Bush for the past six years, mastermind of two enormously successful gubernatorial campaigns, know that doesn't count for much. Not for this audience.

You're seated in the midst of 200 national reporters at the Austin Convention Center one Sunday in March. There are folks here from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major networks, all the big news outlets. You're a political guy, not a journalist, but you want to sit with the media, see it through their eyes, watch their responses.

The governor is unveiling his exploratory committee for a presidential campaign, the closest he has come to announcing a formal bid. You have helped design an event to demonstrate that George W. Bush possesses the toughness, intelligence and independence of a man destined for the highest office in the land.

It's a tough sell, you know. You are surrounded by critics. Any missteps by your candidate will be broadcast to a worldwide audience. On the brightly lit rostrum, half a dozen Texas and American flags flank the photogenic Bush, in red tie, beside his wife, Laura, in matching red suit. For the better part of the event, the 52-year-old governor sits back and smiles appreciatively as a racially and geographically diverse, impressively credentialed posse of ten "committee" members approaches the podium to praise the virtues of the then-still-unannounced candidate. Former secretary of state George Schultz, one of the first admirers to hit the stage, inadvertently reduces Bush's career as governor to a warm-up exercise for a presidential bid. Oops.

"You had an agenda, and now you have experience in a huge, big, important state," Schultz says, stumbling a bit without notes. But the tributes pick up momentum from there. "The love he feels for people is infectious," says Representative Henry Bonilla, the first Mexican-American Republican elected to the U.S. House. Bonilla's presence is a reminder that Bush, in his re-election bid for governor, captured 49 percent of the Hispanic vote. It was an unparalleled accomplishment for his party.

"This campaign has had an unprecedented response from my colleagues," adds the House's chief deputy whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri.

"It cannot go unnoticed that the governor has been immersed throughout his life in duty, honor and country," says U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican who worked for President Bush as Peace Corps director. "The legacy of that family is in awfully good hands."

By the time Bush leans into the microphone to begin answering questions, many reporters have probably already decided on the opening lines of their stories. On the basis of what they've seen, they have concluded that a Bush presidential bid will generate broad support.

In his story the next day, veteran New York Times political reporter Richard Berke describes Bush's "grand pageant of political might." Accompanying the story is a front-page color photo of Bush surrounded by his multiethnic exploratory committee.

During the question-and-answer time, reporters loft the obvious queries about George W. and his dad. "Americans will know it's George W. Bush that's going to be the president," the governor tells the group.

They also raise the requisite questions about his abortion views. Bush responds simply. He says he opposes abortion except in the cases of rape or incest but adds, "Our party is big enough for good people to disagree."

Pressed further on abortion, or on other national and international issues such as tax cuts and Kosovo, the governor wields a ready-made defense. He isn't running for office, just announcing an exploratory committee. He can't answer questions about national issues until after May 31, when Texas's legislative session ends. He owes his attention to the good people of his state.

It's quite a dodge.
And, by God, it works beautifully. Here is Bush appearing as presidential as possible, all but announcing his bid. Yet he doesn't feel obliged to address any of the substantive issues facing the nation.

Instead, he adopts a brilliant strategy, your strategy: Avoid the fray of a national debate, but don't lose out on any of the precious little time that exists to amass a financial war chest. In other words, have it both ways for as long as you can get away with it. (That all changed as of last Saturday, when Bush finally announced that he is running for president.)

But back in March, no member of the national press corps rises to expose the ruse. You have done your job well. For the next two months, your candidate will rake in millions in cash on the basis of little more than his family name, his single full term in the governor's chair, his 69 percent second-term victory and his undeniable personal charm.

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