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.

The two men got to know each other more than 25 years ago while Rove was working for Bush's father in Houston as director of a fund-raising committee. At the time, George W. was studying at Harvard Business School. "I was supposed to give him the keys to the car whenever he came to town," Rove said in a deposition two years ago when asked about their acquaintance.

Roughly the same age, Bush and Rove steered clear in their youth of the 1960s counterculture that so many Clintonites embraced. Bush, a partying president of his fraternity at Yale University, chose to ride the social circuit rather than raise his social consciousness. In fact, the biggest moral mishap investigative reporters have been able to uncover is an episode in which he stole a Christmas wreath with his frat brothers. It happened in 1966, at a time when other college kids were getting jailed for Vietnam War protests.

The young Rove, by contrast, was a classic nerd, a kid who aped the air of what was known in those days as the Establishment. Rove's sister says that even in grade school her brother wore a white shirt and tie. A friend says he carried a briefcase to school. He was elected class president in both middle school and high school, and at 22 won the election for chairman of the national College Republicans. He says today, without apology, that he was a die-hard Nixonite.

Though Rove may have wanted to break into the Establishment, he definitely wasn't born into it. Bush was. As the grandson of a U.S. senator, the product of a private boarding school, then Yale and Harvard, Bush must have known that no matter how much -- or how little -- he applied himself, his class status was ensured. He spent his postcollege days driving a sports car, dating daughters of wealthy businessmen and serving as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, among other pursuits. He never entertained any presidential ambitions in those early days.

Rove's origins were much more humble. He came from a middle-class family in which the kids were expected to make it on their own. The young Rove dreamed of bigger things; he had to. "He didn't and doesn't have a trust fund," says his 71-year-old father, Louis Rove.

Though they arrived at their opinions through vastly different backgrounds, class figures significantly in the ideas Bush and Rove have adopted for the presidential campaign. As an ideological guidebook, the two have chosen The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass, a 256-page treatise penned in 1993 by Myron Magnet, a Fortune magazine writer and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank. Magnet's main point: that '60s dreamers passed their silly ideas about free love and self-fulfillment on to the poor, permanently damaging their prospects for elevating themselves above poverty. The counterculture types, Myron argues, "withdrew respect from the behavior and attitudes that have traditionally boosted people up the economic ladder -- deferral of gratification, sobriety, thrift, dogged industry and so on through the whole catalog of antique-sounding bourgeois virtues."

When the Bush campaign starts taking its show around the country this summer, the governor will discuss such themes as the "renewal of the nation's spirit" and the "need to find purpose in life besides simple materialism," Rove says. At the same time, Bush will caution that "we have to have prosperity with a purpose and have everybody feel they are part of the American dream."

Bush and Rove are now so intertwined that few could imagine the Texas governor running for president without his longtime strategist. As one former Bush adviser puts it, "It's kind of like you dance with the one who brung ya."

Rove & Co.'s office in Austin is a windowless warren with framed pictures resting on the floor, a paper shredder in prominent view and a "Labor for Nixon" bumper sticker adorning the door.

On Rove's bookshelves sit more than a dozen volumes of The Dream and the Nightmare. Tell him you haven't read the book, and he'll offer you a copy.

This inconspicuous place, equipped for nothing but work, was Rove's headquarters until just a few weeks ago, when he moved to Bush's exploratory-committee office right across from the Capitol.

Rove himself is similarly unprepossessing, with thinning hair and glasses that creep down his pug nose. He looks like a background guy, nothing like his handsome, back-slapping boss. His demeanor suits his role as well. He often wears an amused smile and telegraphs a knowing cynicism with his expressions.

He works at a frenetic pace. His secretary schedules his appointments in ten-minute intervals, and he's almost always performing at least two tasks -- checking e-mail messages while he talks to a reporter, reviewing mail while his students give book reports at a political science class he teaches at the University of Texas.

During a 90-minute interview, he spends much of his time pooh-poohing his influence on Bush's presidential campaign. "Some days pass without any talking," he says about his conversations with the governor. "A successful campaign is a group of colleagues."

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