The Man Who Would Be Kingmaker
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.
Indeed, in the 28 days following the exploratory-committee event, Bush reports that he has received $7.6 million in donations, $5 million more than any other Republican presidential contender. And he has done so without holding a single fund-raiser.
By the beginning of May, Bush has collected an additional estimated $4 million. A few weeks after the Austin press event, Rove reflects on the media's passivity that day and smiles slyly. Why, he is asked, did no one question Bush's strategy of avoiding any serious national issues?
"Why didn't they do it?" Karl Rove says. "Because they were spellbound." He can't help but grin, apparently in appreciation of his own handiwork.
Then he catches himself. He doesn't want to leave the impression that Bush pulled a fast one. So he emphasizes the governor's obligations to the Texas Legislature, the commitments he has made to state Speaker of the House Pete Laney and Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry.
"He's ready to talk about national issues," Rove says. "But once you start, you can't stop. He doesn't want to do it on the [media's] time frame."
It's a difficult dance for Bush, as well as for Rove. The 48-year-old Austin-based political consultant has received the lion's share of credit for the wildly effective strategy of keeping Bush, for now, "just beyond reach," as Bill Miller, an Austin consultant who has worked with both Republicans and Democrats, puts it.
Yet Rove must strike a balance between sheltering his candidate from premature buffetings by the national press and allowing him to appear hopelessly vague.
Meanwhile, the cynics are starting to catch on. As New York Times writer Berke says several days after the exploratory-committee bash, Bush is "the ultimate Rorschach politician: Voters can see what they want to see."
To Rove, that signals opportunity.
An impish-looking man who has devoted himself full-time to political campaigns since his teens, Rove is a Texas Republican Party mainstay. He got a taste of conservative politics as a college student in Utah during the Vietnam era and came to Texas in the late 1970s to work for the elder Bush years before he became president. He set up shop as a political consultant in Austin in 1981, and since then he has been on the payroll of nearly every successful Republican statewide officeholder today, as well as those of both U.S. senators from Texas.
It is Rove's longtime association with the Bush family that has launched him to national prominence. The nerdish consultant who tries to stay as far behind the scenes as possible is now being heralded as a strategic genius.
Rove knows he has parlayed his relationship with the Bushes into the biggest break of his life. Last year he told a Florida reporter, "Bush is the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait for a lifetime to be associated with."
Rove is making the most of that opportunity; he seems like a man who has orchestrated multiple presidential campaigns. In the weeks leading up to the exploratory-committee event, he works his connections behind the scenes to direct a convoy of U.S. and overseas dignitaries to the governor's house.
So at the same time Bush is publicly hemming and hawing about the prospect of his wife and two teenage daughters getting ground up in the meat grinder of a national campaign, Rove keeps a stream of officials -- prominent GOP legislators from some 30 states -- flying into Austin to deliver letters of endorsement for Bush.
"That was all Rove," says Miller, echoing sentiments expressed by six other Austin consultants and lobbyists. "Bush is no slouch. But it's kind of like My Fair Lady and Henry Higgins, and Karl is the Higgins. The thing that stands out about Karl is, he always calibrates. He always knows how many times a can needs to roll over and where it is going to land."
When asked about Rove's involvement in the exploratory-committee event, Mindy Tucker, a committee spokeswoman, seems concerned that the consultant may overshadow the candidate. She emphasizes the Bush campaign's team approach: "This is not an organization that drives on who gets credit."
Specifically, she says, the exploratory-committee announcement was planned by the "press shop" -- the collection of press spokesmen for Bush -- and the "political department." Then she adds, "Of course, the political department, at that time, consisted entirely of Karl Rove."
Rove, for his part, consistently downplays his role. Six months ago he insisted that he would not be chosen for the job of running Bush's presidential campaign. "It won't be me," Rove said. "He needs someone with more national experience."
When asked two and a half months ago about his role in channeling donors and supporters to Bush well before the exploratory committee was unveiled, Rove flashed a mischievous look and said, "People have been telling you a lot of misinformation."
A few weeks later, in another interview, Rove carefully spelled out the limitations of his power. He says he reports to Joe Allbaugh, Bush's official campaign manager, who advised the Oklahoma governor before joining Bush in his first gubernatorial bid and who is set to run the presidential campaign's daily operations.
Allbaugh, Rove insists, will be playing the biggest role. "I'm on the second tier. I'll just be the strategist. Joe is the shot-caller. He directs the campaign. The rest of us just kibitz."
Another highly placed Bush campaign official, however, says that while Allbaugh is the daily manager, there's no way that Rove ranks as "second tier."
There are good reasons why Rove backs off from taking credit for his own work. The Texas governor gets touchy about the notion that a Svengali-like political hack is dictating his career.
"Karl Rove is a good friend of mine," Bush said. "He is part of a team. There is no such thing as one single person running the campaign."
As though he were attempting to underscore that point, Bush has conspicuously summoned his chief strategist into the woodshed several times in recent months.
A week before the Austin bash, Bush told other reporters that Rove had erred in making the Times's Berke the first to hear about plans for an exploratory committee. "Maybe Karl Rove should have spoken to me before he talked to the press," Bush told Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater. Bush said he wanted the Texas press corps to get the story first.
Another time, after a press conference at the governor's mansion, Bush became irritated when he saw several reporters gather around Rove, as they often do. According to Slater's account, Bush asked, "Is the Rove news conference over?"
Rove blanched, Slater reported, then backed away from the journalists.
Bush's efforts to corral Rove extend to the consultant's private, Austin-based business. Before granting him the job of chief strategist for his presidential bid, Bush insisted that Rove sell off his 20-year-old direct-mail business, Rove & Co., which provides campaign services to candidates. The order might have seemed high-handed -- after all, Bush, who reported an estimated income of $18.7 million to the IRS for 1998, was forcing Rove, who lives in a $150,000 house, to pawn off a major source of his income as a condition of running Bush's campaign. But the directive let everyone know who was boss.
"I think Bush has seen from his dad that political consultants don't always have one politician's interests at heart," says Dallas's Jim Oberwetter, former Texas campaign chairman for the older Bush's failed re-election bid for president and state finance chairman for George W.'s exploratory committee. "Governor Bush wants to avoid anyone laying claim to his political soul."
Not only must he guard his soul, but he must fend off accusations that he's an intellectual featherweight. Bush, a onetime frat boy, has been labeled "an empty vessel" by former Clinton aide and TV pundit George Stephanopoulos. And Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau has portrayed George W., as he did his father, as an asterisk -- a man without form or substance.
In contrast, mention of Rove in both Democratic and Republican circles these days evokes awe. "People can be smart. People can work hard. People can have good judgment," says Mike Toomey, an Austin lobbyist. "But it is rare to have all three. Karl does. He is brilliant."
"You want to talk about 'King Karl?' " says Matt Matthews, chief of staff for state Senator Florence Shapiro, a Republican from Plano. "I would do anything that he would ask me to."
Even Rove's enemies admire his power. "Karl is a genius. He is the reason the governor is where he is today," says Tom Pauken, a former chairman of the Texas Republican Party who has a long-standing feud with Bush and Rove and probably wouldn't care if his comments reinforced the perception that Rove is the real power of the duo.
Bush insiders, of course, are eager to dispel that notion. "The governor will tell Karl no in a heartbeat. You have to remember, Bush grew up under the president of the United States," says one high-level political adviser in Austin who worked on earlier Bush campaigns but asked that he not be identified because he doesn't want to "piss off" the governor. "The governor's not worried about Karl, and Karl's not worried about the governor," the adviser adds. "It's just people who like to talk and have nothing better to do. You are diminishing the independence of George W. Bush."
But George Christian, another Austin consultant who is friends with Bush, says, "Karl has to be a little careful. Sometimes he leaves the impression... well, let's say he is very frank with the press. That has probably created a little bit of a flap. I have heard a little about it from Bush himself."
Asked to elaborate, Christian just laughs.
Without a doubt, Bush and Rove are extremely close. The consultant has winnowed his client base to one man. "I have no other persona other than Bush," Rove says.
For the past six years, Rove has talked to Bush almost every day, sometimes several times a day. Rove keeps a telephone line in his office set aside exclusively for calls from the governor's office. Rove's sister, Reba Hammond, recalls that at a recent family reunion in Kerrville, her brother spent large blocks of time on his mobile phone with Bush. The conversations didn't sound like a boss and an employee, she says. "They seemed more like peers."
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."
Rove is a master of pithy, persuasive answers that are irreverent enough to avoid glibness. About the depths of Bush's beliefs, Rove says, "This is a guy who reads the Bible every day and the whole thing once a year. This is a guy who, at 35 years old, decided, 'My life isn't all it's cracked up to be,' and became a born-again Christian." About the vulnerabilities Bush faces as a front-runner, Rove says, "The good news is, whoever has led by 40 points at this point in the polls has won the nomination." About reporters snooping around for Bush's skeletons, Rove says, "I want them to wear themselves out."
He responds to Dan Quayle's recent suggestion that George W. ranks as a lightweight in terms of deep political thought compared with his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, by making a funny, dismissive face. "It's Dan Quayle," he says.
As Rove goes on to talk about his upbringing, the common thread is always politics. The second son of Louis and Reba Wood Rove, Karl was born in Denver. His family, relocating with his dad's jobs as a mineral geologist, moved to Salt Lake City by the time he reached high school. His parents would later divorce.
His father and sister remember that politics always enthralled him. "He was always gonna be president," Reba Hammond says. "He kept a huge poster above his bed that said, 'Wake up America.' "
At the age of 11, Rove, while visiting an aunt in Minnesota, broke through police barriers at a parade to get the signature of the governor, according to a story his father tells. Rove also collected campaign memorabilia and believes he still has a copy of a fifth-grade paper he wrote on Marxian dialectics.
Early on, Rove showed he had the brainpower to go places. His sister remembers that the family used to rely on Rove's photographic memory for evening entertainment. "The game was 'See if you can stump Karl,' " she says. His older brother, Eric, would read a passage from a book Karl had read the week before. The challenge was to guess which word Eric had intentionally left out.
Rove also understood, early on, the significance of family and reputation. "He knew if you were going to be president, people would look at your family," his sister says. One time, she adds, Karl insisted that the Roves must move out of town immediately "because his reputation had been destroyed."
The precipitating event: Rove's mother, who Hammond says went overboard when it came to housekeeping, had called up the principal of Karl's middle school and prompted him to announce over the loudspeaker, "Karl Rove, please go home and put your jammies in the hamper." (Rove says he has no recollection of the incident.)
In 1969 Rove went to college at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on a scholarship. He never graduated because his enthusiasm for politics soon overtook his schooling. Even then Rove possessed qualities that distinguished him. "He could write well. He had good organizational skills, and he had a very clear love of victory," says J.D. Williams, a political science professor whom Rove admired. "Politics was his varsity sport."
Rove's family was nominally Republican, but that's about it. Rove broke the mold, swinging early and hard into the conservative camp. He supported the troops and the president. "I was living in a relatively conservative state [Utah], and it was hard to sympathize with all those Commies," he says.
By summer 1971 Rove had turned pro. He moved to Washington, D.C., to become the paid executive director of the national College Republicans. Two years later Rove ran in his first election for chairman of the organization. Lee Atwater, the legendary Republican attack-dog strategist who ran President Bush's successful campaigns and later died of a brain tumor, served as Rove's campaign manager in the southern states.
Rove's opponent was Terry Dolan, who would become a national force in the Republican Party when he founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, a group credited with starting the direct-mail grassroots effort that swept President Reagan into office.
Battling against Dolan for the top slot of the college organization, Rove floated an early version of the "compassionate conservatism" for which Bush has received so much credit this year. "Clearly what was at stake was whether the Republicans were going to be inclusive," recalls Rove, who trounced Dolan, garnering 63 of 68 votes.
David Tyson, who is now state chairman of the Republican Party in West Virginia, knew Rove during his College Republican days. "Even at that stage of the game, he had command of what was going on," Tyson says. "Some of the College Republicans were just there to socialize, but Rove was there to work."
Some say Rove got a little too industrious. With Watergate still fresh in everyone's minds, The Washington Post in 1973 reported allegations that Rove had conducted training sessions to teach College Republicans dirty tricks. To this day, Rove contends that Dolan's camp promulgated the false charges as part of a smear campaign.
Having to face such charges devastated Rove, who had already seen his hero Nixon resign. "I remember it as being very ugly," he says.
Reba Hammond remembers her brother making frequent and lengthy calls to their mother to make sure she believed in his innocence. "He just kept telling her and Dad that he didn't do it," Hammond says. She believes that the accusations made Rove lose his appetite for running for office. From that point, she says, he decided to recede into the background as a strategist.
The allegations were serious enough that the FBI interviewed Rove. The Republican National Committee, chaired at the time by George W.'s father, conducted its own internal hearing. The elder Bush cleared Rove after a monthlong inquiry.
"They dismissed the charges, ratified me as chairman and gave me a job," Rove recalls.
In 1977 Rove moved to Houston, where he served as director of The Fund for Limited Government, a PAC chaired by James A. Baker, former secretary of state, and the soon-to-be-Vice President Bush.
For personal reasons, Rove stayed out of Bush's 1980 bid for president. In 1976 he had married Valerie Wainwright, the daughter of a prominent Houston couple. The wedding was so extravagant that his sister and father still recall it with awe. But the marriage of the society daughter and the hardworking political hack didn't last long. (His second marriage, in 1986 to Darby Hickson, a graphic designer who worked for Rove & Co., has proved stronger. The couple has a ten-year-old son.) Hoping to save his first marriage, Rove headed for Austin instead of joining the campaign. His sacrifice didn't pay off. Soon afterward, in 1980, the couple divorced.
In the meantime, Rove had hooked up with the first Texas governor he served as a strategist: William Clements. In Clements' first term, Rove worked as chief of staff and launched his consulting business on the side.
During the next decade, Rove & Co. grew in tandem with the Republican Party in Texas. Name the state officeholder, and Rove has probably advised him or her. He counseled U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison when she ran for state treasurer. Her colleague, U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, has also tapped Rove. Tom Phillips, the chief Texas Supreme Court justice, is a Rove product, as is the current state attorney general, John Cornyn.
It was Rove's role in George W. Bush's stunning upset of incumbent governor Ann Richards in 1994 that gave the consultant his legendary status. At the time, Bush was indisputably a novice. His only credentials -- business, political or otherwise -- were his role in the Texas Rangers baseball team, an unremarkable stint as an oilman and a defeat in a 1977 congressional race in Midland. (In that contest against then-Democrat Kent Hance, Bush garnered only 47 percent of the vote despite outspending his rival.)
In his first campaign for governor, Bush seemed stuck at the bottom of the learning curve when it came to public appearances. The Dallas Morning News reported that Rove told his staff in an internal campaign memo in October 1993 to "limit GWB's public appearance [sic]... to reduce the attention of the Capitol press corps" until Bush had more miles on the road.
Rove battled against the campaign strategies of fellow Austin consultant George "Dr. Dirt" Shipley, who represented Richards, and so effectively outmaneuvered his opponent that Bush's victory would help Rove shed his image as a junkyard dog. The consultant had tapped into one of Bush's greatest assets: that he comes across as a gentleman, a truly nice guy. (Of course, Rove had also seen Richards' previous gubernatorial opponent, Clayton Williams, get slaughtered at the polls after conducting a particularly nasty campaign against the silver-haired grandma.)
A top adviser says Rove also dictated the four issues that the candidate would talk about publicly. "The experts came up with 40 issues," this source says. "Karl says, 'We're gonna go with four.' "
During the campaign, Bush delivered a speech that was supposed to needle Ann Richards about her alleged misuse of state phones for political purposes.
"You did good," Rove told his candidate, even though moments before he'd complained to another aide that Bush had blown it. "I think you could have done better..." Rove started to say, then stopped in mid-sentence, interrupted by Bush.
"I got it confused. You did great," Rove said, correcting himself.
With Bush in the governor's mansion, Rove has made a good living with his consulting and direct-mail business, which does particularly lucrative work renting out lists of George W.'s contributors. When Rove unloaded his business this year, he had 11 employees.
But Rove & Co. has also caused some embarrassing snafus for Bush. During the most recent gubernatorial campaign, Rove's direct-mail staff inadvertently solicited contributions for the governor from his opponent and a convicted felon who was still in prison.
Rove's consulting contracts have also presented potential conflicts for himself and the governor. From 1991 to 1996, he advised tobacco giant Philip Morris, ultimately earning $3,000 a month. In a deposition, Rove told his questioners, who were lawyers representing the state in its case against the cigarette makers, that he severed the tie because he felt awkward "about balancing that responsibility with [his] role as Bush's top political adviser" at a time when Texas was suing the tobacco industry. "I was receiving information and [was] privy to information that I felt uncomfortable sharing with [my client Philip Morris]."
In the most recent statewide election, Bush told Rove to stay out of contested primaries. "I've become an adjunct of him," Rove says, rationalizing the edict.
The consultant nonetheless played a significant, albeit unpaid, role in several races. New Attorney General Cornyn, who entered the race to compete with former state Republican Party chairman Tom Pauken -- an archenemy of Rove's -- told the San Antonio Express-News that Rove had encouraged him to run.
Pauken remains convinced that Rove worked behind the scenes, with Bush's nod of approval, and engineered his defeat. Pauken claims that Rove had Barry Williamson, a former Rove client and railroad commissioner, launch an exhaustive negative television ad campaign at the end of the race to make sure Pauken failed. (Rove and Pauken's feud has its origins in 1994, when Rove recruited Joe Barton, now a congressman, to run against Pauken in the election for state party chairman. As soon as he won, Pauken terminated Rove's direct-mail contract with the Texas Republican Party.)
On the governor's order, Rove recently sold Rove & Co. to Ted Delisi and Todd Olsen, two young political operatives who have worked on campaigns of some other Rove candidates. Rove helped finance the sale.
Reba Hammond says her family was surprised that Bush made Rove give up the company he had founded. "We all kind of thought it was odd," she says. "Why didn't he just take a sabbatical? And he told us he didn't sell it for quite the price he wanted."
A few weeks before Rove moved to the exploratory-committee offices, former secretary of state George Schultz dropped by the consultant's cramped quarters. He'd just come from a bull session with Bush.
With Schultz peeking in his office door, Rove for a moment seemed uncharacteristically flustered -- maybe a little like the kid who ran after the Minnesota governor's autograph so many years ago.
"I'm going to need to get your signature," he told the onetime Reagan Administration official. Rove had hanging in his office a collection of different historical documents signed by other secretaries of state, including James Madison and Elihu Root. He showed them to Schultz.
"These are valuable," Schultz said, inspecting the glass-framed records.
"Not that valuable," Rove replied.
Schultz examined the documents a while longer, then walked down the hall with Rove.
"You know," he said, as if talking to a peer, "the governor is a bright guy."
Rove was beaming.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.