The Nerd Behind the Throne

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

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 recently told the Observer after a Dallas press conference. "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' 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 for running Bush's campaign. But it 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' 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 Sen. 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 advisor 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 advisor 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 down 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.

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