Last week, when Karl Christian Rove, born on Christmas in 1950, announced that he was ending his White House life, pundits eager to punch back had the best of all possible worlds: They could write the summing-up lines characteristic of an obituary without the constraints of courtesy to the deceased. The New York Times was typical in referring to Rove’s “infamously bare-knuckled political tactics.”
Many of the living obits were front-pagers because Rove had the advantage and disadvantage of sitting at the right hand of the recent political god most often deemed dumb by reporters. Journalists who saw Rove as “Bush’s brain,” to quote one book title, naturally tended to view him as either archangel or demon, master or Machiavelli, hero or heinous manipulator.
It’s been hard for me to cast Rove as either. Perhaps because I saw him rarely and depended on him for neither a job nor an election victory, he seemed to me like a boy on Christmas morning, surprised and delighted to receive a pocketknife that really cuts. Example: Ten days after Inauguration Day in 2001, Rove showed me his new office in the White House, jubilantly reported that it had been Hillary Clinton’s, and pointed out “her secret mirror” on one of the walls.
It was a how-cool-it-is-that-I-am-here moment for a man who in high school in Utah “was the complete nerd. I had the briefcase. I had the pocket protector. I wore Hush Puppies when they were not cool. I was the thin, scrawny little guy. I was definitely uncool.” Rove also had a father who deserted the family when Karl was a baby and a stepfather who divorced his mom; she eventually committed suicide. Politics became Rove’s father and mother, and he knew viscerally that many voters yearned to embrace family values.
Ironically, Rove forged his closest political relationship with a man who grew up in a secure family setting. George W. Bush nicknamed Rove “Turd Blossom” (Texan for a flower that grows from a pile of cow dung) and “Boy Genius” — and both monikers were spot on. President Calvin Coolidge called engineer Herbert Hoover “Wonder Boy,” and the public face of Rove was similar: The political engineer received credit for all four of Bush’s electoral victories. But Rove also foraged for ideas amid academic wastelands. (After reading a book I had written, he hosted my first meeting with Bush.)
While reading about one of the presidents whom historians often class with cow dung, William McKinley, Rove developed his strategy of building a cross-class coalition that could help Republicans dominate American politics for the next three decades, as McKinley Republicanism dominated America from 1896 to 1929. With extraordinary knowledge of voting patterns and respect for Christian understanding, Rove was well-suited to build a political cathedral, and in 2004 it looked as if he was on his way.
In 2006, though, voters kicked back and sent Rove’s buttresses flying. The problem on the surface was that Washington Republicans had become known as a big-spending, loose-morals party almost indistinguishable from Democrats. Rove could blame Congress for much of that reputation, but he himself was not a decentralizer: He enjoyed the use of power so much that he didn’t want to give any away. That combination of instincts led him to see compassionate conservatism not as a way to restructure Washington but as a nice thing that could win votes.
Rove, in short, re-imagined politics but not governance. For that reason, he was unable to build the long-term, neo-McKinley GOP coalition that was his dream. Because the subject of last week’s obituaries still lives, he’ll have the opportunity to dream again.