They heard that I was writing about Karl Rove, seeking to contextualize his role as a senior adviser in the Bush White House, and they began calling, some anonymously, some not, saying that they wanted to help and leaving phone numbers. The calls from members of the White House staff were solemn, serious. Their concern was not only about politics, they said, not simply about Karl pulling the president further to the right. It went deeper; it was about this administration's ability to focus on the substance of governing?issues like the economy and social security and education and health care?as opposed to its clear political acumen, its ability to win and enhance power. And so it seemed that each time I made an inquiry about Karl Rove, I received in return a top-to-bottom critique of the White House's basic functions, so profound is Rove's influence.
I made these inquiries in part because last spring, when I spoke to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, he sounded an alarm about the unfettered rise of Rove in the wake of senior adviser Karen Hughes's resignation: "I'll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. . . . They are going to have to really step up, but it won't be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary."
One senior White House official told me that he'd be summarily fired if it were known we were talking. "But many of us feel it's our duty -- our obligation as Americans -- to get the word out that, certainly in domestic policy, there has been almost no meaningful consideration of any real issues. It's just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. It's depressing. Domestic Policy Council meetings are a farce. This leaves shoot-from-the-hip political calculations -- mostly from Karl's shop -- to triumph by default. No one balances Karl. Forget it. That was Andy's cry for help." . . .
President George W. Bush called John DiIulio "one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in America" when he appointed the University of Pennsylvania professor, author, historian, and domestic-affairs expert to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He was the Bush administration's big brain, controversial but deeply respected by Republicans and Democrats, academicians and policy players. The appointment was rightfully hailed: DiIulio provided gravity to national policy debates and launched the most innovative of President Bush's campaign ideas -- the faith-based initiative, which he managed until this past February, the last four months from Philadelphia.
"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," says DiIulio. "What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
In a seven-page letter sent a few weeks after our first conversation, DiIulio, who still considers himself a passionate supporter of the president, offers a detailed account and critique of the time he spent in the Bush White House.
"I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions," he writes. "There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical nonstop, twenty-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue." . . .
Eventually, I met with Rove. I arrived at his office a few minutes early, just in time to witness the Rove Treatment, which, like LBJ's famous browbeating style, is becoming legend but is seldom reported. Rove's assistant, Susan Ralston, said he'd be just a minute. She's very nice, witty and polite. Over her shoulder was a small back room where a few young men were toiling away. I squeezed into a chair near the open door to Rove's modest chamber, my back against his doorframe.
Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!" As a reporter, you get around -- curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events -- but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. "Come on in." . . .
William Kristol, among the most respected of the conservative commentators -- a man embraced by the Right but still on dinner-party guest lists for the center and Left -- is untouchable. He is willing to speak.
"Karl and I aren't really friends. I have sort of a vague and indirect relationship with him. But we talk pretty regularly. He has always been fair and straight and honest with me, despite the stories that others have about him." He pauses, as though encountering one of those beware falling rocks signs. "I believe Karl is Bush. They're not separate, each of them freestanding, with distinct agendas, as some people say. Karl thinks X. Bush thinks X. Clearly, it's a very complicated relationship." He goes on to say that he thinks Bush is a "canny manager" who creates competing teams and plays them against one another. As for those who sometimes disagree with that point, he says, "There is criticism of Karl from the friends of the former President Bush who don't approve of the way the current President Bush is doing his job in every case." Kristol notes that "the kid is what he is, and he's different from the father, some differences that I feel good about," but that gray men around "41" who don't approve of "43" have trouble criticizing the son to the father "and ascribe everything to Karl's malign influence." In that, Rove is at the center of the most portentous father-son conversation of modern times. Sources close to the former president say Rove was fired from the 1992 Bush presidential campaign after he planted a negative story with columnist Robert Novak about dissatisfaction with campaign fundraising chief and Bush loyalist Robert Mosbacher Jr. It was smoked out, and he was summarily ousted.