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The busiest man in the White House

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As Bush hits 100 days in office, his top strategist, KARL ROVE, is already eyeing 2004. His latest task: cleaning up W.'s anti-environment image

As George W. Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove is supposed to keep the President in a healthy political glow. But on one key issue recently, Rove stood by while Bush turned as gray as a hazy day in Houston. Bush abandoned a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, rejected the Kyoto global-warming treaty, suspended new arsenic standards for drinking water--and began to look suspiciously like the eco-villain Al Gore warned us about. Moderate Republicans were getting jittery. So last week Rove and other aides pulled out the green paints and brushes and set to work on Bush's environmental makeover--a series of announcements meant to add some much needed chlorophyll to the President's image. The White House said it would uphold strict regulations on lead contamination, left in place a Clinton rule expanding wetlands protection and backed a treaty banning a dozen harmful chemicals found mostly in poorer countries (but not in the U.S., which made signing it easier for Bush). Rove huddled with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman before she faced the press, and he told reporters how misunderstood the President is on this issue.

Solid p.r. work. But if Rove's theme week is followed by any more bad environmental news from the White House, the spinning won't have a prayer of changing public perceptions. Which is why the private meeting that took place in Rove's office last Tuesday tells you more about his value to Bush than anything about the publicity blitz. Rove--the Man to See for G.O.P. favor seekers--was joined at the meeting by Mary Matalin, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who has been working with oil companies to help sell Bush's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Castellanos feared that bad press about the environment was weakening resolve inside the Administration, and he was right. Armed with polls and videotapes, he tried to make the case that the policy could be a political winner, but he failed. Rove told him Bush wasn't exactly dropping the position, but he wasn't going to push for it either. The President was already engaged in too many big fights with Congress--over tax cuts, spending, education reform--that he might not win. He didn't need another one. "For Karl, it was a matter of priorities," says a source familiar with the meeting. "Why fight all the battles at the same time?"

Setting priorities and delivering bad news to friends is just a sliver of what Rove does as Bush's top political gun. It was Rove who shaped the agenda, message and strategy that got Bush--the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times--into the White House. Now it is Rove's job to keep him there through 2008. "My job," Rove told Time last week, "is to pay attention to the things that affect his political future." That's why, in the first week of Bush's presidency, Rove was bringing political advisers from New Hampshire to the White House to plot strategy for the 2004 presidential race.

No one, with the possible exception of the President, will be more responsible for the success or failure of Bush's presidency. Which is fine by Rove. This is, after all, the culmination of a life's obsession. It began even before the mid-'70s, when Rove, then a college student in Utah, hit the young-Republican circuit with Lee Atwater, who became George Bush Sr.'s 1988 campaign mastermind. Rove, who dropped out to become a full-time operative, also worked for the father and thus met the son. He became the top consultant in Texas and eventually saw in Dubya a natural politician who--guided by Rove, of course--could not only reach the White House but also usher in a permanent Republican majority. "When the President was growing up, he wanted to be Willie Mays," says Mark McKinnon, the Bush campaign's admaker. "But when Karl was growing up, he wanted to be senior adviser to the President."

In a 30-year career, Rove, 50, has worked on hundreds of Republican races throughout the country. So when Bush sits down with congressional leaders, he can nod at Rove and say, "You all know the Boy Genius," and they all do. (Bush's other nickname for Rove is less flattering: Turd Blossom.) Like some of his predecessors--Atwater, James Carville--Rove is turning into a Washington celebrity. When he and his wife Darby step out for dinner, maitre d's offer them private dining rooms. Strangers on the street ask for his autograph. Congressmen drop his name and quote things he may or may not have said. He even has the dubious honor of being the only aide lampooned on the Comedy Central series That's My Bush!

Inside the White House, Rove can't match Karen Hughes' gift for channeling Bush's voice or Cheney's experience in foreign policy and Executive Branch management, but he has an equally acute sense of how issues will go over with Republican and swing voters. As a top adviser puts it, "If Bush asks Cheney and Rove, 'What's your take on China?' he's asking two very different questions." From Cheney he wants to know how foreign leaders, the military and the State Department think. From Rove he wants to know how the issue is playing with the faithful. Officially, Rove has no role in foreign policy, but during the China spy-plane crisis, he advised Bush on how various actions would be received by a key G.O.P. constituency--the anti-China hawks.

In the past week alone, while working on Bush's environmental makeover, Rove plotted strategy at meetings on how to proceed with health-care reform, stem-cell research and the tax-cut debate. He worked on recruiting candidates for office in two states and orchestrated the withdrawal of a candidate in a third. He attended a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to discuss policy toward Sudan, a country that persecutes Christians and is therefore of particular interest to evangelicals. And he helped conceive what the Bushies call the "Echo Chamber," a plan to use the media's obsession with marking the first 100 days in office to flog Bush's accomplishments.

Ever since F.D.R. laid out the first installment of his New Deal, every President has had to pass the 100-days test; Bush's 100th falls on Sunday, April 29. Rove, an autodidact and amateur historian, insists that Presidents should be judged on a 180-day timetable, since the legislative calendar follows one. That theory won't stop the barrage of analysis that will begin this week, so, to feed the media beast, Rove and Hughes met with G.O.P. surrogates in the Old Executive Office Building last Thursday to hand out a script. The central message: Bush will not overhype the moment. The White House is presenting its achievements as a celebration of the joint accomplishments of Bush and Congress. The President will entertain members of Congress and their spouses at the White House on Sunday.

The case can be made that Bush, while off to a smooth start, doesn't have all that much to hype. A President without foreign policy experience got the stranded crew home from China, and his public statements have generally been in key. But by the yardstick of Rove's ambition--creating a locked-in Republican majority--Bush has a long way to go. The Great Transformation was to begin with passage of his education-reform plan, which the Senate is set to debate this week. The vouchers and testing proposals at its heart have been washed away and diluted, respectively. Still, enough tough-sounding language will survive for Bush to claim victory.

Rove's other overarching goal for 2001 is to have Bush sign a tax cut close enough to his $1.6 billion proposal that he can call it his own. Were the President's arguments and powers of persuasion as strong as he and Rove pretend, his tax bill would be law. But after more than 20 road trips to pressure Senators to support it, Bush was unable to turn a single vote his way. Again, Rove can paint with a broad brush. When Bush came to Washington, no one thought Congress would support such a large tax cut. If he gets 80% of what he wanted, that's enough to call it a win.

Despite last week's show of eco-friendliness, Rove's biggest image failure is the environment. The White House complains that some positive decisions have been underplayed by the press. But such spin doesn't approach Rove's usual gold standard. Why didn't the master strategist see this coming? He knew Republicans scored badly on education, and he hatched an effective plan to fix the problem. But when it came to being green, he was as blind as Bush.

Rove is never blind to the needs of religious conservatives, because he saw how their coldness toward Bush Sr. doomed his re-election in 1992. Rove has spent the past eight years making sure Dubya doesn't feel the same chill. The task has been made easier, of course, by the fact that the younger Bush is more conservative and sympathetic to the Christian right. But Rove doesn't take chances. He not only constructed a policy agenda that would satisfy conservatives, but during the campaign--while marketing Bush as a moderate--he also used a weekly conference call to reassure evangelicals that the candidate was one of them.

The courtship grew more intense when Bush and Rove got to the White House. Each Wednesday Rove dispatches a top Administration official to attend the regular conservative-coalition lunches held at Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. When activists call his office with a problem, Rove doesn't pass them off to an aide. He often responds himself. When Weyrich heard a few weeks ago that Bush's budget slashed funding for a favorite project called the Police Corps, which gives scholarships and training to police cadets, he complained to the White House. To Weyrich's surprise, Rove called back. "We've taken care of it," Rove said. "The problem is solved." Weyrich, who says his memos to the Reagan and Bush Sr. White Houses were rarely read, was impressed. "That," he gushes, "is what it means to have friends in the White House."

Rove is intimately involved in the selection and nomination of federal judges, a project conservatives are watching closely. Bush's first round of nominations will be announced in May, and many on the right view it as the most important early test of his commitment to rescuing American culture from liberalism. Already there is grumbling about the process. "The emphasis on racial and sexual quotas is as pernicious in this Administration as it was in any other," complains a conservative involved in the discussions. In meetings of the White House Judicial Selection Task Force, Rove has to make sure that the choices satisfy not just the purists of the conservative legal community but also the desires of local politicians. At one meeting, Rove turned to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush's most conservative Cabinet member, and joked, "John, did you ever think that you and I would represent the left in a meeting like this?"

Rove seems embarrassed about some of the attention and perks his new life has brought him. But there is one he clearly enjoys. Last Thursday night, with his boss upstairs and most likely asleep, Rove ushered a group of old high school friends from Salt Lake City through the White House for a private tour. Rove's tired, pale-blue eyes danced as he showed off the Cabinet Room. "I love this painting," he said moments later, unspooling the history of a Norman Rockwell that hangs next to the Oval Office door. In the Roosevelt Room, he told how F.D.R. used the space to house his aquariums. Down the hall he expounded on a print showing Lincoln at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Throughout, he was a manic bundle of energy. Near the end of the tour, Glade Curtis, an obstetrician, had to laugh. "Karl was always really into politics and history," Curtis said. "And he was always a nerd."

Rove conceded that he was "the biggest dweeb in my high school" and allowed as how he hasn't changed much in the intervening 32 years. But as he walked to his car outside the West Wing, it was clear that at least one thing had changed. Famous for driving beat-up heaps in Austin, Rove climbed into a metallic-blue Jaguar and roared into the night.



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Cover Date: April 30, 2001

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