In the summer of 2003, Karl Rove flew off to Bohemian Grove—the famed male-only retreat for the wealthy and powerful—where he had a revealing exchange in the Northern California woods about the state of affairs in Iraq. Spotting AOL founder James Kimsey, a big financial backer of President Bush who had just gotten back from Baghdad, Rove shouted out: "Hey Kimsey, it must have been wonderful to see the happy faces on all those liberated Iraqis!"
Kimsey was appalled. "Are you nuts?" he replied. He tried to tell the president's political guru that the Iraqis he saw were sullen and resentful and that "if we don't do something soon, all hell is going to break loose."
But Rove wanted to hear nothing of it. "Nice talking to you," Rove responded and walked away.
That exchange (recounted in the new afterword to the paperback edition of "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War," the book I co-wrote with David Corn, tells much about the brook-no-dissent ethos that Rove brought to the Bush White House. It also puts in some context Rove's cheery comments this weekend to friendly journalist Paul Gigot, the editorial page director of the Wall Street Journal, as he announced his surprise resignation from the White House (and his plans to write a book on the Bush presidency). "Iraq will be in a better place," as the surge continues, he said. As for President Bush's political standing, "he will move back up in the polls."
Maybe so. But from the day he went to work in the White House, Karl Rove has been Bush's enabler as much as his master strategist–a key adviser who saw no subtleties or nuance, brushed aside internal qualms and ferociously went after critics who raised any questions about the president's policies.
This was especially true of Iraq—the defining initiative of the Bush presidency—in which Rove's behind-the-scenes role in the selling and spinning of the war was far more significant than is commonly known.
It is now barely remembered, but when the Bush White House first floated the idea of invading Iraq in 2002, public opinion polls showed most Americans had profound doubts. Even after the trauma of September 11, the public (including many Republicans) didn't quite understand the rationale for launching a preemptive war to get rid of Saddam Hussein, who while a ruthless dictator had no plausible connection to the terror attacks. As House Majority Leader Dick Armey bluntly put it that summer: "We Americans don't make unprovoked attacks."
At one point that year, Rove presented Bush with poll numbers showing the public misgivings about an Iraq invasion. "The public isn't buying it," he told the president in an Oval Office meeting. Bush exploded. "Don't tell me about f—— polls," Bush replied, according to a then-White House official who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations. "I don't care what the polls say." It was Rove's job to move those numbers, the president made clear. "If there is a way to make the case more clearly, you tell me what it is," Bush told Rove.
In fact, Rove had already begun to shape the political environment to help make the war possible. That January, he had given an important speech to the Republican National Committee where he signaled that the White House planned to politicize the terrorism issue in the upcoming fall election campaign. "We can go to the country on this issue," Rove said, because the American people "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of … protecting Americans.'' In June, Rove prepared a PowerPoint slide for GOP donors on his strategy for the 2002 races. "Focus on war," it read in part.
But it was still necessary to link Iraq to the public's legitimate security fears–and there again Rove played a key part, just as the president wanted. That summer, the former White House chief of staff Andrew Card created the White House Iraq Group – a collection of senior advisers, including Rove, who met regularly in the Situation Room to craft a public relations strategy that would play up pieces of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and supposed connections to international terrorism.
It was this group that seized on reports that Iraq was rebuilding its nuclear program – reports that were highly disputed and the subject of significant internal debate–and then approved the memorable phrase crafted by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson: "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun— that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
The imagery of the nuclear mushroom cloud become a centerpiece of the White House's sales campaign, first leaked anonymously to The New York Times, repeated on Sunday talk shows and finally enshrined in a major speech by Bush that October.
But perhaps even more significantly, Rove helped craft an ingenious political strategy that enabled the White House to win a resounding war resolution from a divided Congress that fall.
At first, the White House had spread the word that it might launch an invasion without even consulting Congress–a stance that infuriated Democrats (who at the time controlled the U.S. Senate by one vote). But Rove instinctively understood there was another way to achieve the desired result. Soon after Labor Day, Bush called in congressional leaders and essentially offered them a political deal: he would seek a congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war after all. But the White House would insist that the Congress had to vote before it adjourned that fall for the 2002 election campaign.
The rush to vote on a critical issue of war and peace troubled then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Why the rush? He pressed Bush at a Sept. 4, 2002, meeting. Daschle saw the hand of Rove—an attempt to box in Democrats and dare them to vote against a highly popular president on a big national-security issue. Vote against the resolution and Democrats would be hammered mercilessly by the White House during the election campaign for being "soft on terrorism," just as Rove had suggested in his January speech.
"Daschle was right," one former top White House official later told Corn and me in an interview for "Hubris." The campaign calendar indeed drove the timing of the Iraq War vote. "The election was the anvil and the president was the hammer," said the official, who declined to be identified publicly talking about internal matters.
And Rove was the architect—perhaps his most important contribution to the run-up to the war. In mid-October, Bush's war resolution passed overwhelmingly with every Democrat who envisioned running for president (including John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton) voting to give the president the authority to launch an attack on Iraq.
After the March 2003 invasion, Rove continued to shape the White House spinning of news about Iraq—a role that was ultimately pivotal in the events that led to a criminal investigation of the White House. When Iraq War critic and former ambassador Joe Wilson went public with his claims that the White House had "twisted" prewar intelligence about Iraq, Rove was incensed, and he plotted ways to discredit and marginalize Wilson.
In a recent, little-noticed deposition, Susan Ralston, Rove's former executive assistant, testified that Rove talked often that summer with the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, about Wilson and the role his wife may have played in sending him on a CIA mission to Africa to investigate allegations, later discredited, that Saddam's regime was trying to procure uranium yellowcake for its nuclear weapons program.
When columnist Robert Novak called Rove about an upcoming column he was planning to write disclosing Valerie Wilson's identity as a CIA officer, Rove confirmed this piece of classified intelligence to his old friend. "I heard that too," he reportedly said. More importantly, he volunteered the same information about Wilson's wife and her work for the CIA a few days later to Matt Cooper, then a reporter for Time magazine whom he barely knew.
Rove's initial denial to the grand jury that he had talked to Cooper made him a prime target of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into who leaked Valerie Wilson's identity to the news media. (Fitzgerald later concluded that, contrary to claims of White House defenders, Valerie Wilson was in fact a "covert" officer of the CIA at the time, and thereby covered by a law that made it a federal crime to disclose her identity. There was, however, no evidence that Rove and other White House aides who talked about her to the press knew this.)
In the course of five grand jury appearances, Rove corrected his earlier incorrect testimony and escaped an indictment from Fitzgerald. (Libby was not so lucky – he was convicted of perjury and obstruction charges and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Bush later commuted the prison sentence.) But Rove's basic mind-set during the Wilson affair was revealingly displayed in a phone call he made to MSNBC "Hardball" host Chris Matthews right after the same July 2003 Bohemian Grove retreat where he had encountered Kimsey. (Matthews had also attended the retreat.)
As Matthews later described the conversation to colleagues, Rove was "revved up" over the Wilson controversy. He considered it part of a political war and as far as he was concerned, Valerie Wilson was a full-fledged combatant on the other side. The Wilsons "were trying to screw the White House so the White House was going to screw them back," he told Matthews. After Matthews finished talking to Rove, he called Joe Wilson and, according to Wilson, said: "I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says, and I quote, 'Wilson's wife is fair game'." (In a statement today after Rove's resignation, Joe Wilson said: "This sordid tale of compromising national security to cover up and distract from the false rationale for the invasion of Iraq will forever remain in history a black mark on the Bush presidency.")
While the probe continued, Rove largely remained in the background on the Iraq War until June 2006, when he finally got the word that Fitzgerald was not going to indict him. Once freed of the fear of criminal prosecution, he immediately returned to the fray with a polarizing, defining speech before a GOP audience in New Hampshire. At the time, news out of Iraq was unrelentingly bleak: U.S. casualties and sectarian violence was up and even U.S. military commanders were expressing private doubts that the mission could succeed.
But Rove would brook no doubts. He returned to the same political playbook he had honed so successfully four years earlier. He tore into Democratic critics of the war such as John Kerry and John Murtha as "cut-and-run" men. "They are ready to give the green light to go to war," Rove said of Kerry and Murtha, "but when it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running. They may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be with you for the last, tough battles.
Then Rove capped his remarks with a rousing defense of the war he had worked so hard to sell. "We were absolutely right to remove [Saddam] from power and we have no excuses to make for it," he said.
As Rove now prepares to head back to Texas and write his memoirs of the Bush presidency, it is fairly certain that the one thing he won't offer readers are excuses—or regrets. No matter what the news out of Iraq.