The Riddle of Rove

For a dreary Monday morning in Washington, it was an impressive crowd. More than 75 reporters, most of them well-known members of the White House press corps, sat crammed into tiny wooden seats clutching notebooks and tape recorders. Yet their location wasn't the White House briefing room, but rather a largish conference room in a nondescript office building several blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It might as well have been the West Wing. Within minutes, the man of the hour showed up: Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. Taking the podium at the American Enterprise Institute where he was set to deliver a long-scheduled speech on the economy, the White House deputy chief of staff quickly scanned the room, eying many of the reporters whose questions he has ducked in recent months amid the CIA leak investigation. "Awfully kind of you to have me here today," Rove grinned. "It's a slightly larger crowd than when I last came here."

For reporters, it was a chance to see and hear from the man at the center of so many issues for this White House. Perhaps no one has been more influential in shaping the politics and policy of the Bush administration than Rove, whom Bush dubbed "the Architect" for his role in securing the president's 2004 re-election win. Yet questions over Rove's role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame have proven troublesome for a White House already struggling under the weight of second term doldrums and worries about the war in Iraq.

After the indictment of Scooter Libby last fall, it seemed that Rove might have escaped legal peril. But his recent appearance—his fifth, to be exact—before the grand jury investigating who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to reporters has re-ignited the Washington parlor game of whether or not Rove will face indictment for his role in the scandal.

Behind the scenes, White House aides—as well as other prominent Republicans in Washington—are nervous that their most valuable political player could be taken out of the game on the eve of a crucial midterm election this fall. "To see him back before that grand jury has people very worried," said a House GOP lawmaker and close ally of the White House, who declined to be named talking about the case.

Publicly, Rove has said little about the case, citing the ongoing investigation. On Monday, a reporter asked the senior Bush aide about former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's earlier statement in which he said Rove had told him he had no involvement in the leaking of Plame's identity. Rove dodged the question, referring the reporter to his lawyer's public statement issued after his recent grand jury testimony. "Nice try, though," Rove said, with a faint smile.

Privately, Rove's friends and colleagues tell NEWSWEEK that the senior Bush aide has struggled to maintain an upbeat front about his legal status in recent weeks and that he has appeared distracted. One senior Republican congressional aide who works closely with the White House says after his recent testimony, Rove urged his staff to stay positive and remain focused on their job of selling the president's agenda without regard to the on-going leak investigation.

Last month, Rove was relieved of his duties overseeing policy for the president by new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and was reassigned to focus exclusively on political strategy. It was a move cheered by congressional Republicans, who have said Rove is better suited as a political strategist. In recent weeks, Rove has been holding meetings with dozens of House and Senate Republicans to quiz them on ideas for how Bush and the GOP can regain their groove come election time.

One House Republican who attended a session with Rove two weeks ago at the White House told Newsweek that the CIA leak investigation never came up, but that "it seemed obvious" the subject was on Rove's mind. According to the lawmaker, who declined to be named while talking about a private meeting, Rove is known to be strong-willed and combative during political strategy sessions. At this meeting, the lawmaker says, Rove appeared to have "less bite."

Meanwhile, others have noted changes in Rove's appearance. Over the last year, the senior Bush aide has dramatically slimmed down, losing an estimated 50 pounds. While some have speculated that stress could be the cause, Rove told a National Journal reporter last month that he's been dieting and working out with Bolten at the White House gym.

No one questions that Rove is in a tough spot, not just personally but professionally. As Washington ponders the legal fate of Bush's most trusted political adviser, Rove has been charged with coming up with a strategy to boost his boss's record low approval ratings. On Monday, he made no bones about the road ahead. "Look, we're in a sour time," Rove said matter-of-factly. "[But] we will fight our way through."