ROVE UNLEASHED

It was the day before Thanksgiving, November 1973. Things were quiet enough at the Republican National Committee for the chairman to spend a few minutes on parental logistics. His eldest son was taking the train down from Harvard Business School and would need the family car for the weekend. Would the young aide deliver the car and the keys to Union Station? Years later, the aide describes what happened next in the kind of sunlit, slo-mo tones they use in movies. "I'm there with the keys and this guy comes striding in wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a bomber jacket," he recalls. "He had this aura." Which is how 22-year-old Karl Christian Rove met 27-year-old George Walker Bush.

Exactly 31 years later, on another quiet Thanksgiving week in the capital, the corridors of the West Wing were empty. The president was home in Texas, hunkering down at his Crawford ranch after his first post-election foreign trip. The senior staff had scattered to the winds, or the Washington suburbs, to be with family and friends after a grueling campaign. But in a cramped office on the second floor, one figure was still at his desk, opening his mail, making calls--and planning the next chapters in the extraordinary story he'd already written for Bush, the Republican Party and himself. Claiming victory after Election Day, the president had called the man at the desk "the Architect." "That was a deep embarrassment," said Rove. Maybe so, but it was the truth.

Given the story line--the long journey from train station to two-term presidency--the most consequential questions in American public life may be these: What is Rove up to now? And will he succeed? For more than three decades, he had one mission: to get Bush elected and then (in a first for the Bush family) re-elected. Now comes the reward: the surpassingly difficult task of governing for the sake of history, not mere victory.

In modern times there has never been anyone quite like Rove, possessing such a long working relationship with and influence over a president--a newly re-elected one who will wield an expanded majority in Congress. "I've been searching for a parallel figure," said Marshall Wittmann, a political strategist and writer. "The closest is Bobby Kennedy in his brother's administration. But even that doesn't get it. Because as loyal as Karl is, his political ambitions extend beyond one family."

Indeed they do. One thing Rove will be up to, he made clear in a NEWSWEEK interview, is involvement of some kind in the race for the next Republican presidential nomination. Meeting with reporters only days after the election, he seemed to count himself out. "And 2008 is going to be left to someone who has a little bit more energy and interest than me," he said then. "This will be the last presidential campaign I will ever do." Last week he backtracked on that pledge. "I said that in haste," he said. "A lot of people in the White House told me that that was a really stupid thing to say. So let me say that I can't imagine spending two years away from my wife and son again, the way I did this time. But besides that, who knows?"

Translation: the Karl Rove Primary has begun--or at least Rove (and Bush) want the world to believe it has, if for no other reason than to dangle the possibility of help from (or the threat of opposition from) the Architect before the eyes of would-be GOP contenders and power brokers. "The president will be a lame duck soon enough," said a Republican strategist. "He can't afford to let Karl be one, too." Indeed, being seen as "close to Karl" is a sign among desperate Republicans of "election" in an almost theological sense. All the more reason for Rove to be slow about taking sides. "He won't actually commit for years," the strategist predicted.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is regarded by colleagues as a subsidiary of Rove Inc., following the Architect's plan to hem in Sen. Arlen Specter's power as chairman of the judiciary committee. Rove also has a close operational and conservative philosophical bond with Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. At the same time, Rove has worked well with two cultural moderates: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Sen. John McCain has patched up relations with Rove (strained to the breaking point in the 2000 campaign), spending long hours with him and the president on plane and bus trips in the final days of the 2004 race. "If you spend three days on a bus trip with someone," Rove says, "you really bond with them."

For now, Rove's goals are at once more immediate and more lofty: to design a legislative and philosophical agenda that will lead to further GOP gains, and beyond that to a political dominance that could last for decades, as FDR's New Deal did. The core principles are clear to anyone who listened to a Bush stump speech. They are drawn from a well of conservative (and, in the 19th-century sense, "liberal") dogma: that only free-market democracies respectful of traditional moral values can bring us a planet of fulfilled citizens secure from terror. In fact, Rove's formulation is a new hybrid, willing to use big government in the service of markets and morality. Asked to name Bush's biggest accomplishment thus far, Rove replied in a flash: "His clear-eyed explanation of how to win the war on terrorism. It was the defining moment of our time." In other words, the Architect plans to be fully engaged in formulating foreign policy--and, while he isn't thought of as a leading neocon, his views are squarely within that camp.

On domestic policy, Rove has a theme at the ready: "the ownership society" he says the president wants to build. It's a bland phrase, but the ideas behind it are hardly status quo. One is to consider abolishing the income-tax system, replacing "progressive" (meaning graduated) rates with a flat tax or even a national sales tax or value-added tax. Another is to rechannel massive flows of tax money from Social Security to private savings accounts and into expanded medical savings accounts. Yet another is a crusade Bush and Rove have been pursuing since Texas: a national cap on damage awards in lawsuits.

In all cases, Rove wants to force Democrats to defend taxes and lawyers. Trained in the ways of direct-mail targeting, he doesn't want to seduce the whole country, just an expanded version of what he's already got. He's aiming at fast-growing exurban areas, where small-business entrepreneurs--mostly Gen-Xers--tend to distrust the New Deal paradigm of government. "We want to pay increased attention to those vibrant small-business climates," says Rove.

And it is in these places, where suburbs meet what's left of the countryside, that the GOP's conservative stands on social issues are welcome even (perhaps even especially) among younger families searching for stability and reassurance in a world of Darwinian economics. In the next term, Rove said, Bush will push--hard--for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union of man and woman, and for "strict constructionist" judges. "Voters like the president because he doesn't blink and he doesn't waver," says Rove, "and he isn't going to start. He says he values life, and he means it." The cold calculus: force Democrats to defend gay rights and unfettered access to abortion.

Getting from here to there is, of course, the hard part. Rove will have little trouble within the administration, where his reach is expanding as friends from the old Austin days are seeded throughout the government. They include Alberto Gonzales to attorney general at Justice, Margaret Spellings to Education, Harriet Miers to White House counsel, Ken Mehlman to the RNC and Condi Rice to State. Other key allies remain in place, led by Dan Bartlett, Rove's trusted communications aide. This posse's been riding for years. (Karen Hughes will keep a hand in, at a distance, from back home in Texas.)

Controlling the rest of the city won't be as easy. "Look, nobody is going to agree with the president 100 percent of the time," Rove says. For now, conservative power brokers say they trust him. "He gives us a sense that he is one of us," says Richard Viguerie. But they will castigate him--and the president--if the administration doesn't show sufficient enthusiasm for what Viguerie calls their "pro-Christian" agenda. And yet some of the party's biggest stars (Rudy and Arnold) want nothing to do with the Vigueries of the world.

Other forces are even harder to control. Reality may not match hopeful rhetoric in "elections" in places such as Ukraine, the Palestinian territories or Iraq. The falling dollar and soaring federal budget deficits may rob Bush of the chance to overhaul the tax code. Rove is hopeful about the 2006 midterms, but even FDR--the last president to win re-election and increase his congressional majority at the same time (in 1936)--saw his Democrats hammered in his second-term off-year election.

Other challenges are personal. Rove's vindictive temper pops out on occasion, as it did when he castigated editors of The New York Times on the campaign trail. "I still have a temper," he says, "for those who deserve it." He insists that the Bush team won't fall victim to hubris or insularity. "We're people who go at each other all the time, and hard. The president likes advisers who are comfortable enough in their own skin to do that. We do." True, but they've been breathing each other's political oxygen for a decade. Rove has built a national network of GOP allies. "He goes out of his way to be loyal to us, which is why we're loyal to him," said Tom Rath of New Hampshire. But neither Rove nor Bush has many Democratic friends, and in Washington, anyone who accumulates unelected power--especially someone with a reputation for using harsh tactics--is an inviting target. None of which seemed to bother him one bit. "You know what Harry Truman said: 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.' Well, I have two."

ROVE UNLEASHED | News