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Bush's Right-Hand Man Returns

By Sarah Baxter, Sunday Times - March 14, 2010

The most feared political operative in Washington has taken me into his kitchen to make a drink. After all I have heard about Karl Rove, I expect to see vats of blood, evil potions bubbling, or at the very least black coffee. Instead he produces a camomile tea bag.

When I talk to him a few days later, he has just been grocery shopping and tells me he is thinking of making hot fudge sundae for dessert. I am suspicious. His hobby is hunting, and he later lets slip that when he played croquet with his (now ex) wife he hit the ball so hard he made her cry.

The most influential presidential adviser in US history, Rove is famed as a master of the dark arts, a man who will go to any lengths to get his candidate elected and to blacken his opponent. Recent books about him are titled The Architect, Bush’s Brain and Machiavelli’s Shadow, and when I ask American journalists about him they use such phrases as “creepier than Nixon”, and make sinister references to “the mark of Rove”. Even his great friend George W Bush calls him Turd Blossom after the flower that grows on a cowpat.

When I ask him how it feels that “Rovian” has become shorthand for dirty tactics, he smiles a gimlet smile. “I don’t feel about it,” he replies. “It’s amusing to me because I’m sort of like a myth. I’m like, you know, Grendel of Beowulf. I’m often talked about but not too often seen in my true form. And that’s fine. That’s unfortunately what politics is about. A sort of weird, perverted celebrity. But I think it’s often shorthand to disparage the people or the cause I’m associated with.”

The person Rove will of course be forever associated with is George W Bush. Not only did Rove twice get him elected, but he also spent seven years in his White House as an adviser so powerful that some even called him the co-president. The two men have dinner in Texas every couple of weeks, and Rove tells me he has already emailed Bush three times this morning.

A frequent commentator on Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal, putting the knife into Barack Obama on issues such as health care, Rove has been a key force in the unexpectedly quick Republican revival after the party’s battering in the last elections. Although he admired the Obama campaign, which drew lessons from his own, he is not surprised that his presidency has run into trouble only a year into office. “He’s governed too far from the centre of American politics, he’s too out on the left fringe and he ill-prepared the American people for the things he was going to do,” he says. “And he’s weak.”

Now, after years of never giving interviews about himself, the puppet master has come out of the shadows and written a memoir — for a reputed $2m advance — with the Jane Austen-like title Courage and Consequence.

We meet in his Washington townhouse, on a quiet road away from the political hubs of Georgetown and Capitol Hill. In pride of place on the wall of his busy office is a black electric guitar signed by ZZ Top, a gift after Bush’s first inauguration in 2001. “Do you play?” I ask in surprise. “Please!” he chuckles. “There is no bit of coolness about me that would lead a normal person to believe I play guitar. No, they’re fans.”

Our interview takes place in a sitting room lined with works on great leaders he admires (Churchill, the Duke of Wellington, Abraham Lincoln), and novels by Jorge Luis Borges and Evelyn Waugh. Reading is one of the unexpected interests he shares with Bush. Indeed, for his last three years in the White House, the pair engaged in a reading competition. The trophy sitting on the cabinet in Rove’s office tells of his victory. Laughing, he says: “I reject the president’s pathetic excuse that he lost all three years because he had a more pressing day job.”

Books aside, the house has the impersonal feel of a rental, perhaps because Darby, his wife of 23 years, just divorced him in December. The marriage came under intolerable strain with the press laying siege to the house, when Rove was accused of outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent to journalists, after her husband alleged that the White House had made false pre-war claims that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. “They were all camped out there on deathwatch,” he says, pointing out of the window. He takes delight in showing me how he would use a remote control to make the garage door go up so all the camera crews would rush forward, then close it again. “I felt badly about it after a while, but I enjoyed it at the time,” he says.

Currently being turned into a film starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, the Plame saga ruined Scooter Libby, the vice-president’s aide, but ultimately Rove was not charged. He remains extremely bitter about what he describes as a “three-year ordeal”, and says: “It put enormous pressure on my family. Imagine what it was like when the mother of one of my son’s closest high-school classmates said, ‘I’m really looking forward to Karl Rove going to jail.’ My wife is a really sweet and strong person, but it was so tough on her that in the summer of 2005 she literally had to flee. She said, ‘I’m taking Andrew to Florida and will be back when school starts.’”

Even after he eventually left the White House in 2007, the hate campaign continued. “Once, walking through the airport in Atlanta, my son, who’s 6ft 2in, was in front and I jokingly said to Darby, ‘Isn’t that funny, Andrew’s like my security detail sheltering me from the crowd?’ She said, ‘Don’t you understand he’s afraid for you?’”

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