In his memoirs, Karl Rove recalls the moment when George W. Bush learned the World Trade Center had been hit by a second airliner, confirming that a terror attack was under way. “Bush’s jawline firmed,” he wrote. “He seemed preternaturally calm.”
In Rove’s cinematic retelling, Bush, steely and focused, smoldered with righteous fury as the Secret Service, afraid for the president’s safety, struggled to hold him back from returning to the capital so he could take command of the White House. It’s a brawny thriller of a narrative that contrasts with the infamous videotape of Bush in a Florida classroom, ashen-faced and reading The Pet Goat to schoolchildren before being whisked around the country on Air Force One. If 9/11 transformed the Bush presidency, it was Karl Rove who choreographed, exploited, and defended Bush’s image as a “war president.”
When Bush first visited the smoking pile of ground zero on the Friday after 9/11, it was Rove who spotted a crumpled fire truck nearby, and who instructed two first responders to bounce up and down on it to make sure it was safe to stand on, then directed Bush to climb on top, take up a bullhorn and give a speech to whooping, angry firemen. It would be the first indelible image of Bush as strong, fearless leader on the warpath.
The halo effect of 9/11 gave Bush political Teflon, erasing questions about his presidential legitimacy and stifling dissent. Rove immediately set about institutionalizing those political benefits: In the spring of 2002, in a PowerPoint presentation created by Rove and his acolyte Ken Mehlman, Rove spelled out his advice for political success: “Focus on war.”