Karl Rove is driving through Central Texas with his girlfriend, on the way to a weekend quail hunt.
“I’ve been called up by my emergency Texas militia unit to help stop an invasion of Texas blue quail in the Big Bend region,” he guffaws over a crackly phone line, somewhere outside Fredericksburg.
The man George W. Bush used to call Turd Blossom narrates the passing landscape—“The bottomlands are characterized by oak and mesquite, and the highlands are characterized by mountain juniper, a.k.a. cedar,” he drawls—and also takes a shot at the passing political scene: President Obama’s speech on the Tucson tragedy (“Good,” not “great”) and Sarah Palin’s video addressing the shooting (“I view it more as a lost opportunity than I do a seminal event”).
He even weighs in on a hot script circulating in Hollywood, College Republicans, about his own early years as a fresh-faced party apparatchik on the make. “They got it all wrong!” he says of the script, which he claims overemphasizes the importance of his onetime close colleague, Lee Atwater, the notorious strategist behind Bush 41. Perhaps Rove would consider consulting to set the record straight?
“For the right price, baby!” yells Rove, sending his gal pal into squeals of laughter.
“That’s my agent,” he quips.
The woman, Karen Johnson, is a lobbyist rumored to have been Rove’s mistress before his divorce from his second wife in 2009. When she tells him they’ve already reached the exit for Junction, Texas, Rove is impressed: “Goddangit, baby! We’re making good time!”
If Karl Rove is acting like a newlywed on a honeymoon, it’s no wonder: The proverbial Brain behind the most unpopular U.S. president in modern history, a man who feared he was on the verge of being charged with a felony in 2006 for his role in the Valerie Plame case, has a new lease on life. After reinventing himself as the resident political guru on two of Rupert Murdoch’s media platforms, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Rove shocked everyone last year by putting together a political-action committee, American Crossroads, that, along with its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, raised $71 million to support Republicans during the midterm elections. The two groups spent nearly $25 million on 30,000 TV ads to attack Democrats and support Republicans, helping Rove’s party take sixteen of the 30 House and Senate seats in races where American Crossroads invested.
It was high-fives all around for Rove’s old crew. Without him, “we never, ever, ever would have been able to make the gains we made, which were historic,” says Mary Matalin, the onetime aide to former vice-president Dick Cheney.
“I concentrated some people’s attention,” Rove offers.
He’s just getting started. As he positions himself as Republican kingmaker in 2012, Rove is trying to make sense of a post-Bush party, one riven by ideological schisms and splintered into a dozen or more potential Republican nominees. To take back power and reestablish his dream of a permanent Republican majority (“Durable,” he now corrects. “I never said permanent”), Rove must carefully negotiate a new media world revolutionized by Sarah Palin and bring order to a restive party upended and realigned by tea-party populists, who view Rove as the elitist Machiavellian who once played them like a Stradivarius for George W. Bush. But with W. down on his ranch in Texas, the Brain needs a new body to inhabit. And that body, he’s decided, is the Republican Party itself.
When I first meet Karl Rove at his bachelor pad–cum–office in Georgetown on a cold morning in December, he’s buzzing like a guy who just leaped off the presidential helicopter a few seconds ago. Phone to his ear, he waves me inside while trying to connect to somebody named Grover. Two twentysomething female assistants, one the spitting image of Jenna Bush, scurry up and down the stairs, fetching tea and anything else Rove orders up.
“Kristin!” Rove yells to the Bush look-alike. “The day that Obama was in Bowie, Maryland, and attacks me—can you check it against my calendar and find out where I was?”
The Brain needs constant, multiple streams of data flowing in, raw information that he rearranges and reinterprets and then sends out to the appropriate destination to be acted upon. He was the first-ever White House employee to own a BlackBerry, making him the only e-mail-equipped staffer on Air Force One on 9/11. Information is power. When a text message pops up on his iPhone during our interview, lighting up his screen, I notice he’s surreptitiously taping our conversation with his field-recorder app.
His caution is understandable. Before he left the White House in 2007, the details of Rove’s conversations with reporters were the subject of five excruciating appearances before a federal grand jury, an inquiry into the infamous press leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. That story became a referendum on Bush’s bloody war in Iraq and also on Rove’s secretive and brutal political style.