The ordeal took its toll. In his memoir, Courage and Consequence: My Life As a Conservative in the Fight, Rove writes of the stress of regular protests outside his D.C. home. He kept a newspaper clipping picturing Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, as he was headed for his arraignment in the Plame case.
“I have looked at it frequently in the years since so as not to forget that moment,” he writes. “But for the work of a brilliant lawyer in unraveling and ending the quixotic obsession of a special prosecutor, there went I.”
Legal bills, he says, left him financially depleted. “Look, I had to worry about retirement,” Rove tells me, “and I had to worry about getting back to Texas.”
Rove also had a divorce on the horizon, from Darby, his wife of 24 years, which would mean the loss of more than half his assets. “The Karl I saw two years ago, maybe from a physical-exhaustion point, had a lower energy level than he does today,” says Jim Francis, a Republican operative in Dallas and a friend of Rove’s.
In August 2007, after more than six years inside the White House bubble, Rove was entering foreign terrain. In the intervening years, political media had morphed into a ravenous 24/7 spectacle, engulfing politics itself. And the instruments of Rove’s influence—George W. Bush and his network—were weakening quickly. By the time Barack Obama trounced Senator John McCain in 2008, it looked like a resounding end to the Rovean political era.
Modest though he may at times pretend to be, Rove has always seen himself as more than a glorified factotum. As he’s happy to remind you, he considers himself a policy intellectual, a man of letters who reveres Winston Churchill and posts his reading list on his website. Since the seventies, when he was a lonely college nerd—whose father, reportedly gay, left the family to an erratic mother who pocketed his school money and left Rove to fend for himself—bunking in a storage closet in a frat house in Utah, he’d been a self-made man. It took serious inner resources. The idea behind Bush’s nickname for Rove, Turd Blossom, was of a flower that grew from shit. With Democrats taking over Washington, Bush out to pasture, and his party in utter disarray, maybe Rove was actually in his element. He just needed a new horse to ride.
Not that it was going to be easy. First he had to refill his coffers. In the fall of 2007, Rove hired the ubiquitous D.C. lawyer Bob Barnett to set up a book deal and field calls from cable-TV networks. It was by “accident,” he says, that he ended up on Fox News. CNN initially began proposing a job and, says Rove, “tossing around figures that meant something.” Rove, who drove a titanium Jaguar to work when he was in the White House, says he was ambivalent about TV but needed cash. So he called up his friend Roger Ailes, who was about to step into a meeting with Rupert Murdoch. Fifteen minutes later, recounts Rove, he got a job offer from Fox. (Though a Fox spokesperson says that Ailes doesn’t recall that version of events.) He's paid roughly $400,000, less than half of Sarah Palin’s $1 million take. “But look,” he says, “they treat me well.”
Though Rove had not exactly been retiring in the past, he’d never been the front man either. But in the years he’d spent scheming in the White House, TV had become ever more important as one of the wellsprings of political power. It wouldn’t do just to be bright; he needed a brand and a platform. Being a media star would earn Karl Rove bigger speaking fees and better book sales and burnish his brand with political junkies; but most important, it would give him visibility with Republican donors, Rove’s true power source. In November 2008, Rove published a column in Newsweek, “A Way Out of the Wilderness.” Rove now points to that column as the genesis for American Crossroads. “What is it that Democrats have that we don’t have?” Rove says he asked himself.
What Democrats had was a massive money machine of well-organized political-action committees that had ground McCain to dust with TV ads and get-out-the-vote drives. For Rove, McCain’s hand-wringing over the influence of corporate money was all well and good, but money was the game, period. Rove has often been cast as the reincarnation of President William McKinley’s political adviser, Mark Hanna, who famously said there are only two things important in politics: money and “I can’t remember what the second one is.”
Raising money, like everything else in politics, works best if there are enemies, straw men, people to make you look like the only safe bet. Obama hadn’t been in office for six months when Rove saw a power vacuum with his name on it: Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, the traditional institutional center of the party, was swiftly losing credibility with party stalwarts, promising in interviews to give Republicans a “hip-hop” makeover and saying abortion was an “individual choice.”