Rove knew his party better than that, of course, and Steele’s tone-deafness was the opening he needed. Nervous donors, already suffering from the economic meltdown, were sitting on their money, uncertain where to go. In a series of meetings starting in the spring of 2009, Rove began sounding out the party’s big Republican underwriters, proposing an outside group that would effectively replace the RNC, featuring Karl Rove as the name brand on the label. He road-tested his sales pitch in Texas, he says, with old-line Bush donors like Katharine Armstrong, the ranch-and-real-estate heiress on whose family’s vast hunting grounds in South Texas Dick Cheney accidentally shot a lawyer in the face in 2006. Her land had long been Rove’s base of operations, where he shared a hunting lease with a top GOP fund-raiser in the state, James Huffines. There, Rove regularly plotted with Texas oil barons over a campfire, poking embers all night while working out strategy.
“He’s a pyromaniac,” says Armstrong, chuckling; she was duly swayed by Rove’s charm. “I said, ‘Karl, it’s a fantastic idea and you will do great and it needs to be done.’ He’s a very humble person. Sometimes it surprises me. ‘Karl, are you sure you’re not just fishing for a compliment? Or are you really insecure about this?’ ”
In truth, Rove didn’t have to work very hard. The prospect of Obama’s cap-and-trade policy was giving major heartburn to energy companies. “It’s like your doctor says you’ve got cancer and he pulls out a road map to recovery,” says Jim Francis, a close associate of billionaire oil magnate Trevor Rees-Jones, who gave $2 million to American Crossroads. “People were anxious to be supportive. And praying that it would work.”
Before Rove and his partner Ed Gillespie, the former counselor to Bush in the White House, had even slapped a name on it, American Crossroads had $25 million in commitments, mostly from patrons in Texas. To sweeten the deal, Rove said he wouldn’t take a dime for his efforts, acting only as an informal adviser, and hired as the group’s operator a well-regarded former Bush-administration official, Steven Law, who had been Senator Mitch McConnell’s chief of staff. That freed Rove to launch a separate but equally important campaign, the sort that’s become a staple of the modern campaign: the nonstop promotion of his new memoir, which sent Rove on a tour of 111 cities in 90 days, starting in March 2010. From January to November 2010, in between dozens and dozens of fund-raisers, paid speeches, and public readings, he wrote 61 op-ed columns, appeared on Fox News 83 times, and posted 1,400 tweets. His brand, and his bank account, were on the rise.
Rove, being Rove, doesn’t believe in post-Rove. “Things don’t change abruptly in politics.”
Last spring, Rove was ready to don the crown. He gathered the old tribes together and effectively anointed himself their leader, holding a breakfast at his house in D.C. with eighteen leaders of rival pacs, including former Nixon and Bush 41 confidant and GOP fund-raiser Fred Malek, of American Action Network, and Mary Cheney, Dick’s daughter, representing the Partnership for America’s Future. The anxious group was packed into Rove’s cramped living room, his two massive, ceiling-high shelves of history books looming over them. Rove, the man who had won big elections for them before and promised to win more again, let his star power do the work.
“They went so they could tell their friends that they went to Karl Rove’s house,” says Steven Law. “That’s why I went.”
Rove proposed they coordinate their strategies. American Crossroads would clearly have been first among equals; by default, Rove would be the figurehead, the credibility, the brand. Afterward, they would even give the meeting a self-consciously historic name, ready-made for the second volume of Rove’s memoirs: the Weaver Terrace Group, after Karl Rove’s street address.
In Karl Rove’s immaculate and thoroughly unlived-in apartment in Georgetown, one is struck by a display on a low table near the bookcase: scale models of Air Force One and Marine One, the Sikorsky helicopter that ferries the president to the White House lawn, right next to Rove’s baby shoes, lacquered white leather lace-ups, each embossed with his birthday, December 25, 1950.
As the virtual inventor of George W. Bush, Rove claims he has no real legacy of his own. “You know, I’m not allowed to have a legacy,” he says. “I just serve in the army, so it’s the army’s legacy.”
Bush and Rove remain a hand-in-glove operation. While there were always moments of tension between them, periods when Bush was agitated over the “Bush’s Brain” moniker, when Rove was in the doghouse over the Plame affair, Rove has remained Bush’s loyal courtier. Bush attended Rove’s 60th-birthday party in Austin last year, and Rove still regularly e-mails Bush political gossip he picks up in his travels. The two men were in close contact while they wrote their respective books, comparing notes on events.