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Goddangit, Baby, We're Making Good Time

“I said, ‘I’ll be happy to look at anything you want me to, but I don’t want to read it unless you need me to, because if it leaks, I don’t want people saying, ‘Rove had a copy of it,’ ” he explains. “And so we talked about it during the time. And of course he was reading parts of mine.”

Despite all this, Rove says Bush’s legacy would be “probably the same” without him. “There would have been somebody else,” he says.

Of course Rove has a legacy: Among ­other things, he politicized the White House like no other adviser before him. When I ask Rove about the unprecedented policy power afforded him, a campaign strategist who sliced and diced electoral data for a living, he won’t concede that it was particularly unusual, saying only, “It may have been different because I was sort of the mad scientist for the campaign and then I became the mad scientist inside the White House.”

Indeed: Earlier this year, the Office of Special Counsel reported that the White House political-affairs office, overseen by Rove, routinely broke an election law by conducting campaign strategy on the taxpayers’ dime.

The Bush era was also marked by lockstep message discipline among Republicans. But when the Bush White House disbanded, cracks in the façade appeared everywhere. Dick Cheney, we now know, remains bitter over Bush’s decision not to pardon Scooter Libby. Rove, avoiding the topic entirely in his book, says he supported Bush’s decision to let Libby hang. Asked if he ever offered Libby his condolences, given their similar predicaments and vastly different fates, Rove only says, “Scooter’s my close friend, and I think the world of him.”

Rove, too, left plenty of hurt feelings among former Bush staffers, several of whom told me Rove kept a tight grip on access to Bush, making himself the bottleneck for information traveling up the chain of command. Prominent Bush aides like Karen Hughes, Matthew Dowd, and Dan Bartlett have privately groused that Rove failed to credit them for contributions to Bush presidential elections and in managing the White House message machine. Laura Bush, wary of Rove’s influence, hinted publicly of this in a 2004 New York Times interview: “ ‘His input is valued just about, you know, equally with a whole lot of other people and—or maybe less, I should say, than some of the other people over there.’ ”

But few are willing to openly cross Rove, even today. He values loyalty above everything—to Bush and to him. Many of his colleagues describe him as a genuine and loyal friend, a good-humored and fun-loving pal who hands out cupcakes at meetings, sings ludicrously upbeat songs in the morning, and remembers everybody’s birthday. He even arranged to have a get-well note from President Bush sent to John Weaver, Rove’s former ally turned major antagonist, when Weaver was diagnosed with leukemia.

Some of these same friends, however, question whether Rove’s warmth is genuine or just good business. “Is it real?” wonders one person who worked closely with Rove for over a decade. John Weaver, for one, didn’t believe it was: He says he received a press call from NBC News’ Campbell Brown about Bush’s note two days before it actually arrived in the mail.

One week before the 2010 midterm elections, Rove took aim at Sarah Palin, questioning the wisdom of her appearance on a reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, if she really wanted to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Palin lacked the “gravitas” to be president, went a subhead in the U.K.’s DailyTelegraph.

Rove later tried wriggling out of his comments, as well as observations he made in a German magazine that tea-partiers weren’t “sophisticated,” being unfamiliar, as Rove was, with intellectuals like the economist Friedrich August von Hayek. But Rove’s backhands weren’t accidental, nor was he the victim of outrageous tabloid reporting. When I bring up his statements about Palin during our interview, Rove says only that he wished he’d made his comments on Fox News instead—before going into a withering impersonation of Palin, recalling a scene from her TV show in which she’s fishing.

“Did you see that?” he says, adopting a high, sniveling Palin accent: “ ‘Holy crap! That fish hit my thigh! It hurts!’ ”

“How does that make us comfortable seeing her in the Oval Office?” he asks, disgusted. “You know—‘Holy crap, Putin said something ugly!’ ”

Rove was the first major Republican figure to take a swipe at Palin. But he knew he had to do it. A few months earlier, in Rove’s traditional seat of Texas, he had gotten an up-close view of the internal divisions threatening his place in the party’s firmament. Governor Rick Perry’s political machine was courting the new hard-right populists in tricornered hats, feeding rumors of presidential designs, and threatening to blot out Bush’s footprint on the state. The Bush family, for political and personal reasons, tried to unseat Perry, backing Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Their best man was on the case: Karl Rove, who supported and reportedly advised Hutchison.