With more than a year left in the fading Bush presidency, Karl Rove’s worst days in the White House may still lie ahead of him. I met Rove on one of his best days, a week after Bush’s reelection. The occasion was a reporters’ lunch hosted by The Christian Science Monitor at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, a customary stop for the winning and losing campaign teams to offer battle assessments and answer questions. Kerry’s team had glumly passed through a few days earlier. Afterward his chief strategist, Bob Shrum, boarded a plane and left the country. Rove had endured a heart-stopping Election Day (early exit polls indicated a Kerry landslide) but had prevailed, and plainly wasn’t hurrying off anywhere. “The Architect,” as Bush had just dubbed him, had spent the week collecting praise and had now arrived—vindicated, secure of his place in history—to hold court before the political press corps.
Before taking questions, he removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket and rattled off a series of numbers that made clear how he wanted the election to be seen: not as a squeaker but a rout. “This was an extraordinary election,” Rove said. “[Bush won] 59.7 million votes, and we still have about 250,000 ballots to count. Think about that—nearly 60 million votes! The previous largest number was Ronald Reagan in 1984, sweeping the country with 49 states. We won 81 percent of all the counties in America. We gained a percentage of the vote in 87 percent of the counties in America. In Florida, we received nearly a million votes more in this election than in the last one.” Rove was officially there to talk about the campaign, but it was clear he had something much bigger in mind. So no one missed his point, he invoked Franklin Roosevelt’s supremacy in the 1930s and suggested that something similar was at hand: “We’ve laid out an agenda, we’ve laid out a vision, and now people want to see results.”When Rove entered the room, everyone stood up to congratulate him and shake his hand. Washington journalism has become a kind of Cult of the Consultant, so the energy in the room was a lot like it might have been if Mickey Mantle had come striding into the clubhouse after knocking in the game-winning run in the World Series. Rove was pumped.