Maybe it’s because the midterm elections went so very well. Maybe it’s because at the White House, politics is the best policy. Maybe it’s because it’s the reign of Karl Rove. An inside look at how the most powerful presidential adviser in a century does what he does so well.
On a cool Saturday a few days before Christmas last year, Karl Rove showed up in a festive mood at David Dreyer’s house in suburban Washington, D. C., to trim the tree and have a cup of eggnog. Dreyer is a liberal Democrat, formerly the deputy communications director in the Clinton White House and also a senior adviser to Treasury secretary Robert Rubin. He now runs a small public-relations firm. His daughter and Karl’s son were in the same seventh-grade class. After a few brief, friendly encounters at school functions, Dreyer invited Karl and his boy over for a tree-trimming party with the class, about fifteen kids and eight or nine parents in all. It was one of those enchanting days that you remember for a long time. Rove was the ringmaster of fun, brimming with good cheer, Mr. Silly, without a care in the world. All in attendance were warmed by his presence, and you never would have known that his job carried such awesome responsibility. Rove was far too busy decorating cookies and stringing popcorn to betray anything close to that. “Karl completely took charge, absolutely in the most endearing way possible. He had a vision of what each kid could contribute. What they could make or hang, based on how tall they were, or what they could do . . . what ornament, what Christmas ball. Need more lights? Hey, kids, let’s get in the car and go get some more lights!” Dreyer, a sober man, is trying not to go overboard about how all this affected him. “You expect a partisan who’s onstage all the time, and it doesn’t function that way in real life. You get a father and husband.” He pauses. “I think it’s sad.” What’s sad? I ask. “That we so often have such an extraordinarily one-dimensional view of people, of our fellow human beings.” Not that Dreyer, having glimpsed Karl in repose, far from his natural habitat, sees him as anything less than extraordinary. “He was magnetic,” Dreyer says dreamily. “He picked up my four-year-old son, Sam, so he could place the star atop the tree. It was lovely. Just lovely.”
When I heard this story, it made me like Karl Rove. It made him sound like a hero to children, and in my view, there’s no better person. But I’ve never heard another story like this one, because people in Washington, especially Rove’s friends, are utterly petrified to talk about him.
They heard that I was writing about Karl Rove, seeking to contextualize his role as a senior adviser in the Bush White House, and they began calling, some anonymously, some not, saying that they wanted to help and leaving phone numbers. The calls from members of the White House staff were solemn, serious. Their concern was not only about politics, they said, not simply about Karl pulling the president further to the right. It went deeper; it was about this administration’s ability to focus on the substance of governing — issues like the economy and social security and education and health care — as opposed to its clear political acumen, its ability to win and enhance power. And so it seemed that each time I made an inquiry about Karl Rove, I received in return a top-to-bottom critique of the White House’s basic functions, so profound is Rove’s influence.
I made these inquiries in part because last spring, when I spoke to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, he sounded an alarm about the unfettered rise of Rove in the wake of senior adviser Karen Hughes’s resignation: “I’ll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. . . . They are going to have to really step up, but it won’t be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary.”
One senior White House official told me that he’d be summarily fired if it were known we were talking. “But many of us feel it’s our duty — our obligation as Americans — to get the word out that, certainly in domestic policy, there has been almost no meaningful consideration of any real issues. It’s just kids on Big Wheels who talk politics and know nothing. It’s depressing. Domestic Policy Council meetings are a farce. This leaves shoot-from-the-hip political calculations — mostly from Karl’s shop — to triumph by default. No one balances Karl. Forget it. That was Andy’s cry for help.”
But now the stunning midterm ascendancy of the Republicans boosts Rove into a new category; a major political realignment may hereby be ascribed to his mastery, his grand plan.
At the moment when one-party rule returns to Washington — a state that existed, in fact, in the first five months of the Bush presidency, before Senator Jeffords switched parties — we are offered a rare view of the way this White House works. The issue of how the administration decides what to do with its mandate — and where political calculation figures in that mix — has never been so important to consider. This White House will now be able to do precisely what it wants. To understand the implications of this, you must understand Karl Rove.
“It’s an amazing moment,” said one senior White House official early on the morning after. “Karl just went from prime minister to king. Amazing . . . and a little scary. Now no one will speak candidly about him or take him on or contradict him. Pure power, no real accountability. It’s just ‘listen to Karl and everything will work out.’. . . That may go for the president, too.”
Over time, I came to know these sources to be serious people with credible information. And, of course, their fear of discovery is warranted, for this White House has defined itself as a disciplined command center that enforces a unanimity of purpose and has a well-known prohibition of leaks, a well-known distaste for openness. But still, the fact that they must veil themselves leaves them open to the charge of being disgruntled employees. I can only attest to the fact that they certainly do not seem to be that. There is, however, one man who, at some personal and professional risk, has now decided to speak openly about the inner workings of the White House.
President George W. Bush called John DiIulio “one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in America” when he appointed the University of Pennsylvania professor, author, historian, and domestic-affairs expert to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He was the Bush administration’s big brain, controversial but deeply respected by Republicans and Democrats, academicians and policy players. The appointment was rightfully hailed: DiIulio provided gravity to national policy debates and launched the most innovative of President Bush’s campaign ideas — the faith-based initiative, which he managed until this past February, the last four months from Philadelphia.
“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” says DiIulio. “What you’ve got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”In a seven-page letter sent a few weeks after our first conversation, DiIulio, who still considers himself a passionate supporter of the president, offers a detailed account and critique of the time he spent in the Bush White House.
“I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions,” he writes. “There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical nonstop, twenty-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking: discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.”
Like David Stockman, the whip-smart budget director to Ronald Reagan who twenty years ago revealed that Reagan’s budget numbers didn’t add up, DiIulio is this administration’s first credible, independent witness — a sovereign who supports his president but must, nonetheless, speak his mind.
Sources in the West Wing, echoing DiIulio’s comments, say that even cursory discussion of domestic policy became much less frequent after September 11, 2001, with the exception of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the department of “Strategery,” or the “Strategery Group,” depending on the source, has steadily grown. The term, coined in 2000 by Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell, started as a joke at the White House, too, but has actually become a term of art meaning the oversight of any activity — from substantive policy to ideological stance to public event — by the president’s political thinkers.
“It’s a revealing shorthand,” says one White House staff member. “Yes, the president sometimes trips, rhetorically, but it doesn’t matter as long as we keep our eye on the ball politically.”
This approach to policy-making is a fairly radical departure from the customary relationship between White House political directors and policy professionals. Each has always influenced the other, of course, but the political office has rarely been so central to guiding policy in virtually every area, deciding what is promoted and what is tabled.
“Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign,” DiIulio writes, “and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison with previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. There is still two years, maybe six, for them to do more and better on domestic policy and, specifically, on the compassion agenda. And, needless to say, 9/11, and now the global war on terror and the new homeland- and national-security plans, must be weighed in the balance. But, as I think Andy Card himself told you in so many words, even allowing for those huge contextual realities, they could stand to find ways of inserting more serious policy fiber into the West Wing diet and engage much less in on-the-fly policy-making by speechmaking.”
DiIulio calls the president “a highly admirable person of enormous personal decency . . . [who is] much, much smarter than some people — including some of his own supporters and advisers — seem to suppose.” So what, then, is John DiIulio’s motivation for now offering his pointed critique? There is, as he says, “two years, maybe six.” He has a vision for who George W. Bush might yet become.
If you buy Isaiah Berlin’s famous dictum about history being a struggle between foxes and hedgehogs, Karl Rove has, like the hedgehog, stayed focused on a single ideal and pushed it forward relentlessly. A bookish kid born in Denver on Christmas Day 1950, Rove has known George W. Bush for thirty years. He started bobbing up on senior staffs of Texas campaigns in his late twenties, with the unshakable goal of making the Republicans the permanent majority party. He’s up early and works late, with an assured disdain for Marquis of Queensberry rules of political engagement. In conversation with scores of people who know him, the assessment ultimately is the same: For Karl Rove, it’s all and only about winning. The rest — vision, ideology, good government, ideas to bind a nation, reasonable dissent, collegiality, mutual respect — is for later.
And Rove is disciplined in maintaining his mystery. In visiting the White House frequently from February to April of this past year, I interviewed much of the senior staff, as well as the First Lady. No one would utter so much as a word about Rove. They’d talk about one another, assessing the strengths, weaknesses, and specific roles of Hughes, Card, deputy chief of staff Josh Bolten, media adviser Mark McKinnon, communications chief Dan Bartlett, Cheney aide Mary Matalin, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the vice-president, and, of course, the president himself. When I’d mention Rove, the reaction was always the same: “I can’t really talk about Karl.” It was odd; it was extraordinary.
Eventually, I met with Rove. I arrived at his office a few minutes early, just in time to witness the Rove Treatment, which, like LBJ’s famous browbeating style, is becoming legend but is seldom reported. Rove’s assistant, Susan Ralston, said he’d be just a minute. She’s very nice, witty and polite. Over her shoulder was a small back room where a few young men were toiling away. I squeezed into a chair near the open door to Rove’s modest chamber, my back against his doorframe.
Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. “We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!” As a reporter, you get around — curse words, anger, passionate intensity are not notable events — but the ferocity, the bellicosity, the violent imputations were, well, shocking. This went on without a break for a minute or two. Then the aide slipped out looking a bit ashen, and Rove, his face ruddy from the exertions of the past few moments, looked at me and smiled a gentle, Clarence-the-Angel smile. “Come on in.” And I did. And we had the most amiable chat for a half hour. I asked a variety of questions about his relationship with Karen Hughes. Were there ever tensions between him and Karen? Nope. “Oh, we’re both strong-willed people, but we work well together.” I mentioned a few disputes others had told me of. He dismissed them all. Didn’t they sort of bury the hatchet after September 11? Nope — no hatchet to bury. As the president’s two most powerful aides, did they ever disagree? “Not often.” Any examples? Nope. He couldn’t be nicer, mind you. Finally, I asked if one of his role models was Mark Hanna, the visionary political guru to President William McKinley who helped reshape Republicans into the party of inclusion and ushered in decades of electoral victory at the turn of the twentieth century. Rove’s a student of McKinley and Hanna. He has talked extensively in the past about lessons he’s learned from this duo’s response to challenges of their era. “No, this era is nothing like McKinley’s. I’m not at all like Hanna. Never wanted to be.”
Since then, I’ve talked to old colleagues, dating back twenty-five years, one of whom said, “Some kids want to grow up to be president. Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna. We’d talk about it all the time. We’d say, ‘Jesus, Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?’ ” In any event, it’s clear, when I think of my encounter with Rove, why this particular old friend of his, and scores of others — many of whom spoke of the essential good nature of this man who was a teammate on some campaign or other — don’t want their names mentioned, ever. Just like Rove’s mates on the current team — the one running the free world — who go numb at the thought of talking frankly, for attribution, about him. These are powerful people, confident and consequential, who suffer gaze aversion when I mention his name. No doubt they’ve had extended exposure to the two Karls I saw that day last spring.
William Kristol, among the most respected of the conservative commentators — a man embraced by the Right but still on dinner-party guest lists for the center and Left — is untouchable. He is willing to speak.
“Karl and I aren’t really friends. I have sort of a vague and indirect relationship with him. But we talk pretty regularly. He has always been fair and straight and honest with me, despite the stories that others have about him.” He pauses, as though encountering one of those BEWARE FALLING ROCKS signs. “I believe Karl is Bush. They’re not separate, each of them freestanding, with distinct agendas, as some people say. Karl thinks X. Bush thinks X. Clearly, it’s a very complicated relationship.” He goes on to say that he thinks Bush is a “canny manager” who creates competing teams and plays them against one another. As for those who sometimes disagree with that point, he says, “There is criticism of Karl from the friends of the former President Bush who don’t approve of the way the current President Bush is doing his job in every case.” Kristol notes that “the kid is what he is, and he’s different from the father, some differences that I feel good about,” but that gray men around “41” who don’t approve of “43” have trouble criticizing the son to the father “and ascribe everything to Karl’s malign influence.” In that, Rove is at the center of the most portentous father-son conversation of modern times. Sources close to the former president say Rove was fired from the 1992 Bush presidential campaign after he planted a negative story with columnist Robert Novak about dissatisfaction with campaign fundraising chief and Bush loyalist Robert Mosbacher Jr. It was smoked out, and he was summarily ousted.
Mark McKinnon, who would not speak of Rove in my earlier interviews with him for another story on the Bush White House, is now effusive. “Karl’s sheer bandwidth is greater than anyone I’ve ever met. . . . Lots of people have planetary systems, covering history or policy or politics, but Karl covers the whole universe.” He goes on: “James [Carville] and Dick [Morris]” — both advisers to Clinton whom McKinnon knows from his days, up until the mid-1990s, as a Democratic consultant — “can drive the car and drive it very well. Karl can take out the engine and put it back together. He’s the best ever. And his love for policy is as great or greater than his love of politics.” This is the Rove defense. He’s really a policy guy, a seeker of best remedies, a nonpolitical.
Senator John McCain knows something of Karl Rove, though he’d rather not think about all that tonight, as a crowd gathers to celebrate the release of the senator’s new book. In fact, lots of folks here know Rove well. “Sure, I know Karl,” says one man who has worked on several campaigns with him. “At the end of long days, we’d always meet at one bar or another, everybody but Karl. Where’s Karl? we’d wonder. The line was always ‘Oh, he’s out ruining careers.’ ”
These are virtually all Republicans, gathered in an elegant room off the wide atrium of Union Station. It’s a good night for McCain. He and the intellectually lithe Mark Salter, his longtime aide, have produced their second book in just three years. The first, Faith of My Fathers, documented McCain’s early life as the rebel son and grandson of legendary admirals who was shot down in Vietnam and held prisoner for five and a half years. This second book, which picks up after Vietnam, is more reflective, angry, and lyrical, as McCain bares his breast and beats it a little. At sixty-six and in middling health, he’s settling, it seems, on the idea that he won’t get a chance to be president. It’s the kind of thing that has liberated his already libertine spirit, though it stands as tragic injustice to everyone else in the room. And people in various corners of the wide room are retelling the story again — they’ll tell it forever — the moment when McCain surged in the New Hampshire primary, when he caught, and won the state in a walk. The Bush juggernaut had stalled. McCain, embraced by the media, to whom he gave extraordinary access — “just hang with me, boys, all day, everything on the record” — was seizing the high middle ground, where you win presidential elections. And someone points to a guy in the room — yeah, him over there near the curtains, tall, friendly-looking guy named John Weaver. He was the other genius wunderkind in Texas in the 1980s, along with Rove. They won campaigns left and right, those two. Rove was mostly a direct-mail fundraiser back then, Weaver more a strategist-manager type. Something happened that neither will talk about, and they stopped working together in 1988. Many of the people in this room followed Weaver, who was McCain’s political director in his bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, to this side of the Republican party. Since their estrangement, Weaver’s relationship with Rove has gotten somewhat odd.
On the night of the vote in New Hampshire, the senator’s senior staff was all gathered at the Crowne Plaza in Nashua. A call came in to the penthouse suite moments after McCain’s big victory was declared by the networks. It was Rove. A junior staffer cupped his hand over the receiver and told Weaver: “Rove says he’s calling to concede.”
Weaver was stunned. “Karl’s conceding?” He shook off disbelief, gathered himself, and said, “Tell Karl that he can’t concede. He’s not the candidate. The governor has to bring himself to actually call the senator.” Weaver gave Karl a cell-phone number where McCain could be reached, and a few minutes later, the candidates had a brief chat. Then it was off to the showdown in South Carolina, which changed everything . . .
I suddenly hear McCain laugh through the din. He laughs like a pirate. There’s a cluster, bent in tight, as he whispers something hysterical. Heads go back. Man can tell a story. Tonight he is ebullient. On Sunday, The Washington Post gushed over his book, leading with what it called the strange occurrence that the president is the third-most-popular politician in America, behind Al Gore, who got more votes, and, of course, John McCain.
He loved that, God knows, and tonight he’s among his lovers, his troops, cutting between them, slapping and clasping, a man of modest height and fiercely angled, always leaning a few degrees forward, a bit pinched, in his blue suit. He breaks from the cluster; I meet him in the clearing. We huddle for a moment, make small talk about this and that. I ask if historians will consider South Carolina a crossroads moment for the Republican party. “Well, it was unprecedented, South Carolina,” he says softly. “But you have to put it past you and move on.” He points over to the corner where his top aide, Salter, is now standing next to Weaver and a few others. “Those guys can tell you all about what happened. As for history,” he says, offering a pained smile, “I think it will little note nor long remember and all that.” I go over. Weaver gets asked about Rove quite often; people know about their history. He always demurs. “Not worth getting into,” he says. People around him, though, will talk. “John will never work in the Republican party again, thanks to Karl,” says Salter. Weaver now works for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It’s commonly held that Rove ran him out of the party. The word went out: Any Republican who hired Weaver would be held in disfavor by the president. “What can I say?” Weaver says quietly. “Like me, all the moderate Republicans have been run out of the party by the Right. I’m doing what I’ve always done politically; these guys just call themselves Democrats now.”
As for the Waterloo of South Carolina, most of the facts are well-known, and among this group of Republicans, what happened has taken on the air of an unsolved crime, a cold case, with Karl Rove being the prime suspect. Bush loyalists, maybe working for the campaign, maybe just representing its interests, claimed in parking-lot handouts and telephone “push polls” and whisper campaigns that McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a drug addict, that McCain might be mentally unstable from his captivity in Vietnam, and that the senator had fathered a black child with a prostitute. Callers push-polled members of a South Carolina right-to-life organization and other groups, asking if the black baby might influence their vote. Now here’s the twist, the part that drives McCain admirers insane to this very day: That last rumor took seed because the McCains had done an especially admirable thing. Years back they’d adopted a baby from a Mother Teresa orphanage in Bangladesh. Bridget, now eleven years old, waved along with the rest of the McCain brood from stages across the state, a dark-skinned child inadvertently providing a photo op for slander. The attacks were of a level and vitriol that even McCain, who was regularly beaten in captivity, could not ignore. He began to answer the slights, strayed off message about how he would lead the nation if he got the chance, and lost the war for South Carolina. Bush emerged from the showdown upright and victorious . . . and onward he marched.
Eight months after the South Carolina primary, McCain and Weaver were on a plane campaigning with the nominee. This was the kind of barnstorming finale — closing in on the last week of the campaign — that Rove normally wouldn’t miss. But Weaver was with McCain on the plane, and if Weaver is present, Rove will not show. The governor was, nonetheless, ecstatic. With McCain at his side for the better part of two weeks, he’d been on fire. After a stop in Fresno, California, for a joint speech, Weaver slipped out of the hall and Bush slipped out after him. McCain, who was still inside working the crowd, was due to leave now, his promised time with Bush completed. McCain had told Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia congressman heading up the Republican congressional effort, that he’d spend the last week whistle-stopping House and Senate races.
Governor Bush approached Weaver, who was huddling with the McCain staff. They’d known each other for fifteen years. “Johnny, I want you and John to be with me until the end.”
“Can’t do it, George,” Weaver said. “I just talked to Tom Davis, and he’s really counting on us. We’ve made a commitment.”
Bush grew agitated. “You don’t seem to understand. I want you with us!” It was already clear that the race was very close. Bush was looking for every advantage. He said, “Look, I’m better when John’s with me.” Bush said, “Hold on a minute,” stepped away, placed a call on his cell phone, and walked back, looking relieved. “Look, I just talked to Karl, and he says don’t worry about the congressional races. It’s okay for you to come with me.”
Weaver said, “Thanks anyway, but Karl’s not in charge of us.” McCain walked up. “Weav says you can’t stay with me for the last week. Is that right, John?” Bush was simmering. McCain was uncertain what to do. After an awkward moment, Weaver said, “I’m sorry, we’ve really got to go,” and hustled McCain into a waiting limo. The senator slumped into the seat, exhaled, and then, with a smile of relief, turned to Weaver and said, “Thank you.”
I’ve come to meet John DiIulio.
It has been three weeks since our first interview, when he spoke with surprising frankness about the style and substance of the White House. Other White House officials had discussed and corroborated the range of Rove’s influence, how all major decisions were passing first through his political-strategic directorate. But I was still regarding this White House in terms of the long-standing model, in which the art of political strategy is carefully balanced against serious policy discussion, in which church-state separations of these two distinct functions are respected, even championed.
It seemed that in the person of Karl Rove such distinctions had been blurred. And I hoped that DiIulio, a true believer in problem solving through sober policy analysis, could clarify how this had happened. He, after all, was present when the architecture of this White House — and the key relationships in it — was established.
But even more striking, he is the most credible independent witness to exit the administration so far.
I race into the Sofitel Hotel in downtown Washington a little late for a cocktail party held by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a nonpartisan think tank based in Albany, New York, that has brought luminaries together to kick off its three-day conference on religion and social-welfare policy. The French-owned hotel has little bustle in its portico — all cool marble and polished mahogany and whispery potted hydrangeas — and I wander, searching for life, until I see an enormous man near the elevator banks. He’s stuffing his hand into a shoulder-slung briefcase, looking for his glasses. He doesn’t seem to fit here, or in his blue suit, pulled taut as a windbreak across a frame a few inches shy of six feet that has to be supporting three hundred pounds. He looks up and squints at me, his glasses now slightly askew on a gentle, soft-edged mug, like Big Pussy in The Sopranos.
His story is as unlikely as it is inspiring: a working-class kid from a tough Italian-Catholic neighborhood, the son of a sheriff’s deputy and a department-store clerk, who stumbled forward from a local parish school to Philadelphia’s exclusive Haverford School — there through a program for lower-income kids — then to the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard for graduate school, picking up speed with each stride. By the time he got his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard — one of the best students his mentor James Q. Wilson had ever seen — his mass times velocity was bending laws of physics. At Princeton, he was made a full professor after just five years. He was thirty-two.
We talk briefly about our conversation of a few weeks ago; DiIulio knows he has collapsed a wall by offering his frank assessment. “I’m on the record,” he says. And then, lightly, “It’s not a problem, really not.”
His appearance in Washington qualifies as a special event, a top ticket for the guests tinkling glasses inside, where John stops at the reception table.
“Hey, big man!” He turns. It’s the Reverend Eugene Rivers, the former gang member who tamed urban violence in Boston, and a DiIulio buddy. They hug as the hive notices DiIulio and surrounds him. They are fans, admirers, but also part of an ideal, that there’s nothing odd about Democrats and Republicans dining together and agreeing on a few things, even in regard to fault-line issues like religion and social policy and the bracing possibility of connecting the two.
And disagreeing constructively. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a liberal opponent of federal funding for faith-based institutions, makes small talk with Rivers — a conservative black supporter of such funding — while nearby is Harris Wofford, the former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, right beside Michelle Engler, wife of Michigan’s Republican governor, John Engler. This kind of ecumenical promise, political as well as religious, is what helped get George W. Bush elected — the ideal, at its heart, of “compassionate conservatism” and the pledge of returning a more civil tone to Washington.
“There he is, the face of compassionate conservatism,” says Richard Roper, who was DiIulio’s colleague at Princeton. “Whatever that means.” DiIulio has often found himself an enemy of the Left. During the Clinton impeachment drama, he beat the drum for Clinton’s removal from office and decried the failure to do so as a signal of the “paganization” of American political culture. And before that, research he conducted in the early 1990s identified the growth of what he called “superpredators” in urban America: youths who seemed to carry a virulent strain of unchecked violence. The research, born of DiIulio’s focus on urban America and prison cultures, formed an intellectual framework for mandatory-sentencing statutes that swept the country. DiIulio coauthored Body Count with conservative thinker William Bennett and built a thinking-writing-speaking franchise as the conservatives’ favorite intellectual. Then he did something that almost no academician, especially one atop his own mountain, seems ever to do: He said, Hold on a minute. Data he’d started collecting in the mid-1990s seemed to contradict the “superpredator” theory. What this latest evolution of his research showed was that prevention, especially targeted at “at risk” urban environments, really does work.
And that brought him to church. Churches — along with mosques and, in some cases, synagogues — have long stood as a bulwark against chaos in many blighted urban cores, as true sanctuary and often an engine of homegrown social services. Urban analysts know this in a general way; DiIulio wanted to know, as a serious researcher, the whys and hows, variables, structures, etiology, and outcomes. This turned out to be a very bright idea; he swiftly captured an enormous swath of unmapped territory. The early trend line of DiIulio’s research evolved into his work for the president.
DiIulio and Bush bonded. At a Philadelphia stop early in the campaign, the two spoke for nearly two hours about the possibilities of federal support for faith-based programs, a nuanced discussion that left DiIulio duly impressed. “The president is up to the task. We had an extraordinary exchange. He had significant knowledge and real sensitivity to the challenges that such an effort would face. It’s not as though he’s not capable.”
Bush started talking about his friend “Big John,” and a year later DiIulio was an anchor tenant in the new administration. He would attend the 7:30 a.m. senior-staff meeting every day and offer insights on a broad array of domestic policies while launching programs that, in some fashion, used federal financial support to enhance the efforts of faith-based institutions.
Meanwhile, the White House’s political arm was asserting itself in the new Office of Strategic Initiatives, which Rove created. In this period before September 11, 2001, domestic affairs accounted for most of what the White House did every day. So John DiIulio and Karl Rove started to regularly encounter each other, forming one of the most interesting couples in the executive branch.
Each, after all, is among the most accomplished in his field. Rove, the consummate political strategist, having trained at the knee of the master, Lee Atwater, who guided Republicans, including George H. W. Bush, to electoral victory; and DiIulio, the public intellectual and academic heavyweight, the only one to join this administration. In almost every realm of public policy, there are always a few people who lead the intellectual parade, advancing the research and ideas that form the agenda for discussion in that field. It’s a ferocious meritocracy, played out in symposia and academic journals, on peer-review committees and editorial pages. Generally, administrations tap several of these leaders to join them. Republicans and Democrats both have their share. In economics, for instance, think Milton Friedman or Herbert Stein; they can sometimes be young up-and-comers, like Pat Moynihan in the Nixon administration. In the Clinton White House, they were numerous, including Robert Reich at Labor and Lawrence Summers, Clinton’s Treasury secretary and now the president of Harvard.
It’s clear, standing in this room with DiIulio, why such men can be so valuable to a president: In the White House, where political calculation is like respiration, they can make confident, fact-based assessments of which important ideas are worth executing. Ideas, ultimately, that a presidency will be remembered for.
The cocktail party is moving toward dinner. Doors are opened to a baronial chamber that cossets a stunning forty-foot-long table. Almost time for DiIulio’s speech. He doesn’t seem to notice. His wide back is to the door and he’s digging deep, trying as he will to make sense of his strange journey.
He says he loves Bush. He loves him as a man, as a friend. He loves his decency, his compassion, which, he says, is “not a ‘feel your pain’ thing like Clinton. With Bush it’s more grounded, more real.”
But mention of Clinton turns him inward, tapping repressed memory. He says he visited the White House five times during the Clinton presidency — Al Gore called upon DiIulio in the mid-1990s to assist with his reinventing-government initiative.
Clinton, DiIulio says, was a wonk-in-chief. “For all his flaws, he had that monster to feed. Bush is just too ‘normal,'” DiIulio says, curling his thick fingers into quotation marks around the word normal, this huge man with profound hungers. “Great guy. But he doesn’t have a beast to feed, that got-to-know-the-answer beast. It’s a problem being president at this time, without that, without that hunger.”
Then he pauses, and we’re both thinking the same thing. Karl. DiIulio smiles his cockeyed smile. “Yeah, he’s got a beast. One problem: He’s not the president.”
Two days later, I get a very long letter from John DiIulio.
It is a manifesto, really, the work of a scholar, reasoned and sober. It is designed to be constructive criticism of the White House that, in large measure, Karl Rove has created, and to give context to his remarks of a few weeks before. Early on, in its opening section, DiIulio, thinking like a historian, offers a stream of qualifiers. “I’m no ‘representative sample,’ as it were, but I do have some things that are maybe worth saying now on the record.”
In the letter, DiIulio is charitable toward his former colleague. “Some are inclined to blame the high political-to-policy ratios of this administration on Karl Rove,” DiIulio writes. “Some in the press view Karl as some sort of prince of darkness; actually, he is basically a nice and good-humored man. And some staff members, senior and junior, are awed and cowed by Karl’s real or perceived powers. They self-censor lots for fear of upsetting him, and in turn, few of the president’s top people routinely tell the president what they really think if they think that Karl will be brought up short in the bargain. Karl is enormously powerful, maybe the single most powerful person in the modern, post-Hoover era ever to occupy a political-adviser post near the Oval Office. The Republican base constituencies, including Beltway libertarian policy elites and religious-Right leaders, trust him to keep Bush 43 from behaving like Bush 41 and moving too far to the center or inching at all center-left. Their shared fiction, supported by zero empirical electoral studies, is that 41 lost in ’92 because he lost these right-wing fans. There are not ten House districts in America where either the libertarian litany or the right-wing-religious policy creed would draw majority popular approval, and most studies suggest Bush 43 could have done better versus Gore had he stayed more centrist, but, anyway, the fiction is enshrined as fact. Little happens on any issue without Karl’s okay, and often he supplies such policy substance as the administration puts out. Fortunately, he is not just a largely self-taught, hyperpolitical guy but also a very well informed guy when it comes to certain domestic issues.”
According to various sources close to Rove, he and DiIulio had a wary but respectful relationship. DiIulio, like any heavyweight with his own constituency, didn’t seem to fear Rove. Rove, who never graduated from college but has a deep love of academic inquiry, seemed to enjoy having DiIulio to fence with. Periodically, he would ask John to advance the administration’s political agenda, and John would do what almost no one does currently at the White House now that Karen Hughes has left: tell Karl to take a hike.
For instance, there was Karl’s desire to have John cozy up to the conservative evangelicals, with whom DiIulio was having problems. DiIulio recalls Karl telling him to bury the hatchet “and start fighting the guys who are against us.” DiIulio says he responded: “I’m not taking any shit off of Jerry Falwell. The souls of my dead Italian grandparents are crying out to me, ‘That guy’s not on the side of the angels.’ ” Rove backed off, DiIulio recalls, and said, “Look, those guys don’t really matter to this president.”
“Sure, Karl,” DiIulio responded. “They don’t matter, but they’re in here all the time.”
On his primary mission — push forward ideas and policies to partner government with faith-based institutions — DiIulio says that he saw the beginning of what was to become a pattern: The White House “winked at the most far-right House Republicans, who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill that (or so they thought) satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders and Beltway libertarians but bore few marks of compassionate conservatism and was, as anybody could tell, an absolute political nonstarter. It could pass the House only on a virtual party-line vote, and it could never pass the Senate, even before Jeffords switched.
“Not only that, but it reflected neither the president’s own previous rhetoric on the idea nor any of the actual empirical evidence. . . . I said so, wrote memos, and so on. . . . As one senior staff member chided me at a meeting at which many junior staff were present and all ears, ‘John, get a faith bill, any faith bill.’ Like college students who fall for the colorful, opinionated, but intellectually third-rate professor, you could see these twenty- and thirty-something junior White House staff falling for the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
DiIulio defines the Mayberry Machiavellis as political staff, Karl Rove and his people, “who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.”
“Remember ‘No child left behind’? That was a Bush campaign slogan. I believe it was his heart, too. But translating good impulses into good policy proposals requires more than whatever somebody thinks up in the eleventh hour before a speech is to be delivered.”
Weekly meetings of the Domestic Policy Council “were breathtaking,” DiIulio told me. As for the head of the DPC, Margaret La Montagne, a longtime friend of Karl Rove who guided education policy in Texas, DiIulio is blunt: “What she knows about domestic policy could fit in a thimble.”
When DiIulio would raise objections to killing programs — like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for the poorest Americans, hailed by policy analysts on both sides of the aisle, that contributed to the success of welfare reform — he found he was often arguing with libertarians who didn’t know the basic functions of major federal programs. As a senior White House adviser and admirer of DiIulio’s recently said to me, “You have to understand, this administration is further to the right than much of the public understands. The view of many people [in the White House] is that the best government can do is simply do no harm, that it never is an agent for positive change. If that’s your position, why bother to understand what programs actually do?”
It was encounters with the president — displays of his personal qualities — that time and again restored DiIulio’s commitment. From the way he “let detainees come home from China and did not jump all over them for media purposes” to a time, DiIulio writes, when he and Bush were in Philadelphia at a “three-hour block party on July 4, 2001, following hours among the children, youth, and families of prisoners . . . running late for the next event. He stopped, however, to take a picture with a couple of men who were cooking ribs all day. ‘C’mon,’ he said, ‘those guys have been doing hard work all day there.’ It’s my favorite and, in some ways, my most telling picture of who he is as a man and a leader who pays attention to the little things that convey respect and decency toward others.”
Five days later, on July 9, at the administration’s six-month senior-staff retreat, DiIulio writes that “an explicit discussion ensued concerning how to emulate more strongly the Clinton White House’s press, communications, and rapid-response media relations — how better to wage, if you will, the permanent campaign that so defines the modern presidency regardless of who or which party occupies the Oval Office. I listened and was amazed. It wasn’t more press, communications, media, legislative strategizing, and such that they needed. Maybe the Clinton people did that better, though surely they were less disciplined about it and leaked more to the media and so on. No, what they needed, I thought then and still do now, was more policy-relevant information, discussion, and deliberation.”
Part of the problem, DiIulio now understood, was that the paucity of serious policy discussion combined with a leakproof command-and-control operation was altering traditional laws of White House physics. That is: Know what’s political, know what’s policy. They are different. That distinction drives the structure of most administrations. The policy experts, on both domestic and foreign policy, order up “white papers” and hash out the most prudent use of executive power. Political advisers, who often deepen their knowledge by listening carefully as these deliberations unfold, are then called in to decide how, when, and with whom in support policies should be presented, enacted, and executed.
The dilemma presented by Karl Rove, DiIulio realized, was that in such a policy vacuum, his jack-of-all-trades appreciation of an enormous array of policy debates was being mistaken for genuine expertise. It takes a true policy wonk to recognize the difference, and, beyond the realm of foreign affairs, DiIulio was almost alone in the White House.
“When policy analysis is just backfill to support a political maneuver, you’ll get a lot of oops,” he says.
DiIulio points to the “remarkably slapdash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points-caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration’s problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP [Executive Office of the President] entity without budgetary or statutory authority can’t coordinate over a hundred separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right it feels the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.”
One has to consider the possibility that John DiIulio just wasn’t cut out for working at the White House. Government, after all, is not a graduate seminar. I need to get a reality-based assessment on what the professor himself is proffering. DiIulio’s last day running the faith-based initiative was February 1, 2002. He never intended to stay for long, he says, and the commute from Philadelphia was becoming onerous. And though he remains in regular touch with former colleagues, he is not there now — not in the building. I talk to several sources in the West Wing, and one of them agrees to meet me at a neutral site: a restaurant off Pennsylvania Avenue with a dark back room. It’s midafternoon. We order coffee. He is nervous about a face-to-face. “You know, this is risky, just being here.”
I tell him we’ll try to make this quick, and I describe DiIulio’s rendering of the White House, its conduct and character, and Rove’s enveloping role. Does this resemble reality, or is DiIulio mistaken or misguided?
He nods. “All of that is realistic, basically correct. It’s really been even worse since after 9/11. There has been no domestic policy, really. Not even a pretense of it.”
He pauses. “You know, if John had stayed, we might have actually had a domestic policy. He’s just that smart, that credible. The reason is that he’s rigorous, that he demands the data. He asks, What does the evidence indicate? What is the best path? He truly doesn’t care about politics, which is all anyone here seems to care about. He just digs in to actually see what policy would most benefit the most people.”
We talk for more than an hour. He’s an honored member of the political Right with a flawless conservative pedigree and pure faith in ideas emerging from that flank of the Republican party. But he is as pointed in his critique of the processes of this White House as the more moderate DiIulio. It’s clear from every word that this is not about politics or ideology. It’s not about who’s right or wrong. It’s about a kind of regret.
“Don’t you understand?” he says, his voice rising. “We got into the White House and forfeited the game. You’re supposed to stand for something . . . to generate sound ideas, support them with real evidence, and present them to Congress and the people. We didn’t do any of that. We just danced this way and that on minute political calculations and whatever was needed for a few paragraphs of a speech.”
He says that in mid-August, Jay Lefkowitz — a longtime policy manager who was hired in early 2002 to work as Margaret La Montagne’s deputy at the Domestic Policy Council — became part of an effort to create some forward motion. He and a small group of senior staffers started to meet each week or so to discuss domestic issues and long-term goals. “They’re attempting to at least generate some ideas. It’s a small sign of hope . . . but everything will have to go through Karl.”
We sit for a while and sip coffee, now cold. He says he’s not going to leave — he waited too long to get to the White House — but that increasingly he finds himself thinking in the past tense, of missed opportunities.
“Here’s what would have worked,” he says a bit later. “Swap DiIulio in for [deputy chief of staff for policy] Josh Bolten. Bolten’s a good guy, a smart guy, but DiIulio knows more about everything, every area of policy, than anyone. He would have helped us have the balance — the considerate, thoughtful approach to everything — that administrations are supposed to have.”
Shortly after this conversation came the midterm elections. Early the morning after, my White House sources were on the phone, offering the insider view.
“It’s unbelievable,” one of them says, awe coming across the phone line. “Could Karl be that smart? Could anyone?”
There’s just silence for a bit as he maps the frontiers of possibility.
“Maybe the last two years wasn’t just a case of benign neglect,” says this source, with whom I spoke extensively throughout October. “Maybe it was brilliant neglect.”
He went on to explain: From early on, Rove may have been focused on energizing the core, the far Right, for the midterms. An attempt to push centrist policies through a divided Congress would have done anything but that, and it would have violated the prime strategic directive: don’t alienate the right wing like the first President Bush. Karl’s remedy: co-opt the policy-creation process; put it in a lockbox until after genuine Republican control is established.
“Now the troops are ready to march,” the source says. “The question is, What will we do? Will we finally put together a thoughtful policy team to create a coherent plan for America’s future, or just push through one political favor after another dressed up like policy? I guess it’s really for Karl, Karl and the president, to decide.”
John DiIulio knows that because of what he’s done here, he will lose friends. The White House will personally attack him. Some longtime Republican colleagues will suddenly be too busy to return his calls. Others may spread rumors. Karl Rove, who would not comment for this story, might say that DiIulio’s manifesto is “duly noted.” Rove likes to say that after doling out a condemnation — that someone’s actions have been duly noted. It’s a very adult version, with teeth, of “This will be put on your permanent record.”
But DiIulio and an increasing number of people in the White House seem to have their eye on a somewhat different permanent record.
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