washington -- President Bush will finish his final 17 months in office without his political guru and alter ego, Karl Rove, who announced Monday that he would leave the administration at the end of the month.
Rove, who has worked on Bush’s political campaigns for 15 years, is the last Texan in the president’s inner circle to leave the White House -- and the president -- behind.
“It’s not been an easy decision,” an unusually emotional Rove said on the White House’s South Lawn with the president at his side. “It always seemed there was a better time to leave somewhere out there in the future. But now is the time.”
Rove’s departure deprives Bush of his shrewdest advisor when the president’s popularity is near its lowest ebb. The war in Iraq faces a crucial political test next month and his domestic agenda has largely shrunk to veto threats of bills passed by the Democratic-led Congress.
From Bush’s early days in politics to his lame-duck status, no member of his team has been more closely tied to his fortunes than Rove. Allies and opponents refer to him as “Bush’s Brain.” Bush called him the architect of his electoral victories.
“I would call Karl Rove a dear friend,” Bush said Monday. “We worked together so we could be in a position to serve this country.”
Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, said no other advisor has had as much influence, personal and professional, on a president as Rove.
Rove operated in political and policy realms, with simultaneous jobs as White House political director and deputy chief of staff for policy. Presidential scholars said he had perhaps the closest friendship any White House staffer has ever had with a president.
“He’s the most extraordinary presidential advisor in history,” said Buchanan, adding that Rove was careful to defer to the president in public. “They were equal and not equal.”
That balance was on display Monday as the president broke protocol and asked Rove to walk side-by-side with him and the first lady as they boarded Air Force One to fly to Texas. At the base of the gangway, however, Rove stopped to let the Bushes ascend ahead of him.
On Air Force One, Rove told reporters that he first raised the idea of leaving a year ago, but he also expressed his joy with his job and said he had always wanted to stay until the end of Bush’s presidency.
“Would I like to enjoy that right up until Jan. 20? You bet I would; 526 more days of that would be great,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be doing the right thing by my family, and it really is time for me to do this.”
Rove said he planned to return to his home in Ingram, Texas, near San Antonio, where his son attends college. He said he had “no plans,” but wanted to teach, “make some money” and write a book on Bush’s presidency, a project that he says the president encouraged.
He said he would not play a formal role in the current presidential campaign. “If I did, I would shortly thereafter die -- check the whereabouts of my wife, if I’m found dead,” he joked.
Among the victories credited to Rove are Bush’s two presidential campaigns. Rove’s strategy involved carefully targeting and mobilizing core voters in key districts, often with polarizing issues and rhetoric. Critics accuse him of promoting a divisive brand of politics that alienated voters and contributed to a fiercely partisan and dysfunctional climate in Congress.
Others blame Rove for Bush’s defeats, notably the failure in his second term to push through reforms in Social Security and the immigration system.
“Rove has lost a lot of his stature as a result of second-term mistakes. . . . It showed the emperor had no clothes, and Republicans started pulling away,” said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University, who has followed Bush’s political career.
Rove was also a central figure in two of the most high-profile investigations of the Bush era -- the politically charged firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys and the 2003 leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Democrats who consider Rove their political bete noir accused him, in part, of trying to duck allegations that he helped choreograph the firings of the federal prosecutors for failing to pursue voter fraud and public integrity cases that would have benefited the Republican Party.
“I continue to ask what Mr. Rove and others at the White House are so desperate to hide,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “There is a cloud over this White House and a gathering storm. A similar cloud envelopes Mr. Rove, even as he leaves the White House.”
On the advice of the White House, Rove this month did not appear before the judiciary committee, which is investigating the firings. Despite a subpoena, Rove asserted that any conversations or advice he had about the dismissals were protected by executive privilege.
Rove said the investigation played no role in his decision to leave.
“I’m realistic enough to understand that the subpoenas are going to keep flying my way,” he said. “I’m Moby Dick, and we’ve got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Captain Ahab -- so they’re going to keep coming.”
In the CIA leak case, Rove came close to being charged with illegally covering up his involvement. Former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted in March of perjury and obstruction of justice in the case. Libby’s lawyers said he believed the White House had conspired to have him take the fall to protect Rove. Bush later commuted Libby’s sentence.
Rove’s departure follows that of other longtime advisors whom Bush brought with him from Texas, including former counselor Dan Bartlett, who resigned this summer, and Karen Hughes, who left in his first term. White House officials acknowledged Monday that Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, suggested that aides who did not plan to serve until the end of the president’s term should leave this summer.
Despite Rove’s prominence and longevity, some observers say his departure may not unsettle the president as much as some may think.
“I think Bush is a very loyal person, and he liked to have people from his time as governor around him. But as much as the Bush administration hasn’t been going that well, I think he’s happy with Josh Bolten and he has changed things and reorganized,” Buchanan said.
Rove said the president still planned to push initiatives on energy, the budget and No Child Left Behind, his signature education achievement.
“I’ll be kibitzing from the outside -- he knows my phone number and I know his,” he said.
Rove first met Bush in 1973 when the elder George Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee. Rove, who was an eager RNC operative, met the younger Bush at Union Station in Washington when he arrived for Thanksgiving from Harvard University, where he was working on his MBA. Rove later recalled that he was immediately awed by the future president’s charisma.
The two built an enduring friendship and political partnership. During the elder Bush’s election campaign, they worked with political strategist Lee Atwater, known for his bare-knuckles style. Rove and the younger Bush carried that style through two elections for Texas governor and two presidential campaigns.
Among other things they shared was a jocular -- some might say juvenile -- sense of humor. Bush’s nicknames for Rove included “boy genius” and “turd blossom.”
The two also shared a dream of building an enduring Republican majority in Congress and across the country, a goal that appeared within reach after the 2004 election.
“Bush didn’t lose on anything in the first term. He won time after time,” said John Fortier, a presidential scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But that changed after the 2004 election when Bush decided to pursue Social Security and tax reform, Fortier said. “Rove overestimated how much political capital they had. Getting nothing out of that was a sign of that weakness.”
After Republicans lost Congress last year, Rove’s legacy has become a matter of debate: Did the excesses of GOP control of Congress lead to the loss? Or was Rove’s highly partisan brand of politics unsustainable, especially with the country unnerved by the war in Iraq?
On Monday, Rove acknowledged that he “got the math wrong” in the 2006 election and said it was a temporary setback. He added that the country was “so closely divided that the outcomes in 2008, 2010 and 2012 are going to have big impacts on the future.”
Political observers doubt Rove will stay out of politics, particularly the next presidential election. But they believe his biggest role is behind him.
“He is particularly connected” to George W. Bush, Fortier said. “He will never be connected to another candidate the same way.”
Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.