Not to be “ungenerous or self-centered,” said White House Counselor Ed Gillespie, but he thinks some people overestimate Karl Rove’s importance. After all, Gillespie pointed out, during the 2004 presidential campaign he headed the Republican National Committee, the heart of the party’s operations. And he talked to Rove only “from time to time”
Another White House official, asked what it would mean to lose the legendary strategist, whose departure was announced Monday, recalled that Rove had started the staff’s “ice-cream Fridays.”
As one of the most powerful and controversial presidential advisors in modern history heads out the door, the White House is engaged in an unusual game of double spin: While President Bush bear-hugged Rove and showered him with praise in a South Lawn ceremony, officials like Gillespie quietly began to whittle down Rove’s image as the man who played a key role in almost every major decision of the Bush era.
If all that sounds contradictory, it’s just politics:
Praising such a prominent member of the administration as he prepares to leave office at the end of the month is almost obligatory, especially since Rove remains an admired figure and longtime friend to many in the GOP’s conservative base. At the same time, downplaying Rove puts some distance between Bush and a man who, for all his service to president and party, has become a lightning rod for Democratic attacks.
Reducing Rove’s stature as he leaves could help the administration in the same way that Donald H. Rumsfeld’s departure as Defense secretary last year temporarily eased pressure on the president’s Iraq war policy.
White House aides deny they are engaging in spin. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said she was just trying to humanize Rove when she told a Fox News interviewer about his creation of the ice-cream tradition. And she said any attempt to downplay Rove’s role was only meant to counteract misimpressions fostered by the news media and Rove’s critics.
“There’s probably a tendency on our part to explain that this has been a team effort, and he has been an integral part of the team,” she said Tuesday.
Yet Rove has been more than just another member of the White House team.
A posse of Democratic congressional investigators has been pushing hard for evidence that Rove went too far in politicizing the federal government, including the possibility that he improperly injected politics into the decision to fire several U.S. attorneys. The administration’s own Office of Special Counsel also is investigating Rove’s activities.
Though those inquiries are scheduled to go forward, they may lose some of their steam with Rove’s departure from government. And the smaller Rove’s overall role in the administration and Republican affairs is made to appear, the less important any inquiry into his past activities is likely to become.
“If the person you’ve been focusing on now leaves and goes to Texas, what do you do? That’s the question facing Democrats at this point,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster who has advised Capitol Hill Republicans.
Even Rove has joined in the game. On Monday, the day his resignation was formally announced, he ridiculed journalists who dubbed him “Bush’s brain” and said they built him up to “diminish” the president’s abilities. But in the same discussion with reporters aboard Air Force One, Rove boasted that his office was just 15 steps away from the Oval Office.
And in discussing the multifaceted struggle between the Democratic Congress and the Bush White House, Rove said, he is Moby Dick -- the mythic white whale at the center of Herman Melville’s epic novel -- “and we’ve got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Capt. Ahab.”
Though he praised Bush and his leadership lavishly in other parts of the conversation with reporters, when Rove described Democrats as would-be captains of the whaling ship and himself as their quarry, there was no major role for Bush.
The same effort to acknowledge Rove’s impact while also downplaying it was evident in other senior officials’ comments. They acknowledged his strengths as a political strategist while insisting he was eminently replaceable and not the dominant presence often portrayed.
Andrew H. Card Jr., former White House chief of staff, said in separate television appearances that the Rove “myth” often overshadowed the reality.
And Perino said: “If he actually did all the things he was accused of doing, he’d be 20 people and never sleep, maybe 200 people.”
Yet Rove has long been viewed as far more than a typical presidential aide -- a rare combination of political strategist, presidential confidant, policymaker and chief contact for conservative activists nationwide. Bush has described him as “the architect,” and Rove has proven a major draw for Republican candidates on the fundraising and campaign circuit.
“He controlled a great deal of the real estate and no matter how the White House spins his departure, the truth is that he leaves a gaping hole inside the White House,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who has forged a friendship with Rove despite years of com-bat.
As Rove engineered razor-thin election wins in 2000 and 2004, Democrats grew to despise his bare-knuckled ways. And his high public profile encouraged them to portray him as a symbol of the whole administration. That’s a principle reason that several congressional committees have been focusing on him: Raking lesser officials over the coals was one thing, bagging Rove was another.
White House officials expect the brawling with congressional Democrats to continue into the fall and beyond. But with Rove’s departure, after the other key aides who have left Bush’s side in recent months, they hope to push some of the issues into the category of ancient history and portray the administration as making a fresh start.
Replacing Rove, Perino said, is “both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Even conservative activist Grover Norquist, a close Rove ally, said it would be unwise for White House officials to put too much focus on Rove’s importance.
Comparing Rove’s departure to “losing your left arm,” he said, is like saying Bush and the aides who remain would be unable to fend for themselves.
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.