Karl Rove loves a three-cushion shot. As the President's chief political brain, the Texan, 51, delights in crafting a message or staging a presidential visit that doesn't just score a political point but also plays to several constituencies at once. So when it was reported in the New York Times that Rove might have steered an Enron contract to Ralph Reed, a G.O.P. kingmaker whose support Rove needed, the political elite in Washington, which includes some longtime enemies, thought that just might be his kind of pool.
All the key players involved denied any funny business, but that didn't stop the chatter. It doesn't take much to get people talking about Rove. He is the architect of Bush's two gubernatorial victories in Texas as well as his presidential race. He has also been the President's tutor, feeding him histories and biographies to read. Inside the White House he is at the center of every political and domestic policy decision. He helps determine where the President spends his political capital, and in an election year when both houses of Congress are up for grabs, he is watching over hundreds of races.
Last year Rove was criticized for meeting with officials from several companies in which he owned a substantial amount of stock. Rove dumped the stocks, but there was no way his financial portfolio didn't conflict with his political one, said critics, including at least one Democratic Congressman who has called for an investigation. Those holdings included $100,000 to $250,000 of Enron shares, which already had Democrats contemplating a look into Rove's relationship with the company. Though he has never worked for Enron and the shares he owned were bought out of his own pocket, last week's disclosure that Rove recommended Reed, who was hired by the company, may move congressional Democrats to summon him for testimony.
That would be a rare spectacle for everyone in Washington who spends time charting and discussing Rove's moves. The top political adviser to every President takes on celebrity status around town, and like those who have come before him, Rove doesn't mind encouraging the perception that he has a hand in just about every political deal that goes down. As a result, people assume that every story they hear about him is true--which is why some insiders don't believe him when he insists he didn't pull strings with Enron to help curry favor with Reed.
But some of his denials are worth believing. At the end of the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, the owlish Rove was suspected as the mastermind behind a scheme involving a stolen videotape of George W. Bush's debate preparations. Many were convinced that Rove had mailed the tape to the Gore campaign, hoping strategists there would secretly watch it. Then at just the right moment, Rove would leap out and expose them as sneaks willing to do anything to get ahead. Some in the press even published the whole yarn as if it were known to be true. But it was just hooey. A low-level former Democrat in a campaign consultant's office was prosecuted and jailed for sending the tape. Rove wasn't involved at all. It was a bum rap, but Rove probably doesn't mind. Those kinds of suspicions are the price he pays for being the President's playmaker.
--By John F. Dickerson