News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Leak investigation tests Bush, Rove relationship

By Ron Hutcheson / Knight Ridder

WASHINGTON - They've been an unlikely pair since the day they met - the nerdish bookworm and the cocky backslapper - but Karl Rove and George W. Bush have been partners and political allies for more than 30 years.

Now their friendship is being tested by Rove's involvement in the unauthorized outing of an undercover CIA officer. Depending on the outcome of a grand jury investigation, the president soon could face a painful choice between protecting his trusted aide or forcing his resignation to limit political damage.

"It's going to be an interesting test of his loyalty if this goes any further. It's like something out of Shakespeare," said Bill Minutaglio, a Bush biographer and a veteran Texas journalist. "At the end of the day, he's got to know that Rove in many ways delivered him to the White House."

Rove hasn't been accused of any crime, and prosecutors haven't named him as a target. Even so, it's clear that he wasn't completely forthcoming when he said he had nothing to do with news reports in July 2003 that identified CIA officer Valerie Plame.

Plame's cover was blown about a week after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for war with Iraq. Wilson contends that Bush loyalists outed his wife in retaliation for his criticism.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper has told a federal grand jury that Rove told him Wilson's wife worked for the CIA without mentioning her name. Deliberately exposing a covert officer can be a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Bush, who once said he'd fire anyone involved in the leak, is standing by Rove. The president and his aides have consistently rebuffed questions about the case, citing the ongoing investigation. Rove declined interview requests.

Insiders say descriptions of Rove as "Bush's brain" or the wizard behind the curtain overstate his role, but there's no doubt that he wields enormous influence on the president's politics and his policies.

"Bush is in pretty deep with Karl," said Doug Wead, a longtime associate of the Bush family. "There's something beyond like-and-dislike there. This is a symbiotic relationship."

They met just before Thanksgiving in 1973, when Rove worked for Bush's father at the Republican National Committee. The elder Bush asked Rove to deliver car keys to his son, who was arriving in Washington by train during a break from Harvard Business School.

Bush was 27, just five years older than Rove, but the young political operative saw something special in the brash bachelor who showed up in jeans, cowboy boots and a leather bomber jacket. Rove once joked that he began thinking about Bush's presidential candidacy on "December 25th 1950" - Rove's birth date.

He was exaggerating, of course, but they started their climb to the White House within five years of meeting. Their first campaign, Bush's run for a West Texas congressional seat in 1978, ended in defeat after Bush's Democratic opponent cast him as an Ivy League outsider.

In the Republican primary, Bush had to fend off a more conservative candidate who accused him of relying on "Rockefeller-type Republicans such as Karl Rove" for advice. A local newspaper quoted Bush claiming that Rove "has had nothing to do with my campaign," a denial at odds with Rove's acknowledgment years later that he was an unpaid adviser.

By the late 1980s, Rove was quietly promoting Bush as a possible candidate for Texas governor. By 1993, he was mapping out the campaign that won Bush the keys to the governor's mansion a year later, his first stop on the way to the White House.

"Karl saw the potential in Bush," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who's also relied on Rove's advice throughout his political career. "He's the kind of person that always thinks two or three or four or even a dozen chess moves down the road."

Along the way, Rove piled up enemies and allegations of dirty tricks. As a young Republican activist in Chicago in 1970, he distributed phony invitations promising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time" if the recipients went to a local Democratic campaign headquarters.

A few years later, the Republican National Committee launched an internal investigation into other allegations of dirty tricks by the College Republicans, a group Rove headed. Rove was cleared of wrongdoing, and the elder Bush gave him a job at the party's national headquarters.

Later, as a consultant in the hardball world of Texas politics, Rove played a particularly rough version of the game. It's no surprise that Democrats detest him, but so do some Republicans.

"People are scared of Karl," said Tom Pauken, who ran afoul of Bush and Rove when he headed the Texas Republican Party. "If you oppose Karl on anything, you're on the enemies list. You become the enemy even if you're not really one."

Pauken said he wasn't at all surprised to see Rove linked to the CIA case.

"Karl's been doing this for years. He uses reporters to plant negative information, to attack the credibility of real or perceived foes," he said. "It's just the usual Karl Rove scorched-earth policy."

In 1992, Rove was fired from the elder Bush's presidential re-election campaign because of suspicions that he leaked a story disparaging a fellow Republican to columnist Robert Novak, another journalist at the center of the CIA case. It was Novak who first exposed Wilson's wife, although it isn't clear where he got the information about her CIA connection.

Rove and Novak denied at the time that Rove had any role in the 1992 leak. Novak has declined to discuss the current case.

Admirers said Rove's approach to politics reflected his devotion to Bush.

"Karl loves the president," Cornyn said. "It offends him greatly to see someone who doesn't share that same zeal."

Although Bush calls Rove a friend, they don't relate to each other as equals. The president's nickname for Rove, "Turd Blossom," underscores the aide's subservient role.

"Karl is as deferential to the president as anybody," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's media consultant.

Wead, who fell out of favor with the White House earlier this year by releasing tapes of his telephone conversations with Bush, said he doubted that the president would ever have to ask for Rove's resignation.

"Bush would just nod or wink or not return a phone call within the normal time, and that would be the signal," Wead said. "And Rove would know it."


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