Sunday, November 06, 2005
Can We Go Home Now?
Wherever Bush travels, questions about Rove follow.By Howard Fineman
Nov. 14, 2005 issue - A homebody by nature, and often unsteady in unscripted public situations, George W. Bush is no fan of high-profile presidential travel. Especially now. With job-approval ratings south of 40 percent—the lowest of his presidency—he risks hearing hecklers, even at his rigorously screened speeches. Foreign trips are even more problematic. At a summit in an Argentine resort, Bush's presence set off protest marches and even riots by anti-free-trade demonstrators last week. Travel offers no escape from the Washington scandal news. When he landed in Mar del Plata, the local TV put up a split-screen of Air Force One—and I. Lewis Libby hobbling into court to plead not guilty in the Valerie Plame leak case. CIA ESCANDALO read the headline. Briefly facing American reporters, Bush fielded only five questions. But four were on a single issue: the fate of Karl Rove, his top White House aide, who has been named—but not indicted—in the federal leak probe. Bush gave lawyerlike answers. "The investigation on Karl, as you know, is not complete," he said, "and, therefore, I will not comment about him and/or the investigation."
Beyond the Beltway, voters fret about tangible matters: the war in Iraq, the direction of the economy, the price of a tank of gasoline or heating oil. In the capital, however, the obsession is the Karl Question. If Bush is to rebuild his battered presidency, it is hard to see him doing it without the man he calls "Boy Genius." But even if Rove is never indicted, he has some explaining to do. White House aides predict that Rove will talk when the probe is completed. "There's no one more willing to do that than Karl," said one aide who requested anonymity because Rove is still in power.
Willing or not, Rove will have a big audience. At the very least, Rove misled White House officials and the public by allowing a Bush spokesman to say Rove had not been involved in discussions about Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's WMD rationale for the war in Iraq, and the fact that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Those assertions are now inoperative, as they used to say in the Watergate days. Press Secretary Scott McClellan has hinted that he was not told the full story. What Rove (or Libby, for that matter) said to the president about their involvement—if anything—remains a mystery. But, on Bush's behalf, McClellan in 2003 said that any staffer found to have been "involved" in the leak would be booted. In Rove's case, is that statement inoperative, too?
Students of the Bush-Rove team sifted tea leaves as a city full of Republicans offered tidbits, speaking on background because of the sensitive situation. Rove went about his business, calling senators to lobby on the budget, conducting meetings on immigration policy, sketching out the long-term strategy for what aides hope will be a political revival meeting in January—the State of the Union Message. Administration aides insist that there have been no discussions on Rove's departure. Fellow Republican strategists marveled at what one called Rove's "survivability." "Mere mortals would be affected," said a senior White House aide, "but Karl isn't mortal."
Perhaps, but the Boy Genius was keeping a low profile. Normally a fixture on international trips, he hasn't been on one lately. He canceled several appearances on the campaign trail, and was a no-show at a recent D.C. fund-raiser. Most Republicans held their fire in public, but not all. It was payback time for Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose ouster as majority leader Rove had helped engineer. Lott openly questioned whether Rove should remain on the job. Rep. Tom Davis, known as something of a maverick, fretted about the effect of scandals on Republican chances in the 2006 elections. And Bush himself kept a smidgen of distance. As recently as July, he insisted that "Karl has got my complete confidence." But that was before Fitzgerald handed up an indictment—and before Rove tells the world his side of the story.
With Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe