Last week, when Karl Christian Rove, born on Christmas in 1950, announced that he was ending his White House life, pundits eager to punch back had the best of all possible worlds. They could write the summing-up lines characteristic of an obituary, but without the constraints of courtesy to the deceased. The New York Times was typical in referring to Rove's "infamously bare-knuckled political tactics."
Perhaps because I saw him rarely and depended on him for neither a job nor an election victory, my own impression was different.
He seemed to me like a boy on Christmas morning, surprised and delighted to receive a pocket knife that really cuts. Ten days after the 2001 inaugural, Rove showed me his new office in the White House, jubilantly reporting that it had been Hillary Clinton's, and pointed out "her secret mirror" on one of the walls. It was a cool moment for a man who in high school in Utah "was the complete nerd. I had the briefcase. I had the pocket protector. I wore Hush Puppies when they were not cool. I was the thin, scrawny little guy. I was definitely uncool."
George W. Bush nicknamed Rove "The Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom," Texan for a flower that grows from a pile of cow dung. Both monikers were spot-on: Rove engineered all four Bush political victories and foraged for ideas amid academic wastelands (my first meeting with Bush was in the office of Rove, who had read a book I had written). Rove had the advantage and disadvantage of sitting at the right hand of the recent political god most often deemed dumb by reporters. They saw Rove as either archangel or demon. ("Bush's brain," one book title put it.)
It's hard for me to see him as either. Rove has had an extraordinary knowledge of voting patterns and a respect for the Christian understanding that animates the best of American culture. He has never been much of a decentralizer, though: He enjoyed so much the use of power that he didn't want to give any away. That led him to see compassionate conservatism not as a way to restructure Washington but as a nice thing that could win votes. He reimagined politics but not governance, and for that reason was unable to build the long-term, neo-McKinley GOP coalition that was his dream.