He says President Bush makes the White House “a wonderful place to work.” He plans to “kibitz” with Bush on policy issues from “the outside.” He wants to write a book, but he has not kept a diary. He compares the congressional investigations and a subpoena issued to him to Captain Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick. His resume includes working at a twice-robbed convenience store. “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove, spilled out these and many other thoughts in a “roundtable” with reporters aboard Air Force One, en route to Waco, Tex., on Monday. The following is the official White House transcript of the 37-minute interview:
Q Some people have said — some of the political analysts have already said that this spells the end of — marks the end of President Bush’s political life. What do you think?
MR. ROVE: Absolutely not. Why would it? He’s the President of the United States.
Q Because —
MR. ROVE: Well, but look, every President plays a — even if they’re not running again, plays a big role in shaping the nature of the debate, the policy debate, which in turn has a big impact on politics. And you can bet, being as competitive as he is, that he’s going to use every lever he’s got command over, every power that he controls to continue to drive the policy debate right up to noon on January 20, 2009.
Q Karl, were you considering staying longer, to kind of bring home the ’08 elections a little? Maybe help from the White House to pave the ground, while the other candidates are duking it out?
MR. ROVE: No, we just — we started talking about this over a year ago and we just — we mutually reinforced bad behavior by constantly finding excuses that we could postpone the discussion. But now is the right time to do it. It gives — if Josh has thought through, and is thinking through — I think he’s thought through, if the truth be known, about how he wants to handle this, and this gives him enough time to both put responsibilities into some people’s hands and recruit people to step in to do other responsibility.
Q Do you have — in your last conversation with the President about this, can you tell us when that was and was he understanding, or was he asking you to stay at that point still?
MR. ROVE: You know, we’ve been talking about this for a year. I can’t tell you what time this spring, or late this winter where we sort of finally agreed. But constantly it was, like, we’d say, okay, both of us recognize that it’s time. And then we’d say, well, let’s talk about this again after the State of the Union, or let’s talk about it after the surge. But this was just the best logical point to do it, after Congress went out and before the fall.
Q Did he ever ask you to reconsider, stay on until the end of the term?
MR. ROVE: You know, here’s the deal, I mean, we talked about it. When you’ve got a good friend and you talk through it — look, both of us would have liked to have been in a place where we both could have walked out, where I could have followed him out the door on the 20th. But I’ve got a family, and I’ve asked my family to go through a lot and to sacrifice a lot. And this all actually started with things in our family, talking about what the future would hold for us. And as time went on it became clear that it was time for us to think about the next chapter.
Look, I love my job. I have fun. It is a joy to walk in the door. I have the most incredible colleagues in the world. And I know it sounds corny, but it’s inspiring to walk into the Oval Office, the tone he sets, you know, the good nature he has, the focus, the vision — it’s inspiring. And I deliberately used that word today because he just — he makes it a wonderful place to work. And my colleagues make it a magical place to work. And you have such a sense of satisfaction of serving the country and doing important work in combination with some really extraordinary people. And would I like to enjoy that right up until January 20? You bet I would; 526 more days of that would be great. But I wouldn’t be doing the right thing by my family, and it really is time for me to do this.
Q When was the first time that you broached the subject with him?
MR. ROVE: Late spring/early summer of last year.
Q Where —
MR. ROVE: It was in the Oval and it was just one day, and I said, you know, I’m beginning to think I need to think about is there a time before January 2009, that we need to depart.
Q — after-thought, or did you go in there to talk about it?
MR. ROVE: Look, it was at the end of a day and we didn’t have much else to talk about. He had a little bit of time on his hands and it just seemed like a good moment.
Q Do you feel like any unfinished business as you leave, particular issue or —
MR. ROVE: I mean, you know, look, that’s it — I mean, the President is an activist President. We face a big set of votes and discussions and debates this fall on Iraq, on the budget — which is not just about spending. Imbedded in each one of those appropriation bills are serious policy questions. We have initiatives on energy, on education, on No Child Left Behind, which is coming through, on health care. There will be a State of the Union next year, which will also help shape next year, as well.
So, look, there’s a robust set of issues that we’re dealing with. And, again, I’d love to be around for them. In a way, I’ll be kibitzing from the outside — he knows my phone number and I know his. But, no, there’s a lot of unfinished business ahead and we’re in the midst of some very important things.
And we’re winning some of these battles. The Competitive Initiative, which he laid out in the State of the Union, I believe last year, has just now been signed into law. We have No Child Left Behind, which we can either do by law or regulation — we want to do it by law. The energy, 20-in-10, which we can do both by legislation and regulation, some of it embodied in various legislative proposals on the Hill.
Look, the President did not come to occupy this office. He came to fulfill his responsibilities to press the agenda every single day he’s in office.
Q How frequently do you think you’ll stay in touch with him in the coming —
Q With you departing and with Bartlett gone, who’s going to fill that role of providing counsel to the President?
MR. ROVE: Look, the great thing is the President creates an environment in which people feel very confident. It depends on how quickly they get acclimated, but they tend to get acclimated quickly; where they understand speaking plainly and candidly about what you think is what he expects and what he rewards.
I’ve seen it. And you talk to people today inside the White House that served in previous administrations — not to disparage previous administrations — but the collegiality that they talk about is remarkable. And what’s amazing to me is the collegiality takes place in an environment in which people can have deep and serious disagreements about things — you know, try and litigate it through to a point where they come to an agreement, and if not, carry them into the Oval Office, and at the end of it, feel that the process — that they were heard and that they were well-served and that the country has been well-served by the decision that was made.
The President is really — look, he is focused on setting the tone. He understands how vital it is that a President gets unvarnished advice. He understands more than a lot of people how powerful that office is in discouraging people. You know, members of Congress — my office was 15 steps from the door to the Oval Office —
Q Did you count them?
MR. ROVE: Somebody did. (Laughter.) I think they must have been very long steps.
Members of Congress would be sitting there in my office and they’ll say, “I need to tell the President X” — and they’ll walk into that Oval and say, “Hey, you’re looking pretty today.” But he’s very good at — particularly with staff — teasing out what it is that they want to say and get people to say it.
Now, sometimes, to me the amazing thing is sitting there in the Oval, those two couches are as close as Jim and are to each other, and there will be a member of the Cabinet advocating one position, and there will be the junior G-man from some other Cabinet department or someplace in the bowels of the administration taking the other side. And that’s pretty remarkable to be able to create that kind of atmosphere.
Q So are you replaceable then?
MR. ROVE: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Q Is anyone else on the White House staff replaceable?
MR. ROVE: Everybody is. Except two.
Q Karl, are you going to go to any other campaigns, or even in an informal role? Or are you out?
MR. ROVE: I don’t intend to take a formal role. I’ve got friends in all the campaigns. I do want to see this President succeeded by a Republican. I’ll be happy to, if asked my opinion, I’m an opinionated person. But I don’t anticipate taking any formal role in any campaign, and if I did I would shortly thereafter die — check the whereabouts of my wife if I’m found dead. (Laughter.)
Q Karl, can I ask you, I know you mentioned your family as being a big issue here. There’s obviously been pressure that’s come to bear on you — the investigations and subpoenas and the like. Has that affected your family? Has that in any way figuring in on your decision to leave?
MR. ROVE: It’s not figured in my decision, no. I think they are only vaguely aware of the subpoenas. They obviously were more than vaguely aware of the investigation. And look, I’m realistic enough to understand that the subpoenas are going to keep flying my way. I’m Moby Dick and we’ve got three or four members of Congress who are trying to cast themselves in the part of Captain Ahab — so they’re going to keep coming.
But anybody who suggests the investigations had something to do with getting me out is sort of putting Congress in the position of being the rooster that believes that by crowing loudly brings the sun to come up.
Q But are you protected now, in terms of legality? I mean, because of executive privilege? How does that work now?
MR. ROVE: After I leave the White House the things that I’ve — the advice that I’ve given the President, my role within the White House remains protected; I do not lose privilege by leaving the White House — just as former Presidents don’t lose the privilege when they leave the White House. You remember that there have been instances where the current President, on behalf of President Clinton, has asserted privilege.
Q So what are you going to do? I mean, you know campaigns, you know the game. What’s on the agenda?
MR. ROVE: I have no idea. I’d like to teach eventually, but in the meantime I need to make some money. I have an employment record that I think would be attractive to any employer: I’ve worked in an industrial kitchen in a hospital; I’ve waited tables; I’ve worked in convenience stores and have been robbed at the point of a gun twice; I’ve pumped gas; I’ve babysat; I’ve cut lawns; I’ve delivered newspapers.
Q — really going to do?
MR. ROVE: I have no idea.
Q You have no idea?
Q Are you talking to any universities?
Q There’s no deal that’s in the works, at all?
MR. ROVE: No. The President has encouraged me to write a book. I will do a book.
Q But you’ve not made any — there’s no deal going, right, that you’re going to be announcing soon?
MR. ROVE: Other than I’ve done what everybody does, and that is talk to Bob Barnett. (Laughter.)
Q A book about — you have talked to Barnett, by the way?
MR. ROVE: Yes.
Q A book about your experiences? A book about modern campaigning? A book about the historical —
MR. ROVE: It’s going to be about the most important and interesting thing that the American people want to know, which is my relationship with you. With you. (Laughter.)
Q What’s it going to be? What are the —
MR. ROVE: I don’t know.
Q Is it going to be about political theory, running campaigns? Or is it going to be more like your experiences in —
MR. ROVE: I think it’s going to — I’m a student of history, so I’d rather talk about the history of this President and get in there, stay in there and be in there.
Q Not a thriller? (Laughter.)
MR. ROVE: We know the outcome of the true critical moments. (Laughter.)
Q Any titles?
MR. ROVE: Come on, please!
Q Have you kept a diary throughout this time to help you?
MR. ROVE: No.
Q So you’re going to be doing this on your prodigious memory?
MR. ROVE: That’s your characterization of it, but I appreciate the kind word that you had for me.
Q Do you have your own characterization of any effect you’ve had on the modern election campaign and electioneering?
MR. ROVE: I think there’s the mistaken impression, and then there’s the reality. The mistaken impression — in fact, I talked with a colleague of yours not too long ago about this, the idea that this is all about playing to the base; that supposedly the success of the two campaigns have been that the President played to the base of the Republican Party. Completely inaccurate.
I hope that this idea holds currency in the high councils of the Democratic Party, because it absolutely misses the story of 2000 and 2004, let alone the President’s time in office. The base is something that’s by its very nature a small part of a greater thing.
Q So what’s your advice to the Republican front-runner coming up?
MR. ROVE: Well, I don’t have advice — my advice is for the Republicans, which I think, frankly, has become ingrained in the DNA of the Republican Party, which is that in order to win, the Republican Party needs to mobilize a vast army of volunteers to expand the electorate by emphasizing an agenda that is prospective in nature, that looks to the future and says, this is what we intend to do for America, and is bold and clear, but is focused on saying to people, we know you’re not enthusiastic about politics, but if you love your country, if you care about the future, here’s a message that hopefully will attract you to coming out and registering and voting.
That’s why President Bush in 2004 got 25 percent more votes than he got in 2000 and became the first presidential candidate since 1988 to get a majority of the popular vote. He won 81 percent of the counties in America; he increased his share of the vote in 87 percent of the counties in America. He got a record or historic number numbers among Latinos, Jews, Catholics, women — erased the gender gap. And it was because — not because he played to the base but because he played with a broad and bold message that was able to attract — think about it, one-quarter more people voted for him in 2004 than voted for him in 2000, and he did that in the midst of an unpopular war, with a united Democrat Party, and being outspent by $148 million, which is, if you add up what the DNC, the Democratic 527s who carried Edwards raised and spent, compared to Republican 527s, RNC and Bush-Cheney, we were outspent by $148 million.
Q What accounts for his unpopularity right now?
MR. ROVE: We’re in the midst of an unpopular war, and he’s been hammered by the Democrats. But I would point out to you, the Democrat Congress is less popular than the President, and they got there a heck of a lot quicker.
As the war in Iraq — as it’s clear to the American people that the surge is working, the President’s popularity will rise.
Q Karl, your legacy, in terms of the Latino vote, you raised the percentages from 2000, 2004. Are you worried about that legacy for the party that you built in the current climate, and do you have a message for your fellow Republicans on immigration?
MR. ROVE: I am worried about it, and you cannot ignore the aspirations of the fastest-growing minority in America. We did that once before, and that’s why we were able to increase our vote among African Americans by 40 percent between 2000 and 2004, going from an incredibly anemic 9 percent to a virtually anemic 13 percent. And we better not put ourselves in the place with a vital part of the electorate that fundamentally shares our values and views.
Q What do you think of this misconception there is about you among the American public?
MR. ROVE: I’m not good at answering that, because I don’t — I really don’t naval-gaze, and I really –
Q You don’t what?
MR. ROVE: I don’t naval-gaze.
Q Do you think the public has a misconception of you?
MR. ROVE: I’m not certain I understand what’s — other than that I’m the evil genius, yes.
Q “Bush’s Brain.”
MR. ROVE: Well, that is — that’s not me. That’s an attack on the President. That is the critics of the President trying to be cute. This guy is a Yale undergraduate and history major, a Harvard MBA, and one of the best-read, most thoughtful people I know. Now, I know he likes to play sort of the Midland/West Texas — but he is smart. And the “Bush’s Brain” was, interestingly enough, a construct of two journalists as a way to diminish him by suggesting that he wasn’t capable of developing his philosophy or his approach or his ability to win elections; somebody had to do it for him, which is incredibly demeaning and really stupid. And I don’t mind saying that the two guys that coined it are stupid in their characterization.
Q Who’s winning your book-reading contest?
MR. ROVE: I am crushing him this year, second year in a row. He keeps using this pathetic excuse that he’s got the free world to run and that he’s leader of the free world, but I mean, that’s cheesy, I think.
Q There was a perception in the political world that you wanted to stay on, to maybe get the House back, and that that would kind of put the White House on a better footing if it’s a Republican. Is there any truth to that? Were you tempted at all to –
MR. ROVE: Look, I’m a competitive guy. I’m tempted to stick around when somebody sends a subpoena my way. I’m tempted to stick around for the next fight. I’m tempted to stay around for the battle over the budget. I’m tempted to stick around to see if we can get a standard health care insurance deduction through. I’m a competitive person.
But really —
Q So she said, “I’m going to leave you if you stay”?
MR. ROVE: No. But she did say, isn’t it time — do we really have to wait until January 2009 to begin — let me say this off the record, I mean, really say this off the record.
[Rove goes off the record.]
MS. PERINO: Let’s go back on the record.
Q Is there an empty-nest factor?
MR. ROVE: We want to be — we want to be back in Texas, closer to our family.
Q Who do you see winning the Democratic nomination, and what advice do you have for that individual?
MR. ROVE: I have no advice for that individual.
[Rove goes off the record again.]
MS. DANA PERINO: Back on the record.
MR. ROVE: I think any rational observer would have to say that Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.
Q And you’d include yourself as a rational observer on this particular —
MS. PERINO: Let’s do one each, and then we’ll finish.
Q Any few accomplishments that you single out as some of the ones you’re most proud of?
MR. ROVE: I’ll think about that in September. This morning, though, at the senior staff meeting, I was very candid with my colleagues. I said that the true story was that I was resigning in protest over our failure to establish equidistance as the principle in the germination of seaward lateral boundaries in the latest version of the act overseeing offshore drilling. I am the leading expert within the administration on this. This actually goes back to Grotius, who was born in 1598, and he wrote this in one of his earliest works. You’re all familiar, of course, with Hugo Grotius?
Q Do you like his position on international law? Because that surprises me, because he’s kind of pro-international law, and I don’t see that coming from your administration.
MR. ROVE: He was concerned about maritime international law and that’s where the principle of equidistance comes out in the determination of seaward lateral boundaries between nation states. (Laughter.)
Q Don’t encourage him.
MR. ROVE: And it has been upheld in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions and two treaties which the United States signed in 1958 and in 1952.
MS. PERINO: Ben, your question.
MR. ROVE: George v. Florida and Louisiana v. Texas, if you wanted to check it out.
Q By February we’re going to know pretty much the Republican — by next August we’ll know the Republican nominee. Are you ruling out that you’ll be working as an official adviser?
MR. ROVE: I won’t fill an official role, formal role in any campaign.
Q Is a Republican majority still within the sites of — a permanent Republican majority?
MR. ROVE: Permanent? Nothing in politics is permanent. Things tend to be durable. And do I think? Yes. Look, between 1896 and 1932, there were Democrat Congresses and eight years of a Democrat President. You know, the Democrat domination between 1952 and 1994, Democrat control of the U.S. House of Representatives, there were Republican Senates and Republican Presidents. In fact, during the period of Democrat dominance from 1932 until you pick the ending date of the New Deal, you have Dwight Eisenhower and probably Richard Nixon to account for in the middle of that, if you count the New Deal is largely dissipating by 1980. I think frankly the New Deal coalition lasted until the ’90s; I think we’re seeing the breakup of the New Deal coalition in the attempt by both parties to form a new coalition in the aftermath of it.
Q But will yours be lasting — do you still see 2006 as a temporary setback?
MR. ROVE: I do. But, look, I’m also realistic enough to know that it all depends on — the election in 2008 is important because the contest is — the electorate is so narrowly divided, albeit I think the Republicans have structural advantages, but I understand that it’s so closely divided that the outcome in 2008, 2010 and 2012 are going to have big impacts on the future.
MS. PERINO: Deb, last one.
Q How did you get the math wrong in ’06?
MR. ROVE: They were very close elections. There are 15 contests settled — the closest 15 contests for the U.S. House are settled by a grand total of 85,000 votes, out of 82 million cast. That’s just over 1/100th of 1 percent difference in the 15 closest contests. One of them settled by 71 votes.
The races for the U.S. Senate control, the U.S. Senate is determined by a difference of 3,562 votes, out of 60 million cast. So, yes — first of all, look, my role is to be an advocate. My job is not to be the paid prognosticator for the Associated Press or CBS News. It’s to go out there and truthfully put as strong a case as possible. And looking at the data, we had — we came this close to doing something which would have been really incredible, and that’s keeping the House and the Senate. Eighty-five thousand votes out of 85 million? And if you take a look at the 15 contests that we lost, many of them — I mean, look, the closest contest, Rob Simmons, who ran in a district where the President got 38 percent of the vote. And yet he comes within 70-some-odd votes of winning.
And if you look at a lot of the other contests, they were contests like, you know, Foley’s district in Florida, in which in order to vote for the Republican nominee, who was a wonderful state representative, you had to punch the lever for Mark Foley. And we came within a matter of a couple of thousand votes of winning. And there were other contests there where the incumbent did not take the advice of his or her colleagues at the National Republican Congressional Committee or the Congressional Committee or the White House, and that was to get prepared for a tough race. You know, Hostettler in — well, he’s not one of the closest ones, but he took a seat that was — and Bush got two-thirds of the vote there, and he gets just over a third of the vote by raising no money, conducting no campaign and running one television ad that says, “I was proud to be one of the four or five Republicans to vote against the Iraq war resolution.”
So my point is, yes, I got the math wrong because it was a close call. And it was — maybe there were other smart people out there who were looking at the same data saying, you know what, all those races are going to tilt against Republicans — good for them.
MS. PERINO: Parting thoughts? Anymore parting thoughts?
MR. ROVE: Oh, no. No. I’ve had a fun time. I’ve had a real fun — and I’m going to miss my colleagues a lot.