November 5, 2004


Inner Circle: The President: Bush's team was upbeat. But not everyone was sure about the race (Newsweek, 11/15/04)

King Karl, ruler of a vast domain, was held in awe by all (except Bush, who from time to time referred to his chief political adviser as Turd Blossom). Rove had never stopped campaigning since the 2000 squeaker. From the moment he walked into the White House in 2001, he had been building the Republican base, the vast Red State army of evangelicals; flag-waving small-town and rural American Dreamers; '60s-hating, pro-death-penalty, anti-gay-marriage social conservatives; Big Donors—the new Republican majority, or so Rove hoped. A steady wave of e-mails (appropriately studded with Rove-isms), notes, photos, anniversary cards and White House Christmas-party invitations stroked the faithful. But discipline was the key: Rove set up a reporting system designed to hold accountable party bosses and volunteers alike. He created the mystique of an all-seeing, all-knowing boss of bosses; if the emperor had no clothes, no one particularly wanted to find out. [...]

In December 2003 Rove's joy at the prospect of systematically destroying Dean was plain for all to see. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, the president's approval rating rose to 63 percent. As Dean continued to fulminate, as reporters no longer described his bluntness as "refreshing" and instead began the old gotcha game, jumping on the green governor's "gaffes," Rove & Co. watched as Dean's negative rating climbed to 39 percent.

Other advisers worried about too much of a good thing. Too much Republican gloating over a Dean candidacy might make the Democrats wake up. "We don't want to tip this thing too far," McKinnon, the campaign's chief media man, fretted in December. "Our concern is that it will collapse on him." But Rove didn't seem concerned. John Kerry had been the presumptive front runner back in the spring of 2003, but by autumn he was not even a blip on the radar screen. At strategy sessions of the Bush-Cheney campaign he was a "nonentity," recalled one Bush adviser. In October, Rove had said that Kerry had "p---ed away every advantage of the front runner." Wes Clark? "Imploded," Rove concluded. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards? "Nowhereville!" he exulted. (Most of the BC04 staff figured Edwards would be the toughest foe, but the North Carolina senator couldn't seem to raise money or get noticed.) Only Dick Gephardt, Rove thought, still had a chance, and not much of one. Rove was so convinced that Dean would be the president's foe in the general election that he began making small wagers around the White House, betting hamburgers that Dean would prevail. [...]

President Bush badly needed a break. Since 9/11 he had been obsessed. He began every morning by getting briefed on the so-called Threat Matrix, the CIA analysis of the threat of another terrorist attack. He saw himself as a war president in a war without end. "Terrorists declared war on the United States of America," Bush told audiences over and over during the fall of 2003. "And war is what they got!"

Some of his friends thought they saw less of his puckish humor, more of his impatience. The harder the choices, the worse the news, the more chaotic the world, the more stubbornly Bush demanded order in his own life. The onetime hard-drinking party boy was almost ascetic in his discipline: about getting exercise, about getting enough sleep, about having meetings start on time. He nicknamed his own chief of staff, Andy Card, "Tangent Man," for wandering off the subject. It was teasing with a hard edge. "He pays very close attention to his schedule, and if I'm not doing my job of monitoring his schedule, he disciplines me," said Card. All meetings started on time at the White House, or early. There all employees understood the Bush code: "Late is rude." [...]

Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman was piloting his black Audi A4 home from the airport when he heard the otherworldly scream. He was giving Communications Director Nicolle Devenish a lift, and they were listening to the results of the Iowa caucuses. Howard Dean had just finished giving his concession speech/pep talk when he let loose with a primal yowl. "Holy s—t!" cried Devenish. "Listen to that guy!" Mehlman exclaimed, "He's going crazy!" Across the Potomac River at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va., Sara Taylor, the deputy strategy chief, was watching TV in her office. She cried out, "He just went crazy!" Adman Mark McKinnon realized that the former Vermont governor had just made the most amazing contribution to the Bush-Cheney collection of Dean speech clips, the file entitled "Dean Unplugged." Sadly, he knew it was also the last, and that the collection was now worthless. "Stick a fork in him," McKinnon told himself.

Only Rove held out hope. Dean still had an organization, said Rove, who placed great weight on organization. Bush, who knew Dean's volatility from working with him as a fellow governor, had always suspected he would flame out. Now Bush needled his political guru about his hamburger wagers. Want to double your bets? the president asked. Dean still has money, Rove grumbled. Lots of candidates lose Iowa and come back. "This guy ain't coming back," Bush said, laughing.

His foes, especially the Democrats, still haven't figured out that Mr. Bush understands politics better than Karl Rove and governance better than Andy Card or Dick Cheney. It's like the old SNL skit where Ronald Reagan stumbles through a press conference then goes to the Oval Office and starts barking orders and speaking Russian to the Kremlin, only it's reality in this case. Okay, not the Russian part....

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 5, 2004 10:42 AM

No, but I could easily see Bush making some statement in Arabic that America will support freedom and oppose dictatorship. He would have to really practice the pronounciation, though.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 5, 2004 11:50 AM

Russian might be an improvement over his attempt at English.

The Democratic Primaries were weirdness supreme. Dean was blowing out everybody. Kerry totally disappeared (as the article says) from the radar screen. Clark was ridiculous. (they don't make Generals like they used to). Perfectly serviceable candidates like Edwards and Gephardt are ignored. And then all of a sudden Dean crashes and Kerry thru no effort on his part takes the nomination.

Kerry did fabulous in the last two months of the general election. Republicans obviously misunderestimated him.

Posted by: h-man at November 5, 2004 12:15 PM


Bush was at 50% the whole election. Kerry was 3 down before the first debate and lost by three. None of the atmospherics mattered much so long as he duidn't implode entirely nor the economy really take off.

Posted by: oj at November 5, 2004 12:24 PM

You know these types of thing better than I do. So let's put it this way. He scared the sh*t out of me, and it came down to one state Ohio and only a measly 100000 votes.

Posted by: h-man at November 5, 2004 12:45 PM

The only thing that saved Kerry was that the three so-called debates stopped his melt-down into self -parody by putting him on a stage as the president's equal. That gave him an excuse/rebuttal when he reverted to his pre-debate behavior and attempts were made to ridicule him again.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 5, 2004 1:44 PM

That old SNL sketch was hilarious.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at November 5, 2004 1:50 PM