Onstage in 2004, the night he was re-elected, President George W. Bush referred to Republican political strategist Karl Rove as "the architect" of his campaign. Rove, who served as Bush's deputy chief of staff and senior adviser in the White House, ran Bush's campaigns beginning with the successful race against Democrat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election.
Contrary to popular belief, Rove tells Terry Gross, he did not talk Bush into initially running for elected office.
"[George W. Bush] had an interest in politics early ... he then went off into business in both the oil business and then the baseball business, but he had political ambitions," Rove says. "He thought seriously about whether or not to run for governor [of Texas] in 1990 but decided it would be inappropriate with his father as president and that it wasn't the right time for him. But he had a political interest in 1993, was seriously interested in running for governor — that predated any suggestion I might have had to him. I didn't carry to him the suggestion that he should run for governor. I carried to him the suggestion that I hoped he would run for governor and that I thought he would both win the nomination and the general election."
Rove's new memoir, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, details his lengthy time on the campaign trail and also responds to his many critics. In the book, Rove distances himself from the rumors that he spread false information during the 2000 election about John McCain fathering an illegitimate black child — a rumor credited with helping George W. Bush defeat McCain in the South Carolina primary.
Rove also blames himself for improperly defending President Bush against accusations that Bush misled the American public about the reasons for the Iraq invasion in 2003.
"I am under no illusions: The failure to find stockpiles of WMD did great damage to the administration's credibility," Rove writes in Courage and Consequence. "Our weak response in defense of the president and in setting the record straight is, I believe, one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush years."
Rove says the decision to go to war in 2003 was not based on wrong information from the Bush administration, but was based on wrong information from the intelligence community.
"Let's stipulate: They got it wrong. And that's a problem. Because policymakers make decisions based on the best available intelligence," Rove tells Fresh Air.."In this instance, they got it wrong. Part of the reason is ... because Saddam [Hussein] wanted us to get it wrong and part of the reason was, [Saddam] was doing things that were necessary to reconstitute these programs. ... This is troubling. We're great at doing things electronically and sweeping electrons out of the air ... and mapping patterns but we are really not good — particularly in facing the enemy that we face — in getting actionable intelligence that's based on human sources. It's really difficult to do and as a result, we get it wrong."
Rove emphasizes that the Bush administration "did the right thing given what we knew at the time."
"Our country is safer for having removed [Saddam]," he says. "The world is safer. ... We had to act in the aftermath of 9/11 on the basis of what we thought we knew. And the world is a better place for him being gone."
A year after the Iraq invasion, Rove helped Bush win a second presidential term. Rove continued to act as a senior adviser to President Bush until he left the White House in 2007. He currently works as a political analyst for Fox News and The Wall Street Journal and says he doesn't plan to go back to managing campaigns.
"You can't go back in life." he says. "I did that, and I enjoyed it. But you gotta go on to the next chapter in life."
On what he knows now about the Iraq war that he didn't know in 2003
"We now know two things: We know that [the belief that Saddam had a weapons of mass destruction program] happened in part because he wanted us to believe that he had it. He thought that the presence of WMD — the view that he had it — made him strong in the neighborhood, kept him in power in his own country and was a deterrent to the West. We also know ... that Saddam Hussein retained an active interest in these programs, believed that the sanctions put on him by the United Nations were eroding and would be gone soon and was literally diverting tens of millions of dollars from the oil-for-food program to keep together the dual-use facilities ... to reconstitute these programs."
On how the war in Iraq may have increased jihadist recruitment
"Terry, that happened in the 1990s when we were not in an open war. We know that tens of thousands of people went through al-Qaida and other terrorist training camps in Afghanistan at a point when we were ostensibly at peace. What matters is winning or losing. People will be with us if they believe that we're winning. They will come in against us if they believe we're losing.
"And what happened in Iraq is, you're right. ... The country began to pull itself together and then in 2006, with the onset of democracy, [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi warns Osama [bin Laden] that democracy will mean the end of their movement in Iraq and they declare it the central front in the war on terror. ... And what happens is when the surge begins to work and it becomes very dangerous and the risk-reward ratio turns very badly against them, they then start dispersing their people to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. So yeah, this is a war we're in. And the enemy gets a voice and a vote. And they get to decide where they want to confront us. And they did decide in 2005, 2006, because they feared [it would become] the center of democracy, [they decided] to make Iraq the central war, to make Iraq the central front in the war on terror. You bet."
On mobilizing evangelical voters
"The view of evangelicals as a highly political, highly motivated, philosophically conservative [group] with a well-organized framework to approach politics is wrong. In fact, in 2004 we were going after a lot of evangelicals who were skeptical of politics. Some of them — particularly in the Midwest — [were] concerned about the war. There was a strong ... tradition among some evangelical communities to be dubious about war. So what we were tempted to do was to take people ... [who] we thought would come down on the Bush side, and give them more information and surround them with more people to encourage them to participate in politics."
On marriage for same-sex couples
"I think to impute [that] the people who have views in support of traditional marriage are somehow fearful of homosexuality is incorrect. I've found many, many people who have strong concerns about undermining traditional marriage live truly Christian lives in which they, they are not the first to cast a stone, in which they love a neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves. So I agree with you that the motivation of some people in the 2004 election was the difference between the candidates over the issue of gay marriage, but again, can we step back for a minute and see how this intrudes into politics in 2004?
"We were comfortable with what we did, which was when the Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court in November of 2003 pushed this issue into politics, by saying that there was — that traditional marriage was undermined in Massachusetts by a decision that said gays had a right to single-sex marriage, to same-sex marriage. It was the courts that pushed this into the campaign. And if you recall, the day that the decision came down, all the candidates were immediately asked where they were on this. And with one major exception, all of the major candidates came down in favor of traditional marriage and against the Massachusetts decision. The one candidate who was the outrider was Howard Dean. But even he sort of said, 'I'm in favor of what we do in Vermont,' which is civil unions. But at that point, people like John Kerry and George Bush had the same attitude, which was 'We support traditional marriage and we do not in essence want the courts to be making this decision.'
"We wanted it to be decided as it ought to be decided, by the acts of state legislatures and the people's elected representatives meeting to determine this state by state. But it was the courts that forced this onto the national stage. Let's just be clear about that."
On what it was like to be a College Republican at the height of the war protests on campuses
"It obviously wasn't a popular position to have on campus. We were a beleaguered minority. On the other hand, in the 1972 election for example — which pitted Nixon for re-election against George McGovern — the youth vote split basically 50-50. I mean, McGovern had a slight lead overall and a good lead on college campuses, but the non-college youth vote sorta washed most of that out. So it was possible as a young person even in the height of the Vietnam War and the unpopularity of the war to be a conservative on campus.
"This was a time where the people that I was involved with got a sense of — and this was some sort of minority position on campus — that we could actually affect things, that we could make a difference. And as a result, the group of kids that I was involved with in College Republicans, many have stayed friends in the years since, and we include in our number two United States senators, several members of Congress, dozens of state and local officials, a couple of Supreme Court justices and lots of people who have had big roles in politics in the decades since — and many of whom have led very successful careers in law and professions and in business."
On whether he hoped to set up a permanent Republican majority
"Nothing is permanent in politics. That's not the nature of the American system. You know there's competition between two parties, and nobody dominates it forever. I mean that's not been the case at all. I mean, we've had periods of durable dominance by one party or another. And look, do I want a durable Republican majority? Do I want Republicans to win the next election? Yeah. But I've never said a 'permanent Republican majority' because frankly you can't have that in the American political system, and we don't want it. You have a permanent majority in place — it's like the former Soviet Union or like Baathists in Iraq. You don't have it in a democracy. In democracy, there's give and take between the two parties."
Download or listen to the entire Fresh Air interview by using the links at the top of this page.