Transcript: Karl Rove Interview

One of the most influential people at the Republican National Convention is Karl Rove, the man in charge of President Bush's political strategy.

As Rove was laying out the campaign's strategy over a year ago, he told ABC News in an interview that the 2004 presidential election would, in part, be a referendum on Bush's vision.

"Somebody gets to be smart and somebody gets to be dumb," he said. "If we win, it'll be because of the president. And if we lose, it'll be because of me."

Peter Jennings interviewed Rove about his influence in the Bush adminstration, the president's thoughts on the "war on terror," and Republican attacks against Sen. John Kerry. The following is an excerpt of that interview:

PETER JENNINGS: So we come to this convention, and we listen to people and they all end up, many of them anyway, saying the same thing: "The world has changed since 9/11." I say, "How come you all say the same thing?" And they say, "Karl told us to say this." Karl, the presence of Rove. It's like you're God.

KARL ROVE: Whoever you were talking to, who told you that, must have been funnin' you, because it's not true.

JENNINGS: Give, in all fairness, an accurate impression of how much power you have.

ROVE: [makes a zero with his fingers] Look, I'm an aide to the president. I serve at his sufferance. He's been a friend of mine for a great many years. I'm supposed to look out after certain activities within the White House, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the Office of Public Liaison, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, the Office of Political Affairs. But I'm one of the great many people who serve as a senior aide.

JENNINGS: Why does no one in the world believe that?

ROVE: Washington operates on this. If you don't think President Bush is smart and capable and able, you've got to find some way to explain his success, and so what they do is they put his brain in somebody else's body.

JENNINGS: I actually didn't say that at all. I think we're just trying to assess your power overall. A myth, huh?

ROVE: A myth.

JENNINGS: Okay. I know you like the president. Is it too strong a phrase to say that you love him?

ROVE: No, I love him. I mean, he is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met, and that's not too strong a word.

JENNINGS: What is his involvement? Every president wants to be seen as staying somewhat above the fray in the middle of a political campaign.

ROVE: Uh-huh.

JENNINGS: But he was a political operative for a good period of time when his dad was running. How good is he?

ROVE: You know, I'm not sure I would agree with that description of him, but he has great political instincts. And he's first and foremost a president, and during the time of war, that consumes virtually all of his energy and effort. He was very clear about certain goals of the campaign, certain priorities that he wanted said, but he has been great to work with both in government and in campaigns because he doesn't micromanage and he realizes that it's not his job to worry about the absentee ballot mailer in Ohio or the recruitment of precinct chairmen in Michigan. He's supposed to be the president and set the tone, set the agenda, make clear the goal, establish the principles by which actions will take place ....

JENNINGS: How often do you talk to him?

ROVE: A number of times a day.

JENNINGS: Ten, 15 times a day?

ROVE: Oh, no, no.

JENNINGS: Are you the first person he talks to in the morning?

ROVE: I hope not … After coming into the Oval Office, which is generally just after 6:00 in the morning, he reads the overnight assessment of the threats made against our country and our people, a document called The Threat Assessment and then generally talks to Andy Card, the chief of staff; Condi Rice, the national security adviser; Fran Townsend, the homeland security advisor; the director of the FBI; the director of the CIA; and generally the secretary of state; the secretary of defense; and the vice president is somewhere in there, and that's generally how he starts his day.

JENNINGS: Where are all these stories coming from now that he is in essence, if not micromanaging the campaign, interested in every, every level of it?

ROVE: Yeah. I'm not sure if that's accurate. I mean, he's interested in the big things in the campaign obviously, and he wants to know that there is a plan and that the money being raised is being properly spent in a plan that somebody's thought out and people have approved. But, he's president of the United States. He's concerned about where he's going and what the campaign is saying and doing. But he is the last person to micromanage. Remember, he's the first president who has an M.B.A., has a Harvard M.B.A., and he is a master of management.

Winning the War on Terror?

JENNINGS: The president said the other day that it may not be possible to win unequivocally, unambiguously the war against terrorism. What's wrong with saying that?

ROVE: Well, I'm not sure that that's what he said. What he said was, as I take it, and what I know he believes — we'll prevail in this war. We're winning this war on terror, but it's not like, you know, this Thursday is, I think, the 59th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific, and we've all seen those photographs of the deck of the USS Missouri and the Japanese officials and the American officials signing a peace treaty and in terms of surrender. This is a different kind of war — different enemy, not an enemy who represents a nation state with a capital and people and assets, but a terrorist network. And we're going to know that we have won the war when we've utterly destroyed the network and discouraged anybody from taking up the cause.

JENNINGS: But what I'm trying to get at is the president said to [NBC's] Matt Lauer he doesn't think it's possible to win it absolutely, and the Democrats jumped all over him, and today he's gone over like nobody's business four or five times saying, "We will win it."

ROVE: No, he's always said, "We will win this war." What he has said is that we may never know the moment at which we win the war. We will know it only in retrospect. We will look back and say, "This is when we broke their back. This is when the cause of freedom was sustained, and this was the moment." We'll only know that in retrospect, particularly since, remember, he views this as two issues. One issue is the destruction of the network, and the other is the creation of what he calls the forward march of liberty or freedom. We need to spread democracy to the Mideast. If we want this region to be peaceful and hopeful and not a source of continuing trauma and threat to the West and to the United States, then we need to have democratic institutions and democratic societies come into being.

JENNINGS: What do you think the definition is "to win the war on terrorism?" What does it actually mean?

ROVE: It means to overcome this terrible ideology which seeks to draw the United States back in on itself and to remove us from the center of the world and to establish a totalitarian regime, a new form of fascism, if you will, using religion as a cover.

JENNINGS: Do you agree that it is virtually impossible to prevail over terrorism altogether? That there will always be somebody out there wishing to harm the United States and probably with the capacity to do so?

ROVE: Well, in one sense, yes. I mean, there is a book written a 100 years ago by Joseph Conrad called The Secret Agent. And if you read this novel written at the turn of the 18th or the 19th and 20th centuries, you'd think that the protagonist in it is Osama bin Laden. He's called the professor, but his ideology of terror is clearly almost identical to that of al Qaeda. But is it possible for us to overcome this form? To overcome al Qaeda? To overcome al Qaeda and its allies? You bet it is, and that's what the president believes.

JENNINGS: And how will we know when the president or anybody else for that matter has overcome?

ROVE: Because we will see the establishment of democratic regimes in the Mideast. We'll see democracy and freedom on the march. We will see the networks and its leaderships destroyed and little or no evidence of people coming forward to take their places, and we will see a diminution of violence against ourselves and our allies in the region.

Republican Attacks Against Kerry

JENNINGS: Last night, your friend [Virginia delegate] Morton Blackwell was out on the floor of the convention wearing a Band-Aid with a purple heart, clearly a slap at John Kerry. You approve of that?

ROVE: No, not at all. I think it was inappropriate. John Kerry served with valor and distinction in Vietnam. I understand why people are angry about Vietnam and John Kerry, but I think they ought to keep the focus on where the anger is appropriate, and that is what he said and did when he came back home. I had an uncle who served in Vietnam, did several tours of duty in Vietnam. I don't think he was a war criminal. I don't think that the men under his command routinely raped, and pillaged, and acted like Genghis Kahn. It is what John Kerry did after he came home, and he says that it's legitimate to talk about it. He says that he's proud that he went to Vietnam, and he's proud of what he did when he came back. But I understand why a great many military families, and sons and daughters of veterans, and veterans themselves are angry with being sort of routinely painted as war criminals, when they were not.

JENNINGS: The most devastating of the "Swift Boat" ads, of course, is the one that questions his courage and behavior in battle. And the president's father appears to have endorsed Sen. Dole's view that there must be some truth there. What does your boss, the president say about that?

ROVE: My boss believes that Sen. Kerry served honorably in combat, and he believes that all these 527 ads and all the other activities ought to stop. We're the only campaign that's called for an end to all these activities. Sen. Kerry refuses to join with us. He's been the recipient of $63 million worth of anti-Bush advertising by 527s. They're playing a big role in his campaign plans for the fall. He refuses to call for an end to all this big soft money activity that he's benefited from. That's his right, but we think all these ads, both those for and against President Bush, that are being funded by the 527s, and all the activities undertaken by both sides, ought to stop.