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Waiting for Karen

“Three Texans run this town, Karl Rove, George Bush and Tom DeLay.”

This wasn’t Texas Republican swagger. I was sitting in the office of a veteran public-interest lobbyist who had been here since the ’60s, when he arrived with a young reformer named Ralph Nader. Rove, Bush and DeLay, he argued, seemed to control every important political decision.

That was nine months ago, as I began reporting on a book on one of the three Texans: Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, recognized as the most powerful member of the U.S. House.

At the time, DeLay and Rove had bullied Texas Governor Rick Perry into a third special session to redraw the state’s congressional districts. With DeLay presiding over the map work and Rove keeping the governor in line, they would add five to seven Republican members to the Texas House delegation.

Bush was watching his approval ratings begin to climb back into the high 50s after yet another 9/11 speech, this one on Labor Day, repeating his resolve to make the world safe from terrorism.

Even Hollywood — or at least a small corner of it — was giving itself over to Texas. In the Showtime production DC 9/11: A Time of Crisis, writer/producer Lionel Chetwynd had his nose so close to the president’s ass that he broke the Texas sodomy statute. “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come over and get me,” roars Timothy Bottoms, who portrayed Bush in the film. “This is a man who feels deeply,” the Rove character says of his boss.

Bush was winning the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Rove was joking about the prospect of running against Howard Dean. And DeLay was redrawing the political map of Texas. The three Texans were at the top of their game.

It’s been a difficult nine months.

Since then, Bush’s poll numbers have been in steady decline. Rove’s genius is being questioned. And the majority leader — the party’s go-to guy for Christian-right voter turnout — might be counting votes on a jury before he and his president stand for re-election in November.

DeLay’s elaborate scheme to pour enough money into the 2002 elections to capture the Texas state House and select a speaker who would follow his orders on redistricting has come back to haunt him. Three civil suits and one criminal investigation in Austin suggest the majority leader who regularly delivers the president’s House votes by the narrowest of margins is in real trouble. DeLay’s daughter, Danielle Ferro, and two of his closest aides, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, were subpoenaed after it was revealed that a political action committee DeLay and Ellis set up poured $1.5 million into 20 Texas House races two years ago. The money helped elect 17 new Republican state reps and put the party in control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction. This is the Great State, where the big sky and your checkbook balance are the only limits on campaign financing. But the Republican PACsters made one fatal mistake. Of the $1.5 million, $600,000 was money donated by corporations. Spending corporate cash is one of very few things actually prohibited by Texas campaign-finance law.

Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), an Austin-based public-interest research firm, compared fund-raising statements DeLay’s PAC filed in Texas with those it filed with the IRS. TPJ found $600,000 in corporate money that was never put on the books in Texas. The group’s director (who also learned his trade working for Nader) sent a complaint to the D.A. in Austin, who is charged with prosecuting political corruption. Since the complaint was filed, DeLay & Co. have provided journalists and criminal investigators the day-to-day scandal reports missing in Texas since Enron collapsed, filed bankruptcy, and sold the big tilted E that sat on the sidewalk in front of its sleek corporate office tower in Houston.

One week’s news reports have the PAC’s director sending $190,000 in corporate (soft) money to the Republican National Committee in Washington and two weeks later receiving $190,000 in hard dollars legal to spend in Texas. Then DeLay’s handpicked speaker is caught handing Republican House candidates $152,000 from the Texans for a Republican Majority PAC, a down-home version of his national Americans for a Republican Majority. Then Roll Call, an unimpeachable source of insider Capitol news, reports that DeLay was quietly telling Republican House colleagues he might have to step aside if he’s indicted. And The Houston Chronicle’s equally unimpeachable R.G. Ratcliffe reports DeLay discussed his legal-defense fund at a closed meeting with Houston supporters.

“First of all, all reports are wrong. The reports in Washington are particularly wrong,” DeLay said of both stories at his March 30 press conference.

 

Texans for Public Justice, which is turning out to be a chronic ass pain for DeLay and the White House, reported that one quarter million of the $1.5 million DeLay’s PAC spent in Texas was donated by Bush “Rangers” and “Pioneers.” That is, the two groups of Bush money bundlers pledged to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the presidential campaign. And Terry Nelson, the political director and fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign, also testified before the Austin grand jury looking into DeLay’s Texas PAC.

No one is predicting that DeLay, Rove and Bush are buying soap on a rope and reading the inmate’s guide “So, I’m Going to Prison.” But DeLay is in real trouble. The grand jury and the D.A. can’t talk, but material turned up in suits filed by Democrats defeated by TRMPAC’s corporate funds provides a paper trail that leads to DeLay.

 

Who knows? Maybe the majority leader’s bad press is providing a little relief for the White House, which now seems like a bad story about to break every week. Ever since his handlers (that would be Rove) agreed to let Bush go live with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, most of the news coming out of the White House has been bad.

Not only was Bush’s rare live interview with a reporter a letdown for all but his most blindly ardent supporters, it also so aroused interest in his sketchy National Guard history that Team Bush hastily arranged a document dump of the president’s military personnel records within days of his dodgy interview with Russert.

As the Texas National Guard story died down (for the moment; there’s more to come), Medicare actuary Richard Foster admitted he’d been ordered to lie about the president’s Medicare bill, understating its cost by $100 million to get it passed in the House. The order came from a Bush appointee, who has since left his job.

Then came Paul O’Neill’s book, depicting the president as the same disengaged executive we knew and feared when he was governor of Texas. And Richard Clarke’s claim that the Bushies were asleep at the switch as plans were being made to launch commercial aircraft at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then missed al Qaeda because they were obsessed with Iraq.

The White House’s resolve to keep Condeleezza Rice away from the September 11 commission only required three weeks of bad news reports to completely unravel. Reports of the ongoing military disaster in Iraq were crawling across the electronic news ticker on the screen under Rice as she testified. This week, the Associated Press reported that 62 American Marines and soldiers died during the first two weeks of April. This Sunday, Bob Woodward is on 60 Minutes to kick off a book that promises to be filled with critical reporting on Bush’s floundering war in Iraq.

Suddenly, Rove’s plan to hold the Republican National Convention in New York — planned as a triumphant return to the scene of the terrorist attack almost three years to the day after the event — is openly criticized by some Republican Party leaders. As is Bush’s decision to remain holed up at the ranch in Crawford during the worst week of fighting in Iraq since his ill-advised “Mission Accomplished” landing on the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln.

“There’s this sense that after he appeared on Meet the Press and released the Guard records, things started to change,” said a White House reporter at the Press Club in Washington. The reporter sensed a change in the mood of the press, which suddenly became more aggressive. And a real sense of indecision in the White House. “Maybe a fear that they waited too long to start the campaign,” the reporter said.

Help is on the way.

Bush’s longtime media adviser Karen Hughes is returning from semi-retirement in Texas. The only top-level adviser who has worked with Bush since Karl Rove wrote the script that made him governor of Texas in 1994, Hughes is also the only Bush adviser with the chops to stand up to Rove. She would have kept Bush out of the flight suit he wore when he told the sailors gathered on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln their mission was accomplished. She would have vetted Bush’s appointment of a “Jobs Czar” who had shut down one of his American factories and shipped the work to China. And because her background was first news and then care and feeding of reporters, she would have at least shortened the news cycles on some critical stories the White House allowed to drag on for weeks.

 

But even Hughes is off to a slow start. Rather than returning directly to Washington, she’s working the free media circuit, on a book tour with her recently released Ten Minutes From Normal. In the first half of the book, she breezes through her life story. In the second half, she does in print for George W. Bush what Monica Lewinsky did in private for Bill Clinton. Hughes is signing books at Wal-Mart in Austin next week. She got a $1 million advance from Viking and needs to move some books before she moves back to Washington.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for Karen.

One White House adviser speaking off the record to Time in late March was begging Hughes to get back to Washington right now. The president, the adviser said, desperately needs Hughes’ “mom-in-the-kitchen sense of the country.” Another White House aide was more gloomy: “The longer they wait for her to get back, the less it will matter.”

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