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How George W. Bush went from prodigal to president

Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush, Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon, PublicAffairs: 256 pp., $15 paper Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, Michael Lind, New America / Basic Books: 202 pp., $24 The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, David Frum, Random House: 384 pp., $25.95

January 19, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a Times political writer in Washington, D.C.

George W. Bush is an unlikely political colossus. Bush drifted without apparent success well into middle age; he didn't win his first elected office until he was 48, when he defeated Ann Richards for the Texas governorship in 1994. His victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election was as narrow as any in American history. The new president arrived in Washington two years ago with half the country unconvinced of his merits, and much of that half certain he had stolen the election with the help of his brother and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today that picture is almost unrecognizable. Bush's job approval ratings soared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and have remained high since. In last November's election, he defied the historical pattern of midterm losses for the president's party and led the Republicans to gains in both chambers of Congress. Bush begins the new year in a strong position to advance an agenda of war with Iraq and additional tax cuts at home, and as the early favorite to win reelection in 2004. Bush's Texas detractors used to call him "Shrub"; today, in Washington, he looks like an oak.

That story, with its Shakespearean progression from shallow youth to seasoned leader, undeniably captures some essential elements of Bush's political career. Yet it may be overstated on both ends. Bush was never as weak as he initially appeared. Richards was still popular when he beat her; Gore was running with the tailwind of peace and prosperity. But the reverse is also true: Bush is probably not as strong as he looks today.

His steady response to the terrorist attacks changed his relationship with the country, virtually ending debate about the legitimacy of his 2000 election and establishing his credentials as a strong leader for the vast majority of Americans. But the persistent weakness in the economy has steadily eroded his approval rating over the last year, and polls still show that many Americans are uncertain that he has the right answers for restoring economic growth or resolving other domestic problems such as the growing crisis in health care. Almost united in their praise of Bush's handling of terrorism, Americans remain divided about the rest of his agenda (including the prospect of war with Iraq) along many of the same cultural and geographic lines that defined Bush's nearly dead-heat contest with Gore.

Three new books attempt to explain Bush's rise and the broader changes in American politics that have carried him forward. In their own ways, the books follow the divisions in the electorate, presenting portraits that are alternately ambivalent, hostile and admiring. All present some valuable insights. But none succeeds entirely.

"Boy Genius," a biography of Bush political advisor Karl Rove by a team of three journalists, Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon, suffers from too many trees and not enough forest. The book does a serviceable job of tracing Rove's life and his role in the rise of both Bush and the Republican Party in Texas, but, especially in the early chapters, it often gets lost in the underbrush of Texas politics and loses its focus.

Rove is a potentially revealing window on Bush, whose career he has helped to guide from the outset. The authors get carried away when they breathlessly declare that "no political consultant has ever played the high-stakes game of electoral politics like Rove does." But there's no question Rove has shown boldness and tenacity in shaping the political strategy first for Bush and increasingly for the GOP in the last three years. No one could claim more credit for the message and tactics that produced the Republican gains last November.

Rove has kept a low public profile in the White House, so much of the story that the authors tell is likely to be fresh even to political junkies. Rove's father was a geologist who moved the family around the Mountain West. Though his family was apolitical, Rove took a precocious interest in Republican politics; while in high school in Utah he served as a youth coordinator for a Republican senator. Not long thereafter, he dropped out of the University of Utah to work for a Republican Senate candidate in Illinois. He really cut his teeth in the cutthroat world of College Republican politics during the early 1970s, when he was associated with Lee Atwater (later the chief strategist for Bush's father and a man to whom Rove is often compared).

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