Outside the Beltway, and outside activist circles, President Bush's political mastermind would probably be greeted with blank stares and a reaction of "Karl Who?"
But here in the capital, where Karl Rove arrived in 2001 already either revered or loathed, the sudden notion that Mr. Bush's right-hand man could be in legal trouble - and that the White House may have been caught misleading the public - has energized Democrats and the media.
At issue is the two-year-old case of the CIA operative whose identity was revealed in the press, potentially in violation of the law, and the possible political motives behind that exposure. So far, Mr. Rove is not a target of a federal investigation looking into who "outed" the agent, Valerie Plame. Legally, Rove may well wind up in the clear. But politically, his involvement in the matter, plus that of the White House, adds a jolt of electricity to a summer already charged over the Supreme Court.
It is now known, from the subpoenaed notes of Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper, that Rove did refer to Ms. Plame (though not by name) and her CIA affiliation when Rove sought to discredit Plame's husband, an administration critic on the Iraq war. For two years, the White House has insisted Rove was not involved in the leaking of Plame's name. A year ago, Bush pledged to fire any leakers in the matter.
Tuesday morning, during a photo opportunity, Bush stayed silent when a reporter asked if he would fire Rove. The day before, the press grilled Scott McClellan with dozens of questions on the case; he replied with variations of "we will not comment on an ongoing investigation."
"This excites the Washington community, because Rove is the political nerve center not only of this administration but also the Republican Party," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican activist and now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "At this point it's a disturbing distraction, for the administration, for the president. However, if Rove was actually indicted, it would become a calamitous disaster."
The 1982 law at issue, which forbids identifying intelligence agents, is hard to break, with only one known successful prosecution to date. To be in violation, one must knowingly disclose the identity of a covert agent, and that agent must be someone whose covert status is being actively concealed by the US government. The now-publicized e-mail from Mr. Cooper to his bureau chief says that Rove had referred in their conversation to the wife of former US ambassador Joe Wilson as someone who "apparently works" at the CIA. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, says that does not constitute a violation of the law.
Rove has been interviewed by prosecutors in the case and testified before the grand jury hearing it, and if it turns out that he replied dishonestly, he could be indicted for perjury.
But for now, it is the political repercussions of his involvement that are center stage. Democrats are piling on, some calling on Rove to resign, be fired, or at least lose his security clearance. On Monday, Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada called on the White House to follow through on its pledge to remove from the administration anyone involved in the affair.
Working in the administration's favor is that most Americans have never heard of Karl Rove. At this highly partisan time, much of the public will likely glaze over at the appearance of yet another bout of wrangling in Washington on an issue that does not directly affect them. "If anything, the attacks by Democrats could enhance [Rove's] stature with the people he deals with," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Also hindering public attention is the complicated web of events that has led up to the focus on Rove: the column by Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times in July 2003 that first named Plame as a CIA operative; the recent jailing of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who refused to divulge her own sources in connection with the case; Cooper's own risk of jail, before he received a waiver from his source releasing him from his confidentially agreement with that person.
For the mainstream Washington media, which have faced criticism for appearing to go easy on the Bush White House, the new link to Rove provided a hook on which to hang tough questions. "Since it involves the media themselves, it's natural that the media would have a strong interest," says Professor Pitney. "For the time being," he adds, "there's an absence of competing political stories. We don't have a Supreme Court nominee, and the middle of summer is generally not a time for major legislation."
So in the interest of filling media time and space, Democrats are more than happy to oblige. And because of the Plame case's ultimate link to the run-up to the Iraq war - and her husband's role in raising questions about Iraq's efforts to acquire materials for use in nuclear weapons - Democrats now have a reason to revisit their core allegation about a White House they view as less than forthcoming on Iraq.