October 28, 2005 6:54 pm

‘Indispensable’ Rove not yet off the hook

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Ever since the name of his wife, a covert CIA agent, was made public two years ago, Joseph Wilson has sought political revenge. He openly fantasised that Karl Rove would be “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs”.

He may have to wait a little longer. Patrick Fitzgerald, special prosecutor, on Friday did not indict Mr Rove, chief political strategist to President George W. Bush who has testified before the grand jury four times during the investigation.

But he is not yet off the hook. Mr Rove’s lawyers were told that Mr Fitzgerald “had made no decision about whether or not to bring charges”.

Mr Rove’s lawyer said his client would continue to co-operate with the inquiry.

For White House officials who had hoped the indictments would end the distractions and tensions that have dogged the administration in recent weeks, the move to extend the grand jury is hardly an ideal outcome.

In the past few weeks Mr Rove has become less high profile. In spite of his role in co-ordinating domestic policy, he was not involved in the selection this week of Ben Bernanke to succeed Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Although Mr Rove is technically just deputy chief of staff, that obscures his real status. If not as omniscient as some of the apocryphal tales suggest, he is certainly ubiquitous. He once joked that the only domestic issue he was not involved in was baseball.

“He is a truly indispensable man,” said David Frum, a former speechwriter for Mr Bush and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The distraction over the past weeks with Hurricane Katrina and Harriet Miers shows White House decision-making without him. There would be a real talent gap in the administration. He is one of the few who had ‘the clearest vision of what he is trying to accomplish and was always focused on something bigger than managing his inbox’.”

Although friends deny he has been distracted, the bungled handling of the Harriet Miers nomination – which was withdrawn on Thursday amid fierce criticism from conservatives and doubts from senators about her qualifications – suggests that there could be more fallout if the investigation continues to hamper Mr Rove.

Any indictment would be a devastating personal blow for Mr Bush, who has worked with Mr Rove for 30 years, and Mr Rove, for whom politics is a lifelong obsession. As Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to Mr Bush obser-ved, “when Karl was growing up he wanted to be senior adviser to the president”.

He will remain that for some time. But for how long, remains in the hands of Mr Fitzgerald.

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