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Ken Mehlman: The President's Man

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"What do you call a dictator with a nuclear bomb?" Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Party demands to know, deftly flipping my question around and ready with the answer. "You call him sir!" he says. We are sitting in a mirthless hotel conference room in Orange County, California, one of the hundreds of banquet halls that Mehlman troops through each year trolling for votes and cash. The youngest chairman in his party's history at 38, Mehlman is smart, affable, and relentlessly on message. Sort of walking talking point, seamlessly reeling off sound bites - just like the Harvard educated lawyer that he is.

These days, the drill is to hammer out the message that 1) snooping on Americans without a warrant is a crucial weapon in the "war on terror," 2) Congress and Bill Clinton also thought Saddam was bad news, and 3) Victory in Iraq is close at hand. "Not only was it our idea, it was Bill Clinton's idea," Mehlman tells me, pausing to smooth his red paisley tie before resuming his political mantra. "Regime change was a policy of this country since 1998. Bill Clinton came to the American people and said, 'He will get these weapons and if we don't stop him now, we are going to have a huge problem in this country.'" Then Mehlman, who stays as fit and trim as his boss, goes for the rabbit punch, deftly blaming the Clinton administration for the World Trade Center attacks. "They didn't act on it. And after 9/11 we learned that not acting on these threats, is a failed strategy."

But wait a minute - Saddam, it turned out, didn't have a nuclear bomb, and didn't attack New York, and Bill Clinton didn't order the invasion of Iraq... did he?

No matter. There are no objectionable facts, troubling data, or pesky documents that Mehlman isn't ready to swat down with instant lightning salvos. His dexterity with factoids, and his ability to jiu-jitsu them into a nimble counterattack are part of the reason Mehlman won the top slot last January to run the GOP. Not that he ever had much competition after running the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004, in which Mehlman commanded a volunteer army in precinct-by-precinct, hand-to-hand combat to get out just enough of the vote, notably in Ohio.

Mehlman knows campaigns - from bake-offs at Kiwanis clubs, to run offs at the ballot box. His instant recall of polling data and past elections is so vast, Team Bush has taken to calling him the Rain Man (a reference to Dustin Hoffman's idiot savant character). Moreover, he's been seasoned by failure: he's woken up with a loser's hangover after Bob Dole's presidential bid in 1996 and George H. W. Bush's humiliating 1992 re-election loss. "He's so damn good that I'm not missed at all," says Ed Gillespie, Mehlman's brass-knuckled predecessor at the RNC. Gillespie points out another Mehlman plus that differentiates him from most of his predecessors: he's a smoothie. "Ken hasn't engendered partisan ill will," says Gillespie.

Unlike some Democrats, Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager, tends to agree. "I've played with them all: Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie," she says. "They are all descendents of Lee Atwater. Lee was like a water moccasin: when you hit him, he came right back at you. Ken is not like Lee or Karl Rove. He has a moral compass." Then she offers high praise. "He's not a snake."

***
But this year, Mehlman's coveted power slot is also a thankless job. Last Fall, as Americans watched the historic city of New Orleans drown on national television, Republicans were anxiously muttering that the party's real troubles were yet to come: that a veritable season of hell was just around the corner. They weren't wrong. Although Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indicted just one White House player, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, he has continued to scrutinize Karl Rove, the president's most crucial advisor, while throwing backward glances at Vice President Dick Cheney. With Karl Rove consumed by the investigation, the once indomitable administration began a downward slide. More humiliation was served up by Harriet Miers' failed nomination, while poll numbers on most administration policies have tanked. Though periodically bubbling up, George W. Bush's approval rating had slipped to the lowest of any president since Richard Nixon's disgrace by Watergate in early December.

Matters get worse on Capitol Hill, where scandal has knocked the GOP leadership sideways. Indeed, Tom De Lay's indictments for money laundering may turn out to be the good news for the bellicose Texan. Likewise, for Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, whose timely and lucrative stock sales in his blind trust, are now under investigation by the SEC. But the coup de grace was Congressman Randy Cunningham's tearful mea culpa at a surreal press conference, admitting that he'd scarfed up some $2.4 million in bribes - transforming him into a poster boy for what Democrats call "GOP sleaze." Throw in the president's domestic spying scandal, and you have an incendiary mix - one that could imperil the Republicans' monopoly on power come next year's elections.

No one has worked harder to mop up this mess than Ken Mehlman - and he does so - most days- with a smile on his face. No matter that indictments and corruption scandals have laid swarm to the Republican leadership like locusts, or that 60% of Americans polled are disenchanted with the Iraq War, Mehlman remains unfailingly optimistic.

Mehlman came into politics as "a Reagan Republican" in 1990 and made his name as chief of staff for Texas congresswoman Kay Granger and legislative director for Rep. Lamar Smith, another Texan. In 2000, he was field director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, before landing the plum job of White House Director of Political Affairs. "He earned it the old fashion way," says Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's White House chief of staff. "He worked around the clock, he worked weekends, nights, and early mornings, and he kept his head down. He made 2004 happen. He and Karl Rove are a terrific team," Duberstein adds, "but Ken was the chief operating officer."

No one denies Mehlman is a workhorse ,- but his success, say many in his party, owes as much to his unwavering loyalty to George W. Bush - right up to a willingness to take a bullet for Bush or Cheney should any come whizzing. "The family can smell disloyalty from down the road," says a cousin of George W. Bush, who asks that her name not be mentioned so that she can continue attending family events at Kennebunkport and in Texas. "The slightest whiff of criticism, and you're out. Even in the family." On the other hand, she pointed out, loyalty is generously repaid.

These days, however, in the era of Harriet Miers and FEMA's Michael Brown, Bush loyalty, so envied by the fractious Democrats, has also became synonymous with cronyism. "Ken Mehlman's a smart guy but he's an apparatchik," says one veteran GOP Beltway hand, who asked that his name be withheld. "He's an organizer not a visionary."

***
Clearly, the most troublesome scandal bedeviling Republicans and complicating Mehlman's job is the spectacular flameout of the GOP's most powerful lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, charged with fleecing American Indian tribes of millions of dollars and siphoning the money into the accounts of senior Republican lawmakers. Now that Abramoff, along with his partner, Mike Scanlon, are cooperating with prosecutors, the collateral damage is likely to include a slew of GOP congressmen - notably Ohio's Rep. Bob Ney, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, De Lay, along with Christian activist Ralph Reed. And if prosecutor Alice Fisher, a Bush recess appointee, is not constrained by partisan politics, it will likely lead into the West Wing where Abramoff's former top aide, Susan Ralston, currently serves in the same role for Karl Rove.

I asked Mehlman, whose closest relationship in the White House is with Rove, about a $9 million fee paid to Abramoff from Gabon's President Omar Bongo to arrange a White House visit with Bush. Abramoff had written Bongo in July 2003, "I have been cautiously working to obtain a visit for the President [Bongo] to see President Bush, the Congress and policy and opinion makers in the United States."

Like all of Team Bush, Mehlman has mastered the indignant response reflex. "That's absurd," he tells me, waving his hand dismissively. "Utterly absurd. I have worked with George W. Bush from 1999 to 2004. The notion that anyone could set up a meeting is ridiculous." I pointed out that Bongo, who serves as dictator for life of Gabon, had previously been unable to secure a meeting with any other president. Indeed, Abramoff's former business partner, David Safavian, was a registered agent in Washington for Bongo, previous to his employment as a former White House budget official. [Safavian was arrested in September on charges of lying about his ties to Abramoff.] Unfazed, Mehlman insisted that it was strictly "national security" that secured the meeting with the unsavory Bongo on May 26, 2004, after "Condoleeza Rice, NSC advisor at the time, encourage[d] the President... I know, having dealt for five years trying to get things with the President's schedule, it's a very serious, thoughtful, and appropriate process."

More troubling, has been the murder charges leveled at a trio of mobsters in Fort Lauderdale for the drive-by "hit" of Abramoff's estranged business partner, Gus Boulis, in which another Abramoff partner has become a government witness. When asked if the Abramoff scandal and others have now tainted the GOP, Mehlman, renowned for his vast political network and whose brother and sister-in-law are both lobbyists [at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and Mehlman Capitol Strategies respectively], seems remarkably ill-informed. "Well, Abramoff is someone who we don't know a lot about," he says. "We know what we read in the paper."

You mean you don't know about the highest paid, most influential Republican lobbyist in Washington? I ask. Mehlman betrays just a trace of discomfort. "I don't know if I'd agree with that necessarily," he replies.

When pressed on the Democrats' charge that the GOP has encouraged a "culture of corruption," Mehlman falls back on the "few bad apples" defense. While quick to diss the disgraced Cunningham, he adds, "we need to remember that the people involved, unlike Cunningham, Scooter Libby for instance, is innocent until proven guilty... It's wrong to paint [everyone] with a broad brush on this stuff."

****
In these anxious, gloomy days for the GOP, Grover Norquist, the Republican strategist extraordinaire, who chairs a weekly meeting attended by White House staff, may be the closest thing to a mood ring within Bush's inner circle. When Norquist strides through The Palm, Washington's favored power restaurant, to meet me for lunch, many an eyeball follows him. Not that his appearance is anything unusual at the M street eatery. Norquist has "a daily table," well situated in the restaurant's prime real estate zone in the back room.

A short bullet of a man, Norquist seems particularly wound up on this wet, wintry day. Accompanying Norquist is his chief of staff, Chris Butler, a young man with blond hair plastered flat across his broad head, a shiny porcelain complexion, and cheerless, pale eyes. I ask the Republican maverick, who heads up Americans for Tax Reform, whether Ken Mehlman can rescue the formerly invincible GOP in time for the 2006 midterm elections, and more crucially, the 2008 presidential race.

While Norquist concedes 2005 was a terrible year for the Republicans, he's quick to point out the silver lining: "It was the perfect storm for the Democrats," he admits, before unleashing a gloating grin, "but the wrong year!" Then it's onto the day's spin, washed down with ice tea. Sure, he says, losing two crucial governorships (in Virginia and New Jersey) has ramped up party anxiety, but two out of fifty is no cause for alarm "By the 2006 elections, we'll have gas prices down, people will have forgotten about Katrina, and we'll get the troops coming home from Iraq," suggesting that one of Brazile's prediction is not far off. "Trust me. They're gonna cut and run," said Brazile, "but they'll call it something else." And then for the coup de grace, says Norquist, his baby face breaking into a wide grin: "We'll bring in al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Ladin."

Curiously, Norquist's praise for Mehlman seems parsimonious. "He's a competent manager," he says. That's it? "He managed the 2004 campaign very well, and he's been rewarded for his loyalty. He speaks well and he's very good on the chat shows. He's trusted by state leaders and he has 2004 street cred." I mention that his enthusiasm is less than contagious. Norquist shrugs, "Competence is a compliment," he says. Then he adds, without any expression, "a big compliment."

"Grover blames Rove for the Harriet Miers mess," says one of Washington's shrewdest readers of GOP tea leaves, "and Mehlman is Rove's creation and minion. Grover thinks Rove should have blocked Miers and he didn't because he was so tied up trying to save himself from Fitzgerald and jail." Worse, Mehlman has been known to be a pragmatist and nifty dealmaker,- a facility that makes the Party's red meat ideologues twitchy.

I ask Norquist about Beltway rumors that Mehlman will inherit Rove's job should Bush's consigliere be indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald. "Karl's been whacked, but he's fine now," says Norquist, whose ties with Abramoff go back decades - and is himself now endangered. "Look, Karl's not going to get indicted. Fitzgerald interviewed him for 20 hours about one phone call. If you can't get Karl to contradict himself over a twenty hour period in four interrogations about a three minute conversation, then it ain't going to happen. He's not going to be indicted." Where Mehlman really matters, he adds, is as "the public face of the party," someone to do the chat shows and interview circuit. "Karl is damaged as a spokesman because he can't do interviews anymore - because all he gets asked about is Fitzgerald and the leak business. But Karl's not been damaged internally."

Having heard that Bob Woodward has been dining out for months on Dick Cheney's "desire" to be president in 2008, I ask the big question: What if Fitzgerald's leak investigation implicates the Vice President? For example, what if Cheney turns out to be Bob Woodward's source? Norquist's eyes widen but betray nothing. Quickly, he counters, sotto voce. "I heard it was [Richard] Armitage," he says, referring to Colin Powell's former deputy at the State Department. Then he cuts to the chase. "If Cheney is involved in any way, then [Scooter] Libby pleads guilty and stops the hemorrhaging."

And then Bush pardons both of them? I ask.

"Sure," says Norquist.

***

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the modern GOP - or the post -Reagan Republican
Party -- has a solid infrastructure capable of weathering terrible years like 2005 or 2006. It enjoys a significant fundraising advantage and owing to the efforts of the now sidelined DeLay, benefits from diabolically- brilliant redistricting maps that favor GOP candidates.

Nevertheless, Republican sentiment about the upcoming 2006 and 2008 elections hovers somewhere between resignation and panic. "We are in danger of losing both the House and Senate next year," says a former aide to Dick Cheney. "That's the truth of it. Santorum is probably out, Talent [R- Missouri], [Conrad] Burns and Lincoln Chafee are endangered and we could lose everything in Ohio if we don't shape up."

Still, Mehlman, along with Karl Rove, has urged President Bush to remain on the offense - hammering Democrats, as Rove did Friday at a Washington RNC conclave. But fighting scandal is only one front for Mehlman. He is also charged with keeping the peace in a Party that is increasingly fractured by the demands of the Christian Right and those of fiscal/small government conservatives.

Social conservatives claim that they kyboshed Miers, even though they fully expected that she would overturn Roe v. Wade. "They wanted a powerhouse to do it [overturn Roe]," explains Norquist. "Miers couldn't talk and she couldn't write. And they got Alito,- so they're happy now." Asked if Alito will flip Roe v. Wade if he joins the Supreme Court, Norquist nods affirmatively. When I run this by Mehlman, he responds quickly: "I don't know what you are talking about."

Try as he did, Miers was a mutiny Mehlman was unable to quell. When I asked Mehlman how big a mess Miers' debacle was for him, he artfully dodged. "Harriet is someone I tremendously respect. I think the fact she withdrew her name, even if it wasn't necessarily good for her, says a lot about how she would have been a good justice," he said. Then he downshifted seamlessly into the rosy future, adding, "Sam Alito will be a terrific justice."

"There's been this fracture between fiscal and social conservatives for some time," says Mit Spears, an attorney at the powerhouse law firm of Ropes & Gray, who served in the Reagan Justice Department with Sam Alito and John Roberts. "The small government conservatives have been saying for some time, that's something's gotta give," says Spears. "And it did. Deficit hawks and small government conservatives like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer defeated Miers. Rove was preoccupied with the Plame Affair and the Administration thought that Miers's evangelical faith would win over all conservatives, social and small government ones alike. They were wrong."

Even if Alito is confirmed as anticipated, thus calming the religious Right, fiscal conservatives remain apoplectic over the Administration's spending spree. Folks like Spears and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana seethe over the steady expansion of the federal government under Bush, runaway spending, a $430 billion deficit, and a perilous trade deficit with China estimated at $146 billion. These days, many in the GOP, are wont to quote former RNC chairman Haley Barbour's zinger: "They're spending enough money to burn a wet mule."

Of particular fury is Bush's $724 billion prescription drug plan with Party strategists deeply concerned that many of their core voters will simply sit out the 2006 election to register their outrage. No one knows this better than Ken Mehlman, and the Bush Administration is betting the house that he can return them to the fold.

Mehlman secured his insider's perch from as far outside the Republican party as possible. Born in 1967, he grew up in a middle class, Baltimore Jewish home. His grandfather was a political progressive, a member of the NAACP who frequented clubs featuring black artists like Cab Calloway. And he was a Democrat, something Mehlman doesn't mention often.

A longtime bachelor, many in Washington assume Mehlman is gay. His name was among those mentioned in a recent GQ article by Jake Tapper about the blogger Mike Rogers, whose website outs closeted Republicans. Steve Schmidt, a senior Bush official, flatly denied the allegation to Tapper. "Ken Mehlman is not gay," said Schmidt. But Mehlman himself has been a tad evasive. At the Summit County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner last March, Mehlman responded to a reporter who asked if he was gay, "[you] have asked a question people shouldn't have to answer."

Democrats and gay conservatives say the issue is fair game, pointing out that Mehlman ran herd on his volunteer army of 80,000 in Ohio, urging Republicans to go to the polls if only to ban gay marriage. Mehlman defended his party to me by laying blame on Boston liberals. "I think the issue was injected when a liberal court in Massachusetts said they were going to redefine a 200 year old institution in this country by judicial fiat," said Mehlman, who also endorses a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage -- political catnip for the Christian Right.

David Catania, a former Log Cabin Republican, has known Mehlman since 2000. "I think Ken Mehlman is a profoundly decent person," says Catania, an attorney who sits on the Council of Washington D.C. since 1997. "He is not a homophobe, but he is surrounded by bigots, which is why I switched parties at the end of last year. Ken is trying to reconcile his Big Tent thinking with a certain amount of party bigotry and racism. I've heard the rumors but I don't know if he's gay. I do know that he's comfortable in his own skin."

Donna Brazile gives Mehlman points for reaching out to African-Americans, and for his near-apology about the GOP's "southern strategy" in a speech last summer to the NAACP. "By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community," Mehlman told the group. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."

Of course, reaching out to blacks and other groups traditionally written off by the GOP is more than taking the high road -- it's essential for Republicans to pry loose a few percentage points if they're to hold their own in 2006 and win in 2008. Mehlman says he's not daunted by his party's sudden misfortunes and bad polling, preferring to call the situation "challenging." Then he makes an unusual concession. "I'll tell you this," he says finally. "I don't believe we are going to lose both Houses next year, but I intend to work every single day as if we could."

But what if Karl Rove takes a mortal hit from Fitzgerald or gets sideswiped by the Abramoff debacle -- and Mehlman is summoned to take his office in the West Wing, as is said to be the Bush/Rove contingency plan. "If I had that job, I wouldn't be able to hang out with you in Orange County," he says with a polished coyness, then glancing at the tacky chandelier dangling above us, he adds, "I love my job."

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