Karl Rove loomed so large in our politics that no one could see him clearly. He was both underestimated and overestimated, and he leaves the White House with both significant political achievements and frustrated ambitions.
The underestimated Rove was never just a political consultant, but a keen policy mind. In baseball, he'd be called a five-tool player. He talked about Medicare Part B as fluidly and persuasively as he did voting trends in Indiana's 8th Congressional District. He could just as easily have been secretary of health and human services as Bush's political guru, and in terms of his importance to both governing and politicking, the only figure that comes close to him in recent memory is former Reagan and Bush I official James Baker.
The overestimated Rove saw his critics attribute practically anything they didn't like in American politics to him. For all his talent, he was one man. He didn't orchestrate every development harmful to liberalism throughout the past 6 1/2 years, nor did he stomp on puppies and kick children on the way to work every morning. His White House co-workers, almost to a person, say he was an honorable and kind colleague.
While Rove obviously had a profound influence in the Bush administration, Bush still would have signed the No Child Left Behind education law, cut taxes, nominated conservative judges, waged the war on terror and invaded Iraq without him. It has been a parlor game during the entire Bush presidency to identify the real driving force in the Bush administration -- sometimes it's been Vice President Dick Cheney, sometimes Rove -- when history will show that it was Bush himself all along.
Bush-haters focused their vitriol on Rove, and it became all the more venomous for its misdirection. The energy the left devoted to the Valerie Plame flap can't be understood outside of the imperative to "get Rove." All the supposed scandals congressional Democrats are now obsessing over will lose some of their "oomph" as Rove, their white whale, slips off into the distance under his own power.
For all the investigating, he was never plausibly accused of anything particularly out of bounds, let alone criminal. His besetting sin was winning elections.