"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
How many modern political advisors have merited two unauthorized biographies in their lifetime? The answer would seem to be just one: Karl Rove, senior advisor to President George W. Bush.
Pol predecessors with whom he’s often compared haven’t been afforded such treatment — not Bill Clinton’s James Carville, nor Ronald Reagan’s Michael Deaver. Not Jimmy Carter’s then-30-something Rolling Stone cover boys Jody Powell and Ham Jordan. (Lee Atwater, the senior strategist to Bush’s father, was dissected in John Brady’s 1996 tome, “Bad Boy” — but that came posthumously.) So somehow, on bookshelves as elsewhere, Rove manages to muscle for himself a surprising and unique niche.
The books — “Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush,” by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl Cannon; and “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush,” by Wayne Slater and James Moore, which will be published in February — are certainly merited. The wonky Rove, a 48-year-old “Mayberry Machiavelli,” in the words of former White House advisor John DiIulio, is a fascinating fella who sprouted to power from humble beginnings, credentialed with nothing more than a high school education. Bush has given him the monikers “Boy Genius,” which is self-explanatory, and “turd blossom,” a Texism for a flower emerging from a cow pie.
Rove’s path to the White House is strewn with the professional corpses of most of the once proud and strong Texas Democratic Party. At a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity, he managed to effect the defeat of an incumbent vice president by George W. Bush, a man who had never been elected to any office until 1994 and who former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in “The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush,” describes as “impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often incurious and as a result ill-informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader probably should be.” True, there was that nasty bit of business in Florida, but Bush’s approval ratings remain quite high, and in November 2002, Rove masterminded the historic midterm GOP reclamation of the Senate and increased the party’s seats in the House of Representatives.
After Rove allegedly spearheaded the ouster of former Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last month and replaced him with junior senator/White House water-carrier Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., USA Today reported that “a senior aide to a Senate Republican sarcastically dubbed … Rove, ‘the 101st senator.’” The Note, ABC News’ widely read and respected political weblog, derided that nickname, sniffing, “as if Senators have as much power as Karl!”
But what does Rove do with that power? Reading “Boy Genius” may prompt you to avoid population centers likely to be targeted by al-Qaida. One point that authors Dubose, Reid and Cannon drive home is that Rove isn’t just willing to play dirty to win elections; nothing but winning really seems to matter to him.
After all, as Rove told Republican National Committee members in January 2002, “We can go to the country on [national security] because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” For Bush’s most powerful advisor, national security — and everything else — is merely a political tool.
The selection of former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as homeland security advisor was a political decision, not a policy one; other than visiting the crash site of Flight 93, Ridge had never dealt with terrorism issues before. And don’t forget that after Sept. 11 the White House fought tooth-and-nail against efforts by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and others to make the Office of Homeland Security a Cabinet-level post. Bush, famous for delegating, leaves such things up to Rove. Rove ultimately had the president completely flip-flop on the matter months later, effectively using opposition to the administration’s preferred bill — which had fewer employee protections — as a tool to defeat Democratic senators.
“The Senate has a lousy version,” Bush said. “They’re more interested in special interests, which dominate the dialogue in Washington, D.C., than they are in protecting the American people.” Of course, there was more to the complex issues and daunting task of homeland security than simply passing that bill. Last, October, in yet another alarm sounded by former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, the Council on Foreign Relations issued “America: Still Unprepared — Americans Still in Danger.” (Click here for a PDF version of the report.)
James Carville knew that his talent was for campaigning, not governing, so he didn’t set up shop in the White House come January 1993, though he certainly could have. Rove, running a permanent campaign, doesn’t grasp his limitations, and at the very least this means a greater risk to American lives. In a letter he wrote to Esquire, even former Bush advisor DiIulio commented on
“… the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can’t ‘coordinate’ over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.”
How did we get into this mess? “Boy Genius” succeeds at outlining Rove’s odyssey from Utah dweeb to reigning Beltway champion, an interesting story, especially if you’re not up to speed on the political history of the Lone Star state.
Dubose and Reid are the primary authors of the parts of the book that chart Rove’s life up from childhood through Bush’s campaign against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the nasty South Carolina primary, and they are, fortunately, Texas political junkies. They introduce a cast of figures who end up as either successes because they hooked up with Rove or victims of Rove’s ruthless, but apparently entirely legal, political hardball. Treasurer candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison and Supreme Court candidate John Cornyn hire Rove to lift them up the political ladder, rung by rung, to the U.S. Senate, where they now sit. An Ann Richards protégé named Lena Guerrero wins the primary nomination to the Texas Railroad Commission, whereupon the Dallas Morning News somehow learns that she lied about her college degree.
“Karl had Lena’s transcript,” an Austin political consultant tells the authors, “but he held it until the right moment. The perfect moment. Then he screwed her.”
You don’t have to be a Democrat to be a Rove victim. Former Texas Republican Party chairman Tom Pauken states that Rove “beat me. That’s life. I’m in political exile, and Karl’s running the country.” Adds a Texas Democrat, “I always knew where I stood with Karl. I knew he was trying to kill me.”
Nevertheless, “Boy Genius” falls short of expectations. I want two things from a Rove biography: confirmation of the rumors and suspicions about Rove’s various dirty tricks (which requires that author expend some shoe leather), and a sense of what drives the man. Dubose, Reid and Cannon do not deliver.
During the 1986 Texas governor’s race, on the morning before a debate, Rove, representing GOP candidate Bill Clements, called a press conference to announce that a bugging device had been found in his office. “Obviously I don’t know who did this,” Rove said. “But there is no doubt in my mind that the only ones who would benefit from this detailed, sensitive information would be the political opposition.” Future Bush media maven Mark McKinnon, then working for Democratic Governor Mark White, insinuated that Rove had put the bug there himself, that the “whole things stinks and the wind is blowing from the Clements campaign.”
But instead of turning up a smoking gun — which, to be fair, may simply not be possible — the authors lean quite heavily on a New York Times Magazine profile of Rove by Melinda Henneberger in which Rove suggests that Henneberger watch the movie “Power,” released the year of the campaign. Henneberger is stunned to see that the plot of “Power” involves an office getting bugged. Did Rove, inspired by the movie, plant the device on himself to score a political point and then, years later, accidentally — or subconsciously — tip Henneberger off ? “I don’t have any recollection of that [scene],” Rove told Henneberger, and the authors let that suffice.
In fact, two of the book’s best nuggets come from Henneberger, who also relays a story told to her by Dallas Morning News reporter Anne Marie Kilday (and denied by Rove). According to Kilday, Rove warned her in 1994 that phone records showed that a state official reputed to be a lesbian frequently phoned Kilday at her home. “You’ve just got to be careful about your reputation and what people might think,” he advised.
To have all this put in a compendium is fun, but little of it is new. The most damning Rove tidbits surfaced in September 2000, amid various spy-vs.-spy charges and countercharges between the Bush and Gore campaigns. Briefing books were mailed to Gore pal Tom Downey, and a young Gore aide boasted of a “mole” in the Bush ranks. The distinguished authors of “Boy Genius” ought to have delivered much more. For example, there is little new information about FBI agent Greg Rampton, long suspected by Democrats of being in cahoots with Rove. Rove routinely used Rampton’s investigations of Democratic office holders against those officials in campaigns.
According to former Texas land commissioner Gary Mauro, then-comptroller Bob Bullock once told him that Rove and Rampton were working together — Rampton investigating Democrats, Rove leaking the information. “Their sole job right now, their mission in life, is to figure out a way to indict you, me, Jim Mattox, Jim Hightower and Ann Richards,” Bullock told Mauro. “They’re out to get us all.”
But the fact remains that three of Hightower’s assistants were ultimately indicted, convicted and sentenced to prison. So Rampton’s investigation was apparently justifiable. The authors retell the story of Rove’s evasions and Clintonesque parsing during a 1991 state senate hearing when Rove, nominated to the East Texas State University’s board of regents, was asked how long he’d known Rampton. “Ah, Senator, it depends,” Rove responded. “Would you define ‘know’ for me?” But this is old news, blast-faxed to reporters by Democrats in September 2000, and no dots are connected.
Likewise, “Boy Genius” produces no smoking gun from the scandalous South Carolina primary campaign against McCain, and it’s filled with reheated dish from others’ reporting. (That includes my own, I should disclose, something I realized only after I came to the book’s final pages, where sources and acknowledgments are listed). For a December 2002 New Yorker profile of Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., writer Joe Klein followed the presidential hopeful to South Carolina, where Kerry happened to run into Jim Gunn, president of the Coalition of Retired Military Veterans. At the beginning of the 2000 GOP primary campaign, Gunn had launched the opening salvo against McCain on Bush’s behalf. Later Gunn approached Kerry to repent. “I just want you to know, Senator, that you were right about McCain and I was wrong,” he told Kerry, who had defended McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran. “Bush lied to my face and I’ll never support him again.”
Klein gleaned this just by flying to South Carolina on another story; what might Dubose, Reid and Cannon have stumbled upon if they had actually gone to Columbia, S.C., magnifying glasses in hand, to search for Rove’s fingerprints? The most we get is this:
“Someone started floating rumors that McCain was mentally unstable as a result of being tortured in Vietnam, and that the pressure of the presidency might cause him to snap. Wayne Slater, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, wrote a piece ruminating about the origin of this whispering campaign, in which he recounted a number of questionable practices that had been attributed to Rove over the years … Slater also reported that candidates Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes had fingered the Bushies as the McCain rumormongers.
“In early December, Rove — who had not returned Slater’s phone calls about the story — confronted the reporter in the New Hampshire airport, poking a finger in his chest and saying, ‘You broke the rules!’ The outburst had an effect that Rove had perhaps not reckoned on. A reporter who was present said that as a result of the incident, ‘everyone on the campaign charter concluded that Rove was responsible for the rumors about McCain.’”
That doesn’t amount to much. And neither does “Boy Genius” when trying to explore the mystery of the man himself. Rove’s father left his mother for good on Rove’s birthday when he was a teenager. This subject is addressed in one sentence only. Rove’s mother’s suicide is dispatched with another sentence, his four-year first marriage ending in a 1980 divorce in another, his Vietnam-era avoidance of military service in a phrase.
“Boy Genius” leaves the disappointments and challenges of Rove’s life unexplored, but that’s not all. It ignores the fun, too, such as a 1973 cross-country road trip Rove took with Lee Atwater in Atwater’s brown Pinto while Rove was running for national chairman of the College Republicans. Or Rove’s first campaign manager’s job in a Nebraska congressional race a year later. In stark contrast, John Brady’s superb “Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater” makes no such omissions, exploring the contradictions of the blues-loving race-baiter and even offering a harrowing account of the death of Atwater’s little brother Joe, who was killed at age 3 in the family kitchen when a deep-fat fryer tipped over on him.
The white-trash chip on Rove’s shoulder gets alluded to here and there in “Boy Genius” — most notably in connection with his other nickname — but is not delved into enough to explain the man’s drive. We hear, again, that Rove loves Myron Magnet’s 1993 treatise against liberalism, “The Dream and the Nightmare: the Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass” — he famously hands it out to visitors with the fervor of the Gideons printing out Bibles and shipping them to motels — but why? What life experiences led to Rove’s anger against liberals and hippies and flower children?
The book even loses its focus on Rove for pages at a time in describing the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yes, this White House is secretive and disciplined, and it’s understood that Rove didn’t want to participate in the book’s creation, but I have no doubt that a little more effort would have gone a long way. Cannon, for instance, steps up with information about how annoyed Rove’s superiors are with his star status. Following a National Journal profile of Rove in April 2002, Cannon — who writes for the National Journal — reports that Bush told one of its authors that he didn’t like Rove getting so much attention in the media. Additionally, there is this juicy tidbit in which, at a Washington reception, someone asks Vice President Dick Cheney if he’d seen the story.
“Yes, I did,” the laconic veep said.
What did he think?
“Grossly excessive,” he replied.
With “Boy Genius” out, and “Bush’s Brain” on its way, I can imagine what Cheney is grumbling about these days.
Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.More Jake Tapper.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)