Bush's brain found lacking

A slew of new books on Karl Rove make us question whether the president's deputy chief of staff is truly the Machiavellian genius so many in Washington claim.

Published September 19, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Victorious presidential campaigns rival Renaissance Florence as a repository of genius.

Thirty years ago, political reporters hailed strategist Hamilton Jordan and pollster Pat Caddell as the creative visionaries responsible for the dizzying ascent of Jimmy Carter. After Ronald Reagan supplanted Carter in 1980, news magazines rhapsodized about campaign manager Jim Baker's sagacity and image-maker Mike Deaver's mastery of the metaphors of TV visuals. Lee Atwater, the architect of George Bush's 1988 victory, inspired a generation of Republican operatives with his amoral fixation on racially tinged hot-button issues. Bill Clinton employed a different Svengali in each campaign, embracing James Carville's quick-response war-room partisanship in 1992 and four years later Dick Morris' split-the-difference triangulation.

This brief tour of the modern political wing of the Mensa Society should invite skepticism about the Cult of Karl Rove -- the belief shared by reverent Republicans and downcast Democrats alike that the president's top political advisor is unequaled as Machiavelli with a BlackBerry. A fragrant whiff of this over-the-top gush about Rove is found in the opening sentences of "The Architect," a new book by James Moore and Wayne Slater: "There is no more compelling subject in contemporary American politics and perhaps in our country's electoral history than Karl Christian Rove ... Rove is unique in both intellect and ambition and that his accomplishments have been transcendent for the American democracy."

"The Architect" is less a biography than a sloppily organized reprise of Rove's White House years by two reporters who had already strip-mined the subject in their 2003 bestseller, "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential." Having pretty much exhausted their Texas connections (Slater is a longtime political writer for the Dallas Morning News), the authors fail to produce much new evidence to justify their melodramatic subtitle: "Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power." While "The Architect" is the only full-length addition to the official Rove reading list, three other new books (all discussed in due course) shed light on his political vision and his role in the Valerie Plame game. At this rate, Rove studies may someday pass both Sylvia Plath and the Bloomsbury group in terms of bookshelf footage.

Rove admittedly poses a problem for would-be journalistic chroniclers, since he mostly talks to reporters under ground rules that Matt Cooper, a former Time White House correspondent, famously described as "double super secret background." Moore and Slater concede their struggles in the acknowledgments: "The number of people willing to speak has often been limited by fear of retribution." Unable to interview Rove and apparently frustrated in their ability to develop strong White House sources, the authors do not get much beyond the menu stage of political reporting as they ballyhoo such culinary details as, "Rove's specialty was his scrambled eggs -- eggies, he called them -- which he announced with great fanfare were prepared with a special ingredient, most likely cream."

What pass for breathless revelations are who-cares tidbits like the discovery that Rove's adoptive stepfather in the last years of his life had acknowledged being gay. An entire 21-page chapter strings together if-clauses and suppositions to suggest that neocon think-tank warrior Michael Ledeen might have had a connection to the forged documents claiming that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger. Amid these air castles of wild speculation, the only conceivable link to Rove is Ledeen's unverified claim that "he faxes Rove every four to six weeks with ideas that he [Rove] needs to be thinking about." The authors, in a particularly loathsome patch, devote the bulk of two chapters to speculating whether Republican National chairman Ken Mehlman is gay. No evidence whatsoever is offered beyond the shocking news that Mehlman is an unmarried workaholic, he did not seem enthusiastic in robotically stating the GOP's position on gay marriage, and he expressed rightful annoyance ("You have asked a question people shouldn't have to answer") when gay activists prodded him about his sexual identity.

If "The Architect" were better reported and argued, the authors might deserve sympathy for the accidents of timing that rendered sections of the book outdated as they were being published. Early this month, reflecting Bush's plummeting political fortunes, the New York Times ran a front-page story ("Rove's Word Is No Longer G.O.P Gospel") that made Bush's "boy genius" seem more like the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy peeked behind the curtain. As the Times on Sept. 3 put it bluntly, "[Rove] seems to have the least political authority since he came to Washington, party officials said."

That same week, in their new book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin," Michael Isikoff and David Corn revealed that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- and not Rove -- was the original 2003 leaker who told columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame, Joseph Wilson's wife, worked at the CIA. (Armitage's name is not even mentioned in "The Architect," though the book is chockablock with theories about what might have happened). What the Times story and the Armitage-was-there-first news underscored is that the doctrine (shared by right, left and center) that Rove is the prime mover in the political universe is a form of fundamentalism that does not always stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Yet, since Plamegate is now as entangled with Rove's legacy as steroids are with Barry Bonds' home-run exploits, "Hubris" is worth studying in detail as the definitive guide to Rove's culpability. The restrained, don't-let-the-speculation-get-ahead-of-the-facts tenor of the book makes Isikoff and Corn trustworthy guides to a scandal that has spawned more outlandish theories than the secret rites of the Freemasons.

The deeper you venture into the saga of the CIA leak story, the more it resembles Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," where every character had a motive to kill. Adding Armitage to the mix, "Hubris" gives us three strands of leakers -- the garrulous State Department official, Dick Cheney's top aide Scooter Libby (indicted for perjury) and Rove. Isikoff and Corn cite "a source close to Rove" who said that the White House political czar had "probably" learned from Scooter Libby that Plame worked at the CIA and had a role in her husband's mission to check out the Niger uranium claims. (Although "Hubris" does not explicitly make this point, there is no evidence so far that Rove knew that Plame was a covert CIA operative.)

Rove was the second source (after Armitage) for the original Novak piece that led to the outing of Plame as a CIA employee, merely confirming what the columnist had already known. Before the Novak column appeared, Rove went further in tipping off Time reporter Cooper that Plame worked on weapons of mass destruction matters at the CIA. But unlike Libby, who shared Cheney's Ahab-like fixation with Wilson, Rove seemingly regarded the furor as one more item on his daily to-do list. His conversations with Novak and Cooper about Plame were brief. As "Hubris" points out, "The White House anti-Wilson campaign had been less organized than depicted ... and much (but not all) of it occurred after the Novak column was published."

Once Plame's covert identity was revealed, Rove treated the matter like the kind of brush-back-pitch hardball at which he excelled. In a high-decibel, off-air phone conversation with TV host Chris Matthews, Rove reputedly said, "Wilson's wife is fair game." (This quotation comes from Wilson himself, who heard it later from Matthews, so a little skepticism about the exact wording is justified.) Matthews' reasonable verdict on the whole matter, according to Isikoff and Corn, was that the Wilsons "were trying to screw the White House so the White House was going to screw them back."

"Hubris" also draws an important distinction between Libby's indictment by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for perjury and Rove's clean-slate escape, despite a faulty memory and five trips before the grand jury. "Whatever his suspicions about Rove's account," Isikoff and Corn write, "Fitzgerald was a professional who would not indict a suspect unless he could establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And perjury is notoriously difficult to prove ... Fitzgerald didn't have a parade of witnesses contradicting the White House aide's account -- as he did with Libby."

The biggest mystery surrounding Rove's six years in the White House has nothing to do with Valerie Plame or Patrick Fitzgerald. It is a much larger question: As Bush's deputy chief of staff with a high-level security clearance and membership in the shadowy White House Iraq Group, did Rove help shape war-on-terror policy or was he only involved in the political marketing of it?

Bob Woodward in his 2004 account of the rush to invade Iraq, "Plan of Attack," states that Rove "took no direct part in the decision process for war planning, but he sat in on the speech preparation sessions with the President." Not surprisingly with Rove, given his White House mandate, everything reduces itself to politics. "Hubris" recounts that in the months following the invasion of Iraq, "Rove, in particular, was sensitive to the potential political danger; the failure to unearth WMD's, he feared, could undermine the president's credibility and Bush's 2004 reelection."

In a 2003 New Yorker profile, Nicholas Lemann perfectly captured the conspiratorial mind-set that believes that Rove orchestrates everything in Washington down to the seating chart of the National Symphony. "In the same way that prophetic fundamentalists are always on the lookout for emblazonings of the number 666, the Mark of the Beast," Lemann wrote, "in Washington everybody is highly attuned that most of what goes on bears the Mark of Karl Rove."

But does it? When it comes to Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, it is certainly easier to feel the gravitational force of Cheney's office than perturbations from Planet Rove. The best guess -- until we see definitive evidence to the contrary -- is that Rove primarily devotes his energies to the packaging and politics of global policies that others have decided. Iraq is no more Rove's war than the Cuban Missile Crisis can be blamed on John Kennedy's "Irish Mafia."

No one can deny that Rove has been cynical in his willingness to exploit every political opening provided by Sept. 11. In the spring of 2002, before the war drums reached their "On to Baghdad" crescendo, a Democratic Senate staffer found a lost computer disc containing a PowerPoint presentation by Rove and Mehlman, then his deputy, that stressed, "Focus on the war and the economy." While the hypnotic allure of tax cuts has dissipated with each passing election, Rove continues to wave the bloody shirt like a post-Civil War politician. In a June speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Rove warned that Democrats always "fall back on that party's old posture of cutting and running." Variants of this crude Roveian argument -- missing only the bumper sticker "Osama Says: Vote Democratic" -- have become the White House's last defense against a wipeout in the midterm elections. Earlier this month, campaigning in Missouri, Bill Clinton offered a perfect-pitch putdown to Republicans who use this style of attack, "They've trotted that dog out for the last three elections -- and it's got mange all over it."

For those who insist on finding the pivotal moment when Rove reshaped Bush into the president we all know and about 35 percent of the voters love, it probably dates back to January 2001, days before the Bush inaugural. As two more new books (significantly, neither of them is "The Architect") convincingly argue, the eureka moment came as Bush pollster Matt Dowd sat hunched over a computer screen in Austin, Texas, matching his survey data with the 2000 election returns.

According to "Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect With the New American Community," a collaboration among Democratic strategist Doug Sosnick, former AP reporter Ron Fournier and Dowd himself, the Bush pollster discovered that the traditional swing voter was fast becoming an endangered species as only 7 percent of the electorate in 2004 had voted independently of party loyalties. The book describes the epiphany: "Dowd banged out an e-mail to the longtime Bush strategist Karl Rove, asking for a meeting in Washington: It's time for a different strategy." The next scene takes place in Rove's new office on the second floor of the White House as Dowd handed him the data: "Rove instantly recognized the significance of the numbers. 'Really,' he said, grabbing the sheet from Dowd's hands, his voice rising with excitement. 'Man, this is a fundamental change.'"

What is going on here beyond the weird notion that contemporary political drama is built around the electric excitement of two Republican statistics geeks (Rove and Dowd) analyzing the latest polling data?

In "Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power," veteran political reporter Tom Edsall explains the significance of this apparent shift in the tectonic plates. If Dowd's data was right and there no longer is a large floating block of unaligned moderate voters, then the way that the Republicans can consistently win elections is by mobilizing their conservative base. Edsall recalls that "while running for president in 1999-2000, Bush had explicitly reached out to the center-left, a strategy so antithetical to that of his 2004 campaign."

In all likelihood, Bush had always intended to shed his 2000 campaign camouflage and govern, in sharp contrast to his father, as an unswerving conservative. But Rove, whose origins in the direct-mail fundraising business had always given his politics a hard-sell ideological edge, certainly provided Bush with a strategic rationale to follow his red-state heart. What Rove's analysis predicted was that Bush would fare much better politically as a divider than a uniter.

But would he have? In many ways, Bush's high-water mark politically came during his "compassionate conservative" phase in 2000 when, without the advantages of incumbency or terrorism, he held a sitting vice president to a virtual draw. Four years later, defined by Sept. 11 and draped in the mantle of the imperial presidency, Bush came within a whisker of losing Ohio and the presidency. If Rove is indeed the Stephen Hawking of political manipulation as so many in Washington claim, how did he let things disintegrate so much that Bush came within 118,000 Ohio votes of ceding the White House to John Kerry? Enduring political geniuses do not let their candidates build their presidential libraries after one term.

Rove is widely credited with the masterly use of gay marriage as a wedge issue in the 2004 race. As Edsall puts it, "Arguably, the Ohio [gay-marriage] referendum contributed to Bush's 51 to 49 percent victory in that state -- whose electoral votes put him over the top." But in many ways, Rove and the Republicans were as lucky with this issue as they were when Kerry infamously declared, "I voted for it before I voted against it." Had the liberal justices of the Massachusetts high court not legalized gay marriage in late 2003, gay marriage would have remained as abstract as flag burning. Even the most ardent searcher for the Mark of Rove would have a hard time with the notion that the White House political czar convinced San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to perform mass gay marriages in defiance of state law. The anti-gay-marriage amendment made it onto the Ohio ballot mostly because of the strenuous efforts of Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a politician far more obsessed with his own 2006 gubernatorial race than with Rove's need for a hot-button issue.

Fixated on the Cult of Karl, hagiographers, like the authors of "The Architect," constantly miss all the ways that Rove's gambits end up doing little more than mobilizing the Democrats in opposition. Moore and Slater lavish considerable attention on Rove's fantasy of wiping out the fundraising basis of the Democratic Party by crippling unions and trial lawyers and wooing wealthy Jewish donors with the administration's pro-Israel tilt in the Middle East. There is even a hint of anti-Semitism when the authors trot out the odious dual-loyalty charge: "A president who'd famously bragged that he didn't read newspapers or deeply study policy had surrounded himself with advisors whose interest in Israel's sovereignty and safety might have outweighed their concern for the United States."

Rove, in his efforts to defund the Democrats, apparently forgot about the law of unintended consequences. Bush's conspicuous efforts to pander to his social conservative supporters prompted a fundraising backlash from partisan Democrats. As Edsall writes in discussing the financing of the 2004 campaign, "[John] Kerry not only came within striking distance of Bush, but he also tapped into the small donor universe to a degree that had never been even approximated on the Democratic side of the aisle." This year, although Internet-based small giving is apparently down, the Democrats are in surprisingly strong shape for a party that reaps none of the obvious rewards from controlling Congress or the White House. All this prompts the obvious question: If Rove is so smart, why are the Democrats so comparatively rich?

Bush's brain has, for the most part, been in hibernation since the 2004 election. Fixated on the notion of creating a new investor class of money-conscious conservative voters, Rove allowed Bush to fritter away his second-term mandate on the politically impossible quest for Social Security privatization. The Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination represented a classic misreading of the desires of Bush's conservative base. Even though Bush himself has taken a more moderate position on immigration than the House Republicans, the White House's fumbling of the politics of the issue may have eroded a decade of GOP gains among Hispanic voters. Even without Katrina and that four-letter word called Iraq, Bush's second term has been more Jesus than genius.

Despite his grandiose dreams of a self-perpetuating Republican majority, Rove's strength is not as a strategic visionary, but as a disciplined, nuts-and-bolts tactician. If the GOP narrowly holds onto to its congressional majorities in November, the party will owe a large debt to Rove's and Mehlman's juggernaut of a get-out-the-vote operation known as the 72-Hour Program.

No one writes odes, creates newsmagazine covers or sells political biographies based on micro-targeting and the techniques of Election Day phone banks. But a reclusive genius in the White House, pulling strings and manipulating the levers of power -- now that is what the marketplace craves. So if Karl Rove did not exist, the political-industrial complex would have to invent him.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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