Is President Bush's top aide actually running the country?

Books

March 02, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

If you have no idea who Karl Christian Rove is, you are not alone. He's nigh on invisible unless you are a serious student of top-level politics. His title is senior adviser to the president. Born on Christmas Day, 1950, to a dysfunctional family, he was a boy wonder, driven by powerful ambition, capable of intense focus from childhood, through high school and into college. From early on, he has been a rock-ribbed conservative Republican.

He began his higher education at the University of Utah, where he was active in politics, but never graduated. When George H.W. Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee, Rove got his attention and was hired. He got to know the late Lee Atwater, also a prodigy of conservative politics. Rove moved to Texas, drivingly active in campaigns as a consultant and staffer. In that time, he became close to George W. Bush and in 1978 organized his first congressional campaign. He lost that general election -- but never again. Rove has been in charge of every one of the younger Bush's campaigns.

To political professionals and junkies, he is a fascination. Two books have been written about him and others dwell on his role. The most recent is Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential by James Moore and Wayne Slater (Wiley, 416 pages, $27.95). Moore is an accomplished and experienced broadcast journalist who has covered presidential campaigns since 1976, reporting for CNN, NBC and CBS. Slater is Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and covered the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush for 18 months. The authors did immense amounts of interviewing beyond the day-to-day story, including significant conversations with Rove. A great deal of material comes from talks -- some attributed, many not -- with people who have known Rove since his childhood.

Their book, the authors say, "is neither an indictment nor an endorsement ... simply a story of a man who understands the American political process, quite possibly, better than anyone our culture has ever produced."

That's their assertion.

But their book debunks their claim.

From soon after the first chapter, it becomes clear that Moore and Slater detest Rove and believe he is fundamentally evil, a potentially catastrophically corrupting force.

The politics of Texas in the 1980s and early 1990s -- the first major portion of the book -- are presented as riddled with unethical and indeed criminal abuses of power and the political system. An early chapter is devoted to the discovery of an eavesdropping device in Rove's office during the 1986 campaign for governor of Texas. They strongly suggest that Rove planted it himself in order to leave the impression that the opponents were responsible. They present this as the first major example of "dirty tricks" devised by Rove, which they argue is a trademark.

This period saw the development of a strong, sometimes dominant, Republican Party in hitherto predominantly Democratic Texas. Rove was a major player. Politics on both sides were tough and nasty -- and no one seemed better at playing to both than Rove.

The narrative is an intricately detailed, stroke-by-stroke, parry-by-parry tracing of public administration, private influence and political maneuvering. Surely, the cumulative detail here will stand as a valuable resource for future researchers, assuming that the details, which I find convincing, are accurate. Of course, I was not there, taking notes. They were.

Moore and Slater write in straightforward, B or B-plus journalistic prose, clear but not artful. Descriptive imagery is generally flat, with few successful attempts to set scenes, to bring events vividly alive. Metaphors are often strained to the edge of self-satire: "Rove's own conservatism was cured through the years in a smokehouse of those hawkish Bush advisors." There is a great deal of redundancy in their narrative: "This was not about settling an argument. This was about winning. Rove winning. He seemed to be driven by a roaring internal engine to control every disagreement, rule every dispute, and dominate every contest. In everything he did, Karl Rove wanted to win."

The book would have been greatly improved by a serious, tight editing.

But the core -- the apparent purpose -- of the book is in the authors' appraisal of Rove. In the 2000 race, they write, "Rove simply worked harder than anyone else, harder and longer, driven by some internal need to tackle 100 things at once in pursuit of the single goal: making George W. Bush the most powerful political figure on earth, and lifting himself in the process."

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