Maybe someday Karl Rove will write a thoughtful and candid account of how he helped guide George W. Bush downward from the national-unity president of the months after 9/11 to the derided figure who left office with a 34 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll, on par with the exiting Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman. Rove, who had once dreamed of launching a new conservative era much as his hero William McKinley did
in 1896, certainly has the intellect and the appreciation of history to write such an anatomy of a political disaster.
Unfortunately, "Courage and Consequence" is not that memoir. The author is excessively charitable toward everyone other than obvious conservative targets -- Democrats in Congress ("it was classic Daschle deviousness"), the press ("they actually enjoy the misery of others") and GOP turncoats like Colin Powell. Rove is also uninterested in explaining causation even when it relates to minor puzzles, like why Katrina-incompetent Michael Brown ever was in the administration ("I had opposed Brown's being named FEMA director").
He is equally opaque about major questions, like why did Bush eke out re-election in 2004 only by the grace of 120,000 votes in Ohio, even though he was a wartime incumbent president in an age of terrorism facing an aloof, liberal Democratic opponent who ran a terrible campaign. The biggest disappointment is that Bush's political architect adds little to our understanding of how big-casino national politics works, despite devoting an entire chapter trying to define how he approaches a campaign: "To be Rovian, a campaign must first be centered on big ideas."
But, to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you settle into your easy chair with the book you have. It's not the book you might want or wish to have at a later time. By these permissive standards, "Courage and Consequence" has its virtues, even for those who might chortle when Rove claims that during his nearly seven years in the White House, "I often reminded people to put political considerations out of their mind and instead focus on making good policy."
To its credit, the book reads like it was actually written rather than dictated into a tape recorder in an airport lounge during a long layover in Atlanta. (Politics Daily conservative columnist Pete Wehner, a Rove White House deputy, is credited with helping "craft every chapter and episode"). While Rove gets a tingle up his leg when he meets a future president for the first time in 1973 ("George W. Bush walked through the front door, exuding more charm and charisma than is allowed by law"), "Courage and Consequence" should not be confused with Bush treacle like Karen Hughes' 2004 remainder-bin classic, "Ten Minutes From Normal."
Related: Politics Daily's Matt Lewis Interviews Karl Rove About His Memoir
Salted among the 596 pages are intriguing vignettes about public officials who are unlikely to ever again cross Rove's orbit. Describing the 2005 vetting of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, Rove writes, "My dominant impression from his interview . . . was that he was painfully shy. . . . There was nothing we could do to put him at ease. He just sat there twitching, sweating, and visibly distraught. But, boy, was he smart."
Rove, who had championed former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri for vice president (Missouri was a likely swing state in that election), also describes one of the oddest scenes in the history of second-banana selections. Prompted by Bush ("Tell me why you think I shouldn't pick Dick Cheney"), Rove spent more than 30 minutes detailing the liabilities of the former Wyoming congressman ("Picking the senior Bush's defense secretary for VP would send the message, I feared, that the young governor was falling back on his father's administration for help"). Sitting with a poker face next to Bush during Rove's presentation was the head of the vice-presidential selection team, an oil-industry executive named Dick Cheney.
It is difficult to read Rove's often truculent defense of the Bush presidency without reporting to ideological battle stations. Liberal Politics Daily columnist David Corn
has already rushed into the fray based on early press accounts highlighting the few news nuggets in the book. But it takes a far more determined partisan than I am to relish re-arguing at this late date the Bush administration's flawed and fallacious case for invading Iraq. Rove himself has no such compunctions as he thrills his right-wing readers with a chapter unsubtly titled, "Bush Was Right on Iraq." But as Rove argues with some justice that many Democrats also believed in the existence of the phantom weapons of mass destruction, he also offers a throw-away admission that historians may long ponder: "Would the Iraq War have occurred without WMD? I doubt it. Congress was very unlikely to have supported the use-of-force resolution without the threat of WMD. The Bush administration itself would probably have sought other ways to contain Saddam."
I never bought the notion -- so fashionable on the Bush-hating left -- that Rove was the embodiment of political evil unmatched since Rasputin. After more than three decades covering presidential campaigns, I believe that cynical political operatives behave like cynical political operatives, regardless of party. On a moral plane, it matters little whether the strategist is named Rove, Dick Morris or Rahm Emanuel.
But rather than reveling in his black-hat reputation, the thin-skinned Rove seems determined to debunk every rumor that he ever did anything more aggressive in a campaign than handing out bound copies of the candidate's speeches. Charges about the whispering campaign against John McCain
before the decisive 2000 South Carolina primary? "They're wrong," writes Rove. Accusations that he orchestrated the explosive 2002 campaign commercial implicitly impugning the patriotism
of Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and his right arm in combat? Rove insists, "I did not conceive, create, craft, prepare or have anything to do with the . . . television ad." The 2004 Swift Boat Veterans
campaign attacking on John Kerry? You can guess Rove's not-my-table answer: "I had no role in any of it, though the Swifties did a damned good job."
A rare article of faith -- shared by conservatives and liberals alike -- is that Rove is a political genius. But reading "Courage and Consequence," I kept recalling the epic put-down of Rove and his White House political team as "Mayberry Machiavellis
" by John DiIulio, the first director of Bush's office of faith-based programs. About the only true masterstroke that I can attribute to Rove was his stubborn belief in 2000 that Bush could carry West Virginia, a state so reliably Democratic that it even went for the hapless Michael Dukakis in 1988. As Rove writes, "Many Democratic voters were pro-life, pro-prayer, and pro-gun, even if they had voted Democratic for decades." Bush ended up carrying West Virginia by 40,000 votes -- and had the state gone Democratic, Al Gore would not have needed to carry Florida.
But once in the White House ("On January 20, 2001 . . . I thought I knew more than I actually did," he ruefully confesses in one of the closing passages of the book), Rove contributed to the Bush administration's reign of error. Although he does not address the topic in the book, Rove apparently did nothing to tamp down the ultimately politically damaging "Mission Accomplished
" triumphalism after the fall of Baghdad. Sharing in the hawkish certainties of the Bush White House, Rove admits that he "did not see how damaging" Democratic charges that the president lied the nation into the Iraq War would turn out to be.
After Bush's 2004 hairsbreadth victory, Rove, awash in free-market certainty, was convinced that the president had a mandate to permit younger workers to play the stock market with their Social Security taxes. (Just imagine the outcry had Social Security privatization
been in place in time for the 2008 financial crisis.) Rove now concedes that he miscalculated in making this issue the domestic centerpiece of the president's second term: "I was too caught up in working for big change and banking too much on a newly elected president's ability to move Congress."
Even more telling was Rove's apparent wink-and-a-nod tolerance of the Republican congressional ethical crisis that fueled the 2006 Democratic House take-over. Tom DeLay, probably the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill during Bush's first term, is mentioned only twice (in passing) in Rove's book, with the second reference noting his 2005 indictment.
Throughout "Courage and Consequences," Rove takes refuge in the comforting notion (for him) that George W. Bush was a "conviction politician" who will ultimately be vindicated by history. As he writes, "Many of the nation's most accomplished presidents -- Lincoln, FDR, Reagan -- were polarizing figures during their times in office." But Bush is only likely ever to be equated with FDR and Reagan in the minds of his most unswerving acolytes, like Karl Rove. Courage does have consequences. But so do wisdom and judgment.