Washington memoirs are all about settling scores. Karl Rove’s “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight” takes that tradition to new and self-parodying heights. To read Rove’s recollections of George W. Bush’s White House is to believe that, for eight years, men of “courage and moral clarity” governed the United States and were beset by critics who refused to give them any credit. On page after page, Rove names the naysayers and picks apart their claims. He’s most at ease — his delight jumps right off of the page — when he’s able to recount times he shoved the criticisms back in their faces.
In the memoir’s final chapter, humbly titled “Rove: the Myth,” the architect of a two-term Republican presidency reports how angry he was when he read a passage in then-Sen. Barack Obama’s second book lumping him in with Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed as “conservative operatives” with “fiery rhetoric” like “No new taxes” or “We are a Christian nation.”
“I certainly don’t believe and have never said, ‘We are a Christian nation,’” writes Rove. “I put the offending page in my pocket and went about my business.” Later that day, he encountered Obama and fell victim to “feistiness,” challenging the senator for using “my name and the word ’said’ and quote marks.” Obama, Rove reports, blanched when the torn-out page was shown to him and tried to wriggle out of the conversation: “It seemed to me he didn’t much care that he had attributed to me something I had never said and found offensive.”
Four years later, Rove offers up the encounter as proof that Obama’s image as “the truest, purest proponent of a fresh new style of politics” is a ruse, and snarls that “the last time I checked, I hadn’t bombed any government building (like, say, Obama’s great friend William Ayers); or asked that God ‘damn’ America (like, say, Obama’s former pastor and close friend Jeremiah Wright); or declared that I was proud of my country for the first time in my life only when I was in my forties (like, say, Obama’s wife, Michelle).”
It’s a revealing passage — it takes up three whole pages — that demonstrates just how Rove thinks. Accused of being a steamrolling, divisive political operative, he locates a loophole in the argument, and closes by insulting the wife of the person who criticized him. Apart from some gripping narrative sections about how the inner sanctum of the White House reacted to the September 11 attacks, “Courage and Consequence” reads less like the story of one of history’s most powerful presidential advisers and more like a quickie fightback book from some apparatchik ensnared in a petty scandal.
Rove’s quest to debunk and overpower his enemies in politics and the press begins with his account of the “broken family” that raised him. Nineteen pages in, he starts swinging at journalists — James Moore, Paul Alexander, Wayne Slater — who’ve looked into the suicide of his mother and the rumored homosexuality of his father for clues about his psychology. “The writers who are fascinated with whether my father was gay,” Rove snarls, “are really more interested in implying that all people who have gay relatives or friends must support same-sex marriage; otherwise they are bigots and hypocrites. And if one of these people happens to be Karl Rove, so much the better.”
In other, less personal sections of the book, Rove takes the same care in dissembling what his enemies have been saying. Throughout, he settles scores with political opponents while seeing past the fault in his own. Recapping one of the coups of his early career, he admits that he “destroyed the career” of former Texas Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerroro by leaking the proof that she had embellished her academic record. “Did I pass on to a reporter the information that pointed to our opponent’s lie?” Rove writes. “Absolutely, you bet, and I have no regrets about it whatsoever. Why should I? The information, after all, was true. That should have some bearing on this issue.”
Rove doesn’t have the same attitude about information that damaged his own client, George W. Bush. Rove devotes a chapter title — “Derailed by a DUI” — and five pages to how Democrats killed the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign’s momentum with a leak about Bush’s 1976 DUI arrest in Maine. Mournfully, Rove recounts the reaction of his campaign — “Bush called it ‘dirty politics’ and said, ‘I don’t know if my opponent’s campaign was involved, but I do know that the person who admitted doing it at the last minute was a Democratic and partisan in Maine.” Rove’s regret was that he didn’t outsmart the Democrats by leaking the information before they did: “Of the things I would redo in the 2000 election, making a timely announcement about Bush’s DUI would top the list.”
Rove’s pride and tunnel vision about his campaign tactics aren’t anything new in the Washington memoir genre. Much of Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” featured the same sort of finger-pointing about her brief bid for the vice presidency. If anything, Rove takes more obvious relish in attacking the people who made his campaigns difficult — it’s mostly “the kooky left-wing blogosphere” that thinks he ran a dirty campaign against John McCain in 2000, or that only an “imbecile” could have believed the 2004 exit polls that showed a Kerry-Edwards win, and so on.
But unlike Palin — unlike most people with his portfolio — Rove was in the cockpit for much of a consequential presidency that launched two wars and dramatically expanded the size of the federal government. He writes about this the same way he writes about minor tiffs and campaign tricks. He spends a page trying to debunk the idea that Bush ever told Americans to “go shopping” after the September 11 attacks. Technically, he’s right. The closest Bush ever came to using those two precise words — the moment that most people remember as the “go shopping” moment — were his September 27, 2001 remarks at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when he urged Americans to “get down to Disney World in Florida” and “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” But Rove insists that the “closest he ever came” was a different speech in which Bush praised Americans for “going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshiping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball.” Even there, Rove skips past the argument made by critics — that Bush, in a unique position to demand more of Americans, gave an “all-clear” sign and moved on. In writing about Hurricane Katrina, one of his only regrets is “flying over the region in Air Force One on Wednesday, rather than landing.” In one of Rove’s few admissions, he admits that he’s “one of the people responsible for this mistake.”
“Courage and Consequence” is filled with such arguments. Pre-release excepts about Rove’s take on the Iraq War — that his biggest regret was that he should have worked harder to spin the fallout over the lack of WMD in Iraq — foreshadowed the way Rove would tackle most of the controversies of his tenure. At several points, he simply misstates facts. He impugns the character of former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who was removed from his position in New Mexico after declining to file politicized lawsuits, by claiming that Iglesias was incompetent and gunning for electoral office. Paragraphs later, he claims that the only qualm that Democrats have with former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin — who resigned after negative attention on his own politicized appointment — is that they feared it would help Griffin’s career. Left unmentioned is the real Democratic argument, that Griffin helped the Bush-Cheney campaign challenge the voter registrations of voters in largely African-American, Democratic-leaning areas. But to Rove, the most important Republican political strategist of his generation, Democratic worries about election integrity are basically one big joke. In an unsurprising chapter about the 2000 presidential election recount — revelations are limited to the angry looks and sighs that various players gave to Rove — he refers to the Bush team in Florida as “freedom fighters whose homeland had been occupied as they grappled with a blitzkrieg of lawsuits filed by Gore’s attorneys and street protests led by Jesse Jackson.”
Very little of this should surprise observers of Rove in power or out of power, as a quotable White House aide and then as a Fox News pundit who has reliably attacked the Democrats. Rove’s disinterest in policy or consequences of policy isn’t surprising, either. (”I didn’t pretend to be Carl von Clausewitz or Henry Kissinger, but I knew the Iraq War wasn’t going well,” Rove writes of his thinking in December 2006.) The historical value of the book itself is minimal. It functions, instead, as a test of whether Rove’s combination of pique and pride will be helpful as Bush administration veterans argue that they spent eight years changing America for the better, over the cries of critics, only to watch their work be ruined by Barack Obama and his pack of elitist liberals.