Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brain Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush
By Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon, Public Affairs, 256 pages, $15.00
Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential
By James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, John Wiley & Sons, 400 pages, $27.95
The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush
By David Frum, Random House, 384 pages, $25.95
If Karl Rove did not exist, George W. Bush would not be president of the United States.
Surely this reviewer jests -- or has been bamboozled by the premise of two of these books for which that idea is essential. Nope. Consider the sheer anomaly of two biographies of the president's chief political adviser appearing just two years into his boss' term. Roll over, Jim Farley. Start screaming, James Carville.
Rove is the essential man for many reasons. He was certain, utterly certain, about Bush's political potential much earlier than Bush was. "Bush is the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait a lifetime to be associated with," Rove once said. This is not the usual consultant-strokes-the-boss quote. It's Rove's reality.
As James C. Moore and Wayne Slater make clear in Bush's Brain, the boy genius was just that. His practical and intellectual infatuation with politics began in childhood, and he always wanted to get to the top. The Rove of these books is aware of both his strengths and his limitations. The fact that Bush shares this trait with Rove is the key to their alliance.
Rove seems to have realized almost immediately that his own skills as a gut fighter, a visionary and a self-made intellectual were perfectly complemented by Bush's ease with people and his upper-crust connections. What Rove has never said -- publicly at least -- is that Bush badly needed his boy genius on absolutely everything when it came to the substance of politics: policy, strategy, tactics and, when necessary, a willingness to execute, without much apparent scruple, whatever political attack was necessary. "Rove was cerebral; Bush never liked going too deeply into the homework," Moore and Slater write. "Rove had an encyclopedic mind and a gift for campaign arithmetic; Bush had engaging people skills, a knack for winning over opponents with pure charm. If Rove approached politics as a blood sport, Bush's instinct was to search out compromise and agreement." If ever a relationship deserved to be called codependent, this is it.
At the critical moments of Bush's political career, Rove did the requisite wire pulling, nurturing, maneuvering and tutoring to put Bush into position, first to run for governor of Texas in 1994 and then for president in 2000. And when Rove's Bush dream turned nightmarish after Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, Rove oversaw what Moore and Slater accurately describe as "two weeks of slaughterhouse politics" in the South Carolina primary. The man sent to the slaughterhouse in a campaign full of nasty innuendo and vicious whispers, of course, was McCain.
Moore and Slater tell of Bush trying to make light of the attacks when he met McCain before a debate:
"John," Bush said, "it's politics."
McCain snapped back, "George, everything isn't politics."
Another heroic Vietnam veteran, former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), might have said exactly the same thing on election night 2002.
That Bush always understood his need for Rove is proof positive, as Moore and Slater write, that Bush is "smart enough to know that he is not smart enough." On this point, I prefer the formulation of Lou Dubose, Jan Reid and Carl M. Cannon in Boy Genius. They write, "If Bush is the virtuoso, then Rove is the composer." The pair's music now sets the tone of our politics.
The story of two guys who pooled their virtues to take over a nation should be interesting enough to make the two Rove books worth reading. Moore and Slater have done an immense amount of useful reporting and provide many moments of vigorous writing. It's a shame they mar this helpful book with a brief excursion into foreign policy, citing Saddam Hussein's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz as if he were an oracle. Dubose, Reid and Cannon, meanwhile, offer smart political judgments and lovely anecdotes, particularly in their appropriately irreverent chapters on Texas' political wackiness.
The real virtue of these volumes, though, is that they help us get at the back story of what has happened to American politics since W. went national in 1999. Rove wants to turn the United States into a Republican nation for at least a generation by disabling the Democrats and creating an impregnable GOP machine. All the elements of his approach came together first in Texas.
Rove settled there after dropping out of college and spending some years as a Republican road warrior. He connected with the Bush family through his friend, the late Lee Atwater, who was also the first President Bush's campaign manager. Rove, the unapologetic nerd, learned a lot from Atwater, the free spirit.
There's much here on Rove the Rogue -- for example, his relationship with an FBI agent named Greg Rampton, who had a thing for investigating Texas Democratic officeholders at miraculously convenient moments for the Republican candidates Rove was running against them.
There's Rove announcing in 1986 that his office had been bugged. By sheer chance, no doubt, he gave this news to the media the morning before a critical debate between Texas' Democratic Gov. Mark White and Republican Bill Clements, Rove's guy and the man expected to lose the debate. Democrats always suspected that Rove had the bug planted himself, but they could never prove it. Clements won.
Here's Rove's style in a strategy memo he wrote to Clements during the White campaign: "Anti-White messages are more important than positive Clements messages. Attack, attack, attack."
Those last three words are straight out of the Catechism of the Bipartisan Church of the Political Consultant. But Rove and Bush perfected a division of labor between consultant and candidate during Bush's 1994 gubernatorial race against Ann Richards. "There were actually two campaigns against Richards, one in which Bush floated above the fray and another in which Rove targeted the Democrat's politics and gender," Moore and Slater write. "It was an arrangement that allowed Bush plausible deniability, no matter what. And it was a model of future Bush races: Bush traveling the high road, Rove pursuing the low."
Yet what makes Rove interesting is not his ruthlessness but rather his strategic vision and ability to execute. When Rove began plying his trade in Texas, it was a Democratic state. When he left for Washington in 2000, Republicans, most of them former clients of Rove's firm, controlled almost everything.
Rove's realignment of the state rested on the same principles he is currently applying to the nation. He turned the business class into a solidly Republican constituency, pushing its members to break their ties with Democrats. He made tort reform a central Bush issue. This made business groups happy and undercut trial lawyers, who were key to the Democrats' fundraising. And the man whose specialty was direct mail raised piles of money.
He also made the cultural conservatives a linchpin of Bush's constituency. "To govern on behalf of the corporate right, they would have to appease the Christian right," Dubose et al. write. "The marriage of the Christian conservatives had to be made to work if the party was to work."
Yet Rove always understood the importance of wooing middle-class voters who were not right wing. He wrote a memo to Clements in the 1980s that perfectly described the strategy he would later pursue for Bush. "The purpose of saying you gave teachers a record pay increase is to reassure suburban voters with kids, not to win the votes of teachers," Rove wrote. "Similarly, emphasizing your appointments of women and minorities will not win you the support of feminists and the leaders of the minority community; but it will bolster your support among Republican primary voters and urban independents." Welcome to compassionate conservatism before it was cool.
Rove liked to quote Napoleon, especially the phrase, "The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack." There in a nutshell was the key to Republicans' strategy in 2002. Through what Robert L. Borosage has described as "political cross-dressing," they played smart defense on issues such as prescription drugs and then audaciously attacked on homeland security. It worked.
David Frum's often shrewd volume The Right Man might well have come out of a Rove focus group. It is deeply sympathetic to Bush, giving it credibility with the large audience that buys right-wing books. But it has enough critical tidbits ("In private, Bush was not the easy, genial man he was in public.") to appeal to those who can't stand Bush. Frum offers nice sketches of his colleagues, though I regret to say he does not get my friend John DiIulio right.
Frum is pro-Karl Rove and anti- Karen Hughes. He rightly sees Rove as the more intellectual and conservative of the two but underappreciates Hughes' value to Bush as the commonsensical non-ideologue who thinks a lot about all the souls who fall outside the Republican base. I can't help but wonder: Would Hughes have advised Bush to push for eliminating the taxation of dividends?
Frum's analysis of Bush as "the right man" is rooted in the president's performance after September 11. Before the terrorist attacks, he thought the administration was failing and wanted to leave. "I had come to like Bush too much to want to be a tourist inside his White House as his administration unraveled," he writes of the summer of 2001.
This raises interesting questions about whether the Bush-Rove (or is it Rove-Bush?) strategy is as brilliant as we all think it is. If there's a flaw in Rove's view of politics, it's that he grants infallible status to the Republican base. This is a problem because the views and interests of the Christian right and the big-business right are not the views of the American majority. Rove, in some part of his being, knows that. Yet his default position is always to dance with the ones who brung him. Such loyalty is admirable in its way. It can also be blinding.
As I write, I can have no idea how the conflict with Iraq will affect Bush's standing. I do know that where American politics is concerned, those who have been the victims of a "well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by rapid and audacious attack" ought, in principle, to be able to learn from the experience. You wonder: Will they?