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The Curveball of Karl Rove

Karl Rove; drawing by John Springs

Karl Rove grew up in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. As a student at the University of Utah he joined the College Republicans. He worked on the 1972 Nixon campaign, and has often been described as a “protégé” of Donald Segretti, the virtuoso of dirty tricks who went to jail as a Watergate conspirator. Whatever the nature of Rove’s contact with Segretti, the fate of Nixon’s advisers, campaign organizers, and tricksters doubtless formed a subject of meditation for him in the years 2004–2006, when he found himself threatened with indictment by a special prosecutor. The name of Donald Segretti appears nowhere in the present book.

Rove blames himself for a dirty trick at the start of his career. In 1970, he got hold of an invitation to the opening of the campaign headquarters of Alan Dixon, a Democratic candidate for Illinois state treasurer, and used it to counterfeit a flyer: “Free Beer, Free Food, Girls, and A Good Time for Nothing.” The fake invitation spelled out the time and place of the actual opening of the headquarters, and Rove handed out his forgery to “vagrants, homeless, and drifters,” as he puts it, “in bad parts of downtown Chicago and at a free rock concert in Grant Park.” He pleads guilty to the misstep but he says it had no successor. He denies that there was ever a poll in the 2000 South Carolina primary in which voters were asked: “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”

Rove’s general advice on running a political campaign is pragmatic. You have to answer the question “Why elect your guy?” He thinks this means that his approach is not essentially negative, but of course it can end up that way—if, for example, the typical ad closes by saying “Because my guy loves his country.” The ads that Rove still defends for Saxby Chambliss, who defeated the Georgia senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland in 2002, followed precisely that strategy. They juxtaposed images of Cleland with images of Osama bin Laden. To justify his party’s tactics, Rove resorts to a sophistry: no slander was conveyed, he says, since many seconds of montage separated the images of bin Laden from the images of Cleland. Interspersed with the self- acquittals are judgments of a cleverer sort that show why Karl Rove & Company was a highly prosperous consulting firm in the years between 1981 and 1999.

Thus Rove recalls how Robert Dole in 1996 asked voters whether they would feel more comfortable leaving their children with him or with Bill Clinton. “Were voters supposed to be impressed with that?” asks Rove. It was a cheap attack that nobody could associate with a particular irritant. “To be successful,” he explains, “an attack must be perceived as both fair and relevant, backed with credible evidence, and launched at the right time.” The half-truth here is “credible evidence.” Rove means evidence that only appears credible, evidence that sprays fast enough and drips far enough to resist removal from the popular mind even when the whole truth comes out later on.

The Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry were like that. (Rove says he had nothing to do with them.) The veterans who spoke in the ads had fought in Vietnam themselves, but the ones who denied the public accounts of Kerry’s valor turned out to have been far from the relevant scene of action. This hardly mattered once the idea got about that something was “off” with Kerry and Vietnam. The ads also picked up credibility from Kerry’s refusal to respond to them. Rove thinks the most damaging were those that recalled Kerry’s charges of war crimes against American forces.

Were the charges true? That question would have carried no importance for Rove; anyway, he has no interest in exploring the facts. His point is that you cannot speak of a war crime by Americans and get elected in America. The least personal of the Swift Boat ads hurt Kerry the most because he had made the decision to run on his fame as a veteran while running away from his opposition to the Vietnam War. The ads may not have answered the question “Why vote for my guy?” They did ask about Bush’s opponent: Why is this man running away from himself? Kerry might have fought on his own ground by affirming his honest opposition to both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. This he was never willing to do, and the ads called his bluff.

Shrewd assessment on points like these gives the narrative here its occasional value. But vulgarity and spitefulness come out of the pores of the prose. Of Al Gore’s candidacy in 2000, Rove recalls: “August was defined by Al Gore’s recovery, and I was surprised at how he did it: by picking a Jew and kissing his wife.” The ugliness of the image and diction alike betrays a mental lowness. It comes out again in Rove’s pages about the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, which cost the Republicans their Senate majority in 2001. Jeffords was repelled by the Cheney-Bush decisions to reject the Kyoto treaty on climate change, to withdraw from the ABM treaty, to ram through the regressive tax cuts of 2001, and to loosen the environmental regulations of the Clinton years. Many who had listened to the “compassionate conservative” of the 2000 campaign shared the same reaction, but Rove denies its legitimacy: “Bush had spent two years making his ideas and proposals clear.”

This is demonstrably false. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 were not a foregone conclusion, not even to Bush, who asked in the middle of the discussions (as we know from Paul O’Neill’s White House memoir): “Didn’t we already give them a break at the top?” On this issue Rove sinks to purest demagogy. The Democrats, he says, “would rather have high taxes and a lower standard of living than low taxes and a higher standard of living.” But every link in that proposition depends on what you mean by a standard of living—a formula as ambiguous as prevenient grace or innate depravity—which Rove treats as if it were a substance like Cheerios.

Rove thinks in slogans. Yet he has an exalted idea of history. He reads a lot of books, wishes he had finished college, and boasts of the promise made by an adviser at the University of Texas (where Rove has taught classes on political campaigning) that he is to be admitted to their Ph.D. program in government once he obtains an undergraduate degree. In Courage and Consequence, he writes like a man accustomed to producing memos, instructions, and publicity releases. It is not a manner suited to personal narrative any more than it is to history. The departure of his stepfather when Rove was eighteen, his mother’s practice of intercepting the checks his stepfather sent to support the children, her suicide when he was thirty (leaving behind a letter that he described to Thomas Edsall as “the classic fuck-you gesture”), and the breakup of his marriage to the Texas socialite Valerie Wainwright—when Rove is tempted to think about any of these things, he says, he digs in harder and just bears down on his political work. He has reflected very little on a life whose unluckiness in its first decades might have broken a weaker or a more susceptible man.

His ascent to national stature began when he was elected national chairman of the College Republicans. This was in 1973, when George H.W. Bush was national chairman of the party. The elder Bush cleared Rove from allegations of crooked campaigning—which surfaced when The Washington Post discovered a tape of Rove discussing the ins and outs of dirty tricks—and four years later asked him to lead his exploratory PAC for a presidential run. Soon after being approved by the elder, Rove met the younger Bush, and he felt an immediate attraction. As he told Nicholas Lemann for a 2003 New Yorker profile:

I can literally remember what he was wearing: an Air National Guard flight jacket, cowboy boots, blue jeans, complete with the—in Texas you see it a lot—one of the back pockets will have a circle worn in the pocket from where you carry your tin of snuff, your tin of tobacco. He was exuding more charisma than any one individual should be allowed to have.

The friendship was always unequal. Bush saw his effect on Rove and acted as he was used to acting with people over whom he enjoyed such ascendancy. Bush is a top-dog nicknamer: part of a good-humored lordliness that keeps aggression in play. Rove professes never to have understood the nickname Bush gave him: Turd Blossom. (Out of this turd, Rove, this blossom, victory.) Bush, in much of his visible relation to Rove, exhibited a trait peculiar to him and in no way admirable: contemptuous gratitude.

Since Rove’s experience of grown-up friendships has been confined to a narrow circle, he may not be aware that the world is full of employers, superiors, and patrons who show their authority in gentler ways. Yet something about his manner plainly invites ridicule. He was always a practical joker, with the practical joker’s unconscious sadism. There can be a weird innocence under the aberration, and it can lay you open to unexpected mockery in turn. Colin Powell on entering a room with Rove in it used to call out: “Private Rove, drop and give me twenty!” It hardly seems Powell’s style, but something about Rove triggered it. Josh Bolten, the President’s chief of staff, when asked by a friend what it was like to be Karl Rove’s boss, replied, “He comes when you call.” Bush added without missing a beat: “But he doesn’t fetch.”

Only once does Rove blanch at a memory of a public act that placed him in a regrettable light. This was his “twitching and shouting” rap dance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner of March 2007. He got into it pretty convincingly, and seems to have enjoyed himself, but later had to meet the eyes of dignified spectators. “Speaker Pelosi’s face conveyed abject horror, as if she had just seen a favorite family pet slaughtered.” He may exaggerate the grossness of his offense on this occasion, but he just as surely underrates it elsewhere.

Rove seems not to have participated firsthand in the sifting of evidence to justify the war against Iraq. He writes about that all-important period, between August 2002 and March 2003, as an in-house observer, using the approved opinions and documents. Still, his view offers a glimpse of a state of mind that is widely shared by people who served under George W. Bush. He defends Bush in retrospect by attacking his attackers: lawmakers of both parties favored the war, says Rove, and everyone agreed that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

George W. Bush; drawing by John Springs

This does not argue the probity of Bush so much as his companionship in error. But who else had the opportunity to know as much as he did? It is fair to recall that a large consensus endorsed the authorization of war in October 2002—a fact that Democrats often forget. Yet twenty-three senators voted against that authorization, twenty-one of them Democrats, along with one independent (Jim Jeffords) and one Republican (Lincoln Chafee). Time has borne out their suspicions, and it is wrong to suggest, as Rove now does, that they spoke their minds both then and later because they were “eager” for party reasons to do “grave damage to their country’s ability to win a war.”

Courage and Consequence is less concerned to defend the rightness of Bush’s judgment than to suggest that nobody knew better in 2003. David Kay and Charles Duelfer, who led the official American searches for WMDs after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and American and British forces had occupied Iraq, were surprised that they could find none. Rove would like to freeze our awareness at that expression of surprise. By nationalizing the blame as well as the credit for good intentions, Rove would have us cherish agree- able thoughts about the past. This ecumenical evasion—promoted by Barack Obama too, with his motto of looking “to the future, not the past”—aims to forgive without telling us what it is that needs forgiving.

Rove’s account nearly removes from view the international dimension of the reporting and inspection of WMDs in Iraq. The work of the International Atomic Energy Agency is scarcely mentioned here; yet nothing so starkly indicated the intentions of the White House as the urgency with which George W. Bush pressed for the evacuation of the UN inspectors. Their work was largely done by March 2003. But their findings had been negative. A suspicion about WMDs that may have seemed reasonable in September 2002 had thus become gradually improbable, and the White House had to give reasons for taking the country into war. Bush circumvented the question by simply saying that time was up. The UNMOVIC inspectors, under Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, were pulled from Iraq to make way for Shock and Awe. The “air show” had begun: Iraq was the second piece of the War on Terror, and its architects wanted it over before summer.

The name of Hans Blix has largely been written out of American histories of the war. The eviction of his inspectors from Iraq was among the clearest early manifestations of the larger hostility to international judgment that would characterize the Cheney-Bush administration. Yet the judgments of Blix were moderate in tone and unimpeachable in substance. On February 14, 2003, a month before the start of the war, he affirmed to the Security Council his strong impression that “Iraq had decided in principle to provide cooperation on process” and added that “access to sites has so far been without problems, including those that had never been declared or inspected.” Against Colin Powell’s theory that Saddam Hussein was playing a shell game with mobile units, Blix said that “conventional arms are being moved around the country” but such “movements are not necessarily related to weapons of mass destruction.”

The White House, however, had made up its mind. A New York Times story by Steven R. Weisman on March 2 quoted an administration source:

The inspections have turned out to be a trap. They have become a false measure of disarmament in the eyes of people. We’re not counting on Blix to do much of anything for us.

The administration accordingly disregarded, and did all it could to suppress, his statement on March 7 that the inspections would not take years but months to conclude. Looking back, Blix said to Tim Russert on June 4, 2006: “If we had been allowed a couple of months more, we would have been able to go to all the sites given by intelligence, and found no weapons, since there weren’t any.” He later estimated that the cost of keeping inspectors on the scene would have been $80 million a year. Compare the Bush budget for Afghanistan and Iraq, which by the end of 2008 had reached a total of $800 billion. And compare Rove in Courage and Consequence, who continues to draw the inferences of 2002 from records of the conduct of Saddam Hussein that go back to the 1980s and 1990s. He concludes with an air of having mastered the debate: “From my perch inside the West Wing…I could see the care everyone was taking to not overstate the case or exaggerate the danger.”

All this became personal when Joseph C. Wilson, on July 6, 2003, published a New York Times Op-Ed, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” that challenged the President’s claim six months earlier in his State of the Union message that Saddam Hussein had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger. As far back as March 7, ElBaradei had reported to the Security Council that this claim was based on a forged document. Wilson now added that the White House knew the evidence was false when the President spoke. The Office of the Vice President struck back by telling reporters that Wilson had not been sent on his mission to Africa by the administration, but rather by his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA. This report exposed an active agent.

The special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who was brought in to investigate the leak, found its origins so elusive that he chose to go after only those who had perjured themselves in testimony on the way. Lewis Libby was convicted. Karl Rove, questioned five times at length by Fitzgerald before the grand jury, narrowly escaped indictment. Libby had told the same story about Valerie Wilson to several reporters, and then claimed not to have known the facts until he learned them from Tim Russert. The jury believed the concurrence of nine witnesses, on ten conversations, against the testimony of the vice-presidential deputy, who contradicted himself.

Rove was a smaller target because he had talked to only two reporters. Robert Novak, who first published the identity of Wilson’s wife, had called Rove to check and Rove confirmed the rumor. He did the same for Matthew Cooper of Time, but forgot the second disclosure until a report of it turned up in an e-mail his lawyer came across, and they shared the discovery with Fitzgerald. At that point it seems, Fitzgerald decided that Rove (in the parlance of prosecutors) was no longer a tempting case. The charges against Libby had been perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statement, but Rove, unlike Libby, at least told the truth about what he should never have said.

This differential treatment so rankled Dick Cheney that he wrote a memo to himself that became Government Exhibit 532 in the Libby trial: “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” After “the guy” and before “that was asked” Cheney had written “the Pres” and crossed it out. He seems, in short, originally to have written that the President asked Libby to take the hit for Rove. This goes some way to explain the assiduousness of Cheney’s appeals for a pardon for Libby in the last days of the administration. One measure of Rove’s uneasy awareness of that fact is his failure to mention it. Another is the scrubbing of almost every memory of Cheney from this account of his years in the White House.

His paragraphs on Fitzgerald make the only vivid portrait in Courage and Consequence. Rove seems to fear the prosecutor even now; only Cheney inspires as much fear. He says that Fitzgerald “struck me as someone who would rarely say he was wrong.” Rove is like that too, of course: the only wrong he admits in almost six hundred pages is the early prank in Chicago. But the risk of indictment by a federal prosecutor came at the other end of his career and threatened him with a permanent loss of status. Fitzgerald’s energy may have troubled Rove chiefly because it was concerned so exclusively with facts. He offers the usual defense: such prosecutions amount to “an attempt to criminalize political differences.” It would be fairer to call them an attempt to politicize criminal differences. If you differ in point of criminality from your opponent, why not say so?

The truth is that the cant phrase about “criminalizing political differences” is a sedative to kill every interest in the discovery of facts. Fitzgerald demolished the slogan when he said in his summation that politics was a game with rules like baseball, that the law was the umpire, and that Libby by his false statements to the FBI and the grand jury had thrown sand in the eyes of the law.

Even now, Rove is piqued that a reporter, Chris Matthews, said that Rove looked on Valerie Wilson as “fair game.” He never used those words, he says, and he adds very oddly: “It was an unusual phrase.” “Fair game” is not an unusual phrase. It is well known to speakers of colloquial English. What, then, had Rove actually said to Matthews?

What was fair, I said, was to assess Wilson’s claim that he was sent to Africa at the request of Vice President Cheney’s office. What was fair was to inquire about why the CIA didn’t think Wilson’s claims were dispositive.

Dispositive: now there is an unusual word. When he spoke to Matthews, the mind of Rove was already in the courtroom. His explanation really amounts to saying that he thought a CIA agent was fair game when the hunter was George W. Bush. The “sixteen words” in the Bush State of the Union address of 2003, which launched the Wilson criticism and the investigation, were removed from the text of the speech before being reinserted as a finding of “the British government.” Rove, whose acquaintance with the Niger forgery is thin, asserts that “we had learned” some time after the speech “that the CIA was not of one mind on the claim.” But the settler of this question was the head of the CIA, George Tenet, and he told the White House before the speech that the claim was false.

If there is one thing even stranger than the self-imposed ignorance of Rove’s account of Iraq, it is that he continues to treat the forgery as the only evidence that Cheney and Bush took the country into war on false or partial or misleading grounds. He writes, and it is entirely possible that he knows, nothing about the unsubstantiated rumor of a “Prague connection” between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda; about the fraudulent “Curveball” evidence used by Colin Powell in his testimony before the UN; or about the proofs supplied by the Iraqi intelligence chief, Tahir Jalil Habbush, to the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, a month before the invasion, to show that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capabilities had been thoroughly dismantled in the 1990s.

Rove’s final appeal against the investigation of himself is that “there was clearly no reason” for him to commit a crime. Indeed, no one at the White House could have done it, because they “didn’t operate that way.” This proves too much. It is a plea that washes away every crime a criminal could ever commit and come to regret. Once caught, such a criminal sees his action as an error, and, if he is a successful man, he sees it as an action uncharacteristic of himself.

Rove suspects it was sadism on Fitzgerald’s part that made him delay many months before deciding against an indictment. This seems an instance of psychological projection, but it turns into something wilder when Rove asks: “Why on earth hadn’t Fitzgerald simply asked me?” Most likely Fitzgerald caught Rove in a good many small evasions and inconsistencies. He wondered what was buried under them. It did seem a tempting case, then, up to a point. But Fitzgerald apparently concluded that the bulk of the rumor had come out of the Office of the Vice President, that Rove’s meddling had been a sideshow of secondary gossip, and that it was the business of Congress and not a special prosecutor to go after the leaders of the executive branch. Fitzgerald had told members of Congress that there was “a cloud over the Vice President” and “a cloud over the White House.” He had supplied enough materials to pursue the investigation further. What they chose to do now was their business.

In November 2007, when the glare of disrepute might still have seemed forbidding, Rove was hired by Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, as a writer of occasional columns. He keeps busy these days attacking Obama in The Wall Street Journal and on Fox News. If there remains a touch of apprehensiveness in his trust that he is off the hook forever, it does not come from a fear of the lawmakers in Congress, who have shown a consistent neglect of responsible oversight of the executive branch. Nor does it come from a fear of the Obama administration, which has shown little interest in accountability regarding the acts of the previous administration. It comes instead from a concern that someone may walk out of the shadows, someday, and ask more questions. Another investigator like Hans Blix, perhaps, or another prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald.

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