Capitol Chronicle

General Rove's war? Karl Rove may have trained the singer, but it's a very old martial song

The name Karl Rove, like that of Saddam Hussein, is on everybody's lips these days. In part, that's because of two new books with Austin connections: Boy Genius, by former Chronicle Politics editor Louis Dubose, Texas Monthly writer Jan Reid, and Washington reporter Carl Cannon; and Bush's Brain, by Capitol TV correspondent James Moore and Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. And on the newsstands, Rove's glabrous puss shines forth on the cover of Texas Monthly.

While the competing authors flog their wares on the various talk shows, we shall endure a great deal of talk about the transformation of American politics by professional handlers like James Carville, Dick Morris, Lee Atwater, and Rove. This will be followed by Rove himself insisting there is nothing to it, really, if you're (far) right on the candidate and the issues. Considering the grander takeover of U.S. politics in a single generation of government-by-corporation, Rove may well have the better of that argument.

Boy Genius is a compact and breezy political history with a nice feel for the Texas Republican background within which former high-school forensics dweeb and Goldwater teen Rove found a symbiotic home. (It needs to be said that while "genius" is an honorific best reserved for the likes of J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, or Stephen Hawking, "boy genius" or "turd blossom" are Dubya's alternating nicknames for Rove. Both indicate the current level of wit in the office that once housed Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.) The book is especially good as it recounts how Rove managed the battle between the Texas GOP's deep-pocketed underwriters and its fundamentalist and anti-government ground troops. There was never any doubt as to who would win, but what's interesting about the outcome is how the foot soldiers have been allowed -- nay, encouraged -- to maintain the useful rhetoric as long as the Big Boys retain the real power. The current unelected occupant of the White House, designated scion of the East Coast dynasty but full of pop-culture cowboy-and-religion posturing, has come to embody this politically indispensable paradox.

Taxes and Terrorism

Moore and Slater took more time and had better access than the authors of Genius, and Bush's Brain is a close-to-the-ground, engaging account of Rove's indefatigable ascension to the right hand of Caesar Ignoramus. Rove (and many nervously anonymous sources) at least talked to Slater and Moore. (Reportedly, Rove personally warned Carl Cannon that the latter's reputation would be irreparably besmirched by association with those nasty Austin radicals Dubose and Reid.) Yet Bush's Brain is in the end much tougher on Rove than Boy Genius, partly because of that greater access.

Moore and Slater have watched Rove up close -- from his bogus "I've been wiretapped" press conference during the 1986 Bill Clements gubernatorial campaign, to his unseemly collaboration with FBI agent Greg Rampton to ruin the careers of officials in Jim Hightower's Texas Dept. of Agriculture. (Both episodes are nicely and thoroughly recounted here). As reporters they are clearly both fascinated and repelled by Rove, whose combination of boundless ambition and self-exoneration is indeed grandiose, even by the inordinately high standards of political operatives.

But some of the strongest and darkest passages of the book are in the late chapters, "General Rove" and "The Baghdad Road." Those chapters recount Rove's growing realization that in the wake of September 11, the campaign tasks had changed. The first was to politicize the war on terrorism, and then, once the administration had retargeted Saddam Hussein, to transfer the terrorism hysteria to the ongoing Iraq war that the combined Bush administrations had long ago decided to prosecute to its imperial conclusion. Bush's Brain chronicles a remarkable moment, prior to last year's midterm elections, when Rove momentarily proposes to a private gathering of GOP honchos that the party initially seize the high ground with Social Security and education -- and then shift to the bludgeons of defense and taxation for the stretch run.

"Are you out of your fucking mind?" one big-shot lobbyist asked Rove. "Fuck these issues. ... It's taxes and terrorism and nothing else."

Marketing the Product

Rove definitely got the message. Slater and Moore take some pains to interpret the decision to run the 2002 campaign on "homeland security" as a tactical one characteristic of their subject. But their reporting makes plain that Rove simply adapted to the long-fixed priorities of the administration's Reaganite brain trust, obsessed with Saddam Hussein since the end of the first Gulf War. The "take out Iraq" position papers have been piling up in D.C. and Tel Aviv since the mid-Nineties -- when Karl Rove was still grooming his ill-tempered charge in Austin. And Bob Woodward's recent insider book, Bush at War, makes evident that by Sept. 12, 2001, the White House had already concluded that it now had the excuse needed to justify its full-scale imperial adventure.

In the months since, the administration has been surprised, and perhaps somewhat delayed, by the strength of international opposition to its plans. But the pose of statesmanlike deliberation has been a tactical, entirely transparent farce. Anybody who is still deluded that Dubya the Great is privately wrestling with the momentous decision whether to go to war -- a White House press-corps staple duly trotted out in last Sunday's papers -- either hasn't been paying attention or is intentionally writing fiction.

That's not to say Karl Rove is not playing an indispensable PR role in the propaganda war. Bush's rare press conference last week, his funereal demeanor, and his hypnotic repetition of the words "September 11" and "Saddam Hussein" in the same sentences until all ears were bleeding -- all that is classic Karl Rove drill-and-repeat. You've got to hand it to the guy: Given his marching orders, he knows how to package and flog the product. And should Bush and his Cold Warrior brain trust get the quick and largely bloodless (for Americans) victory they anticipate, Rove will certainly know how to market and deliver the emperor's march toward November 2004.

But the current battlefield -- perhaps already running deep in Iraqi blood by the time you read this -- is no more Karl Rove's war than it is George W. Bush's. It is structural, bipartisan, and integral to the nature of the American imperium since World War II. The current crop of chickenhawks is pursuing that end with a peculiarly lethal fervor, but for precisely that reason they will be exceedingly lucky if the whole gruesome enterprise doesn't come to a cataclysmic end sooner rather than later.

As will the rest of us. end story

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Karl Rove, Saddam Hussein, Boy Genius, Louis Dubose, Jan Reid, Carl Cannon, Bush's Brain, James Moore, Wayne Slater, Bill Clements, Greg Rampton, Jim Hightower, 9 / 11, George W. Bush, Bob Woodward, Bush at War

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