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Courage and Consequence

George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove keeps his cards close to the vest in this memoir about his political career.

By Justin Moyer / March 18, 2010

Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight By Karl Rove Threshold Editions 596 pp., $30

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“I hate you. You hate me.” With these six less-than cordial words, future Minnesota Sen. Al Franken introduced himself to George W. Bush consigliere Karl Rove at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2005. In Courage and Consequence, his new memoir, Rove remembers his Zen-like reply to the “obnoxious comedian”: “I don’t know you, so how could I hate you?”

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Don’t buy the fake equanimity. “Courage and Consequence” is uncompromising and, in its defense of compassionate conservatism and the Bush administration, unrelenting. For Rove, a quiet man so unlike extroverted, egomaniacal White House divas like Henry Kissinger or Rahm Emmanuel, it’s also, unfortunately, unrevealing.

“There is something about the West that encourages individualism and personal responsibility, values I thought best reflected by Republicans,” Rove writes. This reference to the landscape of his hardscrabble childhood, spent in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, is about as close as the author gets to chronicling the birth of his political philosophy born of a dark past. Rove was not told he was adopted until he was out of high school, and his biological mother killed herself in 1981 – but the evolution of his conservatism gets short shrift. His flip dismissal of his stepfather’s alleged homosexuality – “I have no idea if my father was gay, and, frankly, I don’t care” – is hardest to swallow. Rove helped elect a president who advocated a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Whatever their position on same-sex marriage rights, his readers deserve to hear more.

Its author’s right-wingedness established, “Courage and Consequence” tracks Rove’s ascent. After making his bones as national chairman of the College Republicans during Nixon’s second term, Rove became a Texas state legislator’s aide after Gerald Ford’s doomed 1976 campaign. “Republicans like me were quite an oddity,” Rove writes, describing demographic changes in a state ripe for a GOP takeover with wonkish enthusiasm. Ideology takes a back seat to Rove’s love of electioneering arcana; “Courage and Consequence” focuses on direct mail campaigns and percentages of undecideds more than conservative rhetoric. “[E]ight hallmarks” of a “Rovian campaign” have nothing to do with small government Republicanism, but with “sophisticated modeling to identify potential supporters” and “the broadest possible use of volunteer-friendly technology.” Rove likes thinking about what it takes to win almost more than winning itself.

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