“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?”
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.
But “ ‘Rovian’ campaign theories were about to be tested on a big state with consequences few could anticipate,” Rove writes with uncharacteristic understatement. Bush, pitched as an education candidate, trounced flamboyant Democrat Ann Richards to win the Texas governship in 1994. After Bush won reelection in 1998, Bush set his eyes – or, rather, Rove set Bush’s eyes – on the White House. “I was the one brash enough to bring it up,” Rove says of the genesis of a second Bush in the White House. His enthusiasm is unsurprising; Rove’s support of Bush is personal before professional, and often evangelical. “I went from being a longtime friend to being a political partner,” he writes. When Bush, unable to believe he’s won Bush v. Gore, hangs up on Rove when he calls with the news, Rove emotes: “I was standing in my pajamas, looking out a hotel window into a dark, deserted office park, having been hung up on by the man who would now be president.”
The remainder of “Courage and Consequences” presents a rose-colored version of that presidency. Though Rove admits Bush isn’t a great debater, Rove’s president is rarely wrong; when he is, it’s Rove’s fault. Rove takes the fall for Bush’s failed Social Security reform (“I was ... banking too much on a newly reelected president’s ability to move Congress”), Harriet Miers’s failed Supreme Court bid (“My antennae should have been sharper”), and the administration’s slow response to Katrina (“I’m one of the people responsible for this mistake”). Rove does his best to bust the myth that he’s a right-wing Svengali by denying that he smeared John McCain during the 2000 primary, swiftboated John Kerry, or leaked Valerie Plame’s name during the Joe Wilson episode, in which he narrowly escaped indictment.
But there’s also plenty for Bush/Rove to be right about, including the Iraq war and the 2007 troop surge. On the war on terror, Rove’s prose glows. “Did America have the resolve to win this new and dangerous conflict?” Rove asks. “Yes, America did – because its president did.”
Still, the man Bush called “Boy Genius” remains shrouded. Why did Rove’s two marriages end in divorce? How does he feel about Toby Jones’s portrayal of him as a fawning weirdo in Oliver Stone’s “W.?” And why didn’t he ever run for public office himself? One reads “Courage and Consequence” waiting for an Oz moment, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the man behind the curtain. Here, there’s just more curtain.