Rove’s New Book Aims to Set the Record Straight

Posted March 15, 2010 at 4:07pm

Somewhere along Interstate 35 outside of Wyoming, Minn., former President George W. Bush is smiling and waving at cars as they drive by. According to the billboard displaying his larger-than-life image, he wants to know: “Miss me yet?”

While not every Minnesotan driver and passenger — or American citizen, for that matter — are wistful for the Bush years just yet, there’s at least one person who certainly seems to be. His name is Karl Rove, and in case you haven’t heard, he’s got a new book out.

Yet despite the media hullabaloo generated by “Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight,” it can be best described as, well, predictable. The words “anticlimactic” and “unfulfilling” come to mind, as well. Seriously, was anyone expecting something different?

Since leaving the White House, Bush has maintained that history will judge him kindly. But history may need some convincing to do that, and in his new book, Rove proves that he is up to the task.

In his 596-page tome, Bush’s legendary political point man does his utmost to “set the record straight” by debunking what he asserts are spurious claims, myths and misconceptions about him and his former boss. Ultimately, the book represents a naked attempt to graft a “Rovian” account of the Bush administration onto a still-fluid historical record in the hope that some of his assertions will stick.

And some of them probably will.

One of book’s main redeeming qualities is that it jogs the collective memory about Bush’s accomplishments in office, most of which are probably overlooked by today’s public. Many Americans still associate the Bush administration with a war waged under false pretenses, a tarnished image abroad and a nation on the brink of economic collapse at the end of his second term in 2008, among other things — and understandably so.

But in the chapter “Thinking Big,” Rove recounts how Bush made important reforms to America’s ailing education system through his signature No Child Left Behind Act and, despite being reviled by environmentalists for eschewing the Kyoto Protocol, actually boasts a robust environmental record compared with previous presidents.

Rove also offers a more nuanced, less ideologically driven portrait of Bush in his deliberations on whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. According to Rove, Bush “read voluminous briefing papers, articles from scientific journals, summaries of bioethical issues” and other materials; although Bush had “a deep reverence for human life,” he also had lost his 4-year-old sister, Robin, to leukemia and witnessed his wife cope with her father’s Alzheimer’s.

Seen in this light, the decision to limit federal funding for stem cells derived from human embryos that already existed was not an attempt by Bush to pander to his evangelical base.

Unfortunately, the few glimmers of a silver lining are overshadowed by the book’s many glaring omissions.

In the same chapter, Rove blames the erasure of the nation’s largest budget surplus on the relatively mild recession that greeted Bush when he first took office and on the post-9/11 economic fallout — as if slashing taxes, passing an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors and waging two wars in the Middle East had nothing to do with the biggest budget deficit in history.

In his chapters on the 2000 presidential election, Rove fails to mention the widespread disenfranchisement of black voters that sealed then-presidential candidate Al Gore’s fate. Instead, he tries to drive home the point that Bush won fair and square.

Perhaps the most conspicuous omission is the galling lack of insight into how Rove the political operative, or “Bush’s Brain,” really worked.

Early on, Rove outlines the eight pillars of what he believes constitutes a “Rovian” campaign. They include such revelatory kernels of political brinkmanship as centering a campaign on “big ideas” that reflect a candidate’s philosophy and views; pursuing strong, persuasive themes; employing historical data and technology; and understanding “that there are right and wrong ways to criticize an opponent.”

The fact that Rove admits to drawing some inspiration from Lyndon Johnson’s famous 1964 “daisy” ad, which played on Americans’ fears about nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union, is probably the most incendiary item in the chapter.

Along the way, Rove indulges in plenty of predictable detours to cast scorn on Democrats. He seems especially fond of taking potshots at Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he pokes fun at for having the only full-length mirror in the White House, and also takes umbrage with a hazy line in President Barack Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope,” where Obama may or may not have attributed to Rove the phrase, “We are a Christian nation.”

The surprises are few and far between.

“Courage and Consequence” isn’t quite the right-wing polemic aimed at Democrats that some on the left have painted it as since the book hit shelves earlier this month. Rove fires lots of artillery at liberals, but he pays his share of lip service to the virtues of bipartisanship, too.

The book’s stridently partisan flavor, which can only be expected from the architect of Bush’s political success, isn’t likely to convince many readers of anything new — just like the Bush billboard standing by the roadside probably won’t make passers-by any more melancholy than they already were.