Accidental Genius

Is Karl Rove really Bush's brain?

Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush, by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon, New York: PublicAffairs, 253 pages, $15

Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 395 pages, $27.95

Political consultants are like movie actors. A few achieve wealth and celebrity, even branding their tag lines onto our collective consciousness. James Carville's "It's the economy, stupid" is almost as familiar as Robert DeNiro's "You talking to me?" Seeing these examples, ambitious youngsters may try to follow their career path, not realizing that most people in the field never make the big time. Instead of clinking champagne glasses at ritzy receptions, the silent majority of consultants and actors must settle for store-brand beer and Cheez Whiz.

Elections turn on a wide array of forces, including economics, demographics, and sheer chance. Amid all of these variables, a well-executed campaign can lose, just as a troubled one can win. As soon as the outcome is clear, however, pundits credit the winners with brilliance and blame the losers for incompetence. The former become the subjects of books and the latter become questions in the political-junkie version of Trivial Pursuit.

When the Long Count of 2000 finally ended in a Bush victory, eyes turned to his lead strategist Karl Rove, the 52-year-old stalwart who has worked with Bush since his unsuccessful 1978 race for Congress and who has helped many Texas Republicans win in a onetime Democratic stronghold. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that Bush was president, numerous press reports have analyzed Rove's influence, and he was even a character in the mercifully short-lived sitcom That's My Bush! Now we have two full-length biographies: Bush's Brain and Boy Genius.

There's no question that Rove is a smart political operative who deserves careful study. But it's important to remember how easily things could have been different. If a few hundred more voters in Florida's Palm Beach county had understood simple ballot instructions, Rove would be back in Texas, Gore would be in the White House, and Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile would be on the cover of a book titled Girl Genius.

Any study of a current political figure has inherent limitations. It is hard to get candid comments from people who must continue to work with the subject after the book is out. And aside from the occasional leak, private papers will stay out of reach until the archives open, far in the future. Within those constraints, both of these books about Rove have at least something to offer. Though one of them is often obscured by factual errors and reckless speculation, combined the two books paint a picture of an intelligent operative thrust by the exigencies of politics into an exalted position of perceived influence. That perception benefits both friends and foes of the Bush administration.

Boy Genius, by reporters Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon, is by far the better of the two. It offers a workmanlike analysis of the Texas political wars where Rove honed his skills and an overview of his role since Bush moved into the White House. Dubose and Reid wrote the Texas sections, and they show how Rove successfully halted a Democratic counterattack against burgeoning GOP dominance in that state by running a series of tough statewide campaigns. Drawing on the state's underlying conservatism and aided by Democratic missteps, Rove helped open the way for Bush's governorship and the GOP's near-total dominance in Texas politics today.

Veteran Washington journalist Carl Cannon wrote the section on the 2000 election and the early Bush presidency. His treatment of the 2002 midterm is particularly valuable, as the president's party managed the unusual feat of gaining seats in both the House and Senate. Notwithstanding the GOP's rhetorical devotion to decentralization, Cannon describes a "top-down Bush era Republican Party" in which Rove made many of the key campaign decisions, including the emphasis on tax cuts and the recruitment of strong Senate candidates such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

In Bush's Brain, Texas journalists James C. Moore and Wayne Slater credit Rove with a vital decision that won Bush the 2000 campaign. Though West Virginia had long voted Democratic in close presidential races, Rove noticed that Clinton-Gore policies on gun control and the environment had irked the state's many hunters and mineworkers. He had the Bush campaign fight hard for the state while the Gore forces took it for granted. On election night, Bush won its five electoral votes, without which he would have lost the race.

The authors' account of the battle of West Virginia sheds some light on Bush's policies as president. Since the state is so pivotal, do not expect the administration to tack leftward on the Second Amendment or mining regulations. Supporters of limited government will find that much encouraging. On the other hand, the votes of West Virginia steelworkers were on policy makers' minds when they hiked steel tariffs last year.

Unfortunately, this intelligent account of Rove's West Virginia strategy is the only good thing about Bush's Brain. The rest is a mess -- not just bad, but bad the way Steven Seagal movies, Yugo convertibles, and muskrat-flavored yogurt is bad.

To begin with, the book is disturbingly laden with factual errors. Moore and Slater say, for example, that Rove styled the 2000 Bush campaign "after the work of Mark Hanna, an industrialist at the turn of the twentieth century." Rove has indeed compared the current period to the McKinley era. But he has explained that the better-known Hanna was just the GOP's money man, whereas its chief strategist -- and Rove's role model -- was not Hanna but Charles Dawes. Then an obscure thirtysomething lawyer, Dawes went on to a stellar career as budget director, vice president, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moore and Slater's error is important. By missing Rove's true influence, they botch an important lead. Rove's fascination with Dawes could offer important clues about his worldview. (Boy Genius does get the Dawes reference right, but doesn't do much with it. Any future biography of Rove ought to develop it in depth.)

Moore and Slater also say that Rove tried to counter the Bush-as-Dumbo image by planting a story in the National Review listing all the big books that Bush had read. John J. Miller, the author of the story, replied in the National Review Online: "This is flatly wrong -- or at least seriously misleading. Rove was not 'the source of the article.' I did speak with him and quote him, but he was one source among many. He was not even the originating source of the story, in the sense that I got the idea for it somewhere else."

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