The Magazine

An Architect’s Memoir

How Karl Rove drives ’em crazy.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Courage and Consequence

Rove and Bush

Photo Credit: Corbis

My Life as a Conservative in the Fight
by Karl Rove
Threshold Editions, 608 pp., $30

It’s been said that Washington is the only place in the world where you can fail upwards. Doesn’t matter how many times you lose or screw up, there’s always another perch to be filled, another dollar to be made (see: Shrum, Robert, career of). One corollary to this rule: Washington is a place where success can be dangerous. Victory makes you a target; the larger the victory, the bigger the target. Win a lot? Before long, your opponents pull out the knives, unleash the hounds, and go hunting for some political scalp.

Karl Rove knows. He’s been pranking, lampooning, debating, campaigning against, and defeating liberals since 1969, when he joined the College Republicans at the University of Utah. The Democrats have never forgiven him for it. Over forty-plus years he has been the College Republicans’ executive director, an aide at the Republican National Committee, the president of his own political consultancy, the architect of two winning presidential campaigns, one of the most powerful White House advisers in history, and (most recently) a prominent commentator and author. At every turn, his opponents have singled him out for criticism and invective. They’ve accused him of scandals and dirty tricks. They’ve targeted him for prosecution. Yet somehow Rove keeps chugging along.

The campaign against Karl Rove never stops. He’s been blamed for
sordid and underhanded dealings in various Texas campaigns, in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary, in Senator Max Cleland’s failed reelection bid in 2002, in the “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame in 2003, in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, in the indictment of former Alabama governor and convicted felon Don Siegelman in 2005, in the firing of seven U.S. attorneys in 2006, and in (fill in the blank). Rove left the White House in 2007. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama liked to say he’d end “the Karl Rove era of politics.” Recently, as Rove has traveled the country promoting this well-written and gripping memoir, far-left groups have interrupted his speeches with jeers and heckles and even an attempted “citizen’s arrest.”

“I have become an adjective,” Rove muses. And indeed he has. For Democrats and the mainstream media, “Rovian” is shorthand for the worst sort of political skullduggery. In this view, a Rovian deploys the “politics of fear.” He divides the public, tars Democrats as weak, mobilizes his base, and wins slim, partisan victories. He’s a fundamentalist, a cynic, a Manichean, a bigot, a nihilist. His “modus operandi,” the story goes, is “to ‘destroy the opponent at all costs,’ generally through an onslaught of vicious attacks, most of them subterranean and all of them unfair.” In the liberal imagination, Karl Rove is not a person. He’s a demon.

This cartoon version of reality would be laughable if it didn’t have real-world consequences for Rove and his family. During the Bush years the Democrats’ fantasies drove them to launch investigation after investigation into Rove, and these investigations wasted his time, sapped his money and energy, invaded his privacy, and hurt his wife and son. However, despite their considerable exertions, Democrats never have been able to tie Rove to any of the horrible things they’ve accused him of doing: He didn’t publish or distribute the racist flyers against John McCain in 2000, and he “did not conceive, create, craft, prepare, or have anything to do with the Chambliss television ad” that helped defeat Cleland.

Richard Armitage was the original source of the Plame leak. Over the course of three years, Rove made five Plame-related appearances before a grand jury, but he wasn’t indicted. The Swift Boat vets were not connected to the Bush campaign. The Siegelman story is baloney ginned up by a single source. As for the now-forgotten U.S. attorneys “scandal”: During a second-term performance review, Rove forwarded some complaints to the Justice Department about a few federal prosecutors. That’s small fry. It’s also completely irrelevant, since the Constitution grants the president authority to fire any U.S. attorney for any reason whatsoever.

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