Running on war

Thursday, August 4th, 2005

How dirty should politics get in a democracy? How much cynicism can a system based on trust and respect absorb before it’s unable to bounce back? Is there no lie so big it can’t be swallowed?

Thanks to the man sometimes called the most powerful unelected person in U.S. history, these are not hypothetical questions. For efficiency’s sake, they can be condensed into a single urgent inquiry: Can the United States of America survive Karl Rove?

Rove, of course, is the central figure in the long-smoldering revenge scandal involving the White House’s alleged outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame in order to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who contradicted the Rovian lie undergirding the Bush administration’s raison d’etre: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The scandal, though it involves criminal abuse of power and probably fits the definition of treason, is a minor matter in the context of Rove’s lifetime contribution to the undermining of American democracy, and may be a blessing in disguise, if it exposes the self-serving viciousness of the Bush White House to a large audience and interferes with bigger schemes to stay in power.

Because of this scandal, the entire Rove legacy is coming under intense scrutiny, as witnessed by the resurgence of interest in the book “Bush’s Brain,” by Jim Moore and Wayne Slater, and the film of the same name that’s based on it, which examine the extraordinary career of the man who put George W. Bush in the White House.

It’s a career littered with unanswered questions and wafting with the stench of win-at-all-costs tactics, which are still shocking even to hard-shell veterans of mean Texas politics. Among the bitterest are Rove’s former associates, such as John Weaver, who, co-director Joe Mealey told me, consented to be interviewed for the film, after six months of pressure, only on the condition that “we didn’t bring up two words: Karl Rove.”

Weaver, a Republican political consultant, had worked with Rove on the 1986 Texas gubernatorial election infamous for an early Rove diversionary tactic: the likely bugging of his own office, which distracted the easily distractible media from the debate that night his candidate was sure to lose.

Weaver’s shock and distaste, however, stemmed from Rove dirty tricks during the 2000 Republican primary, which Bush was on the verge of losing to John McCain, for whose campaign Weaver was political director. McCain had trounced Bush in New Hampshire and looked like a shoo-in for the nomination when he ran aground in South Carolina, thanks to a Rove-orchestrated smear effort.

Anonymous callers, according to the film, blitzed radio talk shows insinuating that McCain had been psychologically damaged as a POW and that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was “a black love child.” Whoops, there went that Southern state, and out of the dirt grew the Bush presidency (demonstrating the metaphorical aptness of Rove’s other moniker, “Turd Blossom”).

Rove, as the book and film make clear, excavated new depths for the political low road. In 1990, he ran Rick Perry’s campaign to unseat Jim Hightower as Texas agriculture commissioner. With the aid of a rogue FBI agent Rove had met during the mysterious bugging incident four years earlier, he was able to bombard Hightower’s office with subpoenas — which were often leaked to the press before they were served on the Department of Agriculture. Careers were wrecked. Two good men went to prison. But Rove’s candidate won (and eventually succeeded Bush as governor of Texas).

All this, of course, was just a prelude to what “TB” could accomplish with real power. The Bush presidency has been a showcase for Rove’s moral relativism. As the Washington Post noted just after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” shenanigans aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, “Critics view Rove as the person who has made the White House one of the most political in history, a White House in which politics and policy fit hand in glove.”

Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert who couldn’t stomach the blatant manipulation of intelligence, put it this way, speaking of the 2002 midterm elections: “The crisis” — of Saddam’s bogus WMD — “was manufactured, and Bush political adviser Karl Rove was telling Republicans to ‘run on the war.’”

Moore, in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, was even more blunt: “Karl Rove led the nation to war to improve the political prospects of George W. Bush.”

What parent would object to the spilling of her child’s blood for such a noble cause.