What Was Karl Rove Thinking? Some Clues From His Autobiography

Karl Rove, "The Architect" of George W. Bush's campaigns and domestic policy, has been one of the central figures of this already puzzling century. No single adviser has been more closely linked to a President since Henry Kissinger served Richard Nixon. For most of the last decade, Rove defined the official Republican line, stomping alternative conservative viewpoints into obscurity. And it all ended in catastrophe.

So is Rove's autobiography, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, the first memoir from a true Bush insider, enlightening about what went wrong?

Answer: yes—but mostly in an unintended way.

The largest part of this large book (596 pages) comprises talking points defending Rove and Bush from Democratic attacks. Rove, who penned hundreds of junk mail fundraising letters before going to work full time for Bush in the 1990s, isn't a bad writer. If you really want to hear Rove's side of the old controversies that once garnered headlines and television chatter, his book provides a convenient compendium.

On the other hand, if you are interested in learning from past mistakes, Courage and Consequence won't be terribly informative, as I'll explain below.

The smallest part of the book offers general advice on electioneering, most of it sound. Rove writes, for example, "… not everybody votes … This means that there is usually a large pool of possible voters on the table who can tip an election, if only they can be enticed to go to the polls" (pp. 24-25).

During the Republican triumphs of 2002 and 2004, Rove did a fine job at the blocking and tackling of Get-Out-the-Vote.

Rove devotes a moderate amount of space to describing his feelings, which are mostly hurt. People have said a lot of unkind things about Karl Rove over the years, and—he wants you to know—they've left him feeling sorry for himself.

This may seem rather odd. Rove has been a hyper-competitive, sharp-elbowed combatant in the arena for decades. You might imagine he'd have built up some psychic scar tissue by now. I would have liked Rove more if he had portrayed himself as an old-fashioned devil-may-care rogue.

These days, though, as bestsellers such as A Million Little Pieces and Dreams from My Father demonstrate, self-pity sells. A stiff upper lip doesn't cut it in the Oprah Age.

Thus, we are informed that Rove has been hurt:

  • by his unstable mother (who never got around to telling him that her husband wasn't his biological father);
  • by pit bull prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (who investigated him for years in the rather exiguousValerie Plame case);
  • by Democrats; and
  • by the Main Stream Media.

Among the MSM's many transgressions, it accused Rove's beloved adoptive father of being gay. Rove pushes back against this notion by telling us more than I, personally, cared to know about his mom and dad's sex life.

Perhaps the best anecdote in the book concerns Rove's first (and last) marriage counseling session with his first wife (p. 53):

"The assistant rector of Palmer Episcopal Church turned blandly to Val to ask if she would like to say anything. She said, 'Yes.' She then looked at me and blurted out, 'I don't love you. I've never loved you. I never will love you. And I don't see any purpose in this.' With that, she walked out. The room seemed frozen in silence. Then the assistant rector exhaled deeply, looked at me, and said, 'Well, that about says it all,' and closed the portfolio holding his pad and pen."

(There's no hint in Rove's manuscript, which presumably was finished several months ago, of his December 29, 2009 divorce from his second wife.)

Rove's account of the family trauma caused by his mother, who killed herself when her third marriage was breaking up, is well done. Yet he doesn't explain how his emotionally difficult childhood relates to his subsequent life.

Perhaps there isn't much of a connection. During the 1960 election, Rove just fell in love with the Republican Party the way other 9-year-old boys fall in love with baseball teams.

Or maybe this lack of reflection is simply representative of the general absence of perspective in this book (and, for that matter, in Rove's career). Rove is a hard-working fellow who gets a lot done. But his for all his repute as the Boy Genius and Bush's Brain, you have to keep in mind that those are relative terms. He's either a shallow thinker, or someone who has so internalized the reigning taboos that he has little of interest to add.

Judging from his voluminous autobiography, Rove obsessed over winning the next 24-hour news cycle—not in trying to understand much of long-term significance.

A Presidential wingman's self-serving memoirs don't have to be this superficial. I was recently rereadingYears of Upheaval, Kissinger's 1982 memoir of the tumultuous second Nixon administration. Kissinger's book is enlarged and enlivened by his witty depictions of the stereotypical national characters of the countries he dealt with.

But any Republican who wrote like that today would be crucified for political incorrectness. As a result of the curse of PC, we live in age of intellectual stultification.

Rove's feelings appear to have been hurt most frequently of all by George W. Bush.

There's something a little creepy about Rove's glowing memory of the first time he laid eyes on W. on November 21, 1973 (p. 39):

"George W. Bush walked through the front door, exuding more charm and charisma than is allowed by law. He had on his Air National Guard flight jacket, jeans, and boots. I introduced myself and we chatted about nothing for a few minutes."

In Courage and Consequence, Rove vociferously eulogizes the greatness of George W. Bush. And yet Rove slips in dozens of small examples of Bush being hurtful, such as nicknaming Rove "Turd Blossom".

A recurrent drumbeat in the book is Bush's peevishness when tired (and he seems to tire quickly). Rove's memoir has a bit of the flavor of a battered wife who ostentatiously defends her husband, partly out of affection and partly to draw sympathy to herself.

Most of Rove's memoir, though, is devoted to rehashing old controversies.

Someday, there will be a revisionist history of the 2000s that makes sense of the decade by stepping outside the GOP v. Democrat ideological shackles. But, unsurprisingly, Rove isn't the man to do it.

The most striking aspect is how irrelevant most of those old Republican vs. Democrat brouhahas that consumed the MSM are to understanding two of the three most spectacular failures of the Bush Presidency, the 9/11 skyjackings and the mortgage meltdown. Both came out of the blue because both the Republicans and Democrats had been in agreement. (For that matter, there was very little initial resistance to Spectacular Failure #3, the Iraq War).

Edmund Burke described prudence as the "first of all virtues". To Bush and Rove, though, prudence equals prejudice. They were just as much true believers in multicultural dogmas as their Democratic opponents and the press corps.

Thus, for example, Rove somehow forgets to mention his amazing 1997-2001 crusade alongside Beltway Right activist Grover Norquist to win the (ludicrously small) Arab and Muslim vote by abolishing the Clinton Administration's use of ethnicity in profiling for airport security and also the use of "secret evidence"against terrorism suspects. According to Norquist, Rove phoned him not once but twice during the October 11, 2000 Presidential debate to point out Bush's demands for less protection against skyjackers. Rove asked Norquist to "put the word out" among Muslims voters.

But, three days later, Al Gore agreed with Bush at a meeting with Muslim politicians. So, because it lacked partisan salience, Bush's campaign to make sure Mohammed Atta didn't get extra scrutiny at the airport has vanished from the American media's memory.

There is one interesting historical tidbit in Courage and Consequence. I had long heard assertions by Islamist extremists, such as Sami al-Arian, that Bush was actually scheduled to meet with them in the White House on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 to brief them on his war on anti-terrorism. But that was so bitterly ironic that I assumed it must be an urban legend.

Remarkably, however, in his chapter on 9/11, Rove blithely confirms that it's true (p. 266):

"Coincidentally, the president was to have met at 3:05 p.m. with American Muslim leaders after his planned return from the Florida education event. He had been scheduled to spend forty minutes, first with a small group in the Oval Office and then with a larger one in the Roosevelt Room."

Rove's attitude seems to be this: The Democrats didn't criticize Bush for it, so there's no reason not to admit it.

To Rove, this anecdote merely illustrates Bush's "compassionate conservatism".

Similarly, Rove's account of his advocacy of an "ownership society" (p. 248) leaves out all mention of one key component: the Bush Administration's promotion of imprudent and economically catastrophic zero-downpayment mortgages in the name of racial equality.

But how many MSM reviewers will even notice?

Out of 596 pages, Rove devotes four (pp. 410-413) to mortgages. And those solely discuss how corrupt Congressional Democrats thwarted the Administration's plan to clean up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2005.

He's not wrong about that. But he completely ignores how the Bush Administration debased traditional lending standards by greatly raised Fannie and Freddie's lower income neighborhood quotas and imposed the " Government-Sponsored Enterprises' first racial quota.

But because both the Republican and Democrat leaderships were in bipartisan agreement that this was a good way to narrow the racial homeownership gap, these Bush policies were as uncontroversial as they were deleterious. So, again, they don't require defending by The Architect.

And then, of course, there's immigration. VDARE.com readers who have been with us since 2001 will roll their eyes at Rove's description of Bush's immigration policies. Yet Rove's rewriting of history will likely be accepted credulously by the MSM as the one part of the book you can trust.

Rove obviously wants to sell copies of his book to conservative Republicans. So he now soft-peddles his 2001-2007 crusade for amnesty. According to his index, the topic of "immigration" doesn't appear in the book until p. 378, when 800 leftist protestors trampled Rove's lawn in March 2004. Rove writes obliquely ("Immigration reform", of course = "amnesty" in Rovespeak):

"Their signs protested the administration's immigration views. I thought that strange, since President Bush was a known advocate of immigration reform."

Strange, indeed.

It's hard now to remember the obsessions of the Bush Administration before September 11, 2001, but they are easy to look up.

Rove entered the White House in 2001 repeatedly offering to the MSM a prediction of partisan realignmentinspired by his research into William McKinley's 1896 victory, which launched the GOP into control of the White House for 28 of the next 36 years. Rove explains the basis of his analogy on p. 132:

"… I learned that McKinley was a master politician who understood America's changing demography. He wanted to modernize the country and the Republican Party. … Delegations were organized to show the McKinley campaign's outreach to new immigrants and other voters not historically identified with the largely Anglo-Saxon Republican Party."

Rove repeatedly suggested in 2001 that Bush would bring about a lasting realignment by capturing the growing Hispanic vote by making illegals legal. Consequently, Bush floated an amnesty / guest worker trial balloon in July 2001.

The MSM was ecstatic. Andrew Sullivan, for example, gurgled: "And it's great politics—managing to put the Democrats on the defensive and woo an important voting bloc."

Actually it was and is terrible politics, as I have explained repeatedly, for example here. But during those sleepy months before 9/11, foreign policy was aligned around Rove's political program as well. As bizarre as it may seem now, the initial focus of Bushian foreign policy was on striking a deal with Mexico over immigration.

Bush made his first presidential trip abroad to meet the new, allegedly pro-business president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He ordered Secretary of State Colin Powell to meet with Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda to work out an immigration agreement. Fox was the first state visitor to the White House in earlySeptember 2001, where he demanded the U.S. legalize illegals by the end of the year.

Yet, neither "Mexico" nor "Fox, Vicente" appears in Rove's index.

"Realignment" doesn't appear either. Funny thing.

Rove won't admit that his amnesty obsession was a bad idea. But, no doubt knowing how unpopular it is with his target audience, he buries it until late in the book. He finally gets around to mentioning the 2001 amnesty misadventures on p. 467, where he writes:

"Bush had begun to work on reform early in 2001 because he believed America had a border that wasn't protected, the nation had an urgent need for temporary workers, and he could forge a compromise between those who wanted to punish lawbreakers and those who recognized their value as workers in a very broken system. But 9/11 derailed the effort."

This is just flat-out untrue. The Bush-Rove plan had already died in the 107th Congress before 9/11. On September 6, 2001, Gallup released a poll entitled Americans Clearly Oppose Amnesty for Illegal Mexican Immigrants. As I wrote for UPI on September 10, 2001:

"… Bush's unofficial point man on immigration in the House, Rep. Chris Cannon ((R-Utah) has signaled that he doesn't want to try to introduce a bill until 2003, saying, 'I don't even know if we can get a bill in this Congress.'" [Analysis: Why Bush blundered on immigrants]

Incredibly, Rove then completely ignores the Bush Administration's attempt to revive amnesty and guest workers in both 2004 and 2006. He skips to 2007, for a reason I'll explain below.

Yet, upon its rollout in January 2004, the Administration's guest worker plan was essentially unlimited in scale, making it, a truly radical Open Borders policy, incredible as it seemed for a supposedly"conservative" President. The Washington Times reported:

"When asked during the call how the worker and employer would prove that no Americans desired the job, one of the White House aides present said the fact that the job is open will be assumed to mean that the 'marketplace' had determined that."[Illegals proposal focuses on work, January 6, 2004]

Bush orated:

"Second, new immigration laws should serve the economic needs of our country. If an American employer is offering a job that American citizens are not willing to take, we ought to welcome into our country a person who will fill that job."

Apparently, Bush and Rove just hadn't thought about the fact that there are five billion people who live in countries even poorer than Mexico in terms of per capita income. So it hadn't occurred to them, either, that their guest worker plan would turn America into an overpopulated Blade Runner dystopia.

Sheer incompetence.

Eventually, other Republican politicians got through to the Administration's brain trust with the reminder that 2004 was an election year, so please shut up about amnesty.

Courage and Consequence's description of the Washington Establishment's attempts to pass "comprehensive immigration reform" during the second Bush administration are bizarrely disingenuous. Rove simply leaves out the 2006 attempt by the Bush Administration to pass the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill. (Remember that 2006 was the year of the huge demonstrations by illegal immigrants). As I noted earlier, Rove writes solely about the 2007 debate.

Why? Because he wants to blame the failure to pass amnesty on the Democrats. They had the majority in Congress in 2007, after Rove had succeeding in losing the 2006 midterm elections. He writes:

"Unfortunately, we had not taken into consideration Majority Leader Harry Reid's quirkiness. He decided the long battle would rile up emotions in the Senate and pulled the bill down on June 7 [2007] … The Senate had been on the edge of passing comprehensive immigration reform … But Reid blew the opportunity with his rash decision. … On June 28, 2007, immigration reform failed on a vote of 53 to 46."

Of course, amnesty also failed to pass in 2004 and 2006 when the GOP controlled both houses, and in 2001 when the Republicans ran the House and the Democrats the Senate. How could that possibly have happened?

Because the American public despised amnesty.

Why did Rove keep beating his head against the wall over immigration?

According to the old joke: Because it felt so good when he stopped.

But will he ever stop?

Rove has told the New York Times that he still regrets not slipping amnesty through by cutting more artful deals with the Democrats. His latest theory:

"As I said in the book, I wish we had led the second term with immigration reform. If we had led with immigration reform at the beginning of the second term we could have had bipartisan cooperation with a Republican majority in the House and the Senate and done something important for the country that was tilted more toward what the Republicans wanted but couldn't have passed without Democratic votes instead of Social Security which Democrats wouldn't participate in until they had a taste of victory. Immigration reform would have given everybody a bipartisan victory and would have cleared the ground for entitlement reform." [Rove on Rove: A Conversation With the Former Bush Senior Adviser, By Peter Baker, March 10, 2010]

A bipartisan victory for everybody—except the American people.

The import of the Bush Administration's immigration enthusiasm extended far beyond its quadruple failure in Congress.

By promising amnesty, Bush and Rove invited in more illegal aliens. And they helped pump up the Housing Bubble by implying to buyers of mortgage-backed securities that there would be ever more immigration driving up demand for homes.

What was Karl Rove thinking? Why did he repeatedly order the GOP to pursue such an obviously self-destructive scheme? Former Bush speechwriter David Frum noted:

"I often wondered why it was that skeptical experts on issues like immigration could never get even a hearing for their point of view. … We took the self-evident brilliance of our plans so much for granted that we would not even meet, for example, with conservative academics who had the facts and figures to demonstrate the illusion of Rovian hopes for a breakthrough among Hispanic voters." [Building a Coalition, Forgetting to Rule, New York Times, August 14, 2007]

Courage and Consequence offers no new answers. So in next week's column, I'll consider explanations for one of the central puzzles of this catastrophic decade.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His websitewww.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]