My paternal great-grandfather maintained what might have been the last functioning outhouse in Vermillion Parish, Louisiana. Years after indoor plumbing had become available in the small, rice-farming community of Indian Bayou, he refused to install an indoor flush toilet. His defense of the outhouse, according to family lore, was not informed by the cost of plumbing.
“There are some processes,” he would say, “that I refuse to bring into my house.”
As president, Bill Clinton was smart enough to keep James Carville and the contemptible Dick Morris out of his White House. Clinton certainly conferred with the consultants who helped him defeat the senior George Bush in 1992, but the consultants-and it’s the process, not so much the individuals, that matter-would not be part of his administration.
When his first presidential campaign began, the younger George Bush insisted that Karl Rove sell his political consultancy in Austin so there could be no conflict of interest between Rove’s private business and Bush’s presidential campaign. When Bush assumed office, he made Rove a senior White House adviser and moved him into the West Wing office previously occupied by Hillary Clinton.
Paul Alexander is not the first political writer to observe that, with Rove in the White House, politics took precedence over policy. Jan Reid and I made the same argument in Boy Genius, and Jim Moore and Wayne Slater made it once and again in Bush’s Brain and The Architect.
While all of us described the ascent of Karl Rove, Alexander catches Rove at the other end of his career arc, telling, for the first time, the story of how Bush fired the adviser who had been with him since before he defeated Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. The Rove Alexander describes is badly damaged by the administration’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the 2006 election that put the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, and the U.S. attorney scandal that led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and, ultimately, Rove’s own firing.
Which is not to say that Alexander ignores Rove’s backstory. Some of this material has been covered elsewhere, but the former Time magazine reporter, whose August 1999 Rolling Stone profile of George W. Bush stands in contrast to the obsequious coverage served up by most reporters at the time, delivers new reporting and offers fresh insight into the family that shaped Karl Rove.
Rove was enrolled in the University of Utah when Louis Rove announced he was leaving Karl’s mother, Reba. At about the same time, through an offhand comment by a family member, Karl learned that the man he believed was his father was actually his adoptive stepfather. Louis Rove was leaving the family because he was gay. At 19 Rove discovered that “his family life had been based on a complex network of lies, secrets and denials.” His family life would get worse.
In 1981 Reba Rove drove into the desert north of Reno and took her own life. And Louis Rove began to achieve a certain notoriety through body piercing-a peculiar pastime that might not have posed a problem for his stepson had it remained in the confines of the elder Rove’s Los Angeles home, where “pin pals” gathered for piercing parties supervised by nurses. When photos of Louis aka “Louie” Rove’s pierced genitals made the cover of Piercing Fans International Quarterly, Karl Rove was reminded in a painfully public way that his was not a normal childhood.
Alexander doesn’t dwell on the pathos of the Rove family or try to put Rove on the couch. But the details provide a predicate for the life and career that follow. They also introduce a second theme. The Karl Rove who emerges from the early chapters of Machiavelli’s Shadow is not only determined but also desperate. The nerdy kid who wore a tie and carried a briefcase to high school resolves to do whatever it takes to get out of Utah and beyond his family. What it took often enough included destroying the lives and careers of anyone who got in his way.
I didn’t keep a body count, but Alexander begins in Texas, with Rove’s collaboration with FBI agent Greg Rampton (about whom much has been written). Rampton undertakes a series of investigations into the political contributions to Democrats elected to statewide office and finally sends two associates of then-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower to federal prison for fundraising violations. Information about the investigation, leaked by Rove while Hightower was facing a well-financed challenge by Rove’s client Rick Perry, costs Hightower the election and ultimately ends his political career. A former reporter for a Texas daily told me that Rampton frequently called him to discuss the investigation into Hightower’s office, behavior completely out of character for an FBI agent.
The prosecution of Hightower aides Mike Moeller and Pete McRae has remarkable similarities to the later prosecution of Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who spent seven months in a federal penitentiary before an appeals court ordered his release in March 2008 to await a new trial. In Siegelman’s case, either someone is lying under oath, or Rove was behind the political prosecution of an elected official who did nothing more than accept a contribution from a political appointee in support of Siegelman’s ballot initiative, which would have provided public money for scholarships to public universities.
Equally disturbing is another politically driven prosecution (to which Rove was linked by White House memoranda) targeting a U.S. attorney, in which a Wisconsin civil servant earning $75,000 a year ended up in a federal penitentiary because a state contractor contributed to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. After losing her job, her home, and her freedom in a trial timed to coincide with the gubernatorial election, Georgia Thompson’s sentence was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. After curtailing oral argument at 26 minutes, the court took the unusual step of ordering Thompson’s immediate release, after serving four months of her 18-month sentence. Judge Frank Easterbrook, a Reagan appointee, described the prosecution’s case as “preposterous.”
Thompson’s prosecution by a U.S. attorney under pressure from Rove’s office is related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, regarding which Rove was subpoenaed in July to testify before Congress. One of the reasons for Rove’s August 2007 firing, Alexander writes, is that the Senate Judiciary Committee had obtained e-mails linking Rove to the politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys. To be precise, Rove resigned, but only after Bush told him, “Karl, there’s too much heat on you; it’s time for you to go,” according to a Rove associate who spoke to Alexander.
“This will be the most political administration in modern history,” Austin political consultant George Shipley told me when Bush took office in 2001. Politics may win elections, but governing proved more problematic, as illustrated by Rove’s placement of his boss’s political interest ahead of the needs of thousands of New Orleanians trapped without food or water in a city abandoned by the federal government.
To borrow a phrase from LBJ, Louisianans understand the difference between chickenshit and chicken salad. “I think it’s evil to politicize a disaster,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco tells Alexander, who describes in detail how Rove set her up as the party responsible for the Katrina failure. “But in the end, Katrina showed the president had no clothes.”
As depicted by Alexander, Rove-who in 2004 predicted a historical political realignment that would deliver a permanent Republican majority-is as threadbare as his former boss.
Former Observer editor Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator. A paperback edition of Bill of Wrongs, his most recent book, written in collaboration with the late Molly Ivins, will be released by Random House in October.