One of Karl Rove’s most vivid memories is of how, in 1960, when he was 9, he cruised his Nevada neighborhood with a Nixon sticker on his bicycle. A girl who lived nearby favored Kennedy and, yanking the young Republican off his bike, “beat the heck out of me, leaving me with a bloody nose and a tattered ego.” The experience helped Rove develop into a partisan karate kid. “I’ve never liked losing a political fight since,” writes the Rasputin of the Bush regime.
The subtitle of Rove’s memoir, My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, vaunts his belligerence and presumes that public service is warfare. As if elections are shoot-outs at the OK Corral, we are told that Barry Goldwater, whom the 13-year-old idolized, “went down with guns blazing.” In his final pages, Rove abandons the killing fields of Washington and returns to Houston avid for another kind of carnage. He, his wife, and their son “did what any right-thinking Texans do on the first day of dove season: we drove to the Big Bend to go bird hunting.”
Political combat provided an insecure nerd with the outlet others find in boxing. Rove’s mother, a brittle, deceitful and unstable woman who eventually committed suicide, unexpectedly divorced his father, a geologist whose work kept him far from family. Rove excoriates two unidentified journalists for noting the irony that, though he exploited homophobia to engineer electoral victories, his own father was a closeted homosexual. He is apparently referring to James Moore and Wayne Slater. In The Architect: Karl Rove and the Dream of Absolute Power, they support the conclusion about Louis Rove by quoting a close friend of his. All Karl says in refutation is: “To this day, I have no idea if my father was gay.” He was an adult when he learned that Louis had adopted him. When Karl attempted to bond with his biological father, he was rebuffed. Some of that bitterness couldn’t help but seep into the way he practiced politics.
Alliteration more than aptness accounts for the title, Courage and Consequence. A creature of tenacity and cunning, Rove, who like former Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawks avoided military service, offers no evidence of personal courage. By his final, florid sentence, it is clear the word is meant to apply to his patron, George W. Bush: “I am proud to have been part of the long journey of a man of courage and consequence who sought to provide conservative reform of great institutions in need of repair and kept America safe in its hour of peril.” But Bush, ignoring intelligence reports, did not keep America safe on Sept. 11, 2001. It was bravado more than bravery to stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier anchored off the California coast and proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” when death and destruction were the principal consequences of invading Iraq.
Though purporting to recount “my life,” this memoir is essentially an attempt at historical revision. It insists against evidence that Bush spoke honestly about weapons of mass destruction and responded effectively to Hurricane Katrina. Focusing on Bush’s years as governor and president, it offers more spin than an electric dreidel. What Rove calls “Bush’s strong environmental record” is a bizarre fantasy.
Of his own life, Rove recounts how his first wife declared: “I don’t love you. I’ve never loved you. I never will love you.” Not a lovable guy, the man Bush called “Turd Blossom” is unreflective about failure. Though “family values” was a campaign mantra, he neglects to mention the dissolution of his second marriage last December. We learn that Rove hates eggplant, but not much about what sustains him. The man who exploited religion to hustle votes offers no indication that faith plays a role in his life. He makes no mention of being fired from the 1992 George H.W. Bush campaign for allegedly leaking information to Robert Novak. During George W. Bush’s tenure, the columnist cited White House sources when he outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. Rove recalls campaigning for former Texas Gov. Bill Clements, former Sen. John Ashcroft, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, but ex-Sen. Phil Gramm, for whom he worked in 1982 and 1984, appears nowhere in this record. It would take a much longer book to refute the falsehoods that pervade and pollute it.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and serves as vice president for membership of the National Book Critics Circle.