Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush
by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, hardback, pp. 400
Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable
Political Triumph of George W. Bush
by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon, paperback, pp. 256
Humorist Dave Barry once explained why he is never comfortable in our nation's capital, "When I'm in Washington, I always feel as though I'm the only person there who never ran for Student Council." Karl Rove, who was elected class president in junior and senior high school, is much more at home.
Still, Rove hasn't run for any office himself since getting elected national chairman of the College Republicans in 1973 with Lee Atwater's help. The chubby and intense Rove lacks the looks and likeability an ambitious politician needs. So, he's a natural staff man, one who understood his destiny early.
Apolitical, nonreligious Scandinavian parents raised Rove in Utah. He fell in love with Richard Nixon when he was ten. The more substantive of the two new Rove biographies, Bush's Brain by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, quotes Mark McKinnon, Rove's TV ad maker: "When the President was growing up, he wanted to be Willie Mays. But when Karl was growing up, he wanted to be senior adviser to the President."
Similarly, according to Boy Genius, a quickie biography of Rove by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, Carl M. Cannon: "Once, during a panel discussion, … the moderator asked Rove when his obsession with being on the inside of presidential power and history began. Rove's comeback was unhesitating: 'December 25, 1950.' It was the day he was born."
Neither book does a good job of bringing to life Rove's human side. Whether that's because both authorial teams are biased against Republicans like Rove, or because Rove simply doesn't have much of a human side, remains an open question. Still, both books furnish quite similar pictures of Rove's career and character.
Ever since he moved to Texas in 1977 to help George H.W. Bush's 1980 Presidential bid, Rove has displayed the perfect attributes for a consigliere to the Bush Family. He is intelligent, well read, organized, determined, no more truthful than he needs to be, and obsessively competitive. His second wife, Darby, told a reporter, "Even in croquet he'd be hitting my ball so far I was crying on vacation."
One Texas lobbyist who has been both an ally and adversary of Rove down through the years remarked, "It is in Karl's nature to engulf and devour and control and to rule." A Republican friend and staunch Bush ally observed, "The problem with Karl is that his enemies list never ends. Once you're on it, it does not end."
Rove is especially vindictive toward fellow Republicans who get in his way. Rep. Tom Tancredo, head of the Congressional Immigration Reform caucus and the main opponent of Rove's so-far failed amnesty proposal for Mexican illegal aliens, is clearly a brave man.
The authors of both books act as if they have been cruelly disillusioned by their discoveries about Rove. More objective readers, however, won't be terribly shocked to discover that this crafty political operator isn't a nice guy.
Rove comes across in both Boy Genius and Bush's Brain as a valuable dynastic retainer, but not somebody you'd care to pal around with. And that seems to be exactly the way he is treated by George W. Bush. One of the President's most useful attributes is his hereditary aristocrat's confidence that he just plain deserves to have more talented people than himself slaving away on his behalf. When Rove gets a little above himself, as he occasionally does when giving interviews to admiring reporters, Bush is quick to slap him back down into his place by switching Rove's nickname from "boy genius" to "turd blossom."
Here at VDARE.com, our primary objection to Rove's influence has revolved around a single issue — immigration. We've no doubt spent far more time thinking about the subject than he has, but how can we be right and Rove be wrong when he's a "genius"?
The assumption that Rove is an infallible megabrain largely rests on the presumption that Bush is such a moron that only a genius could have made him what he is today. In reality, Bush's people skills in small settings are outstanding. Further, he absorbed and retained a lot from his Harvard Business School courses on structuring and managing organizations. And, he likes making decisions and doesn't appear to lose sleep over them. People want that in a leader.
Finally, when it comes to raw IQ, Bush is in the mid-range of American Presidents. In 1999, Charles Murray and I calculated, based on Bush's SAT score of 1206 (old-style scoring system), that his IQ was probably about 125 or a little higher, which would put him at least at the 95th percentile. In contrast, Gore was tested at 134, Nixon at 143, and Kennedy at 118. The late historian Jim Chapin told me during the 2000 campaign that he estimated Bush would rank in the second quartile of all Presidents on IQ, and Gore in the third quartile.
On the downside, Bush doesn't exercise his brain much by reading, as both books document. For somebody reasonably smart, he's embarrassingly ignorant. My guess is that Bush feels that he must not strain himself mentally to the point where he might slip off the wagon; but I don't know for sure: it's hard to learn anything at all definite about the President's battle with the bottle.
For example, Rove probably cost Bush the popular vote victory in the 2000 election by not demanding that his candidate reveal early on in the campaign that he was arrested in 1976 for drunk driving. Instead, the Democrats unveiled it at the perfect time: just before the election, when Rove was publicly predicting a six-point victory.
The evidence that Rove is more than just highly competent is thin. Rove's ascent benefited from a hole opened up in the top ranks of Republican Party campaign management by the tragic death at age 40 of his mentor Atwater, a legendary wild man who seems far more deserving of the "genius" title. Once Atwater was gone, Rove's competition among Republican operators wasn't that stiff. Why? Perhaps because Burkean conservatism is fundamentally about defending some non-politicized space where a person can have a life. Thus, there's something more than a little contradictory about being both a conservative and a 168-hour per week political cadre like Rove.
Rove did manage quite a few Republicans to victory in Texas, but he was definitely being helped along by the political and demographic winds in the Lone Star State. About all you can say about his management of Bush's 2000 race against Al Gore was that the Constitution mandates that somebody had to win. Rove's decision to spend about $20 million in California was a particularly bad call. Rove had relatively little to do with the post-election legal maneuvering that eventually made Bush the President.
Much of Rove's recent sky-high reputation, like his master's, stems from the aftershocks of 9-11. Yet, while Rove has a finger in every pot in the White House, he's less important on national security, which has been by far the most important engine of Bush's popularity.
The odd thing is that 9-11 made much of the Rove's agenda politically obsolete. For example, the first round of tax cuts had been justified as handing back to the public the budget surplus, which vanished along with the World Trade Center. Bush's second round of tax cuts has taken a beating from Congressional Republicans because they make little political sense at this time when the White House has simultaneously stoked war fever so high that the public is in a mood to pay more.
Bush's faith-based initiatives weren't moving fast before 9-11, and then the Wahhabi terrorist attacks meant the taxpayers were in no mood to subsidize programs run by mosques. Similarly, the alliance between Rove and Grover Norquist to pander to Arab and Muslim voters, which led to Bush calling for relaxing anti-terrorist laws during the second presidential debate in 2000, didn't survive 9-11.
Most spectacularly, Rove's plan to reward Mexicans who had illegally crossed the border into America was dead in the water after 9-11. It had been listing severely even before then, as many Congressional Republicans, led by Rep. Tancredo, turned against it by August of 2001.
As I wrote 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…
"It's easy to see why Congressional Republicans lack enthusiasm [for the Administration's amnesty plan]. The short-term benefits to the Republican Party appear trivial at best, while the long-term costs could be substantial. As United Press International revealed in July, unpublished Census Bureau data shows that the size of the Mexican-American vote is much smaller than is widely imagined: only 3 percent in 2000. Moreover, 72 percent of Mexican-American voters live in California and Texas, two states whose electoral votes probably won't be up for grabs in 2004. In the rest of the country, Mexican-Americans cast 1.1 percent of the votes. The overall Hispanic vote comprised 5.4 percent of the national total. While growing, it probably won't exceed 6 percent by much in 2004. Not surprisingly, Congressional Democrats quickly met the president's bid and raised it by offering to extend amnesty to all immigrant groups, not just Mexicans. Democrats have been more thrilled by amnesty than have Republicans because, in the long run, putting Mexican illegal aliens on the road to becoming American voters appears likely to help Democrats more. Over the past 40 years, no GOP presidential candidate has won more than 40 percent of the Mexican-American vote...
"So why did Karl Rove and the rest of the Bush braintrust misread the political situation? Why did the White House fail to anticipate Congressional Republicans' concerns that amnesty would undermine the GOP? The Bush team appears to have been the victims of residing in an echo chamber with a mainstream media corps that — for reasons of innumeracy, fashion, self-interest, self-image and fear — failed to challenge the Bush advisers' sloppy thinking about immigration."
In summary, the tragedies of the next day saved Rove from the massive public embarrassment of having Republicans in Congress openly revolt against the White House over amnesty. Instead, the Administration was able to quietly drop active support of the plan, leaving it to the hapless Democrat Dick Gephardt to imprudently introduce an amnesty bill just before the 2002 election.
So, Rove is indeed fallible, especially on immigration.
What was behind his politically misguided thinking? Unlike most journalists, Rove no doubt knew just how insignificant the Mexican-American vote is, and how crucial the white vote is. (In 2000, there were 27 non-Hispanic white voters for every Mexican voter!) When the crunch came at the end of the 2002 campaign, Rove didn't waste effort on Hispanics. Instead, he rolled out a huge get-out-the-vote drive in white neighborhoods. The non-appearance of the VNS exit polls deprived us of national demographics, but from my study of the results, I think it's highly likely that, despite all the Bush-Rove blather about minority outreach, a lower percentage of the GOP's vote came from minorities than in any recent election. Rove knows that Republicans win when whites (1.) turn out and (2.) vote Republican. Minority voters are essentially trivial. The Iraq issue excited whites last year, while leaving minorities, whose numbers at the polls declined, bored.
Judging from these two books, Rove, a man with a lot on his plate, spends almost no time thinking about immigration. When he does address it, it is mostly for disingenuous Dick Morris-style symbolic purposes. (Morris became famous for having Clinton endorse socially conservative "micropolicies" like uniforms for public school students.)
Moore and Slater quote an illuminating 1985 memo Rove wrote to his candidate Bill Clements, an ex-governor of Texas planning a comeback.
"The purpose of saying you gave teachers a record pay increase is to reassure suburban voters with kids, not to win the votes of teachers. Similarly, emphasizing your appointments of women and minorities will not win you the support of feminists and the leaders of the minority community; but it will bolster your support among Republican primary voters and urban independents."
It's easy to see how Rove similarly visualized his amnesty for illegal immigrants as a way to reassure nice people that Bush was nice. The problem with Rove amnesty, though, was that immigration is not a micropolicy like school uniforms. Immigration is a macropolicy, one that has as much long term impact on the nation as anything. It's not suitable for political manipulators like Rove to play games with.
In conclusion, how could Rove's undeniable talents be best put to work in the future in service to his country and party?
Strangely, the Bush Administration, since conquering its new Iraqi satrapy, has been acting towards it with a timid indecisiveness disturbingly reminiscent of the Carter years. Rather than declaring martial law and immediately demonstrating to Iraqis who is in charge, the White House adopted a hands-off, laissez-faire policy. This "Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom" approach seemed to be based on the assumption that Iraq's looting louts, clamorous clansmen, mad mullahs, and café conspirators were as ready for self-government as would be, say, American Republicans. Conversely, under Rove, the Bush Administration has treated American Republicans as if they were a treacherous conquered tribe that must be ruled with an iron rod.
Clearly, the ideal solution would be to ship Karl Rove to Baghdad—to serve as the First Viceroy of Mesopotamia.