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Big Brains and Little Souls – Published by the Financial Times of London

All presidents, of course, have essential counselors and confidantes.  Michael Deaver managed the stagecraft of Ronald Reagan and James Baker acted as the big brain for George H.W. Bush.  Bill Clinton’s ascent was given wings by James Carville and Paul Begala.  Karl Rove, however, is an evolutionary step beyond those accomplished political professionals.  President Bush is, in many respects, Rove’s creation.  They are two heads on the same body.  In fact, five years before Bush was to even run for governor of Texas, Rove told a friend he could turn a president’s son into a president.  Bush had the family name, financial connections, charm and looks while Rove was packing the facile mind loaded with ideas and outsized ambition.    

There is danger in this co-dependency.  Generally, political advisors do not move into the White House after they have elected their candidate.  Rove, though, has an office in the West Wing and prepares a recipe of policy and politics in the same pot.  Inevitably, a moment arrives when what best serves the nation is not ideal for the political future of the president.  And his record indicates Rove will be inclined to choose his client over his country when he finds himself confronted with that choice.  Re-election of the officeholder and advancement of the party is the primary business.  Campaigns never end.  The White House becomes just another campaign headquarters.

Rove is empowered beyond the bounds of what is traditionally proscribed for most political counsels.  Without him, the eldest Bush son is little more than a digger of dry holes on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, a man who cannot find oil in the lower 48’s richest reserve.  Rove makes plans and protects his most valuable asset, however.  He has found his riches.  The president is the product and Rove is his marketer.

What is Karl Rove capable of doing with this unprecedented power for a consultant?  His record is instructive.  He launched a whisper campaign that the gubernatorial opponent of Bush in Texas was a lesbian.  She lost.  Rove leaked information that destroyed the candidacy of a female Hispanic candidate for statewide office in Texas.  Reporters were breathlessly summoned to his office 20 years ago to hear him claim his Democratic opposition had planted a bug on his wall.  Nobody believed him.  But everybody wrote the story.  And his candidate won.  When the FBI began investigating Democrats in Texas, Rove tipped reporters in advance of the issuance of subpoenas. 

Ethics appear not to be a serious consideration for Karl Rove and the law only a marginal influence.  If there is proof that he over-reached and was directly involved in the leaking of a CIA agent’s name, he was driven by the need to serve and protect his president and tempted by the fact that he has never been called to account for any previous political maneuvers.  No one ever proved that he was responsible for phone calls in South Carolina claiming Sen. John McCain had a mixed race child out of wedlock.  Mailers sent to voters in West Virginia, which claimed Democrats would ban the bible and allow gay marriage, were never connected to Karl Rove, even though he had used almost the same document in Texas.  He is comfortable with his skills.  And always gets others to execute his plans.

The indictment of the vice president’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, does not mean Rove is not involved in the leak.  Libby was reportedly obsessed with Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his report that Iraq had not made any effort to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.  Karl Rove knew this.  And he has always been good at managing his assets.  Of course, if he is ever accused Rove will get his chance to answer any charges, a privilege most of his political victims never enjoyed.

Karl Rove is not the disease.  He is, however, a symptom.  American democracy has been run by hired guns for too long.  Influence and power are in the wrong hands.  Voters elect consultants, not congress.  And they rarely even open the rule book.  Their game is played to win and not to serve anyone beyond their clients.  The American electorate has surrendered its government to men in $2000 suits with platinum credit cards.  And while we wait in silence for brave voices to tell them to go away, our democracy continues to shrivel.