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Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove made George W. Bush Presidential

by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater

Published in 2003

Before Karl Rove was the Architect and before he was the talk of the town for his caustic speech before the Conservative Party of New York, Wayne Slater and James Moore co-wrote a book about him which coined the affectionate name for Rove: Bush's Brain . As Slater notes in the book: “Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove made George W. Bush Presidential,” one finds that Rove is certainly American's most powerful political consultants. While the title of the book implies that the book merely follows Rove's pursuit to make Bush President the book attempts to be a biography of more than just the four campaigns in which Rove elected Bush to the Governor of Texas and finally elected President in 2000. The book examines Rove's rise from high school debater to College Republican President to political consultant for George W. Bush and a lot of other material loosely related to Rove's “victims” that seem largely unimportant to the Rove story.

The story begins with Rove aboard a Boeing 727 flying with Governor Bush to New Hampshire. Co-author James Moore and Bush are busy sharing pleasantries about playing baseball with the candidate whom has a long history with baseball from playing the sport in college to his brief tenure as an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. The introduction than examines how Bush while having a “powerful personal charm,” that he lacked the “intellect or the curiosity to dip into the nuances of nationals issues surrounding the presidency.” Despite the criticisms of George W. Bush buying influence into politics the introduction notes that “sons of president do not get free tickets to the Oval Office.” Certainly if the presidency were inherited the history of President of the United States would be covered with “recurring names.” Furthermore George W. much like the children of other successful politicians often shun electoral politics. (See Ronald Reagan Jr. for example) George W. Bush despite, “his familial connections, money, personal affability, and a goal” was not a highly viable presidential candidate by himself.

Bush needed another component to complete himself to be a highly viable candidate. That person was Karl Rove. Rove as the book notes saw Bush as a presidential candidate long before Bush even knew he was a presidential candidate! As Rove once joked he thought about a presidential campaign the day he was born: December 25, 1950. Rove while not a founder to the field of political consulting clearly is seen by the authors as a witty campaigner who is perhaps the most talented political consultant up to this moment in history. Whether one agrees with the assessment by James Carney of Time Magazine that Karl Rove is “probably the most influential and important political consultant to a president that we've ever seen,” it is clear that Rove is perhaps one of the most influential advisors to a president up to this point. I think that the observation that “Rove think it, and George W. Bush does it,” may trivialize how dependent most politicians are upon advisors whether they depend largely on one advisor or many. Slater and Moore note the divergence between the interests of political interests and policy interests, but critics might note that Rove's relationship is likely far from unique in that many major decisions involve policy advisors as much as they do political advisors. I doubt that former California Governor Gray Davis decided which bills to sign or veto based upon purely the advice of policy advisors, but rather also political advisors who were looking to how a decision would aid himself and his party as well.

In a more grandiose statement that both praises and criticizes Rove simultaneously Rove is called “the co-president of the United States,” and that it should “raise constitutional questions.” While few politicians rely upon Rove as heavily as Bush anyone who understands US politics realizes that political advisors are often far more influential than policy advisors or general advice from the vox populi. It shouldn't be that politcians have advisors that should disturb us, but rather what advice political advisors give and if that advice contradictions rational policy decisions how often politics trump rational policy decisions.

What I find ironic is for all the praise Rove receives from Slater and Moore for his quick wit and huge policy knowledge is how often Rove is wrong politically for supposedly America's top political consultant. It makes one think that Rove is given a bit too much credit at times and that luck is understated as a factor. The first example listed in the book is Rove's decision to protect steel subsidies to protect the steel industry. In Rove's models that might have aided Bush win the state it only marginally reduced Bush's loss from about 200 thousand in 2000 to about 140 thousand in 2004. The steel subsidies that were supposed to make Pennsylvania in the Bush column and avoid the protracted recount didn't achieve his purposes. At best the decision may have forced Kerry to spend more money, but more likely it was just an error in Rove's political prognosis.

The introduction to the book ends by comparing Rove to Mark Hanna who aided the William McKinley campaign in 1896. Rove like Mark Hanna the industrialist that Rove idealizes is seen as a shill for business, which while some of Rove's critics might argue is accurate oversimplifies the story of Karl Rove dramatically.

The first chapter begins with Wayne Slater appearing amongst the press when Governor George W. Bush arrived to the Presidential primary debate in Iowa. Rove and Slater than begin arguing over the accuracy of a story by Slater about Rove playing dirty tricks. Chapter one starts with Rove's failure to detect the success of John McCain to create a successful campaign in New Hampshire under the radar and then segues into chapter two that examines Rove's purported history of bugging his own office for the Gubernatorial campaign of Bill Clements.

In the 1986 campaign Karl Rove while not the chief consultant dir run the direct mail business for Bill Clements campaign. Rove knew that this race would help define his reputation. Believing that information was leaking from the Clements campaign a security team from Gary L. Morphew's Knight Diversified Services and one of his subordinates Bruce Wayne Scott began conducting a security sweep of Clements campaign headquarters. After Morphew encouraged Scott to re-check Rove's office he discovered a small transmitter on a picture frame above Karl Rove's desk. While Clements just told his staff to dispose of the transmitter, Rove called the police. Soon Rove was telling reporters that no doubt the device “ the political opposition” planted the device.

In chapter three the aftermath of the bugging is examined and ironically the problems with the bugging incident aren't so clearly beneficial to Clements and the Republicans due to serious questions of the device being planted. Furthermore, the fact that the device had been alerted to the media and was moved made the reaction to the device something one would expect from the Keystone Kops. Ultimately the transmitter proved to have a limited six hour life that would have proved useless to anyone who didn't have daily access to Rove's office. While Rove can't be definitely implicated as a suspect it seems as though Rove benefited if he wasn't the person who planted the device. In all likelihood it was planted by Morphew, but Rove at the very least seemed to want to make the competing White campaign sound like they were intercepting confidential information, which the FBI later proved was not so secret information. Ultimately Clements wins and Rove is behind a winning candidate, which is all that really matters. The chapter ends noting that Matt Lyon a former speechwriter for Clements opponent Mark White and Patricia Tierney Alofsin note that Rove wanted to take credit for the bugging, albeit it is unclear whether Rove was merely being arrogant or dropping hints that he was involved.

In Chapter four, the failed investigation of former Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower is examined. The controversy begins when Hightower shunned Ken Boatwright for a job in favor of Sheila Jackson Lee for a job that she wasn't qualified to perform. Boatwright quits his job to challenge Hightower, but his campaign fails miserably despite his knowledge of accounting problems in the Texas Department of Agriculture. Rove's critics argue that he tipped off FBI agent Greg Rampton into a politically motivated investigation that ultimately lead to the conviction of Hightower associates Pete McRae and Mike Moeller. While Rove did later admit to meeting Hampton while in a US Senate committee on Foreign Relations it is unclear what Rove knew or did that aided Rampton in his politically motivated investigation. What is clear is that Rove managed to play the investigation directly in his favor to aid Rick Perry beat Hightower.

From Rove's days as a high school debater in Utah one can tell from the reports of his former classmates that Rove from early on had an amazingly uncanny witty knowledge that made him in many respects destined for a political future. As a policy debater in the 1960s Rove engaged in a tactic of intimidation of his opponents that most modern high school debaters are familiar with: bringing vast numbers of blank evidence cards. Rove's debate partner noted that Rove even used 4x6 cards instead of the 3x5 cards that were commonplace in the 1960s for policy debate just to make it look like Rove had more evidence than he really did. Much like most debaters there were really only 20-30 cards that he regularly used in his case. Rove's partner noted that Rove would arrive to the debate with hundreds of blank cards to intimidate his opponents. Rove's extensive debate experience no doubt brought about Bush's remark about Al Gore using a “high school debate trick.” Slater doesn't mention this, but it seems likely that Rove who seems to play an integral part in all of Bush's campaigns gave Bush that line in preparation for the Presidential Debates in 2000.

While in college Rove headed the College Republicans in a period of time in which the GOP and college students were almost contradictions. While Rove did make some progress towards his degree and was offered acceptance to graduate school Rove became more enthralled in College Republican politics than his academic work. Rove eventually rose to the Executive Director position of the National College Republicans. With legendary consultant Lee Atwater Rove ran a successful campaign for College Republican President. Crisscrossing the South to elected Rove as President and Atwater to Rove's old job Rove proved his himself to be a successful political strategist. Rove managed to influence the process to ensure victory. Ultimately the election became disputed and RNC Chairman George H. Bush declared Rove the winner. Working with the RNC chairman Rove met George W. Bush his future client.

While aiding a campaign against Democrat Lena Guerrero Rove discovers that her biography is deceptive in that she never graduated from college. Of all of Rove's victims Guerrero seems like the least sympathetic of all.

While Rove is considered so powerful he is a bit overrated at times. For all of the talk about Rove being so powerful the attempted initiative by the George W. Bush in 1997 of Texas's school financing proves that Rove never had a monopoly on Bush's Brain. Another example is that John Weaver who ran the campaign for John McCain is considered a victim of Karl Rove albeit anyone who runs a losing campaign finds their resume harmed, so I am not too sure that Rove is to blame for Weaver's fall in political consulting.

While Rove is a witty guy the book seems to contradict itself by noting that Rove made many mistakes. For example, Rove screwed up when he didn't think about the problems of Bush going to Bob Jones University would cause. Rove overestimated Bush's ability against Gore. Rove even suggested Republicans to run on education and Social Security in 2002. Republican activists considered the suggestion silly to say the least. Another serious gaffe was having Bush actually go to California in the 2002 gubernatorial election. Bill Simon didn't really have anything offer Bush and plenty to harm Bush. It seems odd that Rove wouldn't make Bush more explicitly staying away from Simon.

The book unfortunately at times suffers from matter that either seems irrelevant or in at least one case questionable if not outright wrong. The reference to a spat with Rove's neighbor wasn't relevant to the story.

The one case of a section that is questionable is citing former Texas House speaker Ben Barnes on p.305-307. In the 2004 presidential election Barnes daughter claimed that her father lied about the claim that Bush was given preferential treatment. Furthermore, some note some inconsistencies in the story. While it is clear that officials in the Texas Air National Guard likely gave Bush and others who were politically well connected favoritism the story about Barnes is a bit controversial. Whether it is accurate or not it seems to be a bit tangential to the title character of the book Karl Rove.

The last chapter examines the life of Rove victim Pete McRae who worked for the Texas Agriculture Department. Needless to say unless one is a real critic of Rove it isn't really that interesting to read about McRae. One can easily skip the last chapter since it says little about Rove and more about McRae than anything else.