Book review: 'Courage and Consequence' by Karl Rove

In his memoir, Karl Rove acknowledges mistakes during the Bush presidency, but defends his former boss.
In his memoir, Karl Rove acknowledges mistakes during the Bush presidency, but defends his former boss. (Susan Biddle/the Washington Post)
By Steven Levingston
Sunday, March 7, 2010


My Life as a Conservative in the Fight

By Karl Rove

Threshold Editions. 596 pp. $30

Karl Rove's partisan bloodlust flowered early. At age 9 -- and already a political nerd -- he became a spirited supporter of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential smackdown against John F. Kennedy. So intense was his devotion that he landed a coveted Nixon bumper sticker and displayed it proudly on his bicycle basket -- until a little girl in his neighborhood who favored JFK beat the stuffing out of him, bloodying his nose and ego. "I've never liked losing a political fight since," Rove writes in his memoir, "Courage and Consequence."

Hard-nosed and obsessive he is, this steely political genius who orchestrated George W. Bush's climb, first to the Texas governor's mansion and then to the White House. But the figure who emerges in these pages has another side. In unexpectedly tender prose, Rove tells a poignant family story, which includes his father's long absences, his parents' divorce and his mother's suicide. Only after the divorce would he learn that his father was in fact his stepfather and that he and his brother were children of his mother's earlier marriage.

Rove addresses far more of his personal life than one would expect from a man who so effectively controlled information in the White House. That the drama is so touching and convincing leaves one to wonder if the master is again spinning with ease or, more fairly, if he isn't entitled like anyone else to a compassionate ear for his sorrows.

The attack dog rears his head, however, when Rove deals with questions about his stepfather's sexual orientation. He blasts journalists for raising the issue at all -- in his eyes it's purely a liberal gambit to criticize him for his views on homosexuality. Rove launches a well-honed rebuttal -- a skill learned long ago, no doubt, on the high school debate team -- that comes across as part analysis and part dismissal. "Could Dad have been gay?" he asks, acknowledging that his stepfather had gay friends and volunteered at an AIDS project. "To this day, I have no idea if my father was gay. And, frankly, I don't care. He was my father, with whom I had a wonderful relationship and whom I loved deeply."

As affecting as parts of the book are, Rove is unlikely to win any hearts among the liberal establishment. He is as feisty as ever in his sneering at Democrats, firing broadsides at Al Gore, his former boss's opponent in the 2000 presidential campaign, for "the most pathetic display of hypocrisy" over the question of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He accuses President Obama of playing "fast and loose with the facts." He reminds readers that in certain circles his name has became an adjective -- Rovian -- to describe a style of politicking that is heavy on mud-throwing and dirty tricks.

He frames his memoir -- the first substantial one from Bush's innermost circle -- as a chance to set the record straight. But it is as much an opportunity to settle scores. These track across a career in which Rove has moved from one firestorm to the next, always cool to the point of cold-blooded. ("One observer has even said that I 'appear to lack nerve endings,' " he notes with evident pride.)

In a tone of obvious irritation, he asserts that he did not have any role in the Justice Department's 2005 decision to prosecute the Democratic former governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, on bribery and other charges, an accusation Rove fought for years. He also takes on what he calls a "bunch of conspiracy buffs" who accused him of ordering the removal of seven U.S attorneys for their failure to prosecute Democrats. The Justice Department, he says, had grounds for all of the dismissals. He takes on Joe Wilson's challenge to Bush's statement in his 2003 State of the Union address that Hussein sought to acquire uranium in Africa. Deploying a skilled debater's rhetoric, Rove repeats at least nine times over several pages the phrase "Wilson was wrong," as he methodically stacks up his evidence to refute the former foreign service officer's charge.

Always thorough in his research and laser sharp as a tactician, Rove is able to turn even his administration's mea culpas into rallying cries. Case in point: Bush's infamous cheer of "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" While this intemperate remark came to characterize Bush's failure to comprehend the degree of misery caused by Hurricane Katrina, Rove puts it in a context that reveals the good heart that beat inside the president. Bush gave his pressured FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, a pat on the back right after Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley thanked him and his staff for their efforts. Bush's compliment was in the spirit of the moment and was meant to show his support for a beleaguered team member. "That, rather than piling on, is a Bush instinct," Rove writes.

The controversy over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq sets Rove on perhaps his most vehement partisan attacks. Although he concedes that Congress would have balked if it knew that no Hussein stockpile existed, he still slams Democratic leaders for insisting that Bush lied about the weapons to lead America into war. The Democrats, he says, earlier were just as outspoken about the danger of secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq. "Those who accused Bush of sending America's military into harm's way on a bald-faced lie knew that their accusation was not true," he writes, adding that it was a "disgraceful game they were playing."

Nonetheless, Rove realizes that the accusation was corrosive to the administration's credibility and its prosecution of the war, and he regrets that he didn't swat back more determinedly. "Our weak response in defense of the president and in setting the record straight, is, I believe, one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush years," he writes.

The man of courage and consequence denoted by the book's title is George W. Bush. In Rove's view, Bush was a rare leader of conviction and moral clarity who asserted the primacy of freedom, democracy and open markets at a time of extreme national insecurity. His presidency was not error-free, Rove acknowledges, but overall his accomplishments were "impressive, durable, and significant." As his loyal servant (and, not insignificantly, as his kingmaker), Rove has fashioned a portrait of the Bush presidency that aims to shape history in his boss's favor. It's the mother of all political fights -- one for the ages that this brawler, still at heart the bloodied 9-year-old, seems determined not to lose.

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of Book World.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company