Book Review: Rove Shows Loyalty Has Its Downside

Some years ago, West Virginia’s legendary Sen. Robert Byrd got up at a farewell reception honoring a retiring colleague, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a man with whom Byrd served and admired but rarely agreed.

As it turned out, Byrd and Gramm were friends in spite of their disagreements and the senior Democrat in the Senate was there to pay tribute to the feisty Texas conservative. During the course of his remarks, Byrd said that Phil Gramm “without question” possessed the single most brilliant mind of anyone he had met since his own arrival in Washington in the Fifties.

But, Byrd continued, “Someone once said that a ‘foolish consistency’ is the hobgoblin of small minds. I am here today to tell you that it can also be the hobgoblin of really great minds.” That drew a laugh at the time, but I was reminded of those words as I finished Karl Rove’s Courage & Consequence.

Someone asked me early in the Bush Administration if I considered Rove a reliable conservative and I said, “not operationally, but he is incredibly bright, which means that more often than not he will end up on our side on both politics and policy.” And that’s what happened. But Karl’s decisions were made not to advance the conservative cause nor to implement his own agenda, but to do what he believed his boss wanted done or to advise him on what Karl thought was in Bush’s political interest.

Rove is a bright guy, possessing one of the best political minds of his generation. I’ve known him since the early ’70s and I like him personally. What intrigues me, however, is how a man as intellectually gifted and politically astute as Rove could elect a President, plan to reshape American politics and end up leading the President he elected, admired and even loved along with the party to which they were both wedded to the very brink of destruction. 

Of course, it can be argued that events like 9/11, the economic costs of both recovering from the economic impact of that terrible morning and the expense of carrying on a global war against radical Islamist terrorists, a hurricane called Katrina and the collapse of a housing market Bush had tried unsuccessfully to reform were too much for any President to overcome, particularly at a time when his morally compromised and dysfunctional congressional allies were faced with domestic political foes that would do virtually anything to bring Bush down. In part, of course, every President faces challenges that neither he nor his advisors can possibly foresee and sometimes finds himself trapped by circumstances beyond his or anyone’s control, but great Presidents rise to such challenges. 

Bush’s “greatness” will be argued for decades and Rove’s account of what went on during the Bush years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will figure in that argument. The irony is that he may receive higher grades for handling challenges he didn’t expect than those he sought. George W. Bush was no foreign policy or defense expert when elected. There was much he wanted to do as President, but his focus and agenda changed when those planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. As a result, historians will judge him on how he responded to the new world in which he found himself.

The same thing happened to Ronald Reagan. Like Bush, who said early in his administration that he viewed Reagan as something of a role model, Reagan came into office as a former governor familiar with and anxious to deal with the problems facing his fellow citizens within their borders. Reagan held very strong and well-formed views on the nature of the threat we faced from the Communist World, but his eyes tended to glaze over in the midst of briefings on foreign policy and defense and light up when they focused on welfare, taxes and spending reform. 

Circumstances, however, intervened and today Reagan gets his highest grades from those who credit him with outmaneuvering the Soviets and ultimately realizing his view that in his eyes our Cold War goal was quite simple: “We win. They lose” than for what he accomplished domestically.

We don’t yet know how history will judge Bush. Wars that drag on are never popular, though that tends to be forgotten once they end … so long as they end well. Rove admires the single-mindedness that Bush displayed in the days following 9/11 and makes a strong case that while the President and those around him may have erred in the execution and selling of a war that we have to fight and win, history will recognize the importance of the stand they took.

Rove traces much of the difficulty he and his boss faced later to the implacable partisan and ideological hostility of liberals convinced in their own minds that he was an illegitimate President who they had some sort of moral obligation to undermine. That they were willing to risk even their country’s national security interests to destroy their foe is as well documented here as elsewhere, but may be beside the point. 

One wouldn’t have known it in the aftermath of his death as one of the most beloved public figures of his day, but Ronald Reagan faced the same sort of hostility as President. Democratic leaders consorted with the nation’s enemies in the Soviet Union, Nicaragua and Grenada in the hope of embarrassing an American President by abetting failure abroad. 

The media dismissed Reagan as a fool or simpleton and his enemies went after his team on all fronts, hoping that they could destroy his Administration, drive him from office and perhaps send a few of his trusted aides to the slammer. Rove faced his own special prosecutor during the Bush years, but Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger had their own a decade earlier.

But Reagan ended his years in the White House more admired than Bush and his reputation continues to grow as he’s compared to his successors and historians learn more about what actually transpired during his years as President.

Reagan’s team was arguably internally far more fractious and less loyal than the Bush team, but it served him well. Even those who tried to isolate him failed and as a result neither he nor they were ever as isolated as most Presidents from the attitudes of the people for whom they worked. The same cannot be said of the Bush team, which tended to ignore or stop taking calls from outsiders who weren’t part of the administration’s cheering section.

Rove claims he admires loyalty above all else and this book proves it. He is a loyalist to the end, defending George W. Bush against all comers, accepting the blame for some of what went wrong, pointing an accusing finger at others for the some of the rest and blaming circumstances for the remainder, but such loyalty can also prove a hobgoblin as Rove unintentionally demonstrates.

The problem is that the code of loyalty imposed on team members by the author along with an insistence that everyone around him be a “team player” led to flawed intelligence from colleagues inside the White House and outside allies fearful of telling him what they were really thinking. Even as bright a political advisor as Rove was led into misjudgment based on this faulty intelligence and the lack of signals warning of dangers ahead.

In these pages Rove defends Bush’s every action from the perspective of an insider. Rove loves “No Child Left Behind,” the Prescription Drug plan that could ultimately bankrupt Medicare and an immigration proposal that almost split the GOP right down the middle … and he defends each on policy and political grounds. He also seems to think that White House Counsel Harriet Miers would have made a pretty good Supreme Court justice and can’t really understand why conservatives were so outraged by her selection. 

These might seem strange positions coming from one who subtitles his book, My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, but it must be remembered that for more than a decade Rove’s principal job was to advise Bush on what he believed might be in their political interest rather than on what he thought would be the right thing to do as a conservative and then to carry out or to later defend the positions Bush took. 

The problem, however, as is obvious from this book, is that Rove began at some point to believe his political advice — right or wrong — was “conservative” advice because he considered and still considers himself a conservative. This forces him to define conservatism in a way that would be unfamiliar and somewhat uncomfortable to traditional conservatives of the Goldwater and Reagan generations. His and Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” may seem at first glance to be mere rhetoric, but that rhetoric led the two of them down a path that managed to pull them off course. 

They got much right. Bush on taxes was courageous and will be remembered as the first President to put entitlement reform on the table. He truly did seem to want to empower people at home and events have proven him right on the “surge” in Iraq. But he didn’t seem to care much about spending and on sensitive questions like immigration reform that cried out for a policy conversation with the American people, he and Rove opted instead to demonize those with whom they disagreed and insist that conservatives see the world their way. That rarely works and led the Bush Administrations down alleys that might have been avoided.

None of the mental gymnastics he puts himself through to justify this in his own mind are more revealing than his account of Bush’s desire to put Dick Cheney on the ticket as his running mate in 2000 and Rove’s attempt to dissuade Bush from doing so. In front of both Bush and Cheney, Rove argued passionately against Cheney because, among other things, as a congressman, Cheney had compiled a conservative voting record that would open him and Bush to Democratic attack.

The solution, in Rove’s mind, was to pick not Cheney, but former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, who he describes as “a reliable Mid-Western conservative” from an important battleground state and greater political reach than Cheney. Fortunately, Bush went with his gut, rejected Rove’s advice and picked Cheney. Had he selected Danforth he would have quickly discovered that Karl was virtually alone in characterizing the man as a conservative.

So he made mistakes, infuriated many of us at times and gave the Democrats fits, but conservatives should never forget that, in spite of the mistakes, Rove and George W. Bush kept both Al Gore and John Kerry out of the White House or that we would trade the current occupant for the two of them in a heartbeat. 

Like Rove or not, this is a book worth reading both because it is the personal story of a brilliant political junkie and operative who worked his way to the top of his profession, an inside if flawed perspective on the Bush presidency and because Rove learned and passes on much that should interest and benefit anyone even marginally interested in politics, the people who run for office and the forces with which they are forced to contend on winning.