June 2, 2003
Who is Bush's Brain? Karl Rove is, according to a New Book Chronicling the Political Life of the Machiavelli Behind the Throne of King George
Some readers have e-mailed us asking why BuzzFlash is offering a book about Karl Rove as a premium. Our answer is simple: know your enemy. Rove may be evil, but he is an evil genius. Freedom loving Americans ignore him at their peril. Rove never graduated from a college, but he is a masterful three-dimensional chess player, albeit working for the forces of radical extremism. Rove runs circles around the Democratic leadership. He's a bear hunter who knows how to bait and trap with the best of them.
too bad he is the most powerful man in Washington, working on behalf
the forces of evil. Karl Rove would do Lucifer proud.
Here is the BuzzFlash interview with James Moore.
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BUZZFLASH: The title of your book is pretty provocative Bush's Brain. Where are we supposed to go with that concept?
JAMES MOORE: Well, originally I didn't intend for it to be pejorative. I wanted it to strictly speak to what Karl Rove's role was, and that was his nickname. It was one of three nicknames that he had from the press corps and from Governor Bush. Governor Bush called him Boy Genius. And the press corps -- when everybody referred to him in the thirty party -- we said: Oh, he's Bush's Brain.
And it was meant as he's a brainy guy, a brainy fellow. But the title of the book is sort of two-fold; I wanted it to cut both ways. I wanted it to be a little pejorative, but I also wanted it to directly refer to Karl. The other nickname for Karl, which the President has, which is a sort of Texas colloquialism, is Turd Blossom, which means something wonderful that grows up out of a cowpie.
BUZZFLASH: What exactly do you think Bush means by that?
MOORE: Well, I think what he means is that there's a lot of stuff he hates about Karl, and about having to be political, and the games that he has to play and indulge in in order to get where he wants. But the fact that Karl is very good at this is a positive, and it brings a benefit. It puts a bloom on a thorny old Bush.
BUZZFLASH: In your book, certainly I think it's fair to say that there's a mixture of admiration for Rove's political skills and his smarts, his strategy. But you certainly provide factual evidence that his intelligence has been put to use for strategy over principle, for anything it takes to win. And you've got some very detailed examples of that: the bugging of his own office, the gutter tactics used in unseating Jim Hightower as Texas Agriculture Commissioner, and so forth.
So here's the proverbial question: What makes Rove tick? You mention at least a couple times that it's a drive toward being at the pinnacle of power; I think you use something like the phrase "the highest unelected official in the United States." Does he have an ideology? Or is it simply to win?
MOORE: Well, two things: One is, you said admiration, and I don't think it's as much admiration as it is awe. I am amazed by his grasp of both the big picture and detail. I've never, ever seen anyone who's able to look out beyond the event horizon and sort of create the next environment that will support his political ends, and then, at the same time, manage details right down to the precinct level. He's phenomenal in that regard.
In terms of ideology, Karl does have an ideology, and it is very fundamentalist, conservative, Republican to the right. If he had to pick a group which he most closely associates with, that group is going to be very conservative, Christian fundamentalist Republicans. And all of the messages that the White House sends in the way the White House governs is to that base Republican core that Karl believes is the foundation of the Republican Party and its future, and its hope for election in 2004.
By design, they have no enemies on the right. And they'll take them on the left, but there are none on the right. And that's precisely what Karl chooses to do.
BUZZFLASH: Does he choose to do that for political and strategic reasons? Or because he himself is of that extremist ideology?
MOORE: I think he believes both. I think that he believes very much in that particular ideology, but he also thinks that strategically, if those people aren't there, and if those people aren't energized and using their mechanism to turn out their votes, the Republicans can't stay in power.
BUZZFLASH: He packages Bush as the "compassionate conservative" -- the images of Bush surrounded by black schoolchildren, surrounded by Elizabeth Smart, who had been abducted. The images America sees are not of the extremist ideology -- they're of a caring man, a caring President. So there's clearly a dichotomy. Some would call that hypocrisy. And in your book, you again detail that his methodology doesn't necessarily live up to the espoused morality that Bush and the extreme right articulates - that, as Tom DeLay hypocritically proclaims, there should be no moral relativism. BuzzFlash argues that this administration is the epitome of moral relativism. It's the original bait and switch administration.
What Karl does to achieve his goals in terms of the candidates he's worked for is unscrupulous. He thinks nothing of slandering people. He is a rumor mongerer. He has allegedly used law enforcement personnel to undercut his opponents. How is that balanced, do you think, in his own mind? That the means, even if illegal or skirting at the edge of the law, don't matter as long as you achieve your ends? Clearly, there's a lot of moral relativism going on there because he doesn't have any compunction about starting a whispering campaign against John McCain in South Carolina, claiming that he has a black child, and he wasn't really a war hero and so forth. And yet Bush and Rove and the White House espouse these absolute, moral values. So how do those two things exist within him?
MOORE: Well, it's something I said all along. Compassionate conservatism in Texas is where they ask you if want green Jello or red Jello before they stick the needle in your arm and execute you. That's compassionate conservatism. But Karl's method for governance, which he has gotten this President to use very effectively, is completely cynical and it's based on the whole idea that we are all too busy to pay attention to the details of what's going on. We're all running around worrying about our mortgages and our 401Ks, and getting the kids to school or daycare, and picking up the dry cleaning, and planning vacation or retirement, that we don't read deeply into the story.
He once told a consultant that we interviewed for "Bush's Brain" that you should run every political campaign as though people are watching television with the sound turned down. And toward that end, you rely heavily on imagery and not very much on substance, knowing that if the President is photographed in a school of minority and ethnic children, and is interested in their future in that particular photo op, that people will trust that image. And they don't go beyond that image to look at his policy, which is signing the "Leave No Child Behind Act" in a big, high-profile moment with Senator Ted Kennedy, and then gutting the heart out of that bill with the funding that he offers up for it.
The President has become very good at these phony linkages. For instance, you'll see him running around talking about the tax bill, saying we need to get it passed so that we can create jobs for people. Factually, this tax bill - there's not an economist in America or a successful business person, Warren Buffet among them, who believes that getting rid of the taxation of dividends is going to create jobs anytime in the near future, and ostensibly in the long term. But if the President says it over and over enough, people will believe it, just as Karl Rove got him to say over and over that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.
At time of the war in Iraq, the Pew survey showed 61 percent of Americans believed the canard about Iraq. So the whole concept is to speak as though you are a compassionate, sensitive, caring guy, and create these photo opportunities that prove that. But do whatever you want to do when you govern, because the public isn't paying very close attention. And they've gotten away with it thus far.
BUZZFLASH: Well, I don't know if you cover this explicitly in your book, because the book you wrote with Wayne Slater is very much based on your interviews and fact, and not as speculative as I'm asking you to be. But how do you think Rove balances - getting back to my last question - the White House espousing the sense of absolute moral superiority, if you want to call it moral purity, with tactics that include lying, deception, and use of government agencies for political purposes?
MOORE: Well, the dichotomy exists within the collaboration between Bush and Rove. And you see it in his campaigns, and you see it in their governance. And it works this way: The President is oblivious, and chooses to stay oblivious, to the things that Karl does, and the contradictions about morality that Karl does. The whole concept, and it works in all of his campaigns, is the candidate or the officeholder takes the high road -- talks policy, talks moral clarity, and honor, and principle -- while the operative does all the dirty work down in the ditch, and splashes the mud, and spreads the scurrilous smears and rumors and whisper campaigns that have the desired political effect to keep the candidate elected.
And so they ignore the contradiction because they've sort of compartmentalized it in their collaboration. Karl has no problem with it, and the President has this rationalization that, well, I really don't know that's going on out there; I'm just saying what I believe. It's almost like this phenomenon after the Jews were released from the concentration camps, where they couldn't remember certain parts of the experience because of the psychological phenomenon called selective recall.
I think what takes place in terms of Karl and the President is almost a sort of selective consciousness.
And I also think it's possible that Karl is pathological. And I didn't realize how strong of a statement that is, but if you look at some of the things that we heard during the course of doing research for this book -- in one instance, we wrote about these debate contests, and we wrote about him running for office. We interviewed six people who he went to high school with who were very close to him. Remember that this is the late 60s and early 70s, and most of us are growing our hair long and wearing tie-dyed t-shirts, and Karl is wearing a coat and tie to school at a public school every day. Now when you talk to six different people, the one characteristic that stands out in their mind about Karl is his dress - him dressing like a businessman when everyone else is dressing like rebellious hippies.
You got six people say that, and then Karl saying: Oh, that's nonsense; I only wore a coat and tie on debate days. Well, you begin to believe that there's something pathological about a guy who can perceive a reality that everyone else says does not exist. And it causes me some concern about him being in as much power and influence as he has within the White House.
BUZZFLASH: As you detail in your book, Rove has some interesting biographical notes. His father left the family; his mother committed suicide; he avoided service in the military and Vietnam; he never finished college. It's a very interesting background for someone who is probably the most powerful unelected official in the United States. And you don't get into too much psychobabble in analyzing him, other than to say perhaps this chaotic background left him prone to seek some sort of strong influence and sense of order and the authoritarianism in the Republican Party. But it is a sort of an unusual pedigree for what he has attained. After all, his biggest accomplishment up to working for George Bush the elder at the RNC was a record of dirty campaign tricks that he accumulated during his Young Republican days.
MOORE: Well, I do think that's true. And part of the direction he's gone in, however, is also a product of that background. I mean, he grew up in an irreligious family, and now he embraces fundamentalist Christianity in a very strong way. And he is very, very driven to achieve and to accomplish things that will be of note. And I think that a part of that - you know, a lot of us who come from those kinds of backgrounds are driven in those kinds of ways. And I think it informs everything that Karl has become, because I think there was so much uncertainty that he sought clarity. He wanted things simple. He wanted them black and white. And he's found a President who thinks the same way. And unfortunately, life is not lived in the black-and-white zones. It's lived in the gray zones. And this President and Karl don't acknowledge that the gray zones exist.
BUZZFLASH: You mentioned before his comment about most Americans receive their news from television with the sound turned off. That seems like a very telling comment, considering that Rove's certainly the best master of the television image since Mike Deaver handled Reagan's image. Rove may be more masterful, because Reagan was an actor and he just walked onto Mike Deaver's sets.
But let's take an example of what happened on the U.S. Abraham Lincoln, and the fact that now even Ari Fleischer's admits it wasn't an issue of not being able to take a helicopter because it was too far away, since it was only 30 miles offshore, changing the story and saying that Bush really wanted to see what it was like to land on a carrier. And then we learned that the ship was delayed, and the delay cost a lot, and Condoleeza Rice flew out ahead on a helicopter - all sorts of things are coming out.
This seems to capitalize on what you just said - that Karl Rove isn't concerned about the lies getting out, because that's all sort of an insider's story that the average American is never going to learn about or hear about. All the average TV-watching American sees is that image of the Commander in Chief landing on the deck there, triumphantly, in a pilot's uniform. And that's the image Rove knows is going to be in the campaign commercial. The White House all but admits it was preparatory for the campaign. And it's almost at this point that it doesn't even matter if the truth comes out, because when it comes out, it's really only being absorbed by a very select group of people. The country at large doesn't suck in that footnote information that reveals the charade and lies.
And Rove, unfortunately, just seems to be brilliant at that. It seems the Democrats don't understand that at all -- they don't understand the power of image. They don't understand that even on the rare occasion that they do object or criticize an extremist Bush policy, that it doesn't matter, because it's not translated into an image that Americans can understand.
Where did Rove develop this? He wasn't really a journalist. He started in the political world; ironically, as a college Republican, since he never graduated from college. But basically his political consulting started off as a expertise in direct mail. How did he develop such skill at playing the media like a fiddle?
MOORE: Well, he's always been a very quick study, and he's an extremely intelligent guy. He's one of the brightest people I've ever met. And I guarantee you he was watching closely what Deaver did. And he knows the way the media works, he knows what drives it. He knows that if you get the big image and the big moment, you can use it. And he's fearless when it comes to intimidating the media and making them think twice about asking questions.
I was astonished by the Abraham Lincoln event because it is such an irony, and so hypocritical for the President to don a flight suit and take that flight because we're talking about a President who used family connections to get into the National Guard. He lost his flight status after four years because he refused to show up for his physical in 1972, which also happened to be the year that random drug testing was begun. And in his first campaign he said that he couldn't find his family physician to give him the physical. And then it was pointed out the military doctor gives these physicals. And then they said, well, he didn't go because he decided he would no longer fly, as if an enlistee gets to decide their future service and duty.
Punishment was issued for him to do civilian duty in Denver, for which he did not show up. He claims to have showed up in Alabama, when he transferred to Alabama to work on his Senate campaign. The commanding officer there said that he never showed up. I mean, he takes a privileged position in the Guard and then does not honor his commitment -- disappears for the last two years of his hitch and uses family privilege to avoid combat and making any kind of political statement about the War in Vietnam. And yet they have the chutzpah to put him in a plane and fly him out there, and think that no one will ask him about these contradictions.
And guess what? All there was was media gushing about what an amazing event this was, and how great the President looked, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And no one called him a draft dodger. No one said: Mr. President, there's a difference between you and the people you're here to honor. They finished their commitment - their military duties - and you shirked yours.
BUZZFLASH: How have we gotten to this point - to a point Rove's skill can be confident of success in a situation like that, despite the gross and blatant hypocrisy of the situation?
MOORE: They have a 24-hour machine that attacks. And it's constantly staffed and it intimidates and it distracts. It uses head fakes. They jump on John Kerry for saying that he is part Jewish. They jump on John Kerry and Howard Dean for debating each other too strongly. And any reporter who would deign to ask these kinds of questions of the Bush administration would get the White House in their face, saying: How dare you? And then they would be threatened with access.
They play this game of access. They know very well that once a reporter loses his or her access to the White House, their job is gone. And so the reporter is sort of intimidated into not asking these kinds of tough questions. This is a game that they perfected here in Texas. As a matter of fact, in 1994, when he was running for governor for the first time against Ann Richards, I was panelist in his broadcast debate. And I was the first person in his life to ask him the question, particularly in public - how he got into the Texas Air National Guard when there a hundred thousand young men on waiting lists around the country that ranged from three to five years.
How did he get into the National Guard and avoid the draft? And he answered the question, not very well - he didn't tell the truth. But after the debate, both Karl and Karen came up to me and jumped on me, and said: What kind of question was that? How dare you? Why would you ask such a question? That's so irrelevant. He served, you know. He was in the National Guard, et cetera, et cetera. And I said: Wait a minute - I'm a few years younger than he was, and I know from my experience and my friends that we all tried to get into the Guard because it was a way to avoid combat. And we at least admitted it. And he's trying to pretend that no strings were pulled.
I said I have a sense of obligation to ask that question because I lost friends in Vietnam -- and I tried to avoid it myself. And I know the way the game was played. If you had family connections, you were safe. If you didn't, you weren't. And he's got em.
The point is that they use rank intimidation to silence the media. And they certainly are not beyond going to management and asking questions. I had the office of former President Bush one time call a television station in Texas that I worked for, asking them why I had asked such a difficult question of the President during an appearance in San Antonio. Those are the games they play, and they work.
BUZZFLASH: Now tell me - getting back to the election of George Bush to the governorship, let's go back even before that, as Rove is positioning things for the Republicans to solidify their control in Texas. In the book Bush's Brain, you devote considerable time to this period, and it's just absolutely fascinating to read -- a case study of how Rove dislodged Jim Hightower as Agricultural Commissioner, and you bring up this curious relationship between Rove and an FBI agent, Greg Rampton.
MOORE: Karl first met Greg Rampton in 1986 when Karl bugged his own office, and Rampton was one of the FBI guys who came to his office to investigate. Rampton had been stationed in Austin for a few years and was part of an investigation that was setting up these phony bribes for state officials. And he went after a number of state officials there, and got some trials but no convictions.
Anyway, my belief is that somehow, during the course of the phony bugging investigation in Karl's office, Rove discovered that he and Greg Rampton were politically sympathetic with each other. And Greg Rampton ended up investigating every Democratic officeholder on a statewide basis in Texas, and never got anything against any of them. And they went after Jim Hightower, the Agriculture Commissioner, and were interviewing dozens of people at the Ag Commissioner's office, hoping to get Jim Hightower indicted, but they couldn't.
But there were two elderly guys who had been fundraisers for about 30 years over there. They ended up being indicted and prosecuted and convicted. And during the course of all that, they got many offers to roll over on Hightower and the charges against them would be dropped. They refused to do it.
Also in process, numerous people were told during the course of their interviews by Greg Rampton: Look, if you think you've got anything, call Karl Rove and he'll get in touch with me. It was quite, quite clear to everybody in town, and from the attorneys who were defending these people at the Ag Department - dozens of people had retained attorneys for their FBI interviews - that Rove was running the operation, and Rampton was taking directions from Karl Rove.
BUZZFLASH: And also that some of their investigation was timed for the media.
MOORE: Yeah, the day that Hightower announced that he was running for reelection, Rampton showed up at Hightower's office with 10 different subpoenas for documents and individuals and said it was strictly coincidental.
Just as the timing on the bugging in Karl's office was "coincidental," in that the bug was discovered on the day of the only debate in the Texas gubernatorial campaign in 1986, and Karl's candidate happened to be a horrid debater. And the coverage of that bugging completely covered up the entire debate. On the front page of the newspaper the next day, hardly anything was written about the debate.
BUZZFLASH: And it also made his candidate and him look like victims. Just two other quick things about Hightower: You also point out - in a somewhat scary and humorous fashion at the same time - that a reporter at one point called Hightower's office about their reactions to subpoenas that had been issued, and no one in the office knew, meaning that this reporter had been leaked the subpoena information -- possibly by Rove -- and had just jumped the gun.
MOORE: It actually happened several times with several reporters. But that was the one where the Ag Department people put the pieces together. Rove denied to me that he leaked.
BUZZFLASH: But Rampton says he didn't do it. Rove says he didn't do it. So
MOORE: Who did?
BUZZFLASH: someone's not telling the truth.
MOORE: Well, then it has to come out of the U.S. Attorney's Office, and that's the least likely place because then a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office runs the risk of obstruction of justice charges and going to prison for a long, long time. So I don't think that happened. I think it was Rove or Rampton.
BUZZFLASH: The attack on Hightower is so illustrative - and that's one of the reasons I assume you spent a lot of time on it - of Karl Rove's tactics. You mentioned Hightower was a target because he was the highest profile Democrat at the time and sort of a rising star. And we all know he's still around and is still a populist. And Rove came up with this strategy to tarnish him, and eventually unseat him, even though he looked like a shoe-in. And the person who ran against him is the current governor of Texas
MOORE: Rick Perry.
BUZZFLASH: Perry. And once again, Rove succeeded. In a race that looked like it was Hightower's to lose, he lost it. But he lost it because of the sideshow that was created.
MOORE: Well, he lost it. A big part of it was this phony-baloney investigation. But Hightower did make one major misstep, and that was Jesse Jackson pressured him for a presidential endorsement, and Hightower gave him that endorsement. And that's also at the time when flag-burning legislation was being kicked around, and Jesse Jackson was fighting a Constitutional amendment against burning the flag. And so, in East Texas, which always has the greatest turnout in this state in terms of percentages, Rove and Rick Perry put up a bunch of ads with Hightower and Jesse Jackson and a burning flag. And that pretty much brought Hightower's demise.
BUZZFLASH: Your book ends shortly before the Iraq war, but it's very prescient in terms of its predictions - the way you left it then is pretty much how it has actually played out. I just read today that Rove is now careful not to call it a war, but rather "the Iraq battle."
MOORE: Right. I thought they would, for alliterative and marketing purposes, call it the Battle of Baghdad, but they decided to call it the Battle of Iraq.
BUZZFLASH: You point out how Rove saw his opportunity, and he took it with the war on terrorism and with creating a permanent condition where Bush becomes unattackable, and all other issues are secondary to protecting the nation against the terrorist threat. He saw this as an opportunity to basically put every issue by the backburner, as far as a debatable issues by the Democrats. And not only that, but to actually turn the war to the advantage of the right-wing agenda and claim that anything that's being done is being done to advance the war on terrorism.
They had said for a while that even tax cuts would help fight the war on terrorism. Everything became a part of it. We needed drilling in the Arctic wilderness because we needed more oil, to ensure our supply in case it's cut off in the war on terrorism. Ashcroft's powers increased, also due to the war on terrorism. Rove masterfully turned September 11 - a tragedy - into a win-win situation for the right wing of the Republican Party. Of course, the fact that the Democrats rolled over like dogs on their backs helped him achieve his goals.
Indeed, you point out that when they started the "permanent war" political strategy, one of the key assumptions that Rove had was that the Democrats wouldn't fight back in terms of trying to change the definition of the debate, particularly when they were beginning the "war on terrorism," and Daschle and Gephardt went along with the Patriot Act and also with giving supreme war powers to Bush and so forth. And you point out that Rove was right. By the time we were leading up to the Iraq invasion, Rove had succeeded and it was pretty hard to lay a punch on Bush. This again seems like a masterful triumph of defining image in the mind of the voter. Rove knows how to define the issues in a way that, even if the Democrats were willing and had some guts, it doesn't seem they would be able to master a media counter-campaign.
MOORE: Well, a big part of the success of Karl has been the absolute befuddlement of the Democrats, and also, in many, many cases, their own lack of righteous indignation and lack of message. I remember that it was Joe Lieberman of Connecticut who was pushing Homeland Security, and the White House said: No, no, no - we don't need another gigantic bureaucracy. And then what happened was, all of a sudden, they cobbled together very quickly their own Homeland Security Department. And they release it on the day that Colleen Rowley is testifying before the Senate on the failure of the Bush administration's FBI to take action on her memo about a potential 9/11 event.
After the Senate tries to create a bill that's much more reasonable than the one the White House has put together, the President says in New Jersey that the United States Senate is not as interested in the security of our country as it should be. Now in the United States Senate, you have Daniel Inouye, who served in World War II. You had Max Cleland, who left two legs and an arm in Vietnam. And the draft-dodging President is saying that they're not interested in the security of the United States! Well, there was no screaming and hollering from Max Cleland or Daniel Inouye. They sent Tom Daschle out there, and Daschle's an easy target. Strategically, it was a bad move to send Daschle out.
The White House operatives have now taken the war in Iraq - Karl has - and they have made it into the defining context of the Bush presidency. Coming next is that they will take both of these things - the economy and the war against terrorism - and they will bundle it up into one package. Another one of Karl's many gifts is a simplicity of message, and finding the right message that the public gets, that it understands, and is able to access very quickly and easily, and doesn't have to think in great depth or detail about actually what's going on.
So he's going to market the economic problems and the war on terrorism under the purview of a message called security. And we're going to be talking about economic security and national security. In terms of the economy, Karl is going to have the President say, look, if I hadn't been distracted by the war, I would have got my tax cut plan through Congress. And it would have already begun to work. But because I was distracted, I only am just now getting this through. Don't toss me out until this thing has had a chance to work. And look, I didn't get all of it. So re-elect me and I'll go back. And I'll fight that mean old Congress, and we'll get the rest of the tax bill. And we'll turn this economy around.
Now, on the other side of this message, in terms of national security, Karl will have the President say we've made some progress in the war on terrorism, but it's not over. This is an ongoing war. And we resolved the whole mess with Saddam Hussein, but there are other dangers out there. And whatever you do, you shouldn't change your Commander in Chief in the middle of a war. I believe completely that it's possible, if the President is politically on the ropes late next summer or early next fall, that there will be a military incursion into Syria, or they will say that there are hidden weapons of mass destruction there, or there are some Iraqi leaders in Syria. Or they will go into Pakistan. And they will suggest that bin Laden is in a compound in Karachi. Or they will go into Iran, and they will suggest that too many Shiites have been crossing over from Iran into Southern Iraq, and they're creating an unstable situation in Southern Iraq, so they're going after Shiite leadership in Iran. It's all going to be positioned as unfinished business. And why would you bring a new CEO in to finish out the business when you got the guy in there who started it?
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