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03.12.10

Karl Rove's Book of Lies

The Bush guru's new memoir offers a brief and compelling personal narrative, followed by 500 pages of dishonesty and deception. Clinton strategist Paul Begala reviews the Bush presidency.

In writing his memoirs, Karl Rove faced a choice. He could reach for history: Fearlessly face the numerous failures of the Bush presidency, account for his role in the destruction of the American economy and a disastrous, dishonest war. Or he could play to his base: Deny everything, admit nothing, assert baldly that white is black.

Guess which path he chose?

I am not, I must admit, a fan of the political kiss-and-tell, so I don’t begrudge Rove a full-throated defense of the president he served. Nor am I part of the Democratic obsession with Rove. Karl was just the latest in a line that stretched from Carville and Atwater back to Willie Herndon, Lincoln’s political guru. I’ve always believed it’s better to focus on the organ grinder, not the monkey.

Rove should sue Burger King. His book, not their fast-food chain, is the true Home of the Whopper.

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Besides, when we squared off, I kicked his ass. Well, my candidate kicked his candidate’s ass. In 1991, Rove worked for Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in a Senate race against my client, Harris Wofford. Thornburgh was a popular two-term governor; Wofford had been an adviser to Martin Luther King and an aide to John F. Kennedy, but he had never been elected dog catcher. Rove’s guy started out 47 points ahead. He had the support of the then-popular President George H.W. Bush, tons of money, and Roger Ailes making his ads. Yet Harris Wofford beat Rove and Ailes by 10 points. So I never saw Rove as some master of the dark arts, possessed of unbeatable mojo.

Rove is witty and smart. He likes hunting and loves Texas. If it weren’t for lying us into a war and leading us into a depression, I might even be pals with Rove. And so I opened his book without the level of hostility most of my fellow Democrats might.

At first, he exceeded my expectations for candor as he wrote about his personal life. Your heart aches for him when you read about the breakup of his parents’ marriage, the disorientation he must have felt when an aunt and uncle casually told him he was adopted and thus the man he thought was his father was no biological relation. His account of his first wife leaving him is unflinching and admirably non-judgmental: "She then looked at me and blurted, 'I don't love you. I have never loved you. I never will love you.'" Ouch.

He brings the same unblinking style to the topic of his mother's suicide: "Like her mother before her in 1974, my mother had dealt with life's punishing blows by attempting suicide. But unlike my grandmother, Mom succeeded. I was stunned when I got the news but at some deep level I had always known she was capable of this. My mother struggled, even in placid waters, to keep a grip on life."

Not everyone can confront their family's failings with such frankness. But when the topic switches from the personal to the political, Rove admits no weakness or mistakes. It turns out (spoiler alert!) that the George W. Bush of Mr. Rove’s tale is strong and brave and wise and kind. He is a man—well, that’s unfair, a god, really, or at least a demigod—possessed of valor and vigor, poise and pluck, humor and humility. His description of his first meeting with the future president sounds like something out of Tiger Beat: "George W. Bush walked through the front door, exuding more charm and charisma than is allowed by law. He had on his Air National Guard jacket, jeans, and boots." This passage works best if, while you're reading it, you listen to Donny Osmond sing "Puppy Love."

One wonders if the admiration was reciprocated. Doubtful. President Bush repaid Rove’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel-like loyalty by bestowing a nickname on him. No, not “Bush’s Brain” as the press called him—nor something cool like “M-Kat”, Bush’s name for the ever-fashionable media man, Mark McKinnon.

Turd Blossom.

That’s what Mr. Bush called the man who took him from a dry drunk to the Oval Office. For Rove to remain faithful to a man who shat upon him in public and in private is, I believe, remarkable—maybe even admirable. It does seem the Bushes and other political causes became for Karl the family he always wanted and needed but never had.

Still, even the most commendable loyalty does not compel dishonesty. Leaving out some awkward facts or unflattering moments, sure. But you’re going to need a full bottle of Tylenol—or Jack Daniels—to kill the pain of all the times you slap your head as you read Rove’s memoir. Rove should sue Burger King. His book, not their fast-food chain, is the true Home of the Whopper.

It’s sad. Not because Rove is denying us the true story of the worst presidency in a century. We all lived it, and historians will record it. How Bush, Rove and Co. squandered the Clinton surplus and left us in debt; how they killed the greatest job-generating economy in history and left us in an economic free-fall; how they ignored repeated warnings about al Qaeda and left us vulnerable to the preventable attack on 9/11. (Bush reportedly told one CIA briefer who'd warned of an attack, "All right. You've covered your ass now.") How Rove's brand of politics took a House, Senate, and White House controlled by Republicans and handed them all to the Democrats. Hey, at least there's one thing the guy did that helped the country.

Stunningly, Rove does admit a major mistake. He writes that he and his minions were too timid in attacking those who pointed out that Bush lied us into the Iraq War.

I’ll take a minute here while you throw up.

Feel better? Good.

This is classic Rove. The truth, of course, is that Rove—as well as Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and the whole gang—except Colin Powell—viciously attacked anyone who criticized Bush’s war.

Rove himself said liberals offered “therapy and understanding for our attackers.” Tough enough?

How about this? Max Cleland, who left three limbs behind in Vietnam, was vilified in an ad that showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and impugned Cleland’s courage. Cleland voted for Bush’s war, but he supported a version of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security that was different from Bush’s version. That’s it. Never mind that Bush was against the DHS before he was for it. This tiny difference was enough to compare a triple amputee to a terrorist. And Rove thinks that’s not forceful enough? (Rove denies being behind the ad, but defends it as “effective because it was factual.”)

Or blowing the cover of an undercover CIA operative—one reportedly working to protect America from real weapons of mass destruction—because her husband disproved a Bush lie. That’s not tough enough?

You’ll go crazy playing Whack-a-Mole with all Rove’s lies. (Media Matters for America, the indispensable watchdog of right-wing lies, chronicles several lies in Rove's book here: http://mediamatters.org/research/201003080030) Suffice to say there’s not a sentient human being who believes the Bush-Rove mob was too deferential to war opponents.

As a matter of polemics, Rove is not credible. First, because one can fact-check his book. But also because he's too strident, he's trying too hard. He writes as if, with just one more misleading assertion or contorted statistic, he can really convince his readers that white is, in fact, black.

This is not just a dispute about, say, school vouchers. Some 4,283 American troops have died in Iraq. Tens of thousands have been wounded. Untold thousands of Iraqis have been killed or wounded—and millions more displaced. Trillions of dollars will be spent. And for what? For a lie.

This is the fact Rove strives hardest to deny. He fudges, claiming that because many Democrats said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, Bush could not have been lying when he said that. But the lie was not the assertion that Saddam possessed weapons—hell, he’d had them since Reagan gave him the raw materials for chemical weapons. The lie was that Saddam was a threat—a “grave and gathering threat,” a “unique and urgent threat,” a chemical threat, a nuclear threat, most of all: “an imminent threat.” He was, the lie went, such a threat that we could not allow the weapons inspectors to ascertain if he had weapons, we could not tighten sanctions, we could not use the strategy of containment that brought down the Soviet Union and kept Saddam in a box for a decade. No, he was such a threat—a mortal threat—that our only choices were war or death. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said the mendacious Bush national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

President Bush personally—and dishonestly—tried to link Saddam to 9/11, saying on September 25, 2002, that “You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.”

These were lies. Powerful lies. Persuasive lies. Potent lies. Lethal lies. Here’s the truth:

• In December 2001, the intelligence community opined that "Iraq did not appear to have reconstituted its nuclear-weapons program."

• A National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 said Iraq did not have a nuclear weapon or enough material to make one.

• On March 7, 2003, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Association reported to the U.N. Security Council that weapons inspectors had found “no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear-weapons program in Iraq.'' Days later, President Bush forced the weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and launched his invasion.

• The October 2002 intelligence estimate said Iraq was not likely to conduct terrorist or WMD attacks against the United States unless Saddam’s regime itself was at risk.

• As for supposed links between Saddam and bin Laden, the CIA said “Saddam has viewed Islamic extremists operating inside Iraq as a threat, and his regime since its inception has arrested and executed members of both Shia and Sunni groups to disrupt their organizations and limit their influence.” The CIA went on to report, “Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are far from being natural partners.”

What I wanted most in the book were the scenes Rove did not write about. Like the moment—it must have happened—when he talked to Bush’s chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, after Dowd had lost faith in Bush and his war. Dowd’s son enlisted in the Army, learned Arabic and was shipped out to Iraq. How did Rove react? What did he say? Did Dowd’s epiphany plant a seed of doubt in Rove? Did Rove feel betrayed? Enraged? Rove never addresses it.

Or how about the conversation when Rove apologized to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for using McClellan to lie about Rove’s role in outing Valerie Plame Wilson? In his own memoir, McClellan writes that on Sept. 27, 2003, he asked Rove “an unambiguous, unqualified catch-all question” about whether he was involved in “any way” with the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. “Karl replied categorically, ‘No. Look, I didn’t even know about his wife.’”

That, of course, was a lie. Rove had been a confirming source for Bob Novak, the journalist who outed Ms. Wilson. He also revealed Plame’s identity to Matt Cooper of Time magazine. Cooper told NBC’s Meet the Press, “Karl Rove told me about Valerie Plame’s identity on July 11th, 2003. I called him because Ambassador Wilson was in the news that week. I didn’t know Ambassador Wilson even had a wife until I talked to Karl Rove and he said that she worked at the agency and she worked on WMD. I mean, to imply that he didn’t know about it or that this was all the leak by someone else, or he heard it as some rumor out in the hallway is, is nonsense.”

Rove had lied to McClellan, who in turn unwittingly lied to the American people. Rove ignores his shameful treatment of McClellan. In fact, the man’s name is only mentioned twice—and one of those times was to note he “needed help in his daily battles with the press corps.” Nice. McClellan recently told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC that Rove in fact apologized privately to him three times—but Rove even denies that moment of contrition and decency, telling NBC’s Matt Lauer he does not owe McClellan an apology.

On his deathbed, Rove's old College Republican running buddy Lee Atwater recanted. He lamented what he called, "this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul." Atwater apologized for some of the more egregious personal attacks he'd launched, and hoped for "a little heart, a lot of brotherhood." Anyone seeking such remorse from Rove will not find it in this book. It's just too much to ask of a man who has gone through so much suffering in his personal life, and whose politics and policies have caused so much suffering in our national life. And thirty bucks is too much for Rove to ask of readers who have a right to something more than a brief but compelling personal narrative followed by 500 pages of dishonesty and deception.

Paul Begala is a CNN political contributor and a research professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. He was a senior strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and served as counselor to President Clinton in the White House.