Who is Karl Rove? And why is he the most powerful man in America that most people haven?t heard of? Karl Rove sits in the margins of the frame or stands in the corner during speeches made by the man he?s credited with making president, George W. Bush. His title, Senior Advisor to the President, belies the power and influence he apparently has over domestic and foreign policies, as well as the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. [i]Bush?s Brain: How Did This Happen?[/i], a documentary by filmmakers Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob, is itself based on [i]Bush?s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential[/i], a non-fiction book written by Wayne Slater and James Moore, veteran Texas journalists who have closely followed the converging careers of the two men. Slater, the Austin Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News, followed George W. Bush from June 1999 through November 2000, when Bush won the presidential election.
The documentary briefly sketches in Karl Rove?s background, from high school debate champion, to president of the Young Republicans, a position that drew him inexorably into the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and later into the orbit of the elder George H.W. Bush, almost a decade before he became Vice-President under Ronald Reagan. Rove's interaction with the younger Bush was minimal at the time, but apparently Rove saw political potential in the younger Bush. In quick succession, Rove found himself under the tutulege of the late Lee Atwater, a master political tactician also known for a "take no prisoners" approach to campaigning that often slid into dirty tactics. Atwater orchestrated the infamous Willie Horton ad released in 1988 that helped tip the momentum from then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush, who eventually won that election. The Willie Horton ad is considered a masterpiece of the smear ad, based partly in fact, but drawing from the reserves of racism and fear of violent crime in the American public. Karl Rove seems to have learned his lessons well.
Through a series of ?talking head? interviews, Mealey and Shoob attempt to draw a pattern of conduct from mostly testimonial, anecdotal evidence, in large part because the success of Rove?s tactics and methods depend on ?plausible deniability.? At no time does the smear, exaggeration, or outright lie lead back to Karl Rove, and through him his client, except through a web of associates and other political operatives. Mealey and Shoob begin with Rove?s first successful campaign in 1986, when the Democratic incumbent governor of Texas, Mark White, ran against a Republican candidate, Bill Clements. Working for Clements, whose poll numbers were sagging in the weeks before the election, Rove claimed he had found a small surveillance device (a ?bug? in common parlance) in his office. The media turned its critical attention to Mark White and his campaign staff. White lost that election. Clements served for only one term as governor of Texas, before in turn, being succeeded by a Democratic candidate, Ann Richards.
[i]Bush?s Brain[/i] also covers another, underreported incident from Rove?s days as a political consultant in Texas: a contact in the FBI helped to prosecute (some would say prosecute) two men who worked for the Texas Agricultural Commission, both Democrats, for their association with political operatives who solicited contributions to their reelection campaigns while on state business. Both men served jail time and paid costly fines. Neither returned to public service. The scandal helped to unseat the popular Agricultural Commissioner, Jim Hightower. His Republican replacement, Rick Perry, not coincidentally, was appointed governor when George W. Bush became president.
Karl Rove?s relationship with George W. Bush was renewed in the early nineties, after George W. Bush had become, with the help of family connections, a successful businessman and part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Rove saw a potential challenger for the popular governor of Texas, Democrat Ann Richards, who would run for reelection in 1994. George W. Karl Rove selected group of expert advisors to tutor Bush in preparation for the intense campaigning season. George W. Bush won the governorship of Texas in 1994, and was reelected in 1998. Only two years later, Rove quickly pushed for a then improbable presidential campaign. The early primaries saw John McCain, a maverick, independent Senator from Arizona gathering momentum for his improbable run for the Republican nomination. McCain's support evaporated after the South Carolina primary, due to a series of negative ads, including one that alleged that McCain had fathered an African-American child illegitimately, as well as ads that questioned his mental and emotional stability (McCain had been a prisoner-of-war for five years during the Vietnam War). McCain lost the South Carolina primary to George W. Bush, and never seriously challenged for the presidential nomination again.
Flash forward two years, and a similar series of negative ads, this time aimed at Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam War veteran and then U.S. Senator from Georgia. The negative ads compared Cleland to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin laden, and questioned his loyalty and support for congressional legislation related to national security. Flashforward another two years to 2004 and the smear campaign against John Kerry?s military service, funded primarily by Texas Republicans with strong ties to Karl Rove, appears to have Rove?s more than tangential involvement (given the timing, the funding, etc., during Kerry?s ?quiet period? in August when, due to campaign finance laws, he was unable to raise additional money for his presidential campaign, having accepted limited public financing after the Democratic National Convention at the end of July). Unfortunately, due to the timing of recent events, [i]Bush?s Brain[/i] doesn?t cover the recent anti-Kerry attacks, but with two months left before the general election, it?s more than likely that the general public hasn?t seen the end of negative ads or personal attacks. Why? For the simple reason that negative ads work, they influence public opinion, and ultimately, elections. Negative ads also depend on a compliant, and complicit, mainstream media that only slowly examines the factual content of the ads (but often after serious damage has already been done to the subject of the attack ads). Add to that the clearly conservative Fox News Channel (and the other so-called unbiased 24-hour cable news channels), plus numerous radio shows, and the the result is a vast "echo chamber" that repeatedly airs unsupported testimonial "evidence" as truth, or as equally credible with the contrary, often substantiated (i.e., by contemporary documentary evidence) counter claims.
[i]Bush?s Brain[/i], while superficially informative as a political biography of Karl Rove (we learn early on that he?s driven by an amoral hunger for power, and his personal motto seems to be "the ends justify the means"), does falter in several key areas: (1) most of the evidence presented by the filmmakers comes through second-hand, anecdotal testimony by ex-associates and victims of Karl Rove?s tactics over the last thirty years, leaving them, and the filmmakers, open to accusations of smearing the smearer, using the same tactics Rove has been accused of, without documentary, objective proof, (2) the documentary take an odd, uncomfortable foray into Michael Moore land, focusing one segment on a Texas family that?s lost an adopted son in Iraq; while moving, (4) the documentary is at its least convincing when it places responsibility for the war on Iraq with Karl Rove, almost failing to mention the influential roles played by Condeleeza Rice, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, and Douglas Feith (the Office of Special Plans, run by Feith, is currently under investigation for passing classified information about Iran to Israel) in deciding when and how to go to war, although we can?t and shouldn?t discount the political reasons that also underlay the invasion of Iraq (i.e., raising domestic approval numbers for a floundering presidency which, in turn, helped the Republican Party in the 2002 elections for Congress and the Senate) and (3) the filmmakers should have provided more examples of Rove?s campaign tactics, whether those aimed at Al Gore during the fall 2000 presidential campaign, or during the current presidential campaign against John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president. There is the possibility, however, that this documentary can be easily revisited and revised, after the fallout from the 2004 presidential campaign becomes clear.