Karl Rove’s deepest fantasy was that in the future, some lonely and ambitious young person would read of him as he once read of Mark Hanna, the political operative who guided President William McKinley’s successful 1896 campaign. He saw himself as a right wing hero who had insured a generation of Republican rule.
Haunted by the resignation of Richard Nixon and by what, in his paranoia, he saw as the cultural dominance of the Left, Rove thought he’d slayed the liberal dragon that had burned him in adolescence. All those smug, partying hippies who mocked his nerdy ilk finally got the damnation they deserved in 2000.
As many have noted, Rove turned the White House into a Republican campaign war room. Dick Cheney’s belief in the imperial presidency provided the philosophical grounding. Rove provided the dirty tricks.
But the universe will always have its way. Rove seems truly to have believed he could create reality, that weapons of mass instructions could be made to exist because he said they existed, that the globe wasn’t warming because he said it wasn’t. Then, for Karl Rove, waking life became a nightmare. His dreams were insufficient.
Successful political strategists don’t create reality like Karl Rove claimed. They surf it. Rove guided George W. Bush to the presidency on a wave created by his elders, by three decades of right wing agitating and power-grabbing. Rove should be judged by the reality of 2008. Any way you look at it, Rove’s been a miserable failure.
More…Rove’s own mentor, Lee Atwater, famously repudiated his own savage campaign tactics before he died of brain cancer. Atwater said:
In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not. Mostly I am sorry for the way I thought of other people. Like a good general, I had treated everyone who wasn’t with me as against me.
Rove seems to be taking a different path to redemption, one of more commercial purpose. He’s a network pundit now. He’s distanced himself from the consequences of his actions. John McCain, Sarah Palin and their campaign handlers just aren’t the genius he is.
Celebrity can be the last refuge of the scoundrel.
This is the year Karl Rove’s fantasy comes undone. It began with the Republican’s mid-term losses of 2006. There is something of the Greek tragedy to it all. In Euripides’ "Trojan Women," it is the wives and mothers of those slain in the Trojan War who describe the horror and insanity of those events. Their mourning was quickly followed by a devestating storm that drowned or scattered the Greek victors. It provides an eerie, classical parallel to August and September, 2005, when Cindy Sheehan and other mothers against the Iraq War descended upon Crawford just before Hurricane Katrina destroyed President Bush’s inept and callous administration.
I don’t really want to afford Rove that kind of tragic undoing. For years I was a Democratic Rove antagonist in Texas. My timing was terrible. I’d been a political journalist during Rove’s early years in Texas. I won with Ann Richards in 1990, but Rove really wasn’t part of the GOP gubernatorial campaign that year. It was the 1990s that the gathering Republican storm peaked. All Rove had to do was sneak around in the night and pull the storm shutters from the windows of Democrats.
It didn’t take genius. It took a pathological and immoral ambition. It took the repudiation of any concern at all for the lives and reputations of others.
My friends Wayne Slater and Jim Moore published "Bush’s Brain" in 2003. In the film documentary version of that book, I spoke of karma. Rove would pay a price for the harm he’d done to others, I said. That was a little outlandish, I knew at the time. Still, I meant it. I believe it. In a world of relationships and interconnectedness, we can’t escape the damage we do others, because we are part of those others.
I’m sure Rove had a chuckle at my remarks back then. But if he’s chuckling now, it’s a nervous laugh.
This is the year America judges Karl Rove. It appears to be a harsh judgment. Our amoral media, of course, believes celebrity is above all that messy morality stuff. Our Calvinist heritage creates the illusion that financial or political success brings with them their own transcendent moral justifications and signs that one is part of God’s Elect. That, of course, is a fantasy, too.
For Rove, there’s no exit from the hell he’s created. America is at war in two foreign countries. America’s reputation among the nations is at an all-time low. The economy is tanking. The Republican Party has been scattered.
Winning campaigns is not hard. It takes no genius. Politics is checkers, not chess. It’s true that the pathological sometimes have an advantage. But that advantage is due to their cold remove from a truly human universe. And it’s always temporary, because, in the end, for better or worse, what is human is not virtual. We are not pretend. Politics is not PlayStation.
And Rove’s virtual fantasy has come unplugged.