Rove's Memoir: 'The Empire Strikes Back'?

Karl Rove (right) and President Bush in 2007. Rove's memoir offers a defense of the Bush era. i i

hide captionPolitical wonks are disappointed that Karl Rove's new memoir doesn't contain more insider information on George W. Bush's presidency.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Karl Rove (right) and President Bush in 2007. Rove's memoir offers a defense of the Bush era.

Political wonks are disappointed that Karl Rove's new memoir doesn't contain more insider information on George W. Bush's presidency.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even before Karl Rove's political memoir was released Tuesday, a flurry of reviews criticized the book as more ho-hum Bush-era defense than revealing look at the legendary operative once dubbed "Bush's Brain."

But, really, how surprising is that? After all, Courage and Consequence is the work of a longtime loyalist and adviser who followed George W. Bush from Texas to the White House.

Shelves — and remainder bins — are stocked with similar in-defense-of memoirs, written to get a jump on shaping history as the narrative is still being written.

The anomaly is the critical look, historians say, where missteps are acknowledged, and failures, as well as successes, dissected.

"Typically, when a presidency is over, you want to get beyond your base and explain yourself to the entire American people," says Ted Widmer, a presidential biographer and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton.

"That's where history begins to render judgment," says Widmer, director of Brown University's John Carter Brown Library.

Revealing Details

  • In his memoir, Republican strategist Karl Rove provides little insight into Bush-era politics and policymaking. However, Rove does reveal some personal detail about his family — including his parents' divorce, his mother's suicide and whispers about his beloved stepfather's sexual orientation.
  • Rove distances himself from a notorious campaign of rumors during the 2000 GOP presidential primaries that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. That rumor helped George W. Bush defeat the Arizona senator in the South Carolina primary.
  • When pondering mistakes made, Rove offers that he failed to properly defend President Bush against charges that he lied about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Making The Case For Bush ... And For Himself

And indeed, Rove's 608-page tome, which was climbing into the top 10 of Amazon's best-sellers Tuesday afternoon, reveals dribs and drabs of personal information. But it commits largely to defending President Bush and blaming detractors for the administration's failures, from the response to Hurricane Katrina, to faulty intelligence that lead to the Iraq war.

"He pretty clearly believes in what George Bush did over his eight years as president and feels like a case needs to be made in the president's defense, and also in his own," says Dan Schnur, who served as national communications director for Republican Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run.

"This is the first strong push-back against the narrative that's been developing about George Bush's presidency," says Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"You could just as easily call this the 'Empire Strikes Back,' " he says.

Disappointed Political Junkies

But longtime political watchers like Walter Shapiro, a reporter and book author who has covered eight presidential campaigns, lamented an opportunity lost.

"There have been three dominant Republican strategists in the last 25 years: Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove," says Shapiro, who writes an online column for Politics Daily.

"I really wanted to get into Rove's world — to have him explain how a top Republican strategist really approaches campaigns and sees politics," Shapiro said. "I wanted something much more honest about the craft of getting Bush elected in 2004."

Shapiro used his column Tuesday to express hope that Rove will one day "write a thoughtful and candid account" of his role in Bush's decline from a "national-unity" president after Sept. 11, to a "derided figure" upon leaving office.

Rove's account is short on the kind of insider, nuts and bolts detail that Shapiro and political junkies hunger for, and major characters were simply missing in action.

Former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who, Shapiro says, "dominated Congress during the first Bush term," and who stepped down amid a swirl of corruption charges, is only mentioned in passing. As is the politics behind the controversial 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that helped move senior citizen votes to Bush's corner.

"The omissions were just galling," Shapiro says. "The book is fat in the number of pages and thin in the number of insights."

In The Mold Of Most Such Memoirs

For presidential watchers like Robert Schlesinger, Rove's book falls squarely in the category of hagiography.

"When you talk about these sorts of White House memoirs, there's a spectrum," says Schlesinger, opinion editor at U.S. News and World Report and author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.

"On one side you have books like After Seven Years by Raymond Moley, who was close to FDR, then turned on him and wrote a very tough book," Schlesinger says. "On the other hand, you have standard boilerplate of the 'president was steely-jawed, and his only flaw was that he cared too much' variety."

Rove, reviled by liberals — and others — who blame him for perfecting the dark art of the permanent attack campaign, has written just such a book, Schlesinger says.

The best of the books fall in the middle range, where the author tries to give an intellectually honest, balanced account of their years in the White House, says Schlesinger, son of the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Historians count among the good ones Harry McPherson's 1972 book A Political Education, about his years as an adviser to President Johnson, and William Safire's Nixon-era Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House.

Critics From The Left

Rove's book will give ample fodder for critics from the left, who view any defense of the Bush administration as indefensible.

"I don't understand why he wrote this book with absolutely zero self-reflection," says Debra DeShong Reed, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee and advisor to the John Kerry presidential campaign in 2004.

"But I'm glad he's out there, so frustrated people out there can be reminded of how bad things were," she says. "This book is for him and President Bush — they've been talking about the Bush legacy since 2004."

But Rove's goal, Schnur says, clearly wasn't to write a book stuffed with personal anecdotes, gossip and insider information.

"History is ultimately going to judge George W. Bush's presidency on its merits," he says. "Rove and other people close to Bush have a very strong stake in making sure their side of the story is heard."

In fact, the former president and his wife, Laura, both have books scheduled to be published this year.

"There have been plenty of critical books written about the administration, and having Karl put his book in the mix is welcome," says Terry Nelson, a Republican strategist who was political director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.

"I think it is hard to write a completely candid book shortly after any administration," Nelson says. "But Karl will always be an advocate for the president."

And because Rove's book is so clearly written from a particular point of view, Schlesinger thinks it will be "easier to handle" by future historians trying to paint a full portrait of what happened during the Bush years.

"They'll know where it's coming from," he says, "and can adjust accordingly."

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