Book Review: 'Bush's brain' is brain dead

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  March 26, 2003 at 4:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) -- Praiseworthy and penetrating studies of the relationship between presidents and their closest advisers are increasingly rare, even with the proliferation of so-called insider memoirs. After reading "Bush's Brain," by reporters James Moore and Wayne Slater, it is safe to say they still are.

Subtitled "How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential," it is more a scandal-mongering effort at character assassination then it is a serious study of an undeniably important person.

In "Slander," her best-selling book about liberal bias in the news media, Ann Coulter states that Republican presidents and presidential candidates are typically portrayed as dumb or evil -- and, on rare occasions, both. The treatment afforded George W. Bush since he began his career in public life sort of validates her theory.

The way Bush was covered in the 2000 presidential campaign left the impression that he was just not smart enough to be president. The son of a former president, Bush was portrayed as using legacy points to set himself up as the GOP frontrunner in a quest to restore the family honor and avenge the family name.

If Bush was not smart enough to be president then who was doing his thinking for him?

Conventional wisdom -- which is frequently wrong -- held it was Vice President Dick Cheney, at least before Sept. 11, 2001. The authors of "Bush's Brain," as the title suggests, have another candidate in mind.

Moore, who is identified as an "Emmy-Award winning TV news correspondent" and Slater, the Austin, Texas bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, attempt to make the case that presidential counselor Karl Rove is the brains behind the president. They are wrong in their assumption and, in any case, their effort to prove the assertion falls well short of the mark.

In the interests of full disclosure, I spent a number of years working in conservative political circles before becoming a journalist. Even so, I never spoke with Karl Rove about any campaigns in which I was involved nor do I speak with him on a regular basis now. But I gained a sufficient understanding of the electoral process to be able to differentiate spin from fact. "Bush's Brain" is mostly spin, and bad spin at that.

As Slater and Moore tell it, virtually every misfortune to have befallen a Texas Democrat of recent vintage was orchestrated by Rove. They present him as some kind of omnipotent mastermind, almost a phantom, operating from the dark, inner recesses of the political process.

Implicit in that view is that the voters are not smart enough to separate real issues from dirty tricks. History, I think, records otherwise.

The first part of the book is devoted to the idea that Rove masterminded the bugging of his own office during the 1986 Texas gubernatorial race. According to the "Who benefits?" investigative theory given renewed currency thanks to Hollywood director Oliver Stone, if the revelation of the bugging damaged Texas Democrat Gov. Mark White's bid for re-election while doing no identifiable harm to Republican Bill Clements, then Rove had to been behind it.

Logic like this would likely not stand in a credible philosophy class.

White did, in fact, lose that election. But why?

Slater and Moore do not mention how his much vaunted public education reforms -- including the now infamous "no pass, no play" rule -- angered parents across the state. Nor do they consider that White might have been an accidental governor who first won his office because of the 1982 recession that hurt Republicans running for office in every part of the country.

Slater and Moore want us to believe that White lost because Rove bugged his own office (or had it bugged) and timed the discovery of the device to inflict maximum political damage on the Democrats. This is more the stuff of Hollywood than real life, even though the suspicions are presented as credible by a friend of a former White insider -- who has since died.

"The bugging did do political harm. The late Matt Lyon, who was Gov. White's speechwriter, later told his friend, Patricia Tierney Alfosin, that White got the news of the bugging at precisely the wrong time," Slater and Moore write.

"'Mark White got word right before they went on for the debate. I know all this through Matt. Matt told me that Mark White was told all about this minutes before going on, and it just really rattled him. And he didn't give a very good performance. If you go back and look at that debate, it was terrible. It was really from that moment on that things started going not so well for Mark White.'"

Moore and Slater, as in the example just cited, frequently use the book's format to obscure the source of quoted material. Phrases and paragraphs appear in quotes, but without proper attribution. Only by flipping to page 351 in the notes, for example, does the reader learn that is Alfosin, in a 2002 interview, who is the author of the aforementioned observation. Former employees of defeated opponents and their friends are not exactly a trustworthy source on such matters. They usually have an axe to grind.

Time and again complaints, recollections and news accounts -- many of which could be viewed as damaging to Rove's reputation -- are presented without citation in the text and sourced only in the back of the book. This is a shoddy way to construct a supposedly serious study of politics. It does more to obscure the truth than to illuminate it.

As to the theory that the discovery of the bug was deliberately timed to kill Mark White's chances for re-election, Rove would have to have been so omnipotent that he could actually control when, where and how White learned of the bugging.

Many political consultants might like to believe they are this powerful. Few if any actually are -- and the ones who are don't typically engage in such penny-ante antics. There just isn't time.

Anything that damaged the re-election prospects of a Texas Democrat is blamed on Rove's manipulations if he was involved in the race. In another notable instance, Lena Guerrero, whom former Gov. Ann Richards appointed to a vacancy on the Texas Railroad Commission, was a young Latina who many believed was rising star in the party.

Moore and Slater apparently share that view, going so far as to call her "a 1000-watt candidate of the future." Guerrero's bid for re-election went south after it was discovered that she had, to put it mildly, exaggerated her educational achievements.

After she initially denied reports that she had failed to graduate from the University of Texas, she was later forced to acknowledge it was true, claiming, according to Slater and Moore, that she had only recently learned she was "four hours short of a college degree."

Still later in the campaign, Guerrero, according to Slater and Moore, was forced to admit at a news conference "that she had mistakenly thought she had graduated from college and that she had never noticed that her news releases over the years erroneously claimed she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa," a national honor society.

The disclosure ended her re-election hopes, with Rove getting the blame for another dirty trick. This is tortured logic. The implication is that repeated and false claims of membership in Phi Beta Kappa and falsely claiming a college degree is excusable, as long as the one doing the lying is "a future governor, a future U.S. Senator. Even a future president," as they describe her.

Catching a candidate for office in that lie and making sure the media and the voters know about it is the dirty trick. The mind boggles at such reasoning, especially when it comes from two purportedly seasoned political reporters.

The list goes on. Fortunately the book doesn't; eventually it ends. It is sad to think that somewhere in the Pacific Northwest a squirrel or spider or spotted owl may have been forced from its home in order that the paper on which the book is printed could be milled.

Serious students of political science will learn little from the book while casual observers of the process will likely be put off by its lurid tone, frequent slams and anonymous quotes. Supermarket tabloids seem better sourced.

Rove is undeniably influential in the same way that Mark A. Hanna, Col. Edward M. House, Harry Hopkins and other top presidential aides who mixed politics and policy were. A serious book could be written exploring that kind of relationship but this one isn't it.

(The book at a glance: Bush's brain -- How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential by James Moore and Wayne Slater. Wiley, 395 pages, $27.95.)

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