Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight
“I have become an adjective.”
Karl Rove is a tactician deservedly acclaimed. As an electoral strategist, campaign manager, and presidential counselor he possesses stunning talents, consummate knowledge, astonishing energy, and a record of exceptional success. He is also a transformer. With President Bush and a small circle of Republican thinkers and field operatives, he co-created a spectrum of politics that became of great importance in the United States, and that has generated momentous changes throughout much of the world.
Rove’s spectrum, as his book’s startling title trumpets, conceives and markets itself as a “fight.” The paradigm of struggle pervades his thought, as it did the philosophies and policies of the presidency he did so much to envision, achieve, and administer.
Karl Rove, President Bush, and the party they jointly led regarded their paradigm as political. Certainly the principal electoral and domestic policy advisor to a two-term president—on the second occasion decisively elected, on the first overcoming highly unfavorable odds to forge a near tie—can lay claim to political brilliance.
This reviewer is not sure, though, that the allure of Bush-Rove politics was primarily political as much as predominantly spiritual, even religious.
This is because Rove and his most significant client framed the world broadly, and the American nation specifically, as arenas for a contest between goodness and evil. The forces of good they characterized as their own concepts of conservatism: stern, strong, sophisticated, sensible, serious—sacral. They defined the forces of evil abroad as opposition to the benign will and manifest destiny of the United States. They framed the forces of evil at home as beliefs and behaviors oppositional to themselves and their factions of the Republican Party: attitudes and actions naïve, infantile, emotional, solipsistic, silly, and yet dangerous and much in need of adult management.
Their extremism was polarizing in the extreme. For their adherents and advocates, this extremism was electrifying, enlightening, and validating. President Bush and Karl Rove often succeeded in making their devotees believe that the art and science of winning, holding control over, and exercising government were of utmost “consequence.” For their followers, they made political discourse seem consecrated and consecrating: a combat with the mephitic, rather than a well-funded jousting and jostling among various mundane interest groups. Their ideas, elocutions, and symbologies were not temporal but mythical and theological.
Karl Rove is not a conscious mythologizer or theologian. He is, though, a person of remarkable acumen, talent, drive, learning, and effectiveness, and his book is far more interesting than his many admirers and legions of disparagers might have imagined.
Most works of memoir, especially volumes of political memoir, have the purposes of manufacturing a legacy, positioning future hires, and alchemizing gifts of advocates’ money into cornucopia of enriching advances. Rove needs none of these unseemly dividends. He is an eminence in his profession, and he long ago achieved thoroughly lawful and justifiable wealth.
So what is this memoir about? Why was it written?
In his prefatory remarks, Rove declares:
“I worked fifteen steps from the Oval Office. From that vantage point, this book will set the record straight. It will pull back the curtain on my journey to the White House and my years there. I will acknowledge mistakes. And I will make the case—defiantly and unapologetically—for the many controversial decisions.”
It becomes clear from the moment we enter this long and copiously detailed book that Rove wants to do more than simply “set the record straight.” His animating impulse, genuine and generous, is to defend the rectitude and achievement of his most important client, President George W. Bush: to explain and extol the ideals, qualities, and accomplishments of his presidency, and to insist that future historians who study our era’s sweeping geopolitical, economic, and cultural changes will eventually regard his eight-year leadership of our nation as essential, inspired, and salvific.
Rove also undertakes to describe himself. He seeks to define his internal as well as his biographical history—especially the intense pleasures that effort, enterprise, and, in time, paramount power conferred upon a man whose life, filled with family adversity, was not benevolent during his childhood.
Courage and Consequence largely fulfills these objectives. Partisans who have not previously shared Republican visions and views, antagonists who venomously disagree with and despise President Bush, cannot be persuaded by any work of writing to reconsider their opinions. However, readers of fair mind and unbiased intention probably will regard Rove’s book as a heartfelt statement, and possibly will conclude that Rove and President Bush are sincere and ardent persons—passionately patriotic, fervent about their faiths, extraordinarily hard-working, and infinitely earnest in their endeavors. Likable, too.
What we cannot learn from this book is what it felt like during his years of ascendant power to inhabit Karl Rove’s mind and soul. He speaks exhaustively about résumé, stratagems, actions, the historical record, the epidermal satieties of success, and the chagrins of miscalculation and blunder. He teaches us a great deal about how modern national campaigns are conducted, how President Bush and his colleagues believed they were managing their solemn responsibilities, and the heroism this bedrock conservative believes inheres in contentious conservatism. And most uncommonly among prominent memoirists, he does acknowledge, with candor and high character, errors small and mistakes mighty.
We learn little about the man’s internal experience while he worked “fifteen steps from the Oval Office.” In one of his chapter titles, Rove alludes coyly to the celebrated television program, “The West Wing.” Would that his co-author or ghostwriter could have been Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin invented Josh Lyman and brilliantly limned that whole wondrous “The West Wing” cohort. But of course Sorkin knew nothing about the actuality of campaign, governance, or power. He could not know at first hand the exhilaration of Rove’s improbable ascent to epic influence from a youth and adolescence of family disorder, filial sorrow, and social inconsequence. He could not know what it is like to elevate as Rove elevated, to soar aloft real starships, directly affect real social events, and mount determinative responses to factual national situations and awful world emergencies.
Karl Rove has lived a rare and crucial life. He has such a story to share. It would have been both lovely and important to have had a great playwright unite with him to tell this fabulous tale, and impart to us the potent impact of its protagonist’s marvelous history on his supernally gifted but inherently unpoetic consciousness.
Many historians have suggested that history is the story of unintended consequences. Intended or not, one of the consequences of Courage and Consequence is that most readers will leave the book admiring and liking Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Many will conclude from reading this unusual book that, at the least, our former president, his indispensable counselor, and the large majority of their colleagues were persons of integrity, faith, and fervor, who became called upon during their tenure in leadership to manage excruciatingly difficult circumstances and conditions.
I leave the book with this judgment, and considerably moved by it. I also leave it wondering about a most complicated question Rove sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly raises.
Is the paradigm of “fight” a valid and worthy metaphor for ourselves and our times? Are we genuinely locked in internecine conflict with a host of adversaries? If so, is it the wisest manner of responding to conflict to embrace it? Expand it? Exult in it as an ethos?
To be sure, there are many persons in our shared world who abominate (or who think they abominate) the United States, the western culture, and the modernist age. Even if they commit atrocities, are such persons necessarily apostate? Demonic? Nuts? Do we progress as a people, a nation, and a civilization if we invariably reply to anger and violence by delivering against these energies correlative fury and force?
When in history has that approach worked? When has it wrought lasting cooperation, healing, harmony, and growth? When has the paradigm of struggle ever yielded to and evolved from additional struggle?
The creed of privileged strife, what Rove calls “the fight,” seems outmoded, exhausted, and sad. Its adherents are without ultimate courage and ultimately meaningful consequence.
George W. Bush and Karl Rove brought to their era vast talent of persuasion, and utterly exceptional ability to navigate through system and process into empowerment. If only they had deployed these birthrights to enact a new paradigm: a paradigm of greater empathy, engagement, bridging, cohering. Our time has called for courage, all right: the courage to reject desiccated doctrines of unvarying bellicosity. The courage to body forth new doctrines of tolerance, fusing, uniting. The courage to continue the only genuinely consequential political journey, the journey pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and his most prominent disciples, Nelson Mandela and Rev. Martin Luther King. The journey of the most authentic “compassionate conservatism”—the journey of absolute faith.
This is the philosophy and politics much of the world proclaims we most want and need. A lessening of inane, incoherent, inconclusive, endlessly destructive struggling. An invocation of common ground, connection, and community—love, as proclaimed and preached by every faith tradition’s prophets and most influential proselytizers.
There can be no doubt the American body politic desired that its government’s response to the atrocity of 9/11 be virtuously and virulently vengeful. However, history teaches us this instinctive reaction impulse is as counterproductive as it is common.
What might the present now be and the future have become if the nation Rove calls “the greatest governing experiment in human history” had chosen in September, 2001 and thereafter to respond differently to attack from the predictable manner in which it did? With, if necessary, targeted retribution against individuals and discrete homicidal groups; but principally with hugely expanded outreach, profound and persisting calls to healing, a thorough release of the humane conscience and compassion that throughout history has been tragically constrained and deserves to become our species’ governing experience?
Courage and Consequence is filled with prodigious intelligence, informed information, and challenging argumentation. There’s a void at its core, though. The void is a startling absence of communion with humanity friendly and hostile, a banishing of sufficiently deep emotional and spiritual association with humankind’s sufferings, aspirations, and inherent commonalty.
Karl Rove is a skillful political philosopher and a magnificent tactician, yearning inchoately but clearly for a holistically ennobling spiritual identity and cause. He’s accurate, not vaunting, when he states: “I have become an adjective.” Unite this political genius and greatly decent man’s manifold powers with the paradigm most needed in our time, and world-historical change could be achieved. For the Rovian has infinite potential to advance goodness and mercy rather than mere ferocity and more division.
It’s not too late. Mr. Rove is a relatively young man, and he’s constantly growing. His true calling and most valuable work may yet lie before him.