Politics & Policy

Gray Matter

Getting Rove wrong.

Among books about presidents, there’s a sub-genre focusing on the powers behind the throne — the masterminds who are really responsible for a man’s election to the White House. For the first President Bush, it was the late Lee Atwater. For the current one, it’s Karl Rove. He is now the subject of two hot-selling books: Boy Genius, by Lou Dubose, Jan Reid, and Carl M. Cannon, and Bush’s Brain, by Wayne Slater and James Moore.

Books of this type often contain some good reporting, but in the interests of calling attention to themselves they usually oversell their quasi-conspiratorial thesis. Consider the subtitle to the book by Slater and Moore: “How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush President.” It requires believing that Rove plays puppet master to Bush, and that a political advisor has more to do with a politician’s success than the politician himself does. It’s a great plot — for a work of fiction.

I haven’t read either of the new books on Rove, and I’m an admirer of Carl M. Cannon, whose writing has appeared in National Review. I have, however, read an excerpt from Bush’s Brain that appeared in the Dallas Morning News — and I can describe from personal knowledge how the authors distort facts to make them fit a thesis.

A little more than four years ago, I wrote a story for National Review headlined, “Bush’s League: How George W. Bush woos the Right.” It described a Republican governor’s efforts to meet and talk with conservative thinkers as he began a campaign for the presidency. “Over the last several years, Bush has quietly courted conservative intellectuals through the mail and in a series of private meetings,” I wrote. “It’s an overstatement to call these conservatives advisors — some have met with him only once — but they clearly represent the beginnings of a brain trust.”

Among the people I identified as visiting or corresponding with Bush were Martin Anderson, Linda Chavez, David Horowitz, Michael Joyce, Myron Magnet, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Marvin Olasky, and James Q. Wilson. I spoke with each of them and reported their impressions of the man who would be president, which ranged from unbridled enthusiasm (Magnet: “He clearly believes in the power of ideas”) to cautious optimism (Neuhaus: “I see some promise”).

Here’s how Slater and Moore recount my article, in their Dallas Morning News excerpt: “[Rove] was sensitive to the perception that Bush wasn’t smart and he worked hard to promote his boss’ image. Six months before Bush formally launched his campaign for the presidency, a story appeared in the National Review about Bush and his prodigious reading habits. The source of the article was Rove.”

This is flatly wrong — or at least seriously misleading. Rove was not “the source of the article.” I did speak with him and quote him, but he was one source among many. He was not even the originating source of the story, in the sense that I got the idea for it somewhere else. Rather than planting the story, Rove returned phone calls I made to him after I was well into my reporting. (Also, I did not suggest that Bush’s reading habits were “prodigious,” though I did name several books that he had read, including Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare, Wilson’s The Moral Sense and On Character, and Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, plus Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Demoralization of Society and Paul Johnson’s History of the American People.)

My article, say Slater and Moore, “was part of the campaign to promote Bush’s intellect as a nominee for president.”

It may be true that the piece’s effect was to make Bush appear more intelligent than many of his critics assume him to be, but this was not its purpose. My story was a piece of journalism, not advocacy — and the notion that Rove urged me to participate in some kind of “campaign” is wrong.

I don’t know if there are other errors of judgment or interpretation in Bush’s Brain, but I do know this one would not have occurred if either Slater or Moore had bothered to call me for the story behind my story. Neither of them did, of course.

Karl Rove is a very smart man, and he serves the president ably. But he is not the Svengali that Slater and Moore make him out to be. And that’s a fact.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


The Latest