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The Alternate Reality of Karl Rove

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It’s not surprising—indeed, it’s even somewhat admirable—that Karl Rove’s new book focuses on burnishing the reputation of his boss, George W. Bush. The 608-page book covers a lot of turf, including the 2000 primaries and election; Rove savors his hard-fought victories over John McCain and Al Gore. In Rove’s recounting, he’s innocent of any meaningful role in the South Carolina smears against McCain, and the cherished missiles launched against Gore (including his supposed claims to have invented the Internet and to be behind Love Story)—now long debunked—get a careful rehearsing. Rove shows a fairly casual regard for the truth—a sense, rather, that there is a new sort of political truth. The insider understands that these are political fibs in the service of a mission. If the larger audience is duped by them, well, that is the essence of politics.

Rove is remarkably candid in identifying the issue that historians are likely to focus on in the Bush presidency: did he lie to take the country to war in Iraq? It’s not unusual for leaders to stretch the facts in the lead-up to a war—there is a need to present the justness of a nation’s cause, to build morale and resolve. But the key question is whether the case made for war—the casus belli—was honest or a series of distortions. Several alternatives were presented, but the key casus belli was the claim that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, and a pre-emptive attack was essential as an act of self-defense. Rove recognizes this. He writes:

“Would the Iraq War have occurred without W.M.D.? I doubt it… Congress was very unlikely to have supported the use-of-force resolution without the W.M.D. threat. The Bush administration itself would probably have sought other ways to constrain Saddam, bring about regime change, and deal with Iraq’s horrendous human rights violations.”

Rove says that his own major failing as a presidential advisor was not responding to criticisms of the W.M.D. debacle. He does so at some length in the book. He gives a Fox News-like discussion of whether W.M.D.s were found in Iraq, and then he makes a case that Bush relied on the intelligence he had. The facts on this score are undeniably complex, and much of this data remains classified, making it tough to knock down Rove’s claims. But in the end he does not effectively rebut suspicions that the Bush Administration was committed to war and distorting the facts to help make its case. That indeed is what has emerged in Britain’s Chilcote Inquiry.

Rove’s failure of candor is most complete when he describes his own brushes with the criminal justice system. It’s clear that he narrowly escaped indictment in the Valerie Plame inquiry when, after learning that prosecutors had caught him in a falsehood, he made a series of trips back to the grand jury to “correct” his testimony. In the book, he had a simple failure of recollection, which is precisely the defense that got his friend Scooter Libby convicted. In his recounting, Matt Cooper lied, Chris Matthews lied, Bob Novak misled him, and Patrick Fitzgerald was the modern embodiment of Inspector Javert. Karl Rove did nothing wrong.

But in an appearance last night on MSNBC’s Countdown, Bush press spokesman Scott McClellan deconstructs Rove’s claims and provides some fascinating insights into Rove’s character—particularly his willingness to make strident public claims totally at odds with the facts. McClellan tells us that Rove is the model for a corrupt political culture in Washington in which public figures deny they have any duty to level with the public, and major media indulge them in this attitude. McClellan is right about all of this.

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