When Karl Rove dissembled on national TV election night, America got a rare glimpse at the psychological frailty that has long maintained the dark prince of right-wing politics. He does not spend very much time connected to reality and lives on a planet composed of beliefs and numbers he convinces himself are true, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Rove has spoken in the past of "manufactured realities" that can be used to sway voter opinion but he has never acknowledged those fantastical plains and their imaginary castles are also where he finds comfort.
During the '70s down in Austin when I first interviewed Rove, he handed me a book entitled, Out of Order, which was about how the media was ruining the political process and the entire national discourse. This was one of the bricks he had found to begin construction of his alternate reality where someone else is always at fault but never him or his political party. Rove was already busy buying up mailing lists from publications that sold gold coins and other items of interest to the rich. His staffers worked long hours keypunching info into magnetic tapes to build what became his powerful fundraising database. When we left, I told my camera crew, "If that guy ever gets any real political power, we're in serious trouble."
As his career unfolded, I found myself in a position to report on Karl's scheming on an almost daily basis. My notes, tapes, and news clippings over the next 20 years became the basis for my first book, Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. Flying around on Bush's press plane in the 2000 presidential election and listening to reporters talk about getting publishing contracts to write about the potential new president, I already knew that there was a more intriguing story to be told because I had seen Rove's pathology on parade for a few decades.
The most disturbing example, early in his career, was the placement of an electronic bug behind a picture in his office. He tried to convince reporters that the Democratic opposition, which in those days included future Bush sycophant Mark McKinnon, had been responsible for the hidden wireless microphone, even though it had a battery life of about 48 hours that would have had to be secretly replaced every few days. The range of the radio signal was barely 100 feet and meant clandestine monitoring was all but impossible. Reporters, lingering on Rove's porch after his news conference, laughed at his ham-handed political stunt but it made headlines the next day and distracted from a poor debate performance by his GOP candidate for governor.
Rove's political pathology has been viewable on high-definition for three decades for analysts and armchair psychologists trying to understand what has happened to America and the GOP. The Republicans, desperate to do anything to make the nation forget Bill Clinton's mystique and accomplishments, bought into the false premises of George W. Bush's term as governor of Texas and raised him up to presidential candidate. Even though one in four Texans lacked health care and Rove had found someone to cook the numbers on the public school system, Bush managed to drag the presidential race down to a battle of hanging chads in Florida. Rove designed a reality in that standoff that involved flying in frat boys in Brooks Brothers suits to stage pseudo riots outside of recount centers and build a foundation for the illusion that Bush had defeated Al Gore in Florida.
In the White House, Rove helped to puff life into the lungs of the notion that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, cynically operating on the basis that the public would never take the time to distinguish al Qaeda from Saddam Hussein. Bush could exact his father's revenge against Saddam, oil reserves could be captured, and W would become a "war president" that enjoyed high public support in a time of crisis. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Rove and those who listened to him made believe there were WMDs in Iraq.
Rove manufactures realities like mobile homes and then convinces otherwise intelligent people they are valuable property and great places to live. In his neighborhood, loving gay people wanting to get married threaten Ward and June Cleaver's ability to keep safe Wally and the Beav. This fearsome vision even drove moderates in Ohio in the direction of Bush in 2004, and many of them were black evangelicals. Karl Rove can sell the rickety products to anyone who is frightened a bargain might disappear at the close of business. Rove has been trying to reconstruct 1950s America since his father disappeared into the oil patch and came home one Christmas Eve to tell his family he was gay. Unfortunately, the parts wouldn't fit together for Karl. His mother committed suicide, the nation was torn apart by Vietnam, and putting on a blue blazer and tie to attend high school didn't give him access to June Cleaver's household. Rove had to create a reality that no longer existed.
His latest scam has been to portray a socialist America run by a secret black Muslim that taxes the wealth and destroys the economy of people like the Koch brothers. Rove convinced countless rich people and their corporations to write him big checks for his Super PAC Crossroads GPS. If only he were properly funded, he insisted, he could prevent the horrible American tragedy that waited like a specter behind a door. Three or four hundred million dollars later he lost and came undone on national television. The numbers cruncher had his reality crunched by numbers. A bonfire of inanities was burning his future.
Rove has not healed himself. He still believes the vote counts exist that no one else can see. He's back on TV accusing the president of suppressing the vote. How this happens to get Mr. Obama reelected is unclear but Rove undoubtedly sees secret armies of the night crossing the American landscape and sneaking through suburbia, stealing the car keys of middle class and upper income white voters so they can't drive their SUVs to the polls. Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch can be expected to sustain Rove's intellectual imbalance because he brings a decreasing audience of lemmings to their broadcasts but the Republican Party can provide no explanation for taking his guidance. Karl Rove has almost single-handedly destroyed the GOP. He has chased away almost every constituency other than white males with money and anger issues. There is only a platform left that creates division and patent meanness, which are Rove's greatest accomplishments.
His legacy will be that he was the mad scientist that developed a rhetorical germ that caused reasonable Americans to grab each other around the throat. Our social fabric of debate, discussion, compromise, and caring has been on the verge of tearing apart and setting us all off on a race among the ruins. Karl may not have shame about what has happened but we ought to at least be embarrassed by the complicity of what the world once thought of as a great nation.
Karl Rove is not a genius; he has become almost a kind of national village idiot. He is humored by some, ignored by others, but has been allowed too often back into the public square trying to tell strangers his odd stories. If he has friends, they need to take him aside and gently get Rove to therapy. Fortunately, our democracy can recover from his ministering and manipulation.
Karl's future is less certain.
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