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More Craven Than Karl

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"He's a walkin' contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction
Takin' every wrong direction
On his lonely way back home."

Kris Kristofferson

In his front page political self-immolation in the New York Times, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd has managed to set a standard for duplicity unmatched thus far by even Karl Rove. For all of Rove's many and manifest failings, a basic honesty has always existed within his character. The president's political gunslinger has never denied nor hidden who he is or what he wants to achieve. This sets Rove apart from two of his Bush colleagues. Matthew Dowd and Mark McKinnon, also chief enablers of the Bush tragicomedy, were once Democrats. Both of them found rationalizations for their craven transitions but only Dowd has begun to express regret. His apology, however, is as calculated as his decision to enlist in Bush's army of deception.

Dowd seems to believe that he can play a role in destroying families with an immoral war and then simply earn forgiveness by saying, "I'm sorry." Through two elections, he brought polling science, strategic thinking, and political advantage to a president determined to accumulate executive power by marginalizing the constitution, and now Dowd thinks expressing sensitivity and remorse in an interview with a newspaper will absolve him of his sins. It does not. And he ought not be trusted. He showed poor judgment by joining Bush and he is equally wrongheaded with his latest public admissions.

Attempting to reinvent himself through journalism, Matthew Dowd suggests he wants to be a part of "bringing gentleness to the world" and that he can see himself doing mission work in Africa or South America. Unfortunately, he has already been a part of launching a horrific mission in Iraq and he still has not mustered the courage to work for peace. Taking to the street to march in a protest was a bit too bold of a maneuver for him. Dowd's sudden introspection is probably a consequence of his own son's departure for Iraq as an intelligence officer fluent in Arabic. Perhaps, if Dowd and other Republicans supporting Bush's war had thought about the children of other families as much as they do their own, we might not be in Iraq. Dowd is like every other backer of this conflict because he has not asked himself if it is important enough to risk his own child's life. If it is not a sufficiently strategically critical war to demand the service of Karl Rove's son Andrew, or Jenna and Barbara Bush, or Mark McKinnon's daughters, then it is not essential anyone else's children fight, either. Dowd finally knows this much, but too late for it to make him a man of either influence or consequence.

The language Dowd is quoted as using is from the dictionary employed by his fellow traveler McKinnon. Dowd suggests that he "fell in love" with Bush and his potential and that he has somehow been betrayed. McKinnon made the same fatuous assertion in an ill-advised magazine interview where he said he saw Bush across a room and "felt like a guy at a party who is struck by a beautiful woman but is with his wife." We are apparently to conclude from this that teenaged political crushes guided their decisions. Anything to impress a girl? Dowd's fantasy of a South American penance also has its roots in a passage of McKinnon's who famously wrote in Texas Monthly about his disgust with politics and his desire to be with his family on a long escape into Mexico. Of course, George Bush came along and McKinnon saw money, fame, and power across the room and he quickly fell back in love with politics, er, George Bush.

Dowd's attempt to portray himself as a victim of a betrayal is nonsense. He knew as well as anyone who Karl Rove and George Bush were and what was driving their vision and bipartisan cooperation was not a part of the tapestry of the tragic they were about to weave. Bush had things to prove to his father. Rove wanted political power. McKinnon wanted money and fame. And Dowd was central to all of their goals. Dowd was Rove's chief lieutenant, in fact his only one, who helped Bush's Brain exploit polarization of the country for political gain. Dowd's insight was crucial in red flagging the shrinking group of independent voters and he helped create and then sharpen the wedges that Rove used to divide both the electorate and the country. Dowd is second only to Rove as a master technician pouring a poison into our democratic process.

Dowd was probably the only one of the group who had passing thoughts about actually serving the country. If, however, he had a conscience it appears it was a tiny thing and easily kept in its place, and his pleadings to a newspaper reporter that he is no longer a Bush believer are obscenely transparent. Matthew Dowd is, after all, a pollster, and he knows what is coming. George W. Bush has destroyed the Republican Party and Rove may have inadvertently created a Democratic rather than Republican hegemony by facilitating the president's politics. Dowd, though, is also a businessman and a consultant who has launched his own company. A Democrat turned Republican may have trouble in the political and economic climate to emerge by 2008. Dowd is doing what he and his GOP consorts have all done so well in recent years; he is positioning himself to be perceived as something other than that which he actually is in order to do well in the marketplace. Chasing after business is also exactly what he was doing when he went to work for Bush. In this regard, he is as deceitful in his mea culpa as he was when he abandoned his principles to labor for Bush.

Dowd may not have learned his opportunism from Mark McKinnon but McKinnon is certainly qualified as a teacher. I have known Mark for more than 25 years and watched him emerge on the Texas political scene as a progressive idealist determined to be part of a democratic process that helps people. We have run miles together on Austin's Town Lake Trails, had dinner with our families, and sat on countless campaign flights talking about ideas that gave the power of government back to the voters. When I heard Mark had been seduced by Bush, I asked him to explain. "Oh, I'm not a Republican, Jimmy," he said. "I'm a Bush guy."

It turned out there was a difference but not the one McKinnon had perceived. Bush was not really a Republican, either. He was a radical taking down the institutions of America, starting adventuresome war, mitigating basic rights, and spending without conscience. McKinnon, unlike Dowd, still does not seem interested in convincing people he cares about Bush's transgressions. When journalists began to scrutinize McKinnon as Bush's media director, he fashioned a mythology to explain his inexplicable ascension with only journeyman skills. The narrative was supposed to supplant the obviousness of his crude choice to simply jump parties for political and financial expediency. He had gone from "hanging out in Nashville writing songs with Kris Kristofferson" to making TV commercials for the man who would be king. Not a solitary reporter thought to ask why Kristofferson, possibly the finest lyricist America's culture has ever produced, might need McKinnon's assistance.

George Bush did need it, though, and McKinnon was pleased to serve the future president because it also fed the beast of Mark's ambitions. Texas political observers all overlooked the dominant characteristic of McKinnon's personality. No one understood his ambition. Mark was determined to succeed as a writer, musician, or politician. Lacking the discipline to write, and possessing enough wisdom to know he was not going to be Kristofferson, he focused on politics. Working for Ann Richards, McKinnon was probably wrapped up in the speculation she was going to the big show, an impossible notion many of her staffers had trouble surrendering. When her appearance on the grandest of American stages was not scheduled, McKinnon simply found another star in Bush and had enough creative writing skills to draft his story of love at first sight.

Matthew Dowd undoubtedly had some of the same motivations and while Dowd is trying to salve his own conscience "Bush guy" McKinnon has moved over to run the media for John McCain. I wonder if he thinks this finally makes him a Republican or is he "just a McCain guy." Fortunately, McCain has decided to commit political suicide by supporting the war in Iraq and McKinnon's self-deception this time will likely lead to failure as early as the GOP primaries.

Neither he nor Dowd, however, can sufficiently atone for their part in our enduring domestic and international American horror. By working for this White House, they have made themselves warmongers and any apology from either of them is as self-serving as their original decisions to join the Bush team. A person does not get to set the world on fire and then drop their flamethrower and say, "I'm sorry."

They have done too much harm to expect our forgiveness.