COURAGE AND CONSEQUENCE: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight by Karl Rove. Threshold Editions, 596 pp., $30
What to make of a memoir called "Courage and Consequence"? That's the title of Karl Rove's new volume, and the bookstore browser might easily conclude that the courage and consequence Rove refers to are his own.
It's impossible to know his intentions, but let's give Rove the benefit of the doubt. The predominant theme of this book, after all, is the courage and consequence of former President George W. Bush.
Leaving aside the grand title - oddly evocative of Rudyard Kipling, who published "Captains Courageous" during the presidency Rove most admires, William McKinley's - this is a remarkable American life and this memoir sets out a remarkable American tale:
Complicated childhood. Early intellectual and ideological stirrings. Chance youthful encounters with the soon-to-be famous, including future strategist the late Lee Atwater and two future presidents named George Bush. The luck and intelligence to see that the younger Bush would have more luck and intelligence than most in his circle surmised. A brilliant Texas campaign against an iconic female governor, Ann Richards, followed by a gritty overtime election in 2000. And, of course, thousands of crowded hours in eight White House years.
There are two protagonists to this tale, Rove and Bush, and a good portion of this volume is an exploration if not explanation of the ways of W., which can be summarized thus: He isn't lazy. He isn't intellectually limited. He didn't tell Americans to go shopping after 9/11. He didn't authorize torture. He didn't invade Iraq to finish the job his father started.
In this rendering, the 43rd president is a good and simple man who was, to use a favorite Bushism, misunderestimated, and, among Democrats and the press, misunderstood.
Now to the other guy in this book. Rove sees himself as one part intellectual, one part ideologue, steeped in conservatism and seasoned with common sense - overall, a fair assessment. He is, no question about it, a political pugilist, and the carnivorous among conservatives will find between these hard covers ample red meat to masticate.
The Democrats, for example, were "unprincipled" on trade. Their treatment of GOP judicial nominees was "appalling." Their behavior during the creation of the Homeland Security department was a "crass example of partisanship." On Iraq the Democrats "edged dangerously close to rooting for defeat."
Contempt for his rivals? There's lots of that. He credits Al Gore with a "pathetic display of hypocrisy," a favorite epithet. Nine pages later, he tosses another H-bomb in the direction of Gore and senators Harry Reid, John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy.
Yet Rove doesn't spare himself. He admits errors aplenty - permitting Bush to fly over New Orleans during the Katrina catastrophe, missing the vulnerability of Bush Supreme Court choice Harriet Miers, allowing the development of the narrative that Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"Preoccupied with the coming campaign and the pressure of the daily schedule in the West Wing," Rove writes, "I did not see how damaging this assault was."
Rove crams a lot of inside stuff into his memoir, notably a riveting account of the presidential party's mental state and movements on Sept. 11, 2001. And if you have the taste to revisit Bush's rebound in South Carolina during the 2000 campaign, the revelation of his 1976 Kennebunkport drunk-driving arrest and the ever-inscrutable tale of Joe Wilson's mission to Niger, then Rove will provide you with many hours of reading enjoyment.
But proceed with this warning: Lest you think you'll get a lift out of Chapter 24, titled "Drugs and Marriage," let me spoil the fun and tell you that it's a stirring account of the development of Bush's prescription drug program and his policy on gay marriage. This is, after all, a political memoir, with all the delights and disappointments this stilted, self-serving genre provides.