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The president's political tutor

'Bush's Brain' posits Karl Rove as Svengali, but it's not that simple.

September 03, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

The thesis of "Bush's Brain" is evident in its title: that Karl Rove, the president's key political advisor, is the power behind the throne, the devious man whose fine Machiavellian hand can be found directing every move the chief executive makes.

Given that Americans of all political convictions have a weakness for simple answers to troubling situations, it's awfully convenient to believe, to quote the man himself, that "Karl Rove thinks it and George Bush does it, that the president is not smart enough to be president without a Svengali." Convenient yes, but as seen in this new documentary, only partially convincing.

The film, co-directed by Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob, takes its title from the bestselling book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, veteran Texas journalists who knew both Bush and Rove before they made their mark on the national stage. With Moore and Slater having more screen time than any other of the film's nearly three-dozen talking heads, it's not surprising that the strongest segments of "Bush's Brain" are the Texas years, where the coauthors know firsthand where the bodies are buried and who best to have on camera to talk about how the deeds were done.

What "Bush's Brain" is most convincing about is the man's key role in the political education of the current president, as well as Rove's zest for what someone calls "the junkyard dog approach" to politics. It's not just Democrats who noticed the savagery of Rove's bite; Republican consultant Bill Miller admiringly testifies that when Rove is done, "his opponents are dog meat."

Rove apparently was interested in politics from an early age, having a "Wake Up, America" poster on his wall in lieu of the usual juvenile pinups. He came out on top in a bruising battle to be head of the College Republicans that still has his opponent shaking his head in disbelief, and he attached himself to the Bush family in 1973, when one of his first jobs was to hand the family car keys to George W. when the son visited the father in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps the most flabbergasting story "Bush's Brain" tells involves the 1986 Texas gubernatorial race between Republican Bill Clements, whose campaign Rove was co-chairman of, and Democrat Mark White. At a crucial juncture in the campaign, Rove announced that a hidden wireless microphone had been found behind some needlepoint in his office.

It was a sensational charge, one that threw the White campaign into turmoil, overshadowed an impending debate and had a considerable impact on Clements' eventual victory. The catch is that several factors, including a microphone battery of such short life it would have to be changed daily, made it look increasingly like Rove had placed the bug there himself. All John Weaver, the co-chairman of the Clements campaign, will say today is "I don't think Mark White had anything to do with it."

Rove, who saw presidential electability in Bush years before anyone else did, became directly involved with a Bush campaign when the future president ran for governor against Anne Richards. Under Rove's tutelage, Bush turned himself into a strategic soul mate of his advisor, becoming what one observer calls "an amazingly disciplined and prepared candidate" and winning the race. Says a Republican Party official from Texas, "He would not be president without Karl Rove in charge."

But because one of Rove's gifts as a political operative is his ability to avoid traceable fingerprints, once he and his protege moved into presidential politics, what he did or did not do is harder to pin down. It's a lot easier for author Moore to call Rove "the co-president of the United States" than for the film to make that claim sound like more than overreaching.

The most interesting post-Texas segment of "Bush's Brain" deals with the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary against John McCain, whose campaign was managed by former Rove ally Weaver. He describes a campaign that was like "a thousand tomahawks coming at you," including whisper campaigns that the McCains' adopted African child was in reality "a black love child." Molly Ivins, former editor of the Texas Observer, comments that "if you've ever covered a Rove campaign in Texas, it was just textbook."

But though "Bush's Brain" sees Rove's hand in Georgia incumbent Max Cleland's Senate defeat, it doesn't mount a creditable case. And though it has footage of Karl Rove telling Republican operatives a year before the Iraqi invasion that the party could turn the war into a vote-getting tool, that doesn't mean, as the film implies, that the only reason Bush invaded was because it was good politics. Simplicity may be appealing, but it has its limits.


`Bush's Brain'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Released by Tartan Films. Producer-directors Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob. Based on the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater. Cinematographer Joseph Mealey. Editor Tom Siiter. Music Michelle Shocked, David Friedman. Narrator Jacques Vroom. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

In limited release.

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