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Posted by Mel Valentin, 8/31/04

Bush's Brain
Directed by Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob
Running Time: 80 minutes

Who is Karl Rove? And why is he the most powerful man in America that most people haven’t heard of? Karl Rove sits in the margins of the frame or stands in the corner during speeches made by the man he’s credited with making president, George W. Bush. His title, Senior Advisor to the President, belies the power and influence he apparently has over domestic and foreign policies, as well as the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Bush’s Brain: How Did This Happen?, a documentary by filmmakers Joseph Mealey and Michael Shoob, is itself based on Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, a non-fiction book written by Wayne Slater and James Moore, veteran Texas journalists who have closely followed the converging careers of the two men. Slater, the Austin Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News, followed George W. Bush from June 1999 through November 2000, when Bush won the presidential election.

The documentary briefly sketches in Karl Rove’s background, from high school debate champion, to president of the Young Republicans, a position that drew him inexorably into the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and later into the orbit of the elder George H.W. Bush, long before he became Vice-President. His interaction with the younger Bush was minimal at the time, but apparently Rove saw a potential political career ahead of the younger Bush. Tutored by the Lee Atwater, a master political tactician also known for “hardball politics” that often slid into outright dirty tactics. Atwater orchestrated the Willie Horton ad in 1988 that helped tip the momentum from then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to Vice-President (under Ronald Reagan), George H.W. Bush, who eventually won the 1988 election. That ad is considered a masterpiece of the smear tactic, based partly in fact, but drawing from the reserves of racism and fear of violent crime in the American public. Karl Rove seems to have learned his lessons well.

Through a series of “talking head” interviews, Mealey and Shoob attempt to draw a pattern from mostly anecdotal evidence. The success of Rove’s tactics depends on “plausible deniability.” At no time does the smear, exaggeration, or outright lie lead back to Karl Rove, and through him his client, except tangentially, through a web of associates and other political operatives. Mealey and Shoob’s first clear example of Rove’s modus operandi can be traced back to Rove’s first successful campaign in 1986, when the Democratic incumbent, Mark White, ran against a Republican candidate, Bill Clements. Working for Clements, whose poll numbers were sagging in the weeks before the election, Rove apparently found a small surveillance device (a “bug” in common parlance) in his office. The media turned its critical attention to Mark White and his campaign staff. White lost that election. Clements, however, served for only one term as governor of Texas.

Bush’s Brain also covers another, underreported incident from Rove’s days as a political consultant in Texas: a contact in the FBI helped to prosecute (some would say prosecute) two men who worked for the Texas Agricultural Commission, both Democrats, for their association with political operatives who solicited contributions to their reelection campaigns while on state business. Both men served jail time and paid costly fines. Neither returned to public service. The scandal helped to unseat the then popular Agricultural Commissioner, Jim Hightower. His Republican replacement, Rick Perry, was appointed governor when George W. Bush became president.

Karl Rove’s relationship with George W. Bush was renewed in the early nineties, after George W. Bush had become, with the help of family connections, a successful businessman and part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Rove saw a potential challenger for the popular governor of Texas, Democrat Ann Richards, who would run for reelection in 1994. George W. Karl Rove selected group of expert advisors to tutor Bush in preparation for the intense campaigning season. George W. Bush won the governorship of Texas in 1994, and was reelected in 1998. Only two years later, Rove quickly pushed for a then improbable presidential campaign. The early primaries saw John McCain, a maverick, independent Senator from Arizona in the early lead. That lead evaporated during and after the South Carolina, after a series of negative ads, including one that alleged that McCain had fathered an African-American child illegitimately, as well as ads that questioned his mental stability (McCain had been a prisoner-of-war for five years during the Vietnam War). McCain lost that primary, and never seriously challenged for the presidential nomination again.

Flash forward two years, and a similar series of negative ads, this time aimed at Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam War veteran and then U.S. Senator from Georgia. The negative ads compared Cleland to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin laden, and questioned his loyalty and support for congressional legislation related to national security. Flashforward another two years, and the recent smear campaign against John Kerry’s military service, funded by Texas Republicans with strong ties to Karl Rove appears to have Rove’s more than tangential involvement (given the timing, the funding, etc., during Kerry’s “quiet period” in August when, due to campaign finance laws, he was unable to raise additional money for his presidential campaign, having accepted public financing for his campaign after the Democratic National Convention at the end of July). Unfortunately, due to the timing of the recent events, Bush’s Brain doesn’t cover the recent anti-Kerry attacks, but with two months left before the general election, it’s more than likely that the general public hasn’t seen the end of negative campaign tactics. Why? For the simple reason that negative ads work. They hurt your opponent and help your candidate.

Bush’s Brain, while superficially informative as a political biography of Karl Rove (he’s driven by an amoral hunger for power, which doesn’t distinguish between ends and means), does falter in several key areas: (1) most of the evidence presented by the filmmakers comes through second-hand, anecdotal testimony by ex-associates and victims of Karl Rove’s tactics over the last thirty years, leaving them, and the filmmakers, open to accusations of smearing the smearer, using the same tactics Rove has been accused of, without documentary, objective proof, (2) the documentary take an odd, uncomfortable foray into Michael Moore land, focusing one segment on a Texas family that’s lost an adopted son in Iraq; while moving, (4) the documentary is at its least convincing when it places responsibility for the war on Iraq with Karl Rove, almost failing to mention the influential roles played by Condeleeza Rice, Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, and Paul Wolfowitz in deciding when and how to go to war, although we can’t and shouldn’t discount the political reasons that also underlay the invasion of Iraq (i.e., raising domestic approval numbers for a floundering presidency) and (3) the filmmakers should have provided more examples of Rove’s campaign tactics, whether those aimed at Al Gore during the fall 2000 presidential campaign, or during the current presidential campaign against John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president. The documentary, of course, can be easily revisited and revised, after the fallout from the 2004 presidential campaign becomes clear.

Score: 8/10