Karl Rove, Republican Destroyer
When our Constitutional Convention adjourned, a woman asked Ben Franklin what kind of government it had decreed. “A Republic, Ma’am, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.
No public figure in my lifetime has worked more cleverly and effectively to destroy our Republic than Karl Rove. If some day our nation resembles Vladimir Putin’s Russia more than Gordon Brown’s England, historians will—if they can still speak freely—say it all began with Rove.
Some say it is too early to see Rove’s legacy. But the poison he injected into our body politic has already had three effects as evident as a paralyzed limb. The tragic irony is that all have clear precedents in Russia, not America.
Rove’s first achievement was to establish here a precedent familiar from the Russian Revolution of October 1917. He lived by the principle that ends justify means. He pandered to the worst instincts of our society: religious intolerance, religious discord, homophobia, and contempt for the disabled, poor and oppressed.
Not only did he pander to our worst instincts. Rove raised pandering to a high science. He exploited the latest techniques of advertising and public relations. He invented a novel science of computerized demographics, plotting prejudice on a precinct-by-precinct basis. With the aid of these modern scientific techniques, Rove raised our worst instincts to political supremacy for nearly seven years, sidelining vital and longstanding problems that still remain unsolved.
Rove’s second accomplishment was to install political commissars in all government departments. Remember those fine-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings who have been trekking before Congress for the last several months, all refusing to testify? They are Rove’s legions.
These innocent-looking, physically attractive youth are something new in American history. Compared to the career officials whom they supervise, they have laughable credentials. No one would think of hiring them at that level for their education, experience or expertise. But they have two things of inestimable value to a political apparatchik. They have the certitude of youth and ignorance. More important, they have the loyalty of people who know their careers hang on loyalty alone.
One of the commissars said as much. In a revealing slip of the tongue, she said she had taken an oath to the president. The federal oath of office, of course, says nothing of the kind. It recites loyalty to the Constitution, not the to president or any person. By her slip this young commissar revealed the real purpose of giving her a position for which she was unqualified: personal loyalty beyond the law. Stalin would have understood and approved.
It will take years for Congress and historians to probe the full extent of Rove’s political interference with customary democratic and legal processes. But effects of that interference are already apparent. The first is the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence of political motivation for the firing, and not a whiff of any other motivation that makes sense.
The second effect appears in the testimony of Richard Carmona, former Surgeon General of the United States. He was, he testified, ordered to mention President Bush three times on each page of his speeches about medical science.
On hearing these effects of Rove’s influence, those of us who lived through the Cold War felt a shock of recognition. Wasn’t this precisely what Lenin and Stalin accomplished in their Soviet apparat? Political commissars—whose chief qualifications were youth, political orthodoxy, and loyalty—oversaw every stratum of Soviet society, from collective farms to the prison laboratory where the famous aircraft designer Tupolev and his fellows worked, under guard, during World War II. Now Richard Carmona and our own scientists are forced, just as the Soviets once were, to sing the praises of their political masters. Lenin’s ghost is no doubt beaming from his tomb.
Rove’s final product is his ugly son slouching through the halls of Congress: the ogre of irreconcilable division. Under Rove’s tutelage, our representatives have forgotten all about the Republic that Franklin gave them. They care little for the democratic process, compromise, mutual respect, tolerance for opposing views, or the common welfare. What they seek most is revenge for each other’s political manipulation and power plays. Getting even is their goal. So obsessed with revenge are they—even the Democrats—that they fail to see that working to destroy the Republic might be honest ground for impeachment.
That, too, is something Stalin would approve. Shortly before his death, a reporter asked Stalin what he thought was the greatest human feeling. It is not love, Stalin replied, but revenge. The long lists of supposed enemies murdered in Stalin’s purges showed how much he enjoyed that feeling.
For decades, historians and psychologists have asked what made Stalin such a monster. As a Georgian, not a Russian, he may have harbored a lifelong resentment for Russians and their domination. No one knows for sure, for eventually Stalin became powerful enough to write his own history.
Fortunately, neither Rove nor Bush is that powerful. So the fire that drives Rove’s destructive impulses is easier to see.
Rove never graduated from college. A man of high cunning, he never had the discipline or humility to learn what others had to teach. No doubt he harbors the college dropout’s smoldering resentment for intellectuals and academic learning, including abstract principles like professionalism and checks and balances. No such wimpy principles for Rove and his beloved Bush!
Playing the demagogue by the numbers, Rove succeeded in exploiting the people’s worst instincts to cast our nation’s most basic principles aside. He managed to control American democracy for nearly seven years. Even if it proves only temporary, his subversion of our Republic may be the most costly revenge of the college dropout in American history.
It is therefore much too early to celebrate Rove’s retirement. He may no longer sit in the White House after August 31, but his spirit will inhabit the halls of power for years to come.
Rove’s spirit lives in his “political operatives” still active throughout the executive branch and dispersed among various presidential campaigns. It lives in the scientific demagoguery that he made a successful political technique, pandering to voters’ primitive instincts on a precinct-by-precinct basis. It lives in the body of Tim Griffin, a Rove protégé installed in the office of U.S. Attorney for Arkansas after his better qualified predecessor was fired by political commissars. It lives in a dysfunctional Congress whose members strive to score points for political revenge. It lives in Mitt Romney, a man so arrogant as to dismiss both the heroism of our troops and two of the most self-evident failings of our national policy with frat-boy one-liners.
For Romney and Rove alike, “we, the people,” are not human beings to be reasoned with and persuaded. We are demographic ciphers to be cleverly manipulated like puppets.
As for divisiveness, historians some day may liken Rove’s influence to the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara, which triggered the Iraqi Civil War. Like that bombing, Rove’s subversion elevated power and revenge above the common welfare. Like that bombing, Rove set in motion a tangled chain of reprisals and resentment that will take decades to unwind. The fact that our reprisals are (so far) only verbal and political, while Iraq’s involve actual explosives, should give us little comfort. For political revenge and reprisals here in America, however nonviolent they may seem, ultimately have far greater consequence for us and for the world than anything that happens in Iraq.
So we can heave no sigh of relief at Rove’s retirement. The damage he has done will linger for a long, long time to come. Well-meaning Americans who take Franklin’s admonition seriously have a lot of work to do. They will take decades to restore to full flower the Republic that this heedless college dropout worked so assiduously and cleverly to destroy.