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Since the topsy-turvy election of 2000, many Americans have puzzled over the question: If George W. Bush is as dumb as he sometimes appears to be, how did he ever become President? Though the 2004 documentary “Bush’s Brain” might not necessarily have the answer, it certainly provides an answer, and a pretty substantial one.

Based on the book by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, and made with their avid cooperation, “Bush’s Brain” is a portrait of Karl Rove, the political consultant behind Bush’s election who apparently has become as heavily involved in Bush administration policymaking—international perhaps even more than domestic—as he was with politicking. Compared to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film is fairly restrained in its presentation of a story that is frightening enough in its factual details.

The authors are clearly critical of their subject. (That the film was being marketed on DVD less than two months after its quiet initial release on four screens on Aug. 22, 2004 is a clear sign the filmmakers are looking to make a political impact, too.) Early in the movie, University of Texas scholar Bruce Buchanan calls Rove an exponent of the “junkyard dog style of politics,” and Slater (who is the Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News; Moore is an Emmy-winning TV correspondent) says “If Karl Rove is involved, you’re gonna be hurt.” But they also have a healthy respect for him. Moore calls Rove “intelligent, gracious, humble,” and adds that he’s “so bright, and he knows so much about American history.”

The story is framed by use of a Jan. 15, 2003 letter that Rove faxed to Slater in order to dispute many of the contentions in the book. Though Rove is normally careful to avoid the media spotlight, he’s clearly very aware of any exposure and anxious to exert damage control. Apparently he did his best to block the production of the film: co-director Michael Shoob has told the press that although the filmmakers made appointments to talk with various Republicans, most of them were canceled at the last minute—probably under pressure from Rove. They have an actor read critical portions of Rove’s 2003 letter aloud so they can bounce off their evidence against them.

The overall picture is of a man who has to win at any cost, yet somehow manages to maintain sufficient distance from the dirty deeds to assert his innocence. This also keeps his clients largely out of the muck. Four principal races are discussed:

1. The 1986 Texas gubernatorial campaign in which Rove worked for Republican challenger Bill Clements, and against Democratic incumbent Mark White

2. The 1990 campaign for Texas Agricultural Commissioner, where Rove represented Rick Perry (later Governor of Texas) against Jim Hightower

3. The 1994 Texas gubernatorial race, when George W. Bush went up against Ann Richards, an incumbent neither he nor his mother Barbara thought he could beat

4. The 2000 national election

In 1986, Clements was steadily losing what had been a 35-point lead in the polls. Rove called a press conference in October to declare that he had found a bug in his office, and charged the White campaign with planting it. John Weaver, vice-chair of the Clements campaign, tells the camera he was initially “euphoric,” but then “It began to look fishy to us.” An FBI report said that judging by its battery use, the bug had been in the wall just 15 minutes when it was “discovered,” and today Weaver says he doesn’t think White had anything to do with it.

Glenn Smith, a journalist with the Houston Post and probably Rove’s harshest critic in the film, comments: “I like to say I play hardball, but I would never consider planting a bug in my own office and blaming it on my opponent.”

Perhaps the most significant damage Rove may have engineered against an opponent was to destroy members of Hightower’s team via the courts. An FBI agent started investigations of every Democratic officeholder in the state in 1990. The investigator just happened to be the same FBI man who had looked into the “bugging” incident in Rove’s office in 1986, Greg Rampton. Rampton’s investigation managed to nail Texas agricultural commissioner Mike Moeller and senior administrator Pete McRae for soliciting contributions for Hightower.

Glenn Smith comments that “that probably only happens, accidentally, a thousand times a day” in Texas. Says nationally syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, “There was too much zeal in that case; it smelled rankly from the beginning.” But it resulted in huge fines, jail time, and the end of their elective careers for Moeller and McRae. The general counsel for the Texas Agricultural Commission said he almost cried to see these good public servants get destroyed, basically in the course of a political maneuver. The consultants who actually solicited funds were excused from prosecution for age and ill health. The man who benefited most from this confusion, Rick Perry, was elected agricultural commissioner, and eventually ascended to the governor’s mansion in 2001 when Bush left for Washington.

Rove also seems to favor insidious whisper campaigns that have nothing to do with the issues, truth, or fairness. In the 1994 gubernatorial race that George W. ostensibly had no chance of winning (yet eventually won), rumors turned Richards’s inclusiveness into possible “homosexual appointments,” and accused her of “lesbianism.” In 2000, after Senator John McCain of Arizona whipped Bush in the New Hampshire primary, Rove’s team went to work in the next significant primary race, which was South Carolina. The McCains had adopted a mixed-race child from Bangladesh via Mother Theresa’s orphanage, but rumors circulated about a “black daughter,” maybe by a prostitute, and radio talk shows buzzed with the phrase “black love-child.”

It was probably the most infamous use of what came to be known as “push polling.” Campaign staffers called voters and pretended to be pollsters, asking questions that planted huge doubts but had nothing to do with substantive issues, or even the truth, such as “What do you think of the rumors that McCain has a black love-child?” Unattributed flyers blossomed on car windshields in church parking lots. There was also buzz about McCain being “a little off,” perhaps as a result of spending all those years in a Hanoi POW camp. As Ivins observes, “If you’ve ever covered a Rove campaign in East Texas, it was just textbook.”

John Weaver, formerly a coworker of Rove’s in the 1986 Texas governor’s race, was now director of McCain’s campaign—it was “the proudest thing I’ve ever been involved in,” he tells the camera—and found himself opposite the junkyard dog. Fighting Rove “was akin to a thousand tomahawks coming at you” he says; you can only “fend off two or three.”

Aside from the four campaigns cited above, “Bush’s Brain” also notes Rove’s involvement in some other shenanigans, such as the 1994 defeat of Georgia senator Max Cleland, a veteran who left two legs and an arm in Vietnam. A $14 million campaign against Cleland included TV ads that placed him next to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden based on his votes in Congress. “It was just character assassination,” his campaign manager says; “I don’t know how they can sleep at night.” Cleland is perhaps the best-known participant in the documentary with a personal grudge against Rove, yet he somehow manages to state his case with good humor and even a steady smile.

Rove is also suspected of outing diplomat Joseph Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent by leaking the story to columnist Robert Novak as punishment for Wilson’s opposition to the story the administration tried to peddle that al-Qaida was trying to buy uranium from Nigeria. Bush’s team hustled this tale at the United Nations, but Wilson’s investigation found no basis for it. The exposure of his wife’s name in the press when she had no diplomatic protection was “an absolute disaster,” Cleland says. “That is actually a federal crime” under a law pushed by George H.W. Bush. “It is also a breach of national security.”

Wilson tells the filmmakers he can’t prove that Rove was behind the leak, but he knows Rove was pushing the story. One of the many ironies in this film is the fact that Rove was fired by the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 for leaking something to Novak, so the two go back a long way. To top it off, Rove attends services at the same Episcopal church as the CIA operative he allegedly so casually exposed!

“Bush’s Brain” offers small juicy tidbits along the way, such as Rove’s undermining of a former mentor, Robert Edgeworth, way back in 1973 to beat him out for chair of the Young Republicans. There’s also Rove’s 1973 assignment of handing young W. the family car keys so he could raise hell in D.C. Perhaps most bracing in its implications is footage of Rove giving a rare speech to the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Jan. 18, 2002, in which he basically says the war in Iraq is a great campaign tool.

“He had taken the war and made it into a marketing device,” says Moore. It’s going to cost lives and money, Rove told his compatriots, “‘and we can run on it’ . . . as if this wraps you in a bulletproof shield from political attack.” The policy Rove wants to pursue is pure politics, Slater adds. As if everything the President chooses to do, from domestic economic policy to war overseas, is nothing more than part of a reelection strategy.

Like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bush’s Brain” tries to personalize the human cost of these policies by looking in on the lives affected by the death of one soldier in Iraq. Fred Pokorney, an adopted child from Tonopah, Nevada, was a second lieutenant in the Marines when he was killed on March 23, 2003—the fourth day of the war in Iraq. Although his young wife and father do not fall into the sort of throat-clutching histrionics that Michael Moore got out of Lila Lipscomb, the fact that Wade Lieseke is himself a Vietnam vet and his quiet firmness make as strong a case against the Bush administration’s war policy as anything in the more famous film.

“When you go to war, you do it so your kids won’t have to,” says Lieseke. “I don’t believe these elitist people give a damn what happens to these people . . . and the people they leave behind.” In one of their strongest editorial ploys, the filmmakers cut to Rove at the lectern, declaring “We hold at the core of our Republican beliefs that every individual matters.” (This was too much for the mostly quiet and attentive audience at the screening I attended: “Bullshit!” one man yelled at the screen.)

By its conclusion, the movie has solidly made the point that seems redundant as it is offered by Gary Mauro, a former Texas Land Commissioner who ran against Bush for governor in 1998: “What’s dangerous about Karl Rove is that there is no rule he won’t break, if he thinks it will help his candidate.”

As a piece of filmmaking, “Bush’s Brain” is fairly pedestrian: it lacks the verve of Moore’s film or the calm elegance of “Control Room.” Its makers don’t give the viewer much more beyond a series of talking heads, with an occasional TV clip here and there. Fortunately, the subject is inherently gripping.

Let us hope that even if millions of American voters don’t see this film before the general election in November, at least Kerry and his team will have seen it so they’ll know what they’re up against. Nobody should be surprised if, say, Rove comes up with some sort of “October Surprise”—whether the capture or sighting of bin Laden, or suddenly heightened tensions with Iran—that will make it appear that the United States cannot survive unless his client stays in the White House.

David Loftus



Joseph Mealey, Michael Paradies Shoob  Directors and Producers
Elizabeth Reeder – Co-Producer
Joseph Mealey – Cinematography
James C. Moore and Wayne Slater  Writers (authors of book )
James Vroom – Narration
Michelle Shocked – Music

2004, 80 minutes

Official Site