It would be hard to find a more compelling documentary subject than Karl Rove, the ruthless but brilliant political puppetmaster whom many credit with masterminding not only George W's improbable ascent to the governorship -- and, even more improbably, to the presidency -- but also with the end of bipartisan government itself. Filmmaker (and first-time political doc-maker) Michael Paradies Shoob, along with co-director and cinematographer Joseph Mealey, read Wayne Slater and James Moore's 2003 book, Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, and decided that there was a film in there about the White House senior adviser whom some call the "co-president."
Bush's Brain, the film, is essentially a Rove retrospective, a chronological examination of the Rove modus operandi in the chess game of American politics -- or, make that the "putative" Rove m.o., because Rove declined to participate in the film, and because the essence of Karl Rove is to not be caught, just strongly suspected. So, what we and the filmmakers are left with, essentially, is a case built by examining the entrails of the artist's handiwork. Or deconstructing Rove's "junkyard dog approach to politics," in the words of University of Texas presidential scholar Bruce Buchanan. ("Dogmeat" is the term used by Austin political consultant Bill Miller, unable to suppress an on-camera giggle at the sheer aptness of the term to describe the Texas Democratic party post-Rove. Note the recurring canine imagery.)
"The thrust of the film, really, is the issue of 'winning,'" explains Shoob, "and what we, as a country, have sacrificed when it's all about winning and there's no one who comes in at the end and says, 'Well, you didn't play fairly so you forfeit.' America is based on the idea of everybody having a shot, of a level playing field. And if you look at our historical fabric -- all of these elections -- being changed by people breaking the rules, that's pretty profound as an idea."
Of course, one of the hallmarks of what Slater, The Dallas Morning News Austin bureau chief, refers to as the "mark of Rove," is that often the rules are not technically broken. Obviously, there was no rule, for example, that prohibited a high school debate team member from setting up his table for a debate by arranging boxes of (what were, in fact, blank) index cards -- in full view of the opposing team. Rove's affinity for mind games appeared early, according to the film, and just got more and more sophisticated over time.
Think back to the eve of the '86 Texas gubernatorial race debates, when Bill Clements was in free fall in the polls against Mark White, and suddenly the media's attention was yanked away from the debate and diverted to news that Clements' campaign consultant Rove's office had been bugged. The Houston Post's Glenn Smith immediately smelled a rat and suspected that Rove had bugged his own office and had called in the FBI; the Austin American-Statesman's Dave McNeely was suspicious but not convinced. White lost the election. End of story.
The film walks us through other Texas elections with familiar trajectories: popular Democratic officeholders felled by unlikely Republican challengers when, late in the campaign game, the waters are muddied by the sudden injection of some "red herring" scandal in which the FBI is called in, or some issues-irrelevant innuendo. The populist, progressive agriculture commissioner, Jim Hightower, losing his job in 1990 to an inexperienced Rick Perry (then a Democrat whom Rove talked into turning Republican and challenging Hightower) following an FBI investigation -- by the same agent called in on the '86 office incident -- into on-the-job campaign fundraising by two elderly Hightower employees and the subsequent conviction, 27-month sentences served, and fines paid by their two departmental higher-ups. Needless to say, Hightower was history. Says Shoob: "As filmmakers, the juxtaposition of Pete McRae [one of the Agriculture Department officials convicted] being ruined politically by Rove, who's now in the White House, was a potent impetus for making this film."
The film also postmortems the surprise upset of the '94 gubernatorial election, in which Rove was instrumental in replacing popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards with his man, the first-time officeholder, George W. Then there was the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000, in which John McCain was the man to beat and then he wasn't. The latter, observes commentator Molly Ivins, was "textbook Rove" in that on the Sunday before an election, the windshields of churchgoers at fundamentalist churches will be papered with fliers alleging something unsavory about a candidate. Or there will be a rash of call-ins to a variety of talk-radio stations, relaying some suspiciously similar rumor about a candidate.
The defeat, last year, of Max Cleland the Democratic senator from Georgia, a war hero who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam -- following a $14 million campaign to oust him, in part by portraying him as unpatriotic. The recent outing of Joseph Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA operative following a fact-finding mission report by Wilson that contradicted the administration's position on a WMD connection in Niger. And then the film looks at the deeply troubling possibility that Bush may have taken us to war in Iraq because being the War President keeps his poll numbers up policy driven by politics.
Austin Chronicle: It must have been difficult to make a film about Karl Rove without Karl Rove, other than the secondary sources you used, like the CNN clips, and the rebuttal letter he wrote to the authors of the book. How did the Republicans you approached react to the prospect of being in the film?
Michael Shoob: We called a lot of Republicans and set up a lot of meetings. A lot of them were summarily canceled on the eve of the interview. Wayne Slater found out that the White House had told people not to talk to us. A few Republicans appeared probably because they didn't care what the White House thought, and others because the White House probably didn't think to call them.
A.C.: What do you see as the film's revelations about Rove?
M.S.: It's kind of cumulative: You have a guy in the White House who may be co-president, who may be calling a lot of the shots, and we know nothing about him. As Bruce Buchanan said, some in D.C. think Rove should submit to a confirmation process -- he has such enormous power, and no one knows his history. The film takes a hard look at where we are. This is a democratic process, and if rules are broken, what kind of democratic process do we have? And, as citizens, are we being too passive and allowing things to go on? Sure, Clinton had hardball campaign consultants, but none of them moved into the White House with him they didn't groom him from beginning to end [and] now there's a revelation: Here was the guy who envisioned George W. becoming president before George W. had considered it himself.