The Mark of Rove

Who is Karl Rove? Just a round-faced man in glasses – homely, unremarkable, beige in affect and color? Or perhaps someone far more powerful than his bland natural camouflage would indicate? The new documentary Bush’s Brain tries to answer those questions by tracing the political career of President George W. Bush’s senior adviser, from his Young Republican days to his ascension to the inner sanctum of the White House. The verdict? For filmmakers Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey, the unassuming Rove is the puppetmaster behind the current administration, the Svengali-political Pygmalion who molded a good-looking, popular, but rather dim high-school quarter-back type into the leader of the free world, the duplicitous genius and spin doctor behind smear campaigns, low-blow political shenanigans, and garish photo opportunities for his favorite dummy, George W. Bush.

Based on the book Bush’s Brain by Texas journalists James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, the film is the latest political salvo in a year crammed full of partisan documentaries. As the stakes have gotten higher, the more outraged and one-sided political documentaries have become – a reaction, perhaps, to the seepage of partisanship into our news (the “fair and balanced” Fox News Network) and the ongoing ad-fueled hearts-and-minds campaign for American voters. Uncovered: The War on Iraq unspools like a prosecutorial brief against the Bush administration and its trumped-up calls for war; Fahrenheit 9/11 has the sledge-hammer impact (and lack of delicacy) of well-made war-time propaganda; Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train bathes its progressive historian subject in a golden, hagiographic glow. None of these films makes much of a pretense at showing the other side – although one could argue that the other side has done such a good job of twisting the media’s arm, shushing and discrediting official dissenters, and churning out its own take on history and the contested present that they shouldn’t get to grandstand in lefty documentaries as well.

Bush’s Brain digs into Rove’s past in an effort to lay out the adviser’s tactics – the filmmakers track his dirty run for the Young Republicans’ presidency in 1973, and his intimidation tactics on the high-school debate team. His early political career also comes under scrutiny. While he was managing the 1986 Texas gubernatorial campaign of Clements, Rove charged Clements’ opponent White with bugging his office – a flat-out lie, the film’s experts allege. Bush’s Brain also devotes some time to the sandbagging of Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower’s career, stymied by an FBI investigation (performed by the same agent who investigated the 1986 bugging incident) into the campaign fundraising efforts of two Hightower staffers.

As Bush’s Brain author James Moore says, Rove has a “dark part, this thing that moves within him,” based on “power, manipulation and control.” That darkness, Moore asserts, “absolutely demands that he destroy his opponents.”

One failing to which an unapologetically one-sided documentary will frequently succumb is the dreaded “preaching to the choir” syndrome. Bush’s Brain suffers from this malady more than most – its creators are so convinced of Rove’s nefarious omniscience that they don’t bother laying out a case against him that feels fully convincing. What follows onscreen seems more like filmic conspiracy theory – based on rumor, conjecture, and alarmist inference – than a well-reasoned argument.

It’s a pity, as one section of the documentary has a striking relevance to today’s current battles: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s attacks on John Kerry, and the alleged collusion between electoral campaigns and non-profit-funded negative advertising. Bush’s Brain looks into what it alleges are Rove-masterminded advertising scandals and various “whisper campaigns” against former Texas governor Ann Richards, former Republican presidential candidate hopeful John McCain, and former Georgia senator Max Cleland. In the case of Cleland, misleading and manipulative ads targeted the senator’s voting record on homeland security, even though Cleland had voted for the Democrat’s version of the bill. In 2000, one of McCain’s great strengths – his history as a Vietnam War veteran – became suspect after opponents began floating rumors about war-induced mental trauma. In the film, columnist Molly Ivins characterizes the rumors as “’Poor John, he had a very tough war’” mock-concern. Along with gossip about McCain’s daughter being a love child with an African-American prostitute (the child was actually adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage), the war rumors helped finish McCain’s presidential run.

While its subject is compelling, Bush’s Brain relies on the now-routine formula for political documentaries – hordes of talking heads (Bush’s Brain authors, former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq Joe C. Wilson, McCain campaign staffer John Weaver, Cleland, among many others) and the use of old stock footage – without plumbing any of its strengths. Bush’s Brain lacks the excellent, nonpartisan feel to its sourcing that Uncovered boasts, with its exhaustive interviews with U.N. inspectors and Republican dissenters. Nor has it mined the glories of the “seen, but unseen” footage as laid out by the takedown of Fox News, Outfoxed, or Fahrenheit 9/11.

Instead, Bush’s Brain offers up tantalizing allegations – Rove was behind the Valerie Plame leak! – that may well be true, but the film provides little evidence outside of partisan innuendo. Bush’s Brain also tries for a bit of Fahrenheit’s manipulative pathos, with a wrenching sequence on the death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq. But as the filmmakers haven’t sufficiently linked the soldier’s death with Rove’s under-handed dealings, the scenes seem off-topic and gratuitous.

Rove is a fascinating figure, but never more than a shadowy villain in a film that is ostensibly all about him – Bush’s Brain never profiles its criminal, or taps into the psychology behind the ruthless hunger for power. Rove is only of interest because he is “Bush’s brain,” and sadly, this seems to have kept the filmmakers from delving more deeply into their subject, drawing out his motivations as a strong narrative line. Perhaps that is the genius of Rove, that he is never caught in the act, that he leaves only a trail of slime in his wake. The filmmakers’ would have done well to have openly acknowledged the elusive nature of their quarry. Although they do a nice post-mortem on Rove’s victims – and in ways that shed a strong light on the current troubles of the Democratic presidential race – the man behind the curtain remains, in the end, frustratingly out of sight.

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