Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Karl Rove's Lessons Learned

or, How the Big Lie Almost Destroyed Bush

Review of "Courage and Consequence"

I recently finished Karl Rove's memoir "Courage and Consequence, My life as a conservative in the fight."

The book traces Karl's development as a conservative and his interest in politics from a young age to the White House. It's an interesting read for anyone interested in politics and the history of the Bush White House. Along the way we get an inside look at Karl's rise from a College Republican, with all the squabbles that entailed (I remember those)to his first meetings with George H.W. Bush and George W. Later, Rove moved to Texas where he began a successful consulting business helping candidates win elections. In Texas, he helped elect George W. Bush Governor and later began drawing the blueprint for Bush's White House win.

Rove takes the reader along on that journey in a style that is interesting and well written. Those who admire his precise and analytical style of writing op-eds or performing in interviews will enjoy the narrative he lays out.

More than a walk down memory lane

But the book is more than a walk down memory lane. Rove also confronts some very basic problems with GOP and the political struggle with Democrats. Rove talks about the "myths" surrounding him suggesting that he was somehow involved in dirty tricks politics and how the left amplified those false reports and eventually demonized Rove as they do most successful conservatives (Sarah Palin being another prime example). Rove finds it interesting that the "news" media whose job it is to examine facts readily repeated false reports about Rove because it fit with their prejudices about who they thought conservatives were.

The Big Lie and Valerie Plame

All those little lies about Rove built up to a caricature that was exploited by Democrats as they waged the big lie campaign against Rove, President Bush and Vice President Cheney and Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame affair. This event is key to understanding the way Dems use the big lie and how effective it can be in crippling Republicans. Until we find a better way of countering it, the big lie remains the primary tactic Dems rely on to weaken the GOP.

Readers will recall that when Ambassador Joe Wilson returned from a trip to Africa he claimed he was sent by the Vice President's office to look into charges that Iraq had been attempting to buy Uranium for weapons of mass destruction as President Bush suggested in 2003 State of the Union Address. Just one problem: no one in Cheney's office had sent Wilson on the trip and that first lie was the tip of the iceberg of lies Wilson told about the trip and his findings (Iraq had approached African nations seeking uranium)

Wilson's effort was part of an organized strategy Democrats employed in 2003 to undermine President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq and weaken him politically in the run up to the 2004 campaign. Democrats trotted out their tried and true strategy of "the big lie" with all voices singing in unison: "Bush lied on WMD."

Columnist Bob Novak was looking into the Wilson story, which had snowballed into a regular political firestorm with lots of help from Democrats. In July 2003 he reported (original story here): "Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

Democrats pounced on the idea that someone in the White House might have leaked the identity of a covert agent, something which is a violation of law. There was an immediate demand for an investigation and a Special Prosecutor.

There was just one problem: there never was a violation of the law concerning disclosure of covert CIA agents. Valerie Plame, Joe Wilson's wife, didn't meet the very specific criteria of that law. But that didn't stop Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald from proceeding with an investigation.

It's unclear when Fitzgerald learned that the primary source of the leak was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage was never charged with any crime, nor was he brought before the Grand Jury investigating the case. Fitzgerald focused instead on Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the Vice President's Chief of Staff.

Novak had called Rove to ask about Valerie Plame's connection to Joe Wilson's trip and Rove's recollection is that he had told Novak he had "heard that too." But is that criminal? No. Rove only became a target of the Grand Jury investigation after multiple sessions before the panel in which he at one point did not recollect discussing the Joe Wilson affair with Time Magazine reporter Matt Cooper. Cooper's role in the affair was minor at best.

Fitzgerald and the FBI team investigating Rove had access to all Rove's emails and phone logs but they missed Rove's return call to Cooper. Rove had forgotten about it too. When you are in daily contact with dozens of people via email and phone you tend to forget inconsequential conversations that took place years earlier. The call to Cooper was such a conversation.

It was at the insistence of Rove's lawyer, Donald Luskin, that Rove went back and re-examined his call logs and discovered the call to Cooper. Rove presented that information to the Grand Jury and the astonished Fitzgerald whose team had missed it.

But curiously, Fitzgerald attempted to use this disclosure to accuse Rove of being misleading in earlier testimony where he had failed to recall the phone conversation.

It became clear to Rove that Fitzgerald wasn't looking for a violation of law in the Plame case but to set a perjury trap and carve another notch on his belt by bagging a top White House honcho. Fitzgerald later determined there the evidence to prove Rove was guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice didn't exist. Instead, he went after Scooter Libby who wasn't so lucky. Fitzgerald later admited that "A formal assessment has not been done of the damage caused by the disclosure of Valerie Wilson’s status as a CIA employee." In other words, Fitzgerald never bothered to even determine whether the law protecting covert agents had been broken. He had achieved his goal which was to catch Libby in the perjury trap for the eqivalent of forgetting what he had for breakfast years earlier.

Imagine the toll the years of legal jeopardy took on Karl Rove. An unprecedented five visits to the Grand Jury, huge legal bills and for years the threat of a possible indictment and for what?

Rove summarized the saga this way:

So, after all these years- after all the grueling testimony and fear of indictment and huge legal expenditures by me- this is what it came down to. Not a violation of any law about disclosing the identity of an intelligence officer. Not breaking the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act or the 1917 Espionage Act. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was preparing an indictment because I had told my staff to find any evidence I had contact with Matt Cooper. My request established- in Fitzgerald's mind- that my failure to recall the conversation was a lie.
The Biggest Lie of All: Bush Lied on Iraq!

While Democrats were disappointed they didn't catch Karl Rove in their net, the matter did benefit them in other ways. With Rove spending so much time defending himself he had less time to counter the years long effort Democrats undertook to undermine President Bush's wartime leadership. Readers will recall how Democrats during the Clinton era and into the Bush years routinely cited the dangers of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

But the Dems campaign to force a loss in Iraq wasn't just about WMD. Democrats insisted that Iraq was in a state of "civil war" and that it was hopeless. Even after the surge, which ultimately proved successful, began Senate Dem leader Harry Reid insisted that "this war is lost." Remember the campaign to tar top General Petraeus as "General Betrayus" and how Hillary Clinton said Petraeus's assessment of the gains we had made would "require a willing suspension of disbelief."

Bush's efforts to counter this organized onslaught launched at every level of the Democrat party were sporadic at best. A speech here a press conference there (that's when a President held regular such conferences). But Bush was loathe to get into what he viewed as a partisan squabble and the arguments in support of his policy were largely left to others outside the White House. Rove admits:

Our weak response in defense of the president and in setting the record straight, is, I believe, one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush years. When the pattern of Democratic attacks became apparent in July 2003, we should have countered in a forceful and overwhelming way. This assault was worthy of significant attention by the entire White House, including a rebuttal delivered in a presidential address. We should have seen this for what it was: a poison-tipped dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush presidency.

By not engaging, we let more of the public come to believe dangerous falsehoods about the war...These attacks undermined support for the war and public confidence in the president.

So who was responsible for the failure to respond? I was. I should have stepped forward, rung the warning bell and pressed for full-scale response.
Lesson for the future

What we learn from the Bush experience is that you MUST counter the big lie with an aggressive, organized campaign at all levels. You simply cannot think that the truth will somehow make it's way through the orchestrated blizzard of lies Democrats will launch and that their allies in the "news" media will repeat unquestioningly.

This matter is vital to longterm Republican and conservative governing strategy. If Republicans succeed in retaking one or both Houses of Congress this fall we can expect the Democrats to fall back on their usual playbook and immediately accuse Republicans of wanting to starve kids, pollute the air and water and take away Seniors social security and Medicare. Add to that a dose of phony ethics and corruption charges and it will all be trumpeted 24/7 to undermine progress on our agenda to roll back the excesses of Obama.

Countering the big lie is difficult. The Dems have a built in advantage with the mainstream "news" media and friends in Hollywood and education who have their tentacles wrapped strongly around the organs of communication with the average American. All the above are willing to repeat over and over whatever the going party line is. How do you counter that message when most of the 100 million television viewing households in the country are tuned to sporting events or popular TV shows. Only 22 million or so even get the Dem biased news offered by the major networks. A relatively scant 8-10 million are watching Fox News at best and Talk radio reaches about 30 million tops. This blog post highlighting all this will be lucky to reach 10,000 readers.

The only way to break through the barriers of both indifference and Democrat advantage is to devise, implement and coordinate an organized GOP response. Getting all GOP voices to sing from the same songsheet as Democrats do is akin to herding cats, but the alternative is to permit Dems to continue to use the big lie over and over and over and succeed.

Winston Churchill said: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Karl Rove learned the hard way that the best chance we have to protect ourselves from the big lie is a comprehensive, coordinated strategy with all hands on deck. We simply must not make the mistake of forgetting this vital lesson in the years to come!

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