There is not much news in Karl Rove's memoir, Courage and Consequence, which is something of a moral triumph for the author. Rove is nothing if not loyal, and these sorts of books tend to create a stir only when they betray the boss. A significant amount of dirt is dished here an astonishing amount, actually; this is a work of titanic pettiness but it's all tossed at enemies of George W. Bush. One example: Hillary Clinton is criticized for sitting down, rather than standing, for a photo with rescue workers three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bush, who had just arrived at ground zero, is standing for photos, and it simply doesn't occur to Rove that Clinton had already spent most of the past several days there, working desperately for her constituents. Rove is not always so unfair; he manages to demolish more than a few of the sillier attacks against him and the President. But this book is primarily an act of vengeance and, in that sense, unintentionally revealing about the nature of the Bush presidency.
The nugget that did make some news was Rove's admission that Bush could never have gotten congressional support for invading Iraq without the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, Rove defends the decision to go to war. But his reason for doing so is laughably thin: everybody thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and therefore everybody thought Saddam was a threat. Rove offers a damning list of Democratic politicians acting like politicians making bellicose statements prior to the war, then criticizing Bush for rushing in when no WMD turned up. Touché. But then he goes a step too far. "Perhaps the most pathetic display of hypocrisy came from one of America's most embittered politicians: former Vice President Al Gore," Rove writes. He proceeds to quote a 2002 Gore speech: "We know that [Saddam] has stored away supplies of biological weapons and chemical weapons throughout his country." Rove's busy-beaver oppo researchers should get credit for digging up that one ... except that it was delivered in the midst of a vehement antiwar speech. Gore, in fact, was making a wise argument: war was not justified even if Saddam had WMD. But taking those sort of lines out of context is how you hammer your opponents in political campaigns and Rove made sure Bush's White House was run as a perpetual political campaign, even when it came to war. This, not dirty tricks, is at the heart of the Rovian deficiency.
A good chunk of Courage and Consequence is taken up by the Joseph Wilson affair and the outing of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA agent an allotment that is justified from Rove's point of view, since he spent a good chunk of the Bush Administration fighting off an indictment in the case. In July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times disputing Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. There was some exaggeration involved, but the bottom line was accurate. There was no uranium deal; Saddam didn't have a nuclear program. But Wilson's timing was exquisite: there was a growing realization that Bush's casus belli WMD was baloney. The White House went into panic mode, trying to discredit Wilson and rescue Bush's reputation; the outing of Plame made these efforts potentially felonious. The subsequent investigation devolved into a petty attempt to nail Rove and Scooter Libby on perjury charges for denying they had talked to journalists, and Rove has reason to be outraged by the fishing expedition. But it's also a diversion from the real story.
In June 2003, just before the White House was transfixed by the Wilsons, Bush was told by the CIA that a classic insurgency was under way in Iraq. His Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, refused to acknowledge that. The war was criminally mismanaged for the next four years, until Rumsfeld was fired and David Petraeus was sent to Iraq to clean up the mess. Along the way, the situation in Afghanistan was criminally neglected as well. This remains an astonishing record of incompetence. Rove doesn't mention it at all.
Rove's defense of Bush is partially successful: the President emerges as a man who put policy above politics. You can disagree with the policies, but not with Bush's sincere belief in them. And even though the war in Iraq remains one of the worst decisions ever made by an American President, the possibility of stability in Iraq, raised again by the recent elections, makes it, potentially, a mitigated disaster. Rove is less successful in defending himself: the crucial revelation here is that when you make a political consultant your senior policy adviser, spin supplants substance, oppo research rules and winning the news cycle becomes more important than winning the war.