No passage of Paul Alexander’s Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove better exemplifies the central theme of his book–the disaster that results when politics subsumes policy–than this scene from the Katrina aftermath.
On Friday, Mary Landrieu had been with Bush and Blanco as they toured the 17th Street Canal, where, at last, major work had commenced to repair the damage that had been caused when the levee broke. "Then, on Saturday," Landrieu says, "George Stephanopoulos called and asked to do an interview with me, and I said, ‘George, I’m tired of doing interviews. I have to work. And nothing you are airing is accurately showing what’s going on down here.’ He wanted to go to the Superdome, and I said, ‘We still have people stranded on their roofs. If you want to tell the right story, I will help you tell the right story. You get a helicopter and I’ll go up and I will show you what is actually happening. It’s awful what’s happening at the Superdome, but the reason the people can’t understand the story is because the entire region is under 20 feet of water. People can’t get into the Superdome to help. They can’t get out. People are drowning in their homes.’
"So George and I went up in the helicopter and for three hours his jaw was dropping. Then I said, ‘George, before we finish I have to show you one positive thing because I can’t send you back to Washington to produce a story that shows nothing but devastation and disaster.’ So I told the pilot to tack right so I can show George the 17th Street Canal and the work that was going on there. I swear as my name is Mary Landrieu I thought that what I saw with the president was still there–people working, trucks, sandbags, everything. Then I looked down and saw one little crane. It was like someone took a knife and stabbed me through my heart. I lost it." There, in the cabin of the helicopter, as they flew above the breached canal below them, Landrieu sat devastated.
"I could not believe that the president of the United States, staged by Karl Rove himself, had come down to the city of New Orleans and basically put up a stage prop. It was like you had gone to a studio in California and filmed a movie. They put the props up and the minute we were gone they took them down. All the dump trucks were gone. All the Coast Guard people were gone. It was an empty spot with one little crane. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. At that moment I knew what was going on and I’ve been a changed woman ever since. It truly changed my life."
Alexander’s book, told with the hindsight of Karl Rove’s recent failures, shows Rove’s M.O. over time: the legal persecution of political enemies, the cynical crafting of policy solely to woo key voting blocks, and–as with Katrina–the preference for photo ops over real governance.
With this hindsight, the consistency of Rove’s methods become apparent. For example, when viewed against the backdrop of the Siegelman prosecution and the US Attorney purge, Rove’s partnership with a sympathetic FBI Agent in Texas, Greg Rampton, to take down Democrats looks like just a preview of things to come.
"I understand why Rove is so successful [said Mike Moeller, one of the guys Rove and Rampton took down in their persecution of Jim Hightower]. He’s a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. In an interview once, he described Pete, Bill, and me as collateral damage–and that’s just the way it goes." Rove’s plan worked, too: Hightower never again ran for public office.
In the end Moeller could see that the investigations being carried out by Rampton usually involved high-profile Democrats. Besides Mark White, Rampton had investigated Hightower, Gary Mauro, and Bob Bullock, the lieutenant governor elected in 1990.
There is, however, a danger in viewing the entire Bush Administration through this kind of hindsight. Even though the book shows Rove’s successes and failures–and demystifies many of Rove’s claimed successes, by focusing on Rove’s methods you turn those methods into the driving force behind all the nasty tricks of the Bush Administration. In a book written after the Libby trial revealed a note recording Cheney first passing on Plame’s identity and another note showing Cheney ordering Libby to leak classified information that almost certainly included Plame’s identity, there’s still this temptation to interpret Rove as the main guy behind the leak.
[quoting Rove biographer James Moore] "The plan was hatched by Rove … Karl or Libby found out about Plame–I’m still not convinced it wasn’t Karl–and [Karl] puts the plan in action … That’s consistently how Rove works. That’s what he does."
In the end, even though Rove was deeply involved in the scheme and may have been its ringleader, it would be Libby, not Rove, who was indicted.
That said, the book provides a timely reassessment of Rove’s legacy. As the McCain campaign’s most recent games suggest, we have by no means put the legacy of Rove behind us. So it is useful to have this book out there, showing that Rove was never as important as he made himself out to be, and that ultimately, Rove’s grand plans all turned to dust.