To judge by his new memoir, Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight, Karl Rove, the longtime aide to President Bush, is an angry man.
After reading the book, you have a better understanding of why. He had a rough young adulthood. His parents had a bad divorce when he was 19. Mr. Rove writes of his father, portrayed overall in the book quite favorably, "To this day, I have no idea if my father was gay. And, frankly, I don't care." Mr. Rove learned by accident from an aunt that he'd been adopted. His biological father wanted nothing to do with him. When Mr. Rove was 30, his mother committed suicide as her third marriage was failing.
As if all that were not enough, journalists mucked through all this and reported on it to make money for themselves in their own books about Mr. Rove. The journalists wrote those books while Mr. Rove himself was under the financial strain of living on a government salary while personally paying mounting private legal bills to defend himself from partisan-motivated investigations into his activities as a government official. These investigations extended beyond just the Valerie Plame Wilson leak case that had ensnared Judith Miller and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The New York Times ran 17 editorials groundlessly accusing Mr. Rove of somehow arranging for the prosecution of the Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman.
All this is revealing and makes a reader who isn't inalterably predisposed to disliking Mr. Rove feel sympathetic to him.
That said, this book is revealing about Mr. Rove and the environment in which he operated other ways as well, perhaps unintentional but ultimately unattractive. Don't expect them to be highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, where Mr. Rove writes a weekly column, or in Newsweek, where Mr. Rove also is a regular contributor, or on Fox News, where he is also a regular.
The first is the self-importance of the entire endeavor. At 608 pages, Courage and Consequence is almost as long as Ronald Reagan's memoir, which was about 750 pages long, and exactly twice as long as the memoir of Justice Clarence Thomas, who has a more interesting story to tell. Yet Mr. Rove was never elected to any national office. He held no constitutional office such as secretary of state, speaker of the House, or chief justice of the United States. He wasn't the president. He wasn't the vice president. He wasn't even the chief of staff, like his bosses Andrew Card or Joshua Bolten. He was the deputy chief of staff.
Even so, the book – between the jacket covers which both display large pictures of Mr. Rove -- gives a Rove's-eye-view of the perks that are lavished on even second-tier presidential aides in what, for all the limits imposed by the press and the Congress, comes off very much in the book as an imperial presidency.
Mr. Rove recounts his send-off from his job at the White House: "On the way back to Washington, the Air Force One crew treated me to Tex-Mex food and a farewell cake. We ate it while watching an eight-minute slide show that White House photographer Eric Draper had prepared…The final segment of Eric's show drew from pictures of me with me close friends from the White House and famous people I'd met along the way, such as Pope John Paul II and the queen of England…I gave one last wave before throwing myself into the front seat and telling our driver and friend, Shakeel Urrehman, to get us the heck out of there. We pulled out of the North Gate while several Uniformed Division officers saluted."
He also tells of staying at Buckingham Palace during a 2003 visit to London. "My suite came with antique furniture, gorgeous paintings, beautiful carpets, and a valet named Philippus Steenkamp. He offered to draw my bath each morning (I declined) and laid out my clothes every morning." One morning, Mr. Rove found himself short a sock. "All the valets trooped in like a squad of commandos in livery, led by one cheeky lad bearing a giant silver platter with an ornate cover. In a loud voice, he proclaimed, 'In the name of her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, it is our honor to present you…a pair of the Royal Socks!' With a flourish, he removed the cover to reveal – to my enormous relief – a pair of plain black socks. I put them on and a few minutes later found myself in the departure line, thanking the queen…"
Given the history of America and Britain, I couldn't help but be reminded of the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm, when the pigs wound up wearing the clothes of the human farmers they had rebelled against.
The second way in which the book offers a revealing and yet unflattering portrait of Mr. Rove is in the way it deals, or fails to deal, with the financial crisis, and the Bush administration's role in it. To hear Mr. Rove tell it, he was at the center of the Bush administration – that's the "consequence" part of the title – for seven years. Yet the names Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan don't appear in the book's index. Neither does that of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, though Mr. Paulson was sworn in on July 10, 2006, more than a year before Mr. Rove left the White House to the salutes of the Uniformed Division officers on August 31, 2007. Neither does the name of John Snow, Mr. Paulson's predecessor as Treasury Secretary.
Mr. Rove's entire attempt at explaining the financial crisis in the book amounts to four pages in which he blames Congressional Democrats for blocking an administration-proposed bill that would have subjected Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two privately owned but government chartered housing finance companies, to "the kinds of federal regulation that banks, credit unions, and savings and loans have to comply with." Never mind that for most of Mr. Bush's term the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, here is how Mr. Rove tells it: "When Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae collapsed at the end of 2008, after housing values had dropped 12.8 percent since 2006, they were the accelerant that turned a minor economic downturn into a worldwide calamity….The unwritten story of the whole affair is that if Democrats had granted the Bush administration the regulatory powers it sought, the housing crisis would not have been nearly as severe, the financial sector's collapse not nearly as damaging, the economy's slide not nearly as steep or lengthy, and global distress not nearly as widespread."
There are still a lot of competing narratives of what happened in the financial crisis, but Mr. Rove's has to be one of the least convincing. For starters, Fannie and Freddie didn't "collapse," they were seized by the Bush administration, in what Mr. Paulson has described as an "ambush" that was "to the disadvantage" of the companies' shareholders, who "we'd basically killed." It was to the advantage of the Chinese government and others who held a lot of Fannie and Freddie bonds.
Second, those supposedly well-regulated banks were as active in the mortgage-backed securities markets as were the supposedly insufficiently regulated Fannie and Freddie; as George Melloan's book reported, "in 2005, the $558 billion in mortgage-backed securities issued by Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch dwarfed the $163 billion issued by Fannie and Freddie."
Meanwhile, all those supposedly well-regulated banks, credit unions, and savings and loans were not just issuing, but holding mortgage backed securities – rated AAA by ratings agencies operating with quasi-governmental authority – in part because the regulators told them that they were secure. The whole thing was driven in part by cheap credit from a Federal Reserve whose role Mr. Rove doesn't mention. The idea that the financial crisis was caused by the failure of Congress to give the Bush administration the regulatory power it asked for is just not borne out by the facts. The Bush administration wasn't asking Congress for more power to regulate AIG, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Stearns, yet all three of those firms failed, Bear Stearns before Fannie and Freddie were seized. Even when regulators have power, they don't always wield it wisely or well.
For a book with the subtitle "my life as a conservative in the fight" to make the argument that what caused the financial crisis was a lack of regulatory authority by the government over privately owned firms shows how great the gap can be between a "conservative" and an advocate of free markets, or, at least, how far the inner circle of the Bush administration as represented by Mr. Rove has to go before it really grasps the issues that were at stake and still are. It's a disappointment, and most of all to those who admire the accomplishments of the Bush administration in advancing freedom abroad and at home in other areas.