The film extension of James Moore and Wayne Slater’s book “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential” is long on speculation but short on hard evidence, and Bush’s ascendance to the presidency is but a small part of its substance. It’s primarily an attack on Rove’s character, which is fitting, if ironic, since character assassination is presented as his sharpest arrow.
Though Bush’s career advancement is certainly the greatest achievement of Rove’s career, the title is misleading, as the film relates stories of Rove’s role in various political campaigns, Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial and 2000 presidential campaigns being only two of them. Indeed, some deplorable tactics have been used in every campaign in which Rove was a major participant, and the film offers plenty of commentators who are either knowledgeable about or participated in the situations who believe that Rove was the main contributor to the malevolence, but Rove’s specific role is, disappointingly, left to conjecture.
However, anyone unfamiliar with Rove will be well-served by what Bush’s Brain has to offer. In the 1986 Texas gubernatorial race between Mark White and Bill Clements, Rove’s candidate (Clements) was in a dead heat with White according to at least one poll. Shortly before a debate between the men, Rove went public with a claim that his office had been bugged, and that he could only imagine that the White campaign was responsible. Though evidence suggested that Rove had planted the surveillance device himself, the attention of the state’s media was pulled away from the debate in order to cover the allegations against White’s campaign. The film would have benefited here by presenting Rove’s role in negotiating the terms of Bush’s 1994 debate against Ann Richards; that debate was arranged so as to attract minimal media attention. Unfortunately, the filmmakers forego the Bush-Rove connection in deference to chronology.
The film’s most effective section focuses on Rove’s 1990 work against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, which eventually placed two of Hightower’s officers in prison. The two officers, Mike Moeller and Pete McKae, are fleshed out enough to make the viewer sympathize with them, aiding the film’s vilification of Rove’s alleged participation in ruining their political lives.
The Bush-Rove connection is lightly explored in various spots throughout the film, but as implied earlier, it’s never developed sufficiently to merit the title. The most significant aspect of Rove’s role is shown to be his tutelage of Bush on history, politics, and government and the whisper campaign he allegedly waged against Ann Richards—namely that she might be a lesbian. Rove is also blamed for the Bush-Cheney campaign’s dirty tactics against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, where it was “whispered” that McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had scarred him mentally, rendering him unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.
Aside from the deficiency of attention to Rove’s role in bringing Bush to power, some connections are a stretch for even the most liberal viewer. For instance, the Republican Party’s role in knocking Max Cleland (a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and an arm in that war) out of office in Georgia, is presented as proof of Rove’s nasty character. But the film offers nothing but the most indirect of links between Rove and the smearing of Cleland, asking us to accept Rove as the creator of dirty politics rather than an aficionado of them.
Bush’s Brain also attempts to paint the war on Iraq as Rove’s war—one waged in order to solidify Republican control of government. After weakly presenting this claim, which completely ignores the power of Bush’s neoconservative war cabinet, the filmmakers foolishly attempt to recreate the most effective aspect of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore wove the story of Lila Lipscomb’s loss of her son to the Iraq War into his film in a way that was effective despite being manipulative, creating what was the most genuinely moving part of Fahrenheit 9/11. But the effect of Marine Fred Pokernoy’s death on his family has no place in the structure of this film and serves only to cheapen it.
Bush’s Brain creates a fascinating, if disquieting, portrait of Rove, and it will be difficult for anyone to leave the film without a sense that his tactics are unsavory and destructive to the democratic process. But the filmmakers should have explored more fully the Rove-engineered Republican takeover of Texas, which set the stage for Bush to become governor in the first place. Rove’s role in the election of current governor Mike Perry to Agriculture Commissioner is briefly covered, but his part in the party’s gaining control of the Texas Supreme Court is completely ignored; he helped elect all nine justices. And they could have examined Rove’s possible involvement in the contentious redistricting that recently took place in Texas, solidifying Republican power.
Instead, filmmakers Michael Shoob and Joseph Mealey present a Bush-Rove link that only disturbs when it ought to terrify. Rove is widely regarded as a one-man Washington powerhouse who is changing the political landscape and the way in which the game is played, but without presenting a clear indication of Rove’s control of Bush, the film leaves little more than a nasty taste to carry home.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Bush's Brain / Ryan Lindsey
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()