Saturday, September 08, 2012

Contra Rove--and Us

It's easy to hate Karl Rove, and there are good reasons for this fact. It's common knowledge that he masterminded Dubya's legendarily sketchy 2000 presidential campaign; Dubya famously called him "the Architect" in 2004. Plus he's ugly with pale pudge, and it's easy to hate ugly people. But mostly it's easy to hate Machiavellis, the ruthless 'realists' of political strategy.

What's less well-known than the 2000 race is his decades-long history of skeezy, bottom-feeder tactics, which begins with the College Republicans. See, in '73, Rove was one of two candidates for the national chair of the College Republicans. Rove successfully unseated his opponent's delegates on procedural grounds, going so far as to use a different version of the group's constitution. When both candidates claimed victory after a hung vote, they appealed to the Republican National Committee via George H.W. Bush, and Rove eventually won. This was the beginning of a long and fortuitous (to Rove) relationship with the family that brought us both Gulf Wars.

I imagine GHW Bush's reaction to Rove's antics in '73, and all I can think of is Slytherin House from Harry Potter. 'Ah, yes, hmm,' GHWB might've muttered to himself, 'promising, very promising. You have talent, young man. The by-law switch, the procedural attack--you have a rare gift, my boy. We may make great use of you, in time.' GHWB perhaps stroking a cat or ferret while saying this, his tiny eyes rolling around behind those enormous spectacles, his tongue flitting around the edge of his lips. 'But do you have the discipline, boy? The restraint? I can show you the way--but you must obey me. You must bow down before the the Brotherhood, if you would join us.'

This is what I think of when I think of the inner machinations of the Great Satan, the GOP. But of course the reality is surely less exciting. While waiting to hear GHWB's verdict, Rove's opponent Robert Edgeworth went to the Washington Post and leaked audiotapes of Rove's training seminars for young Republicans. On the tapes, Rove talked about his own dirty tricks, such as going through opponents' trash.

A week after the story ran, GHWB--who'd promised to investigate Rove's dirty tricks in the College Republicans race--awarded Rove the chair. When Edgeworth asked why, GHWB sent him a letter. In Edgeworth's words: "Bush sent me back the angriest letter I have ever received in my life. I had leaked to the Washington Post, and now I was out of the Party forever."

This all went down around the same time as Nixon's Watergate scandal, and it appears that federal prosecutors were interested in Rove but too busy going after the President to do anything about it.

So, Rove played ruthless and got lucky. There was no special logic to it, except maybe the RAF motto: "He who dares, wins." Bush didn't reward Rove so much as punish Edgeworth, and the Law and Order crowd just didn't have time to go after him.

Personally, I find Rove's behavior in this episode either admirable or sickening, depending on whether I empathize with him as a rascally operator or identify with the civic system which he corrupted. It's sort of like this: whether I root for a scoundrel like Han Solo or a boy scout like Elliot Ness depends on how I feel about government. An evil empire is easy to root against; so is an evil crime syndicate. So here's my dilemma re: Rove's '73 maneuverings: do I despise him for breaking the rules, or do I admire him for beating the College Republicans at their own game? Do I hate the player, or the game? Do I approach this as a citizen or as private individual?

I mean, it's easy to look back from the post-Dubya era and, a priori, despise everything Rove has ever done. But what if Dan Savage or Hunter S. Thompson pulled a stunt like this? Is Rove's young ruthlessness only contemptible in light of his later crimes?

I despise Karl Rove, and he's earned my contempt. But here's the thing: I've noticed (largely from watching the GOP maneuverings of Rove and his ilk) that it's way easier to simplify blame into a single villain than it is to address the messy, complex causes which actually lie behind social problems. People like a villain. People like a simple root cause for whatever's wrong with the world. Villains are emotionally satisfying.

Rove et al have exploited the fact that villains are emotionally satisfying through e.g. their use of the 'wedge-issue' of marriage equality for the past decade. It's easy to blame queer people for the general ills of the US (or immigrants, or welfare recipients, etc.--as the POTUS astutely notes here). But of course this model of blame is also rank BS; not only false (i.e. queer people are not, in fact, culpable for US decline), but radically simplistic (i.e. even if queer people were culpable for US decline, it's absurd to suppose that we alone could have caused it).

So I wonder just how much I can blame the Rover for the general ills of my country today: legislative gridlock, endless wars, bottomless debt, Gitmo's kidnapping and torture, oil spills and fracking and clear-cutting, the popularity of E!, the marginalization of non-insane Republicans, etc. etc. He's enthusiastically endorsed all these trends, of course. But rats and ants and pests of all kinds endorse any opportunity to exploit valuable resources like foodstuffs or government efficacy. That doesn't make those pests uniquely responsible for the corruption of those resources. Who let the pests in in the first place?

What we need to ask ourselves, maybe, is this: How did we create a political system in which a creature like Rove could thrive in the first place? How are we responsible for the corruption of our political system, of which Rove is only an executor?

No comments: