James O. Tate reviews Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight • by Karl Rove • New York: Threshold Editions • 608 pp., $30.00
There is—there must be–all the difference in the world between an autobiography and a novel written in the first person. Are we clear? Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Living History, for example, has much in common with Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or even Great Expectations, with the obvious exceptions that the “truth” seems to be fiction, and the fiction seems to be true. So then, we are not clear. And possibly an autobiography should be read as though it were fiction—at least, Karl Rove’s narrative should be read as fiction. And I recommend this approach for one particular reason: The book is much more comfortable to consume as a mythic artifact than as a discursive account of life and politics.
Dickens’ Great Expectations obviously has an ironic title, and to appreciate the point, we have to read the book alertly and even think about what we remember. Such an approach would not bear fruit with the Rove romance, however. His book has a title that is the opposite of ironic, whatever that might be. Courage and Consequence is about neither the one nor the other. The subtitle is even more anti-ironic: What is a “Conservative” and what is “the Fight”? No one would learn anything about those questions that she did not bring with her to the text. I don’t think that the readers of this journal need any explanations about courage, consequences, conservatism, or conflict, but perhaps there may be some use in noting what this first-person narrative signed by Karl Rove indicates about these and other matters of interest and concern.
So, speaking impersonally about personal matters, I note for the record the mythic aspect of the early years. Karl Rove is far from the first hero who had a mythic birth, a confused parentage, and even a tragic background, particularly as it relates to his mother’s suicide. His functional father was not his biological father, and the story has been dwelt on in the blogs in an attempt to associate Rove with homosexuality, a political spin that need not detain us. So much for the early years, somewhat tinted with rose. They would have provided a Freudian with a field day, a romancer with a gold mine, and a mythographer with a hedge fund. Our creative approach is paying off already!
OK, so let’s check out the Bildungsroman aspect—you know, the education of the hustler as a young man. Now what happened was that Karl Rove became, at a young age, a political operative or hack, a spin artist, a consultant, an expert about the arcane manipulations of politics in the ward-heeler sense of the word. If you are interested in focus groups, polling, and the manipulation of issues and debates, there might be something of some slight interest for you in this book. But as for education—while there is experience—there is little to be found here. In Bill Clinton’s autobiography, we learn that a college professor threw a copy of The Republic on the floor and pronounced to his class, “Plato is a fascist!” In Karl Rove’s text, political thought began with Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr., and National Review was a “weekly.” Karl was a Westerner, Karl related to Texas, and Karl liked the Bushes. That was the education. Like the Clintons, Karl was a college politician, and like them, he never grew up. Unlike them, he was a College Republican, and unlike the Clintons, he never obtained his college degree. And it shows.
Turning from the mythic aspects, we look now to aspects of myth. Karl is self-conscious—he knows that he is a myth. His 34th and final chapter is entitled “Rove: the Myth.” What is the Myth? The Myth of the enemy is that he is a little troll who looks as if he were drawn by Charles Addams; the myth of the narrative is that he is not. The Myth is that he is a weirdo and, what is worse, an unscrupulous liar and bullslinger who has done incalculable damage to the people who supported George W. Bush; the myth of the narrative is that It Just Ain’t So. The Myth about his inhumanity is contraindicated by his second marriage and the son of that marriage; but the myth of the narrative omits entirely the recent DIVORCE NO. 2.
Therefore, much of the narrative is required to overcome the Myth with a myth. Question: What must you do, when they say you are a space alien in disguise? Answer: Refer frequently to your human (not alien) emotions, your human mistakes, your human love, and your human fears in the form of understandable bodily discomforts and human embarrassments, yet still omitting DIVORCE NO. 2. Examples: “I felt like vomiting”; vetting candidates is like “a proctology exam”; I “salivated” at the thought of using research about Al Gore, etc., etc. Love of Abraham Lincoln and of rock music are other hallmarks of humanity. So is the loyalty to Bush, who was right about Iraq. But just here the mythology becomes so over the top as to lose all persuasiveness.
I have come to learn through bitter experience that Karl Rove’s autobiography cannot, finally, be productively compared with Victorian fiction (though some paragraphs of Esther Summerson still come to mind). Superior analogues suggest themselves from horror movies of the 1950’s: Invaders From Mars (Menzies, 1953), for example. The boy sees the flying saucer land behind the sand dune with the wordless chorus and then notices that his suddenly harsh father has a . . . thing . . . on the back of his neck. Or more obviously, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956): Pod People keep Kevin McCarthy from doing Dana Wynter, and everybody thinks he’s crazy because the trucks are driven by College Republicans. If this is McCarthyism, count me in, and as for snatching the body of Dana Wynter in 1956, count me in again as well—even, or even especially, when she was bad. I don’t see yet any analogy with The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but I’m working on it. The SEQUEL NO. 2—The Creature Walks Among Us—has got to be the answer.
This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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