The cinematic assault on the Bush Administration in this election year is becoming so pervasive that the president’s adherents will probably soon be muttering darkly about a vast left-wing conspiracy, but it’s good that the sort of take-no-prisoners politics long relished by the rabid right wing (remember the grotesque excesses of the Clinton years?) has finally been joined by the other side. “Bush’s Brain” is a title that many critics might deem an oxymoron, or at least representing so tiny a target as hardly to be worth eighty minutes’ bother. But it’s justified in that the film isn’t really about Dumbya himself, but family consigliere Karl Rove, the puppetmaster who has stage-managed his political rise and appears to have an unduly large role in shaping the administration’s policies. Based on the identically-titled investigative book by reporters James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, it’s a technically modest but persuasive documentary arguing that Bush’s political Svengali is, to use terminology even the president can understand, an evildoer of the most scurrilous sort, the sort of amoral operative for whom winning justifies anything, even considering terrorism and war in terms of their political possibilities rather than their enormous national and personal costs.
Employing the standard methods of interviews and found footage, “Bush’s Brain” traces Rove’s life from his nerdy youth through his collegiate devotion to Republican campus activities and initiation into the rough-and-tumble of national politics by the notorious Lee Atwater, the dean of modern attack tactics, to his involvement with the Bush family via George the Elder and his virtual transformation of The Younger from party animal and failed businessman into an ostensibly plausible candidate for office, governor and president. The treatment is no more even-handed than that which Michael Moore gave Bush II in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” emphasizing testimony not only from James Moore and Slater but liberal icons like Molly Ivins and Texas Democratic pols like Gary Mauro, but it builds a damning case for the premise that Rove is unprincipled and duplicitous in his pursuit of success for conservative causes in general and Bush’s interests in particular–never forgetting the prospects for increasing his own influence in the process. Indeed, some of the most pointed observations come from people who were once his allies–the fellow, now a classics professor, whose candidacy for leadership of the College Republics Karl callously undermined many years ago, and the consultant with whom Rove once collaborated in Texas but who came to despise him when he was serving as a member of the John McCain team in 2000 and witnessed the astonishingly vicious campaign Rove and his minions waged against the Arizona senator during the South Carolina primary. Rove had better hope that his star is always in the ascendent, because “Bush’s Brain” makes clear that he’s made an enormous number of enemies on both sides of the political divide as the result of his ruthless tactics, who are unlikely to be very forgiving if he ever has need of compassion. And it’s entirely possible, as the film suggests perhaps too hopefully, that the current investigation over the leaking of the name of CIA agent Valerie Palme to the press to discredit her husband Joseph Wilson, who raised early questions about Bush’s claims about Iraq’s nuclear policy, will finally reveal the sort of manipulation of which he’s capable.
“Bush’s Brain” is quite up-to-date: its treatment of the Iraq invasion and occupation is fairly current, and it touches upon the current presidential race. It also feigns objectivity by informing us that it invited Rove himself to participate, and, though he refused, by structuring itself as a series of rejoinders to a memo Rove penned about purported “errors” in the Moore-Slater book. The rhetorical device is transparent, but that’s really not significant, because the most cursory viewing will reveal the film to be no objective treatment but a direct assault. And there’s nothing whatever wrong with that. No one demands “balance” from Rush Limbaugh or expects it, however strongly he might claim it, from someone like Bill O’Reilly. Others can try to rebut the evidence offered here if they can. It’s all part of the wondrous workings of American democracy, of which Bush and Rove claim to be such ardent champions.