“Bush’s Brain” is a film about the win-at-any-cost philosophy of Karl Rove, the president’s chief political advisor, and the influence he wields in the current administration. Fashioned by directors Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey from the book by investigative journalists James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, it joins a growing number of politically-charged documentaries being released this election year. During a recent interview in Dallas, Mealey and Slater discussed the picture. Mealey was asked how it felt to be part of a vast left-wing cinematic conspiracy. “What happened is, two years ago in Hollywood, all these people got together and created this plot,” he joked. Then he turned serious: “The truth is, when you start a movie, it’s in a vacuum. I just read Jim and Wayne’s book and e-mailed them, and that led to ‘Can I do a documentary based on your book?’ and they said yes. I didn’t know any of these [other] films were coming out when we started, no idea. I had heard that Michael Moore was doing ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ but the rumor then was that it was about the election in Florida. All these films came up kind of organically, because we made it from the heart, not being part of any left-wing conspiracy. The DNC didn’t pay us to do it–we did it with our own funds.” Still, “Bush’s Brain” is now part of a group, and Mealey recalled that at Cannes, his picture was inevitably compared to Moore’s already notorious one. “At Cannes we had great publicity as kind of being the Avis to his Hertz,” he noted.
Slater, the Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News who’s followed Rove’s career since the 1980s, explained what his book, and Mealey’s picture, aimed to do. “It makes the point that here’s a guy, behind the president of the United States, who’s engaged in a pattern of behavior–you either believe it or you don’t, but one can argue that there’s a fairly compelling case–that this guy Karl Rove, who is a very close advisor to the president, closer than anyone else in this White House as a political advisor to the president, this guy has a really checkered past, and he has a pattern of going after a person’s strength.” Slater noted that a recent New York Times story on the so-called Swift Boat ads suggested that Rove had shadowy ties to them. “I think that the value of the film–and I hope of the book–is even though you don’t have his fingerprints, look at the pattern of action. Isn’t is amazing that everywhere he goes, the same pattern of activity goes on? What happens when you have a lifetime of episodes that are all the same, or have some similarity?” he added.
Slater emphasized that Rove’s cut-throat tactics, amply documented in the film, aren’t based on ideology. “What he is, is a guy who wants to win, whatever it takes,” he said. “In Rove’s case, it never matters if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t matter if you were my friend yesterday–if you’re not my friend on my side today, you’re my enemy and I come after you. He really will do whatever it takes, whatever works, to win.” Mealey explained: “Keep in mind that unlike most young men who want to grow up to be firemen or policemen or whatever, Karl Rove, when he was in junior high school, his goal was to be the political advisor to the president. I’d say I didn’t know there was one when I was in high school. He achieved his goal, and he’s actually where he wanted to be his whole life.” Slater pointed out that it was Rove who first saw Bush’s potential to capture first the governorship of Texas and then the presidency, even before Bush did himself, and who groomed Dubya to run for those offices. “He was there at the beginning and arguably made Bush as a candidate,” Slater said. “[Bush] needed Rove to launch his political career.” It’s no wonder, he added, that “Bush trusts this guy implicitly,” and that Rove is not only a political advisor but a friend and a policy advisor, too–a triple role that, in the reporter’s view, really makes him unique in American history.
One of the questions “Bush’s Brain” raises is Rove’s role in the invasion of Iraq, a matter touched on in a final segment dealing with a family grieving over the loss of a son-in-law in the war. Mealey said: “Nothing in the White House happens without him saying, ‘I can sell this.’ He created the political pretext that made that war happen, and I think that as a result he is partially responsible for the policy of that war.” Slater offered a more nuanced view. He began by dismissing the idea that Rove was some sort of Svengali-like puppetmaster pulling the president’s strings. “Bush is a bright guy, despite what some people think,” he said; he makes his own decisions. But, he added, Rove still plays a substantial role in the process. As Slater explained it, “Bush gets policy advice, and Rove reinforces that advice…and says we can go to the nation with this war, we can sell the country on this war. That’s his role. He didn’t tell Bush to get in, but his role was to encourage, to reinforce…and then to sell that package as a political commodity, because he saw it would help the president win re-election in 2004.” He imaged the sort of argument Rove might have made to Bush: “You’re going to run for re-election in 2004, and your strength will be the Republican strength. You’re going to be the war president, you’re going to be strong. Republicans win on war, they lose on the economy, if the economy’s bad.”
When it came to the outcome of the coming presidential election, both men declined to make a prediction. But they agreed on one thing: “Don’t underestimate Karl Rove.”