Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September 2004)
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
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Directed by Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey.
“The whole art of war consists of a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defense, followed by rapid and audacious attack.” — Napoleon
“Controversy? … What controversy?”
Such is the tagline in ads for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, his excoriation of the Bush imperial presidency—devised in guilt and darkest rancor, nutrient-fed at Cannes and currently growing geometrically on the steroid hash of raw media frenzy. Although it’s not widely remembered, Moore may have tipped not one, but two national elections now with his last-minute full-court antics. His very public support of third-party candidate Ralph Nader had a decisive effect in 2000, regardless of how he parses it now. But back in 1998, three weeks before the mid-term elections, Moore sent out a series of mass e-mailings on his frustration over the impeachment proceedings, and urging angry young disenfranchised liberals to hold their nose and vote Democrat. That was the election that unseated Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America foot soldiers, and a woozy punditocracy attributed it to a last-minute appearance by Clinton on Black Entertainment Television, which supposedly energized his latent black base. But everybody I know saw those e-mails; they managed, like they say in Network, to articulate the popular rage:
“Yes, most of the Democrats suck,” read Michael Moore Newsletter #11 from TVNatFans@aol.com on October 8, 1998 at 21:44:47 EDT. “I rarely vote for the sorry, wishy-washy losers. But this election is not about how I feel about them—it’s about us using them to whack the right wing for good. Imagine if the Democrats are voted in by overwhelming numbers (when all the pundits are predicting a Republican landslide). The message would be loud and clear to all these new Democrats—the American public wants the agenda of the Christian right removed from the halls of our United States Congress!”
This led, in a straight line, to Moore’s career as author, propagandist, gadfly, jester, freedom fighter and hero to the French. And power to him. Except now it looks like he may be sucking up all the oxygen in the room. Because another political documentary which could be of crucial benefit to an undecided electorate—more than Control Room, the Al-Jazeera doc; more than The Hunting of the President, about open season on Clinton—is apparently not slipstreaming into theaters behind him, but is instead perilously close to going unreleased in time for November’s election.
Bush’s Brain, co-directed by Michael Paradies Shoob and Joseph Mealey, presents in horrifying, clarifying detail the sinister ministrations of advisor-without-portfolio Karl Rove, who occupies the post position on George W. Bush’s speed-dial, and who his enemies liken to no less than a co-president of the United States. Politics as policy, the Big Lie, junkyard dog attack ads, means justifying ends, operating out beyond the event horizon—all are part and parcel of what the film calls “the mark of Rove.” Based on the book Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential by reporters James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, the film features a who’s who of talking heads—Molly Ivins, Joe Wilson, Sen. Max Cleland—even Bill Clinton from a 2000 California recall photo op—in charting Rove’s rise and rise from the Texas of Ann Richards and Jim Hightower to one that is remorselessly Republican. And while the two-decade-old extranea of Texas electoral politics may seem of limited interest to a country with bigger problems on its plate right about now, it is said that Washington, D.C. is run by just three individuals—George Bush, Karl Rove and House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay—each of them angry Texans with a taste for wetwork. This shows where they come from. As with the Moore film, there may not be much new in the telling, but as we’ve just learned all over again from the Hallmark cards coming out of Abu Ghraib, one picture really is worth 1,000 words.
“You meet him, he’s one of the most intelligent, gracious types of people you can have a one-on-one conversation with,” says author James C. Moore. “I enjoy being around him because he’s so bright, and because he knows so much about American history. But there’s a dark part of Karl. There’s this thing that moves within him that the average person I don’t think has. It’s one part power, one part manipulation and control, and another part of him that absolutely demands that he destroy his opponents.”
Rove first streaked across the political firmament in 1973 when he ran for president of the Young Republicans National Federation as a “part-time undergraduate” against an older friend and erstwhile mentor. That election was so rancorous that the Washington Post reported at the time “the convention ended in confusion and dissension.” With Watergate burning a hole in its legacy, the Republican National Committee sent new head George Bush Sr. down to arbitrate. He ruled in Rove’s favor, then returned with Rove in tow, who began working for the RNC, traveling the college circuit as a protégé of legendary knuckleball operative Lee Atwater—teaching ratfucking and dirty tricks to student politicos as part of a kind of homegrown al Qaeda. Soon enough, Bush Sr. sent Karl to drop off the car keys with his eldest son, and the violins swelled. When Rove was fired from the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 for alleged campaign leaks (to Robert Novak, no less!), Karl followed George Jr. back to the Midland oilfields, and the rest is the stuff of legend.
Except now, when the legend becomes fact, we can go to the videotape. No matter how many times it’s been told, it really is breathtaking to witness Rove, neck and neck at the polls the night before the only debate of the 1986 election for Texas governor, holding a press conference claiming he had discovered a bug in his campaign offices—a claim corroborated by the FBI, in the person of field agent Greg Rampton. A subsequent FBI investigation found that the bug had a half-mile range and a six-hour battery life, a mere 15 minutes of which had been expended, but then was curtailed by a Republican federal judge for fear it would hamper the election process. Sound familiar?
But the best illustration of the damage done by politics-as-usual is in an odd episode in the early ’90s, when Rove and Rampton were allegedly gunning for Hightower and Richards (who, after all, became a rising star at the 1992 Democratic National Convention with the throwaway line, “Poor George Bush—he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”). To discredit the populist Hightower, it is strongly suggested that Rove engineered the indictment and conviction of two agency employees —Mike Moeller and Pete McRae—after it was discovered that two elderly Agriculture Bureau operatives had solicited campaign contributions from farmers and ranchers while out doing agency fieldwork. Moeller and McRae spent a combined 27 months in the federal penitentiary and were fined a cumulative $71,000, and the affair ended their careers in politics. Interviewed today, both remain philosophical.
“I suspect that he gets a plug out of people believing that he played this kind of role,” says Moeller, “that he was actually able to put his enemies in jail.” But it’s McRae’s response that leaves the scar. Asked on camera, “How did your parents feel about it?” he tries to answer, before drawing a sharp breath. “You got me on that one,” he says with an inadvertent laugh. “They both passed away.” He speaks quietly, then starts to choke up, with giant tears welling. “And I think it’s quite likely that the stress contributed to it. My mother died suddenly of a stroke in ’92, then my father died in ’98.”
The film continues through the 2000 election, focusing on the South Carolina primary—the one where John McCain’s Bangladeshi daughter, adopted through Mother Teresa’s charity, was branded a love child by a black prostitute through a well-orchestrated whisper campaign. John Weaver, a former Rove ally (the pair mysteriously split in 1986, in circumstances neither will talk about), who was McCain’s political director, states unequivocally: “No one that I know, no political reporter who’s covered races all the way back to 1960, has ever seen anything like that primary, as far as the nastiness and the things that were said about Senator McCain and his family. It was akin to a thousand tomahawks coming at you. You might be able to fend off two, three, four, five of them. It was unbelievable, really.”
The documentary also checks in with former U.S. Senator from Georgia Max Cleland, a war hero who sacrificed one arm and two legs in Vietnam, and was subsequently defeated after being targeted by a spurious political ad campaign which questioned his patriotism, as well as Ambassador Joe Wilson, who names Rove as having leaked his wife’s status as a CIA agent to Robert Novak. But the final word is given to Glenn Smith, the Austin Bureau Chief of the Houston Post: “Everybody pays for the people they hurt, and Karl Rove will too. Maybe in no visible way. Maybe when he’s 65 or 70, he can’t sleep at night thinking about it. Maybe, like Lee Atwater, he’ll have a deathbed conversion. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
That opening quote from Napoleon appeared in a letter Karl Rove wrote on September 4, 1985 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements, the irascible deposed former governor who Rove ushered back into power, and perpetual Republican rule along with him. Rove has always compared Bush to William McKinley, who won the presidency twice against progressive William Jennings Bryan (in 1896 and 1900, the second time by a landslide), ensured a conservative hold on power (with the exception of Woodrow Wilson during WWI) until Franklin Roosevelt three decades later, and helped usher in the era of muckraking journalism.
But as we learn from The Terminal, Steven Spielberg’s squishy multicultural spin on post-Cold War geopolitics, racial profiling and the Patriot Act, Napoleon died alone in exile on the island of St. Helena, having only survived a suicide attempt through sheer egotism, after taking six times the poison recommended to kill a normal man, which was easily expelled from his system. Still, to a student of history, as Rove by all accounts is, that destiny might seem a far sight better than the one which awaited McKinley. He was shot point blank by 28-year-old anarchist Leon Czolgosz nine months into his second term.
“I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people, the working people,” said Czolgosz at his execution. “I am not sorry for my crime.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m friends with Michelle Shocked, who did the soundtrack and closing ballad of Bush’s Brain, and my name appears in the thank-yous – just above Josh Marshall, author of one of my favorite blogs, TalkingPointsMemo.com A version of this story appeared in JAMS, a magazine published by Michelle Shocked.)
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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.