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Bush and Rove: Collaborators in the Theater of the Moral Lie

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This essay first appeared here in late 2005. It is, I believe, my best analysis of the nature and impact of Karl Rove. And so I post it here again in the wake of this week's announcement that this man --perhaps the most pernicious figure in the political history of the United States-- would be leaving his position in the White House.


If evil were to take over America, it would have to do it with a smiling face and postures of righteousness.

Most of the evil rulers in history made no pretense to moral virtue. Maintaining their power through terror, they simply intimidated people into submission.

But in a democracy, evil can rise to power only with the people’s consent—at least in the first stage. And this means that deception replaces brute force as evil’s route to the throne.

Evil has thus ascended to power in America disguised as the good.

This is why the partnership between George W. Bush and Karl Rove has proved so fatefully dangerous for America, for the two men bring profoundly complementary talents to the theater of moral deception.

Rove As Dramatist of the Moral Lie

From the beginning, Karl Rove has been drawn to the staging of morally deceptive theater to gain political power.

Twenty years ago, according to James Moore, et al., the authors of Bush’s Brain, he faked the wiretapping of his own office—a gesture that made his candidate appear the victim of dirty tricks from the other side.
And he’s apparently orchestrated the smearing of George W. Bush’s opponents in one campaign after another—from a whisper campaign in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race to insinuate that Gov. Ann Richards was a lesbian, to the behind-the-scenes injection into the South Carolina primary in 2000 that Sen. John McCain had fathered a black child, to the character assassination employed against both Gore and Kerry in Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

Rove’s now significant role in American history thus rests on his genius in dramatizing lies to persuade people to see his political enemies as morally worse than they really are. These moral lies are the democratic equivalent of assassination in regimes where swords rather than votes lead to power.
But Rove’s strategy of dramatizing moral lies to slander his enemies becomes really powerful when combined with its other half: the lie that presents his side as morally better than it is.

So the great dramatist of the moral lie also needed a talent for casting. And it should thus come as no surprise that the partnership with George W. Bush was formed at the initiation of Karl Rove.

In Bush, he recognized that he’d found an actor who was not only heir to great power but also adept at pretending to a righteousness really quite foreign to his true nature.

Bush as the Great Pretender

However George W. Bush became adept at pretending to be a better man than he is, we know that putting himself together in an effective way took him a very long time—a time marked by many failures covered over by bravado and anaesthetized by alcohol.

And we can see still in his body –in his posturing like some sort of gunslinger, arms out from his side; in his swagger and strut; in the unnatural puffing out of the chest—powerful signs that this is a man who really does not know who he is. He seems constantly seeking the pose of the man in the white hat, an imitation of the heroes of movie westerns.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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