Courage and Consequence, By Karl Rove

Dubya's top aide refutes his rep for dirty tricks

In 1973, Karl Rove was working as an assistant to George Bush Sr. Bush asked Rove to go to the lobby to give his son, whom Rove had never met, the keys to the family car: "I slipped down to the lobby and waited, then George W Bush walked through the door, exuding more charm and charisma than is allowed by law." Twenty-seven years later, Rove was in the White House, launching his career as Bush Jr's leading aide. "Senior Advisor" and "Deputy Chief of Staff" would turn out to be mere job titles, though. Not since Kissinger counselled Nixon, perhaps, has someone gained as much access and wielded as much influence over a president.

In his acceptance speech in 2004, Bush referred to Rove as his "architect". Indeed, if Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight reads like a rather abstruse electioneering guide for the Republican Party, it is because, in terms of modern electoral strategists, from when Rove set up his direct-mail business in Texas in the early 1980s to the 2006 mid-term elections, his career was without parallel.

Later this year, Rove will appear on the animated US sitcom Family Guy. "Whom will you be playing?" Rove was recently asked. "I play myself," he replied disarmingly, "meaning the son of Satan, the spawn of evil."

It is the hallmark of so-called "Rovian" campaigns that they contain plenty of dirty tricks, smear tactics and scandal. Such as the time Rove supposedly bugged his own office in 1986 to drum up a negative story about the Democrat Governor Mark White. Or when he allegedly spread rumours that Anne Richards, the woman Bush defeated to take the Texas governorship in 1994, was a lesbian. Or when he allegedly orchestrated a whispering campaign against John McCain, during the 2000 primaries, which said that McCain was mentally unstable. In Courage and Consequence, however, Rove merely issues scores of flat denials about these allegations and, rather disappointingly, reveals little in the way of insight into what regrets, if any, he harbours at gaining such a serpentine reputation.

By far the most exhilarating chapter is on 9/11. On the morning of the attacks, circling the skies in Air Force One, Rove sketches the tension brilliantly. "I am the President," Bush barks back to an aide, when told that it's not safe to head straight to Washington. Rove also manages to inject some affecting touches into the early chapters on his upbringing in Colorado. (His mother committed suicide and, in young adulthood, he learnt that the man he thought was his father was not.)

As for mounting a defence of the Bush years, Courage and Consequence is brittle. It does no more than defend, in the same manner, what the Bush administration has defended countless times before: Iraq, the environment, caution on stem-cell research. But this, though, is really the point. Not buckling to popularism, and refusing to apologise for it afterwards, Rove is saying, implies a certain unblinking, realist courage.

Perhaps it was expecting too much of Rove to start revising anything. As it is, this book is unlikely to have much consequence. But as Richard Ford said on Bush's exit in 2008: "We must never elect a stubborn man again. It [stubbornness] so easily disguises itself as firm, even admirable, but almost all difficult problems have what you might call a relativist side to them. Stubbornness indicates a lack of curiosity. And worse, stubbornness can't be talked out of itself by better reason. It's too stubborn."