Karl Rove and Katrina

Jun 06, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Salon has an excerpt today from Paul Alexander's new book about Karl Rove, focusing on the White House's handling of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I'm all for delving into the basic mystery of Rove: how did a political consultant whose principal skill was tactical - targeting and turning out narrow bands of conservative voters - and whose principal m.o. against opponents was toxic rumors and whispering campaigns, come to control the levers of government, something which he clearly neither understood nor cared much about? This is key to the failure of the Bush presidency, and I don't think any of the Bush books have yet fully explained it or set it in context.

Unfortunately, neither does Alexander's book, at least if the Katrina narrative is any indication. His account of the days following August 29, 2005 is lively, but it relies exclusively on interviews with Louisiana Democrats, including Senator Mary Landrieu and former Governor Kathleen Blanco. They're important players in what happened, of course. But they don't know what was going on behind the scenes with Rove and the White House staff any more than the rest of us. (Scott McClellan doesn't have a whole lot more, but at least provides an insider's perspective in his book.)

Alexander's sources offer opinions and speculation on what happened with Bush's inner circle, some or all of which may be valid - and all of which we've heard before. It's clear, as they point out, that the White House began spinning very early, trying to shift blame for the debacle from the (Republican-controlled) federal government to the (Democratic-controlled) state and local governments. So, facing an enormous challenge in mobilizing the resources of government, an effort that should have included smart, honest public communication, the White House instead tried to save its own skin with spin and political positioning. This isn't surprising - it's what politicians do - though what I found shocking in researching this for my own book was that this seemed to be all the White House was doing.

What I'd still like to know, and am disappointed not to find in a book about Rove, is what were Bush and Rove saying and doing during that terrible week? Why was the president so disengaged, to the point of permanently damaging himself? How did Rove (apparently, absurdly) come to run the response effort, as the White House briefly declared? Answers to these questions would tell us how Bush his team acted in a profound domestic crisis, and offer an important clue as to why his presidency fell apart.