Hail To The King -- Er, Chief
AMERICAN DYNASTY Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush
and the Politics of Deceit
in the House of Bush
By Kevin Phillips; Viking; 397 pp; $25.95
In America, anyone can grow up to be President, right? Sadly, some families are now more equal than others in getting to the White House, asserts Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. The former Nixon White House strategist, who 35 years ago, in The Emerging Republican Majority, correctly predicted a virtual Republican lock on the South, has a startling new thesis: The Bush family has systematically used four generations of old-boy networking, national security involvement, and political deception to establish an American family aristocracy of sorts. Indeed, after his father's stinging reelection defeat in 1992, the worst shellacking for an incumbent Republican President since that of William Howard Taft in 1912, George W. Bush's election as President in 2000 bears an eerie resemblance to an old-style European restoration of a royal family, argues Phillips. It's a dark, populist vision of the Bush Presidency that may strike some as over-the-top. But it's well-researched and compelling. Now that the book is a best-seller, the President had better worry because its portrait of the House of Bush is devastating.
Bush-haters will love it, all right, but Phillips isn't primarily addressing Democrats. Instead, the author of such works as Wealth and Democracy and The Politics of Rich and Poor is speaking to Main Street America -- entrepreneurs, political independents, and Republicans, such as Pat Buchanan, who used to taunt Bush's father, calling him "King George." Phillips gets right to the heart of why figures ranging from Ross Perot to Bob Dole, John McCain, George Soros, and most recently former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill all came to harbor a bitterness and distrust toward the Bushes. For behind their likable facade, he says, lies a "culture of secrecy, deceit, and disinformation [that] have become Bush political hallmarks." Remember Dole yelling at Bush in 1988 to "stop lying about my record?" Or Ross Perot's seemingly paranoid complaints that Bush I White House operatives tried to sabotage his daughter's wedding? Their anger and fears will make much more sense after reading Phillips' book.
Phillips starts with an intriguing question: Why was it that the Bushes -- not such other political tribes as the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, or the Tafts -- produced the first father-son Presidency since John Adams and son John Quincy Adams almost 200 years ago? To find the answer, he investigates the family's past, concluding that the Adams family would be shocked at the way the Bushes have achieved their ambitions.
No author has plumbed the history of the Bush family in such detail, starting with George W.'s great grandfathers, George Herbert Walker and Samuel Prescott Bush, continuing through his grandfather Prescott Bush, his father, former President Bush, and on to the current President. Phillips reveals some intriguing history, such as the strong business relations that investment banker Prescott Bush and such partners as Averell Harriman maintained with Nazi Germany right up to Pearl Harbor. Were they gathering intelligence or just profiting? Phillips says they might have been doing both. The thread is clear: From the 1890s right on through to the 1989 invasion of Panama, the Gulf War, and most recently the U.S. invasion of Iraq, no American family has "more fully epitomized and risen alongside the hundred-year emergence of the U.S. military-industrial complex," Phillips writes.
So what, some readers will say -- Phillips' strong anti-elitism and dark suspicions about the national security apparatus are overdrawn for a nation now engaged in a war on terrorism, revealing more about his own distaste for wealth, privilege, and secret societies than any real Bush conspiracies. But the author himself is a Harvard Law School graduate, and his main point is that the Bushes are not the down-home, up-by-the-bootstraps, regular guys that they would have Americans believe.
When in 1952, Prescott Bush emerged as a public figure with his election as a Senator from Connecticut, he was coming from the top investment bank of its day, Brown Brothers Harriman -- "rich, full of Skull and Bonesmen [from the elite secret society at Yale]... politically influential, and intimately wired through several of its top partners to the postwar birthing of the CIA." Small wonder that George H.W. Bush rose so easily to become agency director after a brief detour into Texas oil drilling. Even in the Lone Star State, Phillips notes, the young go-getter wasn't really striking out on his own: "Half of his friends in the oil business were Ivy Leaguers," Phillips reports. "Midland's newly paved streets were named after Ivy League colleges."
What does all this have to do with Dubya? The Bushes truly think their blood is blue, Phillips asserts, noting how the family takes great but hushed pride in tracing its lineage back to the Tudors and Plantagenets of British monarchy. Bush really did steal the election in Florida, Phillips argues, relying on brother Jeb and legal legions flying around on the corporate jets of Enron Corp. (ENRNQ ) and Halliburton Co. (HAL ) to assert legitimacy falsely. "The overthrow of George H.W. Bush in 1992, the moral dissatisfaction with [Bill Clinton], and the rising drumbeat among conservatives to replace the usurper with the blood heir of the older ruler are about as close" to a monarchist restoration "as the American Republic is likely to come."
Phillips observes that the heirs in certain monarchical restorations -- such as England's King Charles II, brought back to the throne following the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's revolt, or Bourbon heir Louis XVIII, who reascended the throne of France following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte -- mirror some behavior and mind-sets visible today in the Bush "dynasty." Phillips argues dynasty heirs have usually surrounded themselves with their father's skilled counselors. Bush, of course, has Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. Restored monarchs historically assert "new assumptions of authority in war making," as Bush has done with the doctrine of preemption that allowed him to press ahead with the invasion of Iraq. Most interesting of all, perhaps, dynasties are known for "forgetting no slight and savoring revenge." That analogy can be made, the author argues, in the steady elimination of old Bush political foes, from Jim Hightower and Ann Richards in Texas right up to Saddam Hussein. Yet Phillips notes that restorations often end badly, with a popular backlash against the heir. Will his theory hold in 2004?
If this all sounds sweeping and a tad conspiratorial, it is. The richness lies in Phillips' style -- an odd mix that's reminiscent of the annals of ancient Roman historians imbued with the perspective of an angry small businessman with no political ideology save the preservation of American meritocracy. In the introduction, Phillips concedes that the early 21st century may well be remembered as a time of dueling political dynasties, particularly if Hillary Clinton runs for President in 2008. In the meantime, love them or despise them, you'll never think about the Bushes in quite the same way again.
By Douglas Harbrecht