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AMERICAN DYNAST: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Pol. of Deceit in the House of Bush


TRIBE Member
The Ruling Class
A family saga of secrecy, oil money and privilege.
Review by Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 11, 2004; Page T01


Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush

By Kevin Phillips

Viking. 397 pp. $25.95

In this angry, devastating examination of "the House of Bush," Kevin Phillips asks the question that seems to have occurred to no one else: How did these people get so entitled? How is it that a family in no way distinguished by genuine accomplishment, moral and/or political conviction or exceptional intelligence has managed to lay claim as a matter of right to the American presidency, and how is it -- this is the real puzzler -- that the American people seem to have acquiesced in this presumption? How did we manage to put ourselves in the hands of a family that clearly believes it has dynastic stature, with all the privileges and entitlements attendant thereto, and behaves accordingly?

Phillips, an experienced political strategist and former White House aide, is correct to say that what he calls the Bush "restoration" -- the election to the White House in 2000 of George W. Bush, only eight years after the public's emphatic repudiation of his father, George H.W. Bush -- is unprecedented in American history. The two Adams presidents were elected a quarter-century apart and represented different parties, the two Roosevelts were separated by two decades and came from different branches of the family, and any Kennedy dynastic aspirations were thwarted by bizarre twists of fate. Yet even though the first Bush presidency was by any reasonable standard a failure, the inner leadership of the Republican Party felt so beholden to the first George Bush that it anointed his callow son and namesake almost upon the moment he won the governorship of Texas and, hand in glove with the big-money interests to which the Bushes have always cozied up, effectively closed the 2000 nominating process to anyone else.

The Bushes were fortunate, Phillips readily acknowledges, in having an interregnum presided over by Bill Clinton, who corrupted the presidency almost beyond imagination and thus made the public inordinately receptive to the fundamentalist moralizing in which George W. specializes. Phillips also acknowledges that the present Bush presidency may well be an illegitimate one, given the half-million-vote plurality won by Al Gore in 2000 and the exceedingly suspect Supreme Court ruling that put George W. in the White House. If this is indeed a dynasty -- or, perhaps more accurately, a family with dynastic pretensions -- then it certainly looks as much like an accidental one as like one created by public demand.

Any number of things could turn the "Bush dynasty" into yesterday's news -- continued frustration in Iraq and the much-ballyhooed "War on Terrorism," continued economic stagnation, increased popular resentment over the appalling chasm between the super-rich few and the struggling many, more evidence of corruption among the Bush family's business cronies, not to mention events and/or catastrophes as yet unseen -- and it is regrettable that Phillips does not confront this more directly. We don't have an appointive presidency, and we don't have a royal succession, at least not yet. The American people are not nearly so stupid as the Bushes and their retinue obviously believe them to be, and they haven't delivered their final verdict.

So Phillips's study is valuable less for what it says about the altered American political landscape (though much of what it says about that is astute) than for what it says about the Bushes themselves. Tracing the family lineage through four generations -- beginning with the president's great-grandfathers, George Herbert Walker and Samuel Prescott Bush, moving along to his grandfather, Prescott Bush, then to his father and himself -- Phillips paints a portrait that can only be deeply disturbing to anyone concerned about how power is now gained and maintained in this country.

Apart from the differences already mentioned between the Bushes and the Adamses, Roosevelts and Kennedys, one stands apart from and above all others: The Bushes have nothing to commend them to the public save rank ambition. Other than accumulating a certain amount of money and achieving a measure of what passes for aristocratic social position in this country, the Bushes have achieved nothing of distinction and appear to believe in nothing except their own interests. "Duty and public service do make cameo appearances in the Bush saga," Phillips writes, "fulfilling the stern instructions on those New England [prep] school walls. However, so do vanity, ambition and pretentiousness." What Phillips mainly detects in the family's history is "consistent ambition, rarely ameliorated by a particular cause or issues agenda, [that] is hard to reconcile with the New England school mottoes of duty, public service, and noblesse oblige."

The Bushes seem to have come away from all those years of privileged schooling with two things: "a state of permanent adolescence" -- viz., the fondness of both Bush presidents for "pranks, initiations, oaths of secrecy, inner sanctums and other rites of loyalty far into middle age" -- and a "penchant for secrecy and apparent elimination of records and documents." This last was learned on the campus of Yale and in the hallowed chambers of Skull and Bones, that incubator of preppy silliness, clubbiness and secrecy. Yale and Skull and Bones were primary breeding grounds for the OSS, the spy agency of World War II, and the CIA that supplanted it, and Phillips correctly argues that the Skull and Bones world view is essential both to the Bush psyche and to the family's history in public life, from George H.Walker right through to George W.

"Over the years," Phillips writes, the family has had an intimate involvement "with the mainstays of the twentieth-century American national security state: finance, oil and energy, the federal government, the so-called military industrial complex, and the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the rest of the intelligence community." Every effort is made to avoid accountability. The Bush culture is one in which public action is decided in private and conducted with as much secrecy as possible, with no real consultation with the public and as little as possible with its representatives on Capitol Hill: "to script arms sales, launch missile strikes, and order invasions from Panama to the Persian Gulf." As Phillips writes:

"It is an extraordinary record. If there are other families who have more fully epitomized and risen alongside the hundred-year emergence of the U.S. military-industrial complex, the post-1945 national security state and the 21st-century imperium, no one has identified them. Certainly no other established a presidential dynasty."

The Bushes have always depended upon the kindness of others. Phillips's description of the young George H.W. Bush makes the point nicely: "lithe, athletic, handsome, personable, and ambitious -- always seeking friends and striding purposefully toward the approval of authority figures able to bestow his next nomination or appointive office." Bushes are "deal-makers, rain-makers, or, in the most recent generations, influence brokers." They deal not in making things but in letting money make money. "Investment drove the economy" is what seems to be the closest they have to a familial conviction, "and what fueled investment was tax advantage." This is "primarily the product of upper-class bias rather than the expression of a coherent ideology." Having (somewhat uncharacteristically) a bit of fun, Phillips writes:

"All in all, if presidential family connections were theme parks, Bush World would be a sight to behold. Mideast banks tied to the CIA would crowd alongside Florida S&Ls that once laundered money for the Nicaraguan contras. Dozens of oil wells would run eternally without finding oil, thanks to periodic cash deposits by old men wearing Reagan-Bush buttons and smoking twenty-dollar cigars. Visitors to 'Prescott Bush's Tokyo' could try to make an investment deal without falling into the clutches of the yakuza or Japanese mob."

It is a gloomy, even frightening picture: "global oil ventures, national security, sophisticated investments, arms deals, the Skull and Bones chic of covert operations, and committed support of established business interests," now compounded by the "religious impulses and motivations" that the born-again George W. brings to the mix. It operates not in the free market its rhetoric prattles about, but in "crony capitalism" that gives every advantage to the cronies with enough capital to buy their way into the game. Crony capitalism has turned the funding of American elections into both a joke and a menace, and has made the public's business a matter of private interest.

That this powerful argument has been made by Kevin Phillips should be a measure of how seriously it should be taken. He is not an ideologue of the left -- to the contrary, he has been identified with the Republican Party for some three decades, though he now calls himself an independent -- and he is not a conspiracy theorist; indeed he makes plain at the outset that "we must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into . . . conspiracy theory." It is true that in some instances his argument rests on circumstantial evidence and in others (mostly involving the family's engagement with espionage and secret arrangements) on conjecture. It is also true that at times reading his dense prose can be an uphill battle. But American Dynasty is an important, troubling book that should be read everywhere with care, nowhere more so than in this city. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.
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