It’s hard to know which is more interesting: the latest book by Kevin Phillips or Phillips himself. A former Republican strategist–he was a special assistant to Attorney General John Mitchell during the Nixon Administration–Phillips famously argued in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) that Nixon’s 1968 victory prefigured a long-term Republican hold on the presidency. That Phillips turned out to be wrong–long-term theories about politics usually are–made his prognosis no less provocative at the time. And he had a lot of company: Numerous pundits and scholars wrote about the long-term Republican “lock” on the Electoral College.
Phillips, who went on to write ten more books, including a biography of William McKinley, has gradually evolved into a muckraking populist. In Arrogant Capital (1994) and Wealth and Democracy (2003), he blasted the economic and political elite and raged against the growing gap between rich and poor in America. Now Phillips has written an arresting and important book about the Bush family and how it obtained wealth and power, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. It’s an angry and fascinating book–though at times he stretches to make a point. And on a few matters he’s just plain wrong. Nevertheless, Phillips has woven facts we knew and ones we did not into an original tapestry, one well worth study. He goes where a largely dormant press has not.
His essential point is that the Bush and Walker families–as in George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush–became powerful and wealthy through connivance, connections and counterfeit. Or, as Phillips puts it, “deceit and disinformation.”
Who can forget “Poppy’s pork rinds,” which sat on President George H.W. Bush’s desk and on the large table in the Cabinet room? (Phillips writes in the introduction that “the elder Bush [George H.W.] turned me into a political independent.” He clearly finds aristocrats repellent.)
As Phillips points out, the Episcopalian, establishment Connecticut Yankee Bushes have transmogrified into wildcatting, fundamentalist Texans. Even the “wildcatting” is a fraud, Phillips argues: Midland, Texas, where Bush père settled after leaving Connecticut, is one of the wealthiest oases in the nation. George W. was eased into the oil business, as he was eased into all of his adult jobs–including, arguably, the presidency–through powerful, wealthy family friends, or “crony capitalism.” When his businesses failed, family friends bailed him out. The lucrative buyouts of his oil business and of his shares in the Texas Rangers baseball team were arranged by family connections.
As Phillips recounts, the family fortune was started by George W. Bush’s greatgrandfathers, the business entrepreneurs George Herbert Walker and Samuel Bush, both of whom were engaged in finance. Phillips finds several generational similarities among the Bushes. And he thinks, more than I do, that George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush look alike. In my observation, Bush the son resembles his mother–both in his facial structure and temperament. Both pass as easygoing and both are more than a little mean. Phillips quotes George W. as having said, “I have my daddy’s eyes and my mother’s mouth.”
Phillips argues that the Walker and Bush families, along with other wealthy investment bankers, profited mightily from the rearmament efforts after the end of the First World War and were prominent members of the “military-industrial complex,” about which Dwight Eisenhower warned at the end of his eight-year presidency, and which Phillips traces back to “the construction of a large steel-clad navy in the 1880s and 1890s” but really took shape during the First World War. (Phillips dedicates the book to Eisenhower and cites that particular excerpt from Eisenhower’s farewell address.) The two families, he writes, were involved with “the mainstays of the twentieth-century American national security state: finance, oil and energy, the federal government…and the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the rest of the intelligence community.” After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Phillips argues, “many who had cut their teeth during the 1917-18 mobilization were given much larger war-related responsibilities, cementing earlier elite credentials.” And before he entered the Senate, George H.W.’s father, Prescott Bush, was a prominent Wall Street investment banker. “No previous presidential family,” Phillips writes, “has been so wholeheartedly involved with a single economic sector over two generations, yet with so little scrutiny of the resulting narrowness of its public policy views.” Inevitably, Phillips spends considerable time on the subject of oil. “Both Bush chief executives,” he writes, “have been powerfully influenced and biased by their Texas milieu, especially in economic matters.”