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DYNASTIES! | The Nation

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DYNASTIES!

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In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that "the transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people," but politics became friendlier to wealth in the 1960s and '70s, and positively effusive in its courtship during the 1980s and '90s. Over the past two decades, the same soaring costs of seeking office that drove middle-class office-seekers to sell their souls to big contributors also made dynastic heirs appealing to political parties that were looking for self-funding nominees or those whose famous names gave them a built-in fundraising edge. Two billionaires, Ross Perot and Donald Trump, actually sought the presidency or talked about it during the 1990s.

About the Author

Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips has been an author and commentator for four decades.

Also by the Author

When it comes to mixing God and government, conservatives differ greatly from the rest of the electorate.

The infusion of religion into American politics has become the GOP's
Achilles' heel, turning the Republican Party of Lincoln into the party
of theocracy.

The number of US senators with serious multimillion-dollar fortunes, in the meantime, has begun to approach the high set back in the early 1900s, when senators were appointed by state legislatures to whom money spoke easily and powerfully. This ended in 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution provided for popular election of senators, although the submergence of politics in today's money culture has accomplished somewhat the same thing, despite popular election.

As for Presidents, nineteenth- and twentieth-century White House service was not much of a pathway to getting rich. Most had government pensions and some other income, but few who didn't come to Washington rich left that way unless they inherited. What seems to have happened over the past twenty years, however, is that several Presidents--George H.W. Bush and the Hamptons-craving Bill Clinton--have decided to swim with the money culture. While Clinton was governor of Arkansas, wife Hillary held a number of corporate directorships. Now Clinton's post-White House speechmaking and deal-seeking looks perfectly normal in an ethically loose sort of way.

The first Bush Administration probably represents the critical transition, both in the grabby behavior of family members and in the gravitation of top officeholders toward political investment banking, scarcely camouflaged lobbying and defense contract involvement. These practices, indeed, were vaguely reminiscent of the Whig grandees who ruled eighteenth-century England under the first George I and the first George II. One even gets the sense that the Bushes and their entourage came to see this kind of profiteering as their due, much like the families and associates of Walpole, Pelham and Newcastle.

George H.W. Bush's father and grandfather, investment bankers at old white-shoe firms, both had high reputations, but erosion soon set in. Even as the senior Bush was seeking a second term in 1992, the newspapers buzzed with the financial and deal-making escapades of his brothers and sons.

The most interesting Bush family involvement is with Enron. Over the twentieth-century emergence of modern government ethics, no presidential family has had a parallel relationship. As a senator, Lyndon Johnson buddied with Texas companies like Brown & Root, but its fingerprints on his presidency weren't all that notable. Georgia's Jimmy Carter was close to his home-state corporate giant, Coca-Cola, and Richard Nixon brought the Pepsi-Cola account to his law firm during the 1960s.

Episode by episode, none of the Bushes' Enron involvement seems to be illegal. Before 2000-01, moreover, the ties weren't overwhelming in any one national administration. However, the only way that a chronicler can seriously weigh the Enron-Bush tie is by a yardstick the American press has never really employed: the unseemliness of a sixteen- or seventeen-year interaction by the members of an American political dynasty in promoting and being rewarded by a single US corporation based in its home state.

Enron was organized in 1985, and within a year or two, Vice President Bush was chairing the Reagan Administration's energy deregulation task force and his son George W., through one of his succession of minor energy companies, had an oil-well deal with Enron Oil & Gas. The first Bush Administration saw passage of the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which obliged utility companies to transmit energy shipped by Enron and other marketers, while the Bush-appointed Commodity Futures Trading Commission created a legal exemption allowing Enron to begin trading energy derivatives. Enron chief Ken Lay, one of Bush Senior's top election contributors, was made chair of the President's Export Council.

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