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.”
Of the old-school financiers, Phillips says that they “also diverted–one should not think they deserted–to Midland, the Ivy League beachhead in a boom-flushed state where the larger oil and oil service firms still had major ownership ties to Wall Street and the East.” Midland was one of the two main towns (along with Odessa) in the Permian Basin, which, Phillips writes, “represented one of the century’s great American wealth opportunities, which nobody knew better than the New York capitalists.” (In a footnote, Phillips points out that by the year 2000 Alaska was the only state to produce more oil and gas than the Permian Basin.) This is where the “entrepreneurial” Bushes planted themselves. Phillips points out the nexus between oil profits and tax shelters, on which the industry is heavily dependent for profits, and asserts that investment bankers kept bailing out Bush fils. And Bush père‘s brothers and sons–all but George W.–went into the investment business. As for George W.’s business career, Phillips writes, it “was spent primarily in obtaining new financing or lining up rescuers for his unsuccessful oil and gas ventures,” and he quotes one wag as observing that every time George W. “drilled a dry hole…someone always filled it up with money for him.” At Yale, Phillips notes, Bush the son wanted to be a stockbroker who amassed great wealth. He didn’t become a stockbroker, but he did amass great wealth.
An important key to the Bush dynasty’s political power, in Phillips’s view, lies in the family’s connections to the CIA. He goes so far as to assert that the CIA put George H.W. (the agency’s former director) and his son in power. It’s true that CIA employees and alumni backed George H.W.’s presidential ambitions, but I think Phillips goes too far in saying that they actually placed him–or his son–in office. Phillips’s conspiracy theories about the CIA suggest that the agency’s connection with the Bush family began with Prescott Bush, a handsome, undistinguished senator from Connecticut. (Phillips also states that Prescott was the first family member to harbor presidential ambitions.)
In making his case about the enormous power of the CIA, earlier and now, Phillips exaggerates its current power. Under George W. Bush, the CIA has become a weak cog in the Administration’s foreign policy machinery. True, Bush appears to like (or at least he used to) CIA Director George Tenet–a smart, wily and entertaining man who has cultivated George W., even naming the CIA building after the President’s father. (George W., for his part, tried to cultivate Edward Kennedy by, among other things, naming the Justice Department building after Robert F. Kennedy. The Kennedy courtship succeeded in getting Kennedy to back the No Child Left Behind education bill of 2001, a vote he later came to regret.) Tenet does see Bush nearly every day for the President’s morning intelligence briefing and is in many meetings with Bush and/or his top foreign policy advisers. As the late George Ball, Under Secretary of State in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and an opponent of the Vietnam War, once said, “Nothing propinques like propinquity.”
But the CIA has been severely weakened by the current Bush Administration. After all, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence unit to give him information about Iraq that would help build the case for war. The CIA’s warnings that Iraq had not made as much progress on acquiring nuclear weapons as the Administration claimed, and that Iraq had no significant ties to Al Qaeda, another Administration justification for war, were ignored. Moreover, Tenet was assigned, and accepted, the blame for Bush’s mistaken assertion in his 2002 State of the Union address that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”–though he was only partly at fault. The White House insists that Tenet didn’t read the drafts of that speech, though apparently one of his underlings did, and negotiated with the President’s aides the wording the President used. The true origin of that line is among the many mysteries of the Bush Administration.
Then there was the Administration’s meanspirited and perhaps criminal blowing of the cover of CIA agent Valerie Plame after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly disputed the Administration’s claim that Saddam tried to import yellowcake from Niger. As it happens, Dick Cheney had been going to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia–a most unusual act for a Vice President–and reportedly leaning on officials to, among other things, validate the yellowcake assertion. The blowing of Plame’s cover, of course, also gravely damaged the CIA. These particular events may have occurred after Phillips drafted his book, but other incidents that point to the CIA’s current weakness had indeed occurred in time for Phillips to take note of them.
As for George W. Bush’s brutal approach to politics, Phillips’s recounting of the Bush campaign in 2000 oddly fails to mention the ugly smear effort it waged against John McCain in South Carolina. Phillips does write tellingly of Al Gore’s egregious miscalculations in Florida in 2000. That both Gore and Bush ended up needing Florida so badly is a reflection of the fact that both ran bad campaigns, and both made big mistakes. That Gore got a majority of the popular vote is irrelevant, and he must know that, even if he can’t admit it.
Of course, the Bush campaign, ably aided by former Secretary of State James Baker and the Supreme Court, did pull off a coup d’état in Florida. Moreover, Bush’s 2000 campaign was one of the most deceptive in American history. (It far surpassed FDR’s 1932 promise to balance the budget.) Bush managed to fool enough people–and most journalists–into thinking he would govern as a moderate or “compassionate” conservative. (After the nomination was in hand, he posed with little black children, much as Richard Nixon posed with his friend Sammy Davis Jr.)
One of the great values of Phillips’s book is the light it sheds on the current Administration’s policies–its radical anti-environmental, pro-energy-company, pro-business policies. Much of this has been attributed to Dick Cheney and his Halliburton connection, but Bush himself has had a large–perhaps the dominating–hand in these policies. In his 2000 presidential campaign Bush shed precious little light on his intentions in these policy areas. So in this respect, as well as on the war in Iraq, the American people were lied to.
Again pulling back the curtain on the policies of the George W. Bush Administration, Phillips maintains that the “implicit model followed during both Bush presidencies” was “investment-driven [emphasis in original].” Thus the tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy, the cut in the capital gains tax, low interest rates (the Fed, as other writers have demonstrated, is not as independent as legend would have it) and high levels of federal debt (acceptable, Phillips argues, if accompanied by investment in the United States). Though Phillips doesn’t mention them, this investment orientation would also apply to Bush’s proposals to privatize Social Security and his countenancing of the drying up of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. It has been commonly thought that the purpose of these policies was simply to shrink the size of the federal government–which was succeeding until Bush, recently and to the outrage of his allies on the right, initiated some re-election-driven spending. He and his political henchman, Karl Rove, stop at little to win. George W. Bush’s ruthlessness has been masked by his ostensible amiability. But that’s yet another trick pulled on the American public.
As Phillips points out, the son takes after his father in this respect as well. The seemingly nice, humane George H.W. Bush allowed some fairly brutal political tactics–such as the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, which played upon racist fears of black men and suggested that the hapless but decent Dukakis was soft on crime. The father had his “kinder and gentler” government and the son has “compassionate conservatism”–both of which have proved to be phony.
And both men (as well as Barbara Bush) are world-class resenters. They manage to hold grudges for years. Father, mother and son reportedly continue to resent James Baker for resisting (understandably) for a while Bush père‘s plea that he give up his job as Secretary of State in order to run George H.W. Bush’s race for re-election in 1992. That George W. has called on Baker for a couple of odd jobs signaled that he felt them to be crises. Bush the son and Rove also continue to resent–“hate” isn’t too strong a word–John McCain for running against Bush in 2000 and remaining independent of him after that.
On foreign policy, on the other hand, father and son differ greatly on the importance of allies and of the United Nations (where George H.W. Bush once served as ambassador), and this is reliably said to distress Bush the father. Though the son has tried to repair relations with some European leaders–albeit not the French–and some European leaders have, because of their need for US economic and military strength, reciprocated, the damage was severe. And both father and son, of course, wanted to eliminate Saddam Hussein. The son memorably said, “This is a guy that tried to kill my dad.” Though before, during and after the second Iraq war many people dismissed as delusionary the argument of numerous opponents, in the United States and abroad, that the effort to overthrow Saddam was, like the first Gulf War, about oil, Phillips makes a strong case that it was among the leading reasons for going to war.
Father and son have also disagreed on how to deal with Saudi Arabia. The father treated it as a place where he could do business (this is still the case, through his involvement with the Carlyle Group, a somewhat mysterious investment company in Washington), and he had close ties to leading members of the Saudi royal family. The son sees the Saudi government as out of touch and ripe for an overthrow. This may be in part a matter of the relative historical contexts of the two men’s presidencies, and also their generational differences. But it’s also a sign of the influence–or perhaps reinforcement–on the son by a small nucleus of neoconservatives in the Pentagon as well as of his more radical temperament.
As Phillips puts it, many observers mistakenly think that George W. Bush’s policies are simply “the product of upper-class bias.” In fact, George W. Bush is more radical than Ronald Reagan, and compared with George W., Richard Nixon, Phillips’s original mentor, was a far-out liberal. Nixon’s domestic policies were indeed moderate for his times; only Nelson Rockefeller and his lonely band of soulmates stood to Nixon’s left. And now Phillips is on Nixon’s left–and George W. Bush is far to his right.
So Kevin Phillips’s personal journey resembles America’s political journey–from the moderate Nixon to the radical George W. Bush, though at least half the country would disagree with, on the one hand, his earlier affection for Nixon or, on the other, his current populism. That Phillips has ventured where others–a very few others–have taken only a small step, or not even put a foot forward, is a great credit to him, and a commentary on the rest of us.