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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, April 4th, 2004


 

American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush

by Kevin Phillips

George W. and the Bushes

A review by Robert R. Sullivan

Kevin Phillips is best known for one book, The Emergent Republican Majority (1968). There he argued that a growing antipathy to liberal values in the American South would translate into a decisive Republican advantage in presidential elections. And so it has, conferring on the prescient Phillips an aura of fame for having predicted a crucial factor in changing American political culture.

American Dynasty is Phillips's latest attempt to write a book that will match his first. His dynastic theme is plausible enough. Three generations of Bushes have produced three significant political leaders — Prescott Bush (Senator for Connecticut from 1952 to 1962), George H. W. Bush, the forty-first President of the United States, and his son George W. Bush, the current incumbent at the White House. Phillips sees in this half-century of generational succession a developing family appetite for dynasty.

Fortunately, he constructs his book only partly around this claim. For the most part he is preoccupied with the history of the Bush family, especially over its last three generations. His account does not necessarily add up to a case for the dynastic pretensions of the Bushes, but that aside, Phillips's various reconstructions, including long background digressions, make for interesting reading. He emphasizes, for example, how similar the three Bush patriarchs are. All attended New England prep schools, were admitted to Yale University, were there made members of the Skull & Bones (Yale's most powerful club) and were determined if middling athletes. The Bushes have also all been active and churchgoing Christians. It sounds like a formula for a class of imperial leaders conceived by Thomas Arnold, and arguably it is just that.

Prescott Bush became a Wall Street investment banker in the 1920s. Like many others on the Street, he recognized that the best opportunities were in financing German debt and rearmament. He thrived in the New York social scene and in the company on the clubby train that every evening took him back up to Greenwich, Connecticut. After the Second World War, Prescott Bush went into Republican politics and had a ten-year career in the Senate. He was Eisenhower's favourite golfing partner and befriended Richard Nixon, a connection that would later benefit his son.

George H. W. Bush broke with Prescott's cosy Wall Street pattern by moving to Texas and working for Dresser Industries, a supplier of equipment to oil companies. Only a phone call separated the son from the father's friends on Wall Street, though, and the son used his telephone a great deal. In other words, George H. W. Bush was scouting investment opportunities for the friends of Prescott Bush, and those friends repaid both Bushes handsomely. After a mixed experience in electoral politics, George H. W. Bush found a haven in the Nixon administration. Nixon put Prescott's son on the political equivalent of welfare by giving him various executive appointments, among which were ambassador to the UN and Director of the CIA. With an impressive CV (as long as one didn't look too closely), George Herbert Walker Bush made a run for the presidency in 1980. He lost, but was given the consolation prize of the vice-presidency on a ticket led by Ronald Reagan. The rest is well known.

Then follows the third Bush, affectionately known as "W" (or "Dubya"). Bush III remained in the place of his birth and disavowed his East Coast origins to become a real Texan — meaning a tough-talking, tobacco-chewing, whisky-drinking sort of fella. The drinking would have to go, but as compensation Dubya became a born-again Christian, brought into the fold by none other than Billy Graham. From his father's connections to fundamentalist Christians, George W. Bush learned what made such folks happy and how significant their numbers were becoming, especially in Texas. In other words, W learned the lesson of Kevin Phillips's first book, probably without having read it.

Nowhere does Phillips better illustrate the significance of W's move to fundamentalist Christianity than in recounting the different social philosophies of the two Bush Presidents. George H. W. Bush's repeated insistence on levelling the playing field was a perfect illustration of his Arnoldian sense of fairness. For Bush the younger, individual initiative explains and cures all: the wealthy have money because they took and continue to take initiatives. The poor are broke because they don't. George junior's social religion is rooted in his personal experience of mastering alcoholism. A Calvinist Christianity provided him with the formula, and to an extent it has become a universal for him.

Still, a personalized Protestant religiosity does not explain everything. Staying at the top entails making the right moves, and the Bush family made its best strategic move after the Second World War, when it shifted its focus from armaments and Germany to Texas (which, as Phillips notes, is more similar to Saudi Arabia than Connecticut) and the Middle East. The rationale for the shift was oil, and on this account the Bushes were right. There is a similar emphasis on the Bush family penchant for secret societies, ranging from the Skull & Bones to the CIA. It seems to carry over to the secretive business habits of Texas companies such as Enron and Halliburton, with which the Bushes have been closely associated. The emphasis on individual initiative, oil and secretiveness explains much that is problematic about Bush's foreign policy as well; above all the determination to deal with Iraq, and deal with it alone if need be. That near-unilateralism has had the effect of isolating the United States.

Does all of this add up to a sound case for a dynasty? Unfortunately not. Similar cases could be constructed for the Kennedys, the Gores and, if one counts in-law relations, for the Clintons and the Doles. The Bushes are simply a more emphatic example of the widespread tendency of a political class to reproduce itself. More damagingly, in the sections of his book on Enron, Texas machismo, Halliburton, and the connections between secret societies at Andover, Yale and the CIA, Kevin Phillips tries to establish a kind of guilt by association and often comes perilously close to diatribe.



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