The Right Nation
Conservative Power in America
"The best political book in years." George Will
How, in a relatively short time, did America veer so far to the right as to become incomprehensible to Europe, as it would no doubt be to Richard Nixon? And why is it likely to remain so no matter who occupies the Oval Office? Like latter-day de Tocquevilles, English journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge explain this new America, and the conservative movement that shaped it, with a freshness and clarity that elude most native observers. The Right Nation is an indispensable guide to the mystery of American difference that will illuminate readers on both the right and left.
Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of English politics in the age of George III, once remarked that "English history, and especially English parliamentary history, is made by families rather than individuals." The same could be said of American political history, especially in the age of George I and George II. There is no better introduction to the radical transformation of Republicanism in the past generation-from patrician to populist, from Northeastern to Southwestern, from pragmatic to ideological-than the radical transformation of Republicanism's current leading family, the Bushes.
The Bushes began political life as classic establishment Republicans: WASPs who summered in Kennebunkport, educated their children at boarding schools and the Ivy League and claimed family ties to the British royal family (Queen Elizabeth II is the thirteenth cousin of the first President Bush). George W.'s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel P. Bush, was a steel and railroad executive who became the first president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a founding member of the United States Chamber of Commerce. His maternal great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was even grander. The cofounder of W. A. Harriman, Wall Street's oldest private investment bank, Walker's stature was summed up by his twin Manhattan addresses: his office at One Wall Street and his home at One Sutton Place. There was certainly muck beneath this brass: both Walker and Bush had their share of Wall Street shenanigans and cozy government deals, but in the age of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan such things were expected.
The first family member to hold high political office was George W.'s grandfather, Prescott Bush. Prescott was the very image of a patrician: immensely tall, a gifted athlete and a stickler for proper behavior. Exactly the sort of chap you might expect to find in the marbled corridors of the Senate. At Yale, he excelled at golf, tennis and baseball, sang with the All-Time Whiffenpoof Quartet and joined the college's most exclusive secret society, the Skull and Bones. He married Walker's daughter, Dorothy in 1921, and five years later joined W. A. Harriman, which in the next decade merged into Brown Brothers Harriman.
Prescott belonged firmly to the progressive wing of the GOP: liberal on domestic policies and internationalist on foreign affairs. He even sent his son George to Andover rather than his own school, St. George's, because he thought it was more modern. His liberalism cost him his first bid for a Senate seat in 1950. During the election campaign a radio broadcaster described him as "the president of the birth-control league." This was a particularly incendiary accusation in Connecticut, which was then one of two states in the country that outlawed the sale of condoms. It also contained a grain of truth: Prescott was a member of Planned Parenthood and a friend of Estelle Griswold, the woman whose legal challenge to the state's ban on contraception later persuaded the Supreme Court to enshrine the right of sexual privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and thus laid the foundation for Roe v. Wade. Anti-Bush leaflets appeared on every pew in every Catholic church in the state and Prescott was narrowly defeated.
Prescott eventually made it to the Senate in a special election in 1952 caused by the death of the sitting senator, and stood true to his brand of moderate Republicanism for two terms. He cosponsored the bill that created the Peace Corps and strongly supported civil rights, a higher minimum wage and larger immigration quotas. "Bush Says Tax Burden May Have to Be Bigger," reads one delightful newspaper headline from his Senate years. Prescott beseeched his fellow senators to "have the courage to raise the required revenues by approving whatever levels of taxation may be necessary" to pay the nation's bills for defense, science and education. Shortly after ill health forced Prescott to retire in 1962, he received an honorary law degree from his alma mater, Yale, alongside the young President Kennedy The citation read: "You have served your country well and personified the best in both political parties." For Prescott, partisanship was a dirty word.
The best linksman on the Hill, he frequently played golf with Eisenhower. A firm believer that "manners makyth man," he once took Joseph McCarthy to one side and lectured him for more than an hour on his boorish behavior. His hostility to the radical Right was as much aesthetic as intellectual. When McCarthy came to Connecticut to address a Republican meeting, Prescott recoiled at the rowdy crowd: "I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting I ever attended." At home he was such a stickler for standards that friends called him the "Ten Commandments Man."
He insisted that his four sons and many grandsons wear jackets and ties at dinner, even at their summer home in Kennebunkport, and that none of them leave the house on Sunday. Relaxation was of a bracing kind-either hunting or playing sports with alarming enthusiasm. This was to prove a permanent trait, but much else was to change.
George H. W. and the move to Texas
Prescott's son, George Herbert Walker Bush, could easily have followed him into his world of East Coast privilege. He was educated at Andover and Yale, where he outstripped even his father, proving that he possessed a superabundance of character, athleticism and leadership. He married the eligible Barbara Pierce and was showered with offers of jobs on Wall Street when he graduated. A lifetime of lunches in the Partners' Room of Brown Brothers Harriman, with its deep maroon carpeting and dark wood paneling, was his for the asking.
Yet the young George H. W. was made of sterner stuff. He had joined the navy straight out of school, and had been shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and rescued by an American submarine, making him perhaps the country's youngest war hero. He wanted to make his career on the new American frontier. The day after he graduated from Yale in 1948 George climbed into his red Studebaker and drove to Odessa, West Texas, to take a job with Dresser Industries, which supplied parts for the state's booming oil industry.
Bush was not exactly turning his back on his powerful family. Prescott Bush sat on the board of Dresser Industries, and warmly recommended his son for a job. Prescott had even given George his new car. All the same, Odessa was a godforsaken town-a scattering of oil jacks and tin-roofed warehouses in the middle of the vast West Texan wilderness. In gracious New Haven George had lived next door to the president of Yale University; in Odessa he and Barbara lived in a shotgun house next door to two prostitutes (a mother-daughter team, no less). But, ugly as it might be, the town was booming. Odessa and its sister city, Midland, sat on top of the largest concentration of oil ever found in the continental United States. The wildcatters and roughnecks who arrived there every day were willing to endure anything-the tornadoes and sandstorms, the distance from civilization, the endless tedium, living in tent cities and chicken coops-in order to make themselves rich.
The Bushes soon moved from Odessa to Midland, a white-collar town twenty miles down the highway. They were not the only patrician family to seek their fortune in Midland. The town soon boasted Ivy League clubs and posh cocktail parties, and the hyperactive Bushes inevitably became pillars of the local establishment. But for all that, Midland was still an entrepreneurial frontier town. Its population tripled during the 1950s. Yalies and roughnecks worked side by side to carve a living out of the desert. George W. remembers an idyllic existence playing on unpaved streets. By the time the Bushes left for Houston in 1959, George H. W. had made his fortune-and was ready to turn to politics.
At the time, Republicanism was a minority creed in Texas. This, after all, was the state of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, a Democratic stronghold since the Civil War and a place where Republicans were Yankee pirates. "I will never vote for the electors of a party which sent the carpetbagger and the scalawag to the prostrate South with saber and sword to crush the white civilization to the earth," Rayburn, the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once explained. At the turn of the century, O. Henry, then a Texas newspaperman, wrote that "We have only two or three laws, such as against murdering witnesses and being caught stealing horses, and voting the Republican ticket." Up until the late 1950s, the only real politics in Texas revolved around Democratic primaries.
Yet if Texas was Democratic, it was also deeply conservative. The state is littered with monuments to the Confederate cause, such as a huge statue of Jefferson Davis in the grounds of the University of Texas's Austin campus and another edifice outside the State Capitol unapologetically lauding "those who died for states rights under the Constitution." Michael Lind, a Texas-born author, labels Texas a Herrenvolk, or master-race democracy, where, as he puts it, "the ethnic majority controls the government and uses it to repress ethnic, racial and religious minorities." During the brief period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, some blacks actually held office in the legislature and there was even a Republican speaker. Once the federal troops left in 1876, white Democrats "reclaimed" the state, setting up a minimalist constitution (the legislature meets only once every two years) and repressing blacks. Waco was a breeding ground for the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century.
There were other things to remind George H. W. that he was no longer in Connecticut. Texans were suspicious of Yankee banks and manufacturing. As one historian, T. R. Fehrenbach, puts it, "the majority of Texans tended to admire or envy a family that owned 100,000 acres more than one that produced two great surgeons, a fine musician or a new theory of relativity" By 1950, landowners were raking in $500 million a year in oil royalties. Most of the Texan ruling class had the mentality of plantation owners: resources, including oil rights, were there to be extracted, immigrant labor was there to be used, power was there to be maintained, money was nothing to be ashamed of and liberalism was to be crushed.
From this perspective, George H. W.'s timing was propitious. True, his first notable foray into politics was to lose a hotly contested Senate seat to Ralph Yarborough in 1964, but he went on to win a seat in the House of Representatives in 1966. More broadly, his timing coincided with the beginnings of a tumultuous change in Texas politics-a revolution that began while Kennedy was in the White House and was only completed in 2003 when the Republicans finally took control of the statehouse. The first chink of light shone in 1961, when a squabble between Democratic liberals and conservatives for Lyndon Johnson's vacant Senate seat allowed John Tower to become the state's first Republican senator since Reconstruction. Although Texans loyally voted for Johnson in 1964, Barry Goldwater's message plainly struck a chord with local conservatives.
This switch to the Republicans lasted decades rather than years. In 1964, Democrats had controlled all 31 seats in the state Senate, and all but one in the 150-Strong House. In 1968, the Republicans could count only two state senators and eight members of the House. One of the eight, a twenty-five-year-old from Midland named Tom Craddick, who had been offered the seat by both parties, boldly told a Midland newspaper that the Republicans were the party of the future. In fact, it would take him a decade to win any power in the House (he was eventually given the chairmanship of a committee). Many white Texans chose to stick with conservative Democrats rather than switch parties.
All the same, Craddick gradually won his bet. In many cases, the catalyst was race. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote in Texas since Johnson's civil rights act. The burgeoning counterculture and the antiwar protests also alienated white conservatives. (Texas, militaristic as ever, contributed a disproportionate number of troops to Southeast Asia.) Demography was also on the GOP's side. The Democrats' power base was in the old Texas of agriculture and benevolent government, but tenant farmers were being squeezed out by the big estates: between 1930 and 1957, the number of tenants was halved while the average size of farms doubled. Meanwhile, in the new suburbs and corporate office parks, the Republican message of less government, lower taxes and strong families resounded with the new arrivals (at the height of the 1950s oil boom, more than a thousand people moved to Houston every week).
If the GOP changed Texas politics, Texas also changed the GOP-and the Bush family along with it. Texan Republicanism was very different from Prescott's country club creed: more antigovernment, more populist, more marinated in religion. Prescott had thought that McCarthy had no manners; a group of Texas conservatives sent McCarthy a Cadillac as a wedding present. The question, still debated among Republicans to this day, is: How far did George H. W. embrace this new, brasher creed?
George H. W. has always had a reputation of being "somewhat to the center of center." Many Texans mistook his East Coast politeness for wimpishness, dismissing him as a "clean-fingernails Republican" or, worse, "the sort of man who steps out of the shower to take a piss," as one of our colleagues was once told. In 1966, Yarborough derided him as a patrician Yankee, asking the oilmen in East Texas whether they were ready to vote for "a carpetbagger from Connecticut who is drilling oil for the Sheik of Kuwait." When George eventually got himself elected to Congress, he made a name as a moderate on cultural issues. Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, even nicknamed him "Rubbers" because of his enthusiasm for family planning.
George H. W. climbed the Republican ladder by taking on the sort of institutional jobs that would have delighted his father-ambassador to the United Nations, party chairman, envoy to China and director of the CIA. In 1980, when he ran for president, he condemned Ronald Reagan's "supply-side" ideas as "voodoo economics"-and he was offered the vice presidency partly as a sop to what remained of the East Coast wing of the party. Despite eight years of loyal service to the Gipper, many conservatives only supported Bush's run for the presidency in 1988 on Reagan's say-so.A kind of anthropology of the conservative movement, from 1952 to today. (The Wall Street Journal)
The best political book in years. (George F. Will, The Washington Post)
The writing is consistently crisp and intelligent, the conclusions balanced…. a work of penetrating insight. (The New York Times)
The Right Nation is smart, witty, and a pleasure to read. (Business Week)
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