Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush
The Bushes are the family nobody really knows, says Kevin Phillips. This popular lack of acquaintance—nurtured by gauzy imagery of Maine summer cottages, gray-haired national grandmothers, July Fourth sparklers, and cowboy boots—has let national politics create a dynasticized presidency that would have horrified America's founding fathers. They, after all, had led a revolution against a succession of royal Georges.
In this devastating book, onetime Republican strategist Phillips reveals how four generations of Bushes have ascended the ladder of national power since World War One, becoming entrenched within the American establishment—Yale, Wall Street, the Senate, the CIA, the vice presidency, and the presidency—through a recurrent flair for old-boy networking, national security involvement, and political deception. By uncovering relationships and connecting facts with new clarity, Phillips comes to a stunning conclusion: The Bush family has systematically used its financial and social empire—its "aristocracy"—to gain the White House, thereby subverting the very core of American democracy. In their ambition, the Bushes ultimately reinvented themselves with brilliant timing, twisting and turning from silver spoon Yankees to born-again evangelical Texans. As America—and the world—holds its breath for the 2004 presidential election, American Dynasty explains how it happened and what it all means.
Unfortunately, in examining two Bush presidencies and the family's four-generation pursuit of national prominence and power—and in doing so through a lens that highlighted elite associations, dynastic ambitions, and recurring financial and business practices—I found a greater basis for dismay and disillusionment than I had imagined. The result is an unusual and unflattering portrait of a great family (great in power, not morality) that has built a base over the course of the twentieth century in the back corridors of the new military-industrial complex and in close association with the growing intelligence and national security establishments. In doing so, the Bushes have threaded their way through damning political, banking, and armanents scandals and, since the 1980s, controversies like the October Surprise, Iran-Contra, and Iraqgate imbroglios, which in another climate or a different time might have led to impeachment.
I am not talking about ordinary lack of business ethics or financial corruption. During the late twentieth century, several other presidents and their families displayed these shortcomings, and the public has become understandably blasé. Four generations of building toward dynasty, however, have infused the Bush family's hunger for power and practices of crony capitalism with a moral arrogance and backstage disregard of the democratic and republican traditions of the U.S. government. As we will see, four generations of involvement with clandestine arms deals and European and Middle Eastern rogue banks will do that.
American Dynasty is on the one hand a book about economics, history, and politics in the era that covers the two Bush presidencies. But it is also a portrait of four Bush (and Walker) generations—their ambitions, financial practices, scandals, and wars. It brings into focus many circumstances and relationships that have not previously been examined together and seriously discussed, for reasons that are both unusual and unfortunate. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Bush clan in a sense flew under the radar of critical biography and investigation. The first two published biographies of George H. W. Bush— George Bush: A Biography (1980) by Nicholas King, a former Bush press secretary, and George Bush: An Intimate Portrait (1989) by Fitzhugh Green, a CIA-connected Bush social chum—were friendly treatments that had no room for warts. Neither did the 1991 Flight of the Avenger sequence of books lionizing his record in World War II. Unfortunately, this puffery managed to preempt more serious book-length exploration.
The first major objective study, Marching in Place (1992), by Time reporters Dan Goodgame and Michael Duffy, dwelt critically on his 1989-92 presidential record but came out too late to affect the political climate that defeated Bush in 1992, and it got little attention. George Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, published in 1992 by allies of Bush-hating Lyndon LaRouche, tended to submerge its massive, and often revelatory, research in snowdrifts of paranoia, and no serious readers or reviewers gave it much credence.
By 2000, naturally, biographies of the younger Bush, even critical ones, devoted little attention to anything other than his own career. Thus the first three generations of the family escaped multidimensional and skeptical scrutiny, save for a professional, but essentially friendly, biography by historian Herbert Parmet entitled George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee (1997). Now that the Bushes have become a presidential dynasty, for however long, they will command more probing attention, but the national interest would have been better served had that occurred in the 1970s.
Few have looked at the facts of the family's rise, but just as important, commentators have neglected the thread—not the mere occasion—of special interests, biases, scandals (especially those related to arms dealing), and blatant business cronyism. The evidence that accrues over four generations is extraordinarily damning. This is especially true of the Bushes' ties to the Wall Street financial world and the military-industrial complex.
But considering an additional relationship may explain even more. After four generations of connection to foreign intrigue and the intelligence community, plus three generations of immersion in the culture of secrecy (dating back to the Yale years of several men in the family), deceit and disinformation have become Bush political hallmarks. The Middle Eastern financial ties of both Bush presidents exemplify this lack of candor, as do the origins and machinations of both Bush wars with Iraq. Appendix B in this volume reviews the family's penchant for secrecy and for cleaning and locking up government records.
It doesn't help that the major media have tended to use kid gloves with the family. In 1999, longtime reporter Robert Sherrill, writing in the Texas Observer, contrasted this treatment of the Bushes with how when Richard Nixon's brother Donald—my poor, damn dumb brother, Nixon called him—used his name to pry a loan of $205,000 from billionaire Howard Hughes, the mainstream press raised a stink that lasted years. The Bushes have also benefited from the Democrats' apparent reluctance to investigate the connections, misdeeds, and malfeasances of a popular president such as George W. Bush. Others have made the point that if a Clinton-era special counsel was necessary for Whitewater, why not a Bush-era special counsel for Enron?
As a former longtime Republican who came of political age during the Nixon years, I take the point about double standards. My own distaste since the 1960s for what George H. W. Bush seemed to represent—a career built on support from a vague elite rather than merit or democratic selection—had a Republican genesis. It drew on views prominently, although not decisively, voiced within the GOP. Dwight D. Eisenhower had warned—in words quoted in this volume's opening pages—about the future threat that might come from the military-industrial complex. Richard Nixon's dislike of Bush's elitist economics leaped out in an endorsement Nixon made of my 1990 book, The Politics of Rich and Poor. Ronald Reagan had personal qualms about his running mate that some say he never lost. Fellow Texans John Connally and H. Ross Perot were both disdainful of Bush. John McCain kept this tradition alive in his 2000 view of the younger Bush.
Few prominent Republicans voiced similar qualms as the campaign for the election of 2004 began. Moreover, inasmuch as the elder Bush turned me into a political independent, I have to admit that I can no longer attribute my own unhappiness with the dynastic, economic, religious, and war politics of George W. Bush to my earlier Republican molding alone.
I must also acknowledge that the party of my youth and middle age has changed enormously. For fifteen years after I published The Emerging Republican Majority in 1969, I supported the GOP campaign argument that public policy had gone too far in trying to squeeze religion out of American life. Now the voter backlash against that early squeeze has so reversed the national discussion that the opposite threat is crystallizing: there is a Republican Party dangerously dominated by southern fundamentalist and evangelical constituencies, willing to blend biblical theology into U.S. Middle Eastern policy and attach faith healers to the advisory structure of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The research I did on politics and religion in writing chapter 7 was a revelation to me, as I hope it will be to readers.
That the Bushes have many qualities to commend them as a private family—community involvement, generosity to those who work for them—is not really the point. They are not a private family. They are a public family, and one that is writing a new definition of the presidency. They are bending public policy toward family grudges and interests. What matters is their policy and conduct in that emerging role. The further evidence, since 9/11, of the United States' becoming an embattled imperium, even showing faint specklings of garrison state thinking, only doubles the stakes.
True, the dynastic trend in the United States goes deeper than the Bushes. If Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2008, the failings and lingering grudges of her family's own would-be dynasty will be fair game. And thus we may learn—for better or worse—more about the transformation and perils of American politics. This book, however, is about the dynasty we already have and what it stands for. This is the direction in which national politics and national discussion must turn first.
Other institutional aspects of a family-based presidency warrant national attention. Dynasties tend to show continuities of policy and interest-group bias—in the case of the Bushes, favoritism toward the energy sector, defense industries, the Pentagon, and the CIA, as well as insistence on tax breaks for the investor class and upper-income groups. By inauguration day of 2001, Houston-based Enron had a relationship with the Bush clan going back a decade and a half. Families restored to power also have a history of seeking revenge against old foes as well as recalling longtime loyalists and retainers. George W. Bush's record has included retiring such taunters of his father as Texas governor Ann Richards (in 1994) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Bush helped to force him out after the 1998 elections) and appointing former officials dating back not just to his father's term but to the Ford administration of 1974-76, a virtual incubator of the Republican Party's Bush faction.
This dynasticism was hardly a phenomenon unique to the United States. In the first few years of the twenty-first century, the restoration of old European royal houses was discussed in Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy. As in the United States, the principals were political conservatives.
Another questionable aspect of dynastic control is the effect of biological inheritance. History is all too familiar with hereditary traits like the Hapsburg chin and the Tudor temper. Some pundits have queried whether heredity might likewise explain certain behaviors shared by the two Bush presidents—frenetic activity, scrambled speech, the hint of dyslexic arrangements of thought. Although the press has been reticent to pursue such matters, they do have a genuine relevance. Three, perhaps four, generations of Bushes have displayed great capacities for remembering names, faces, and statistics. Dallas News reporter Bill Minutaglio, a biographer of the younger Bush, discovered that George H. W. Bush went so far as to tell his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater to gather together the photographs of the Washington press corps so he could memorize all their names; the Bush men were always startlingly better than anyone else at memorizing names. At the same time, both father and son have shown little talent for conceptualization or abstraction. Is it a coincidence? Dynasty, with its subordination of individual achievement to gene pools and bloodlines, always involves a gamble on the nuances of heredity.
In the United States, as we will see, the twentieth-century rise of the Bush family was built on the five pillars of American global sway: the international reach of U.S. investment banking, the emerging giantism of the military-industrial complex, the ballooning of the CIA and kindred intelligence operations, the drive for U.S. control of global oil supplies, and a close alliance with Britain and the English-speaking community. This century of upward momentum brought a sequence of controversies, albeit ones that never gained critical mass—such as the exposure in 1942 of Prescott Bush's corporate directorship links to wartime Germany, which harked back to overambitious 1920s investment banking; the Bush family's longtime involvement with global armaments and the military-industrial complex; and a web of close connections to the CIA, which began decades before George Bush's brief CIA directorship in 1976. Threads like these may not weigh heavily on individual presidencies; they are many times more troubling when they run through several generations of a dynasty.
We must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into a latter-day conspiracy theory, a transformation that epitomizes what historian Richard Hofstadter years ago called the paranoid streak in American politics. (Try a Google Internet search for George Bush and Hitler, for example.) On the other hand, worries about conspiracy thinking should not inhibit inquiries in a way that blocks sober examination, which often more properly identifies some kind of elite behavior familiar to sociologists and political scientists alike.
The particular evolution of elites within nations that became leading world economic powers over the last four centuries is a subject I have discussed in several previous books, especially Wealth and Democracy (2002). The rise of a nation's establishment to its zenith is invariably an accretive process, not a successfully executed sequence of plots. Still, old-boy networks or their equivalents usually play a significant role in maintaining a group in power.
Treating the Bush presidencies as growing out of a four-generation interaction with the so-called U.S. establishment is, in a word, essential. Likewise, dealing separately with the administrations of George H. W. and George W.—or worse, ignoring commonalities of behavior in office—is like considering individual planets while ignoring their place within the solar system.
Four examples are illustrative. One is the repeated use of family influence in arranging or smoothing over difficulties in the military service of three generations of Bushes: Prescott, George H. W., and George W. Similarly, the involvement of four Walker and Bush generations with finance—in several cases, the investment side of the petroleum business—helps to explain their recurrent preoccupation with investments, capital gains, and tax shelters. George W. Bush's 2003 commitment to ending taxation of dividends was simply an extension of his father's frequent calls for reducing capital gains tax rates as the solution to any weakness in the national economy. Third, the family's ties to oil date back to Ohio steelmaker Samuel Bush's relationship to Standard Oil a century ago, while its ultimately dynastic connection to Enron spanned the first national Bush administration, the six years of George W. Bush's governorship of Texas, and the first year of his Washington incumbency. No other presidential family has made such prolonged efforts on behalf of a single corporation. Finally, there is no previous parallel to the relationships between the Bushes and the CIA and its predecessor organizations, which began in the invisible-ink and Ashenden, Secret Agent days of George Herbert Walker and Prescott Bush. Quite simply, analyzing separately the two Bush presidencies risks losing sight of such essential and revealing leitmotifs.
Arguably, a clan lacking such continuity of interests and relationships probably could not have succeeded in establishing a dynastic presidency. It would not have developed the requisite links to the establishment. It should be noted that the term dynastic is used here to describe a fact, not a theory: namely, the succession of 2000, in which the eldest son of a defeated president was eight years later chosen by his father's party and inaugurated as the next president. Such inheritance has no American precedent; it trespasses, at least spiritually, on the governance framed by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison. Hereditary rulers were to be feared, the founders knew, even when, like the fifteenth-century Medicis of Florence, they initially chose to keep the framework of the Republic in place.
While the election of 2000 became an obvious pivot by marking a full-fledged family restoration, the election of 1994 must be considered a secondary milestone, for it served to anoint formally eldest son George W. Bush, already the most logical choice to follow in his father's footsteps. Winning the Texas governorship that year established him as the family political heir over his younger brother, who lost a statehouse bid in Florida. Sharing his father's name, looking eerily like him, and having a similar electoral base in Texas, George W. was able to embody a much more resonant promise of restoration among voters than could have been managed by his younger brother Jeb. Also to the point, the 1994 elections suggested the motivational potential for a restoration: namely, the moral anger of a large portion of the American electorate—pollster Gallup came to call them the repulsed—with the new president, Bill Clinton. Not a few voters felt apologetic, survey takers found, for having turned the elder Bush out of office in 1992.
Were history to posit a Bush era, lasting from George H. W. Bush's triumph in 1988 through 2008, the two family presidencies might well define the entire two decades, turning the Clinton years into the political equivalent of sandwich filler. On the other hand, were Senator Hillary Clinton to achieve in 2008 a second restoration, this one Clintonian, public perception might well lurch toward some American equivalent of the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses, during which the English Crown was contested by the houses of York and Lancaster.
National politics, in short, has begun to take on the aura of a great family arena. Of the four wives of the major-party presidential nominees in 1996 and 2000, two quickly gained U.S. Senate seats: Hillary Clinton in 2000 and Elizabeth Dole in 2002. A third, Tipper Gore, decided not to make a Senate bid in Tennessee. Other seats in the U.S. Senate, in the meantime, began to pass more like membership in Britain's House of Lords.
Regionally, the prime example of family continuity in national government has been New England. In Rhode Island, Republican Lincoln Chafee took the Senate seat of his father, John Chafee, when the latter died in 1999. Next door, Edward Kennedy occupies the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by his brother when he became president, and just to the west in Connecticut, Senator Christopher Dodd sits where his father sat from 1958 to 1970. Parenthetically, both senators from New Hampshire are the sons of former governors. One of those from Maine is the wife of a former governor.
Dynasticism, then, is clearly not just a peculiarity of the Bush presidency. Yet there was a vital catalyst in the 1996-98 jelling among Republicans of a commitment, backstopped by favorable national polls, to running the Bush family's eldest heir for the presidency. It helped to legitimize a larger trend, broadening its momentum.
In this context, religion furnished another critical engine for a Bush triumph. To many Republicans and independents, the Bush family appeal was renewed in 1993-94 by ongoing revelations of Clinton's moral turpitude and his eventual impeachment. Perhaps because of how this tide of moral outrage had come to arouse southern fundamentalist constituencies, George W. Bush began to emphasize and display unusual personal religiosity. He cast himself as the prodigal son, brought back to God after waywardness and crisis. From 1994 to 2000, he repeatedly used such biblically inflected language about good and evil that one could almost hear the words of Daniel and Jeremiah. So close did he draw to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant leaders that in 2001, the Washington Post suggested that the new president had virtually replaced evangelist Pat Robertson as the leader of the U.S. Religious Right. To have suggested any similar role being assumed by his father would have been laughable.
In contrast to the sophisticated 1990s dialogue saluting globalization, Internet democracy, and the supposed end of history, much of the world's population, especially its poor and dispossessed, was participating in a quite dissimilar expression—a swell of fundamentalist and evangelical religion, often with a strong admixture of nationalism. While a few nations were actively seeking restorations and the resumption of power by kings, this larger trend, affecting Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists alike, dwelled instead on prophets and pharaohs, awaited or feared ones (red calves, Mahdis, and Antichrists), holy cities, and desecrating unbelievers, along with more ominous events like jihads, end times, raptures, and ultimate Armageddon.
Well might embattled Americans, weary of warfare in the Holy Land, yearn for the simple family issues propounded in the cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s—most of which were used in a calculated courtship directed at low- and middle-income voters stressed by two-earner households, lengthened work hours, and day-care and tax pressures. Unfortunately, by the time these day-to-day issues were overshadowed by stock market crashes, terrorism, and war in the early 2000s, little net economic progress had been made. If anything, the stress on ordinary families was now even greater.
Thus the irony: The dominant family-related trend taking the United States into the twenty-first century turned out to be a form of classic reaction. In economics, it favored aristocracies of both capital and skills, from Wall Street to major-league baseball. Family values were brandished to save multimillionaires from the federal inheritance tax. In politics, family bred dynasties and elite entrenchment. Even more broadly, amid the fear of additional barbarian attacks in the 9/11 vein, Americans slid toward another historical reversal: allowing the eighteenth-century republic to be reconceptualized as an embattled twenty-first-century imperium, threatened by dangers and strains not unlike those that plagued third- and fourth-century Rome.
Until now, our political history has embodied a different, midcentury-flavored saga centered on careers of men like Dean Acheson, Robert A. Lovett, and W. Averell Harriman, who played their starring national roles from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Now a new dynasty warrants a different national story. The Bushes and their initially more influential Walker family in-laws were also present at the creation, to use Acheson's term, but in secondary capacities. The family stepped into public visibility only in 1952, when Prescott Bush, managing partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, for many years the nation's biggest private investment bank, won election to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. He also became a favorite golf partner of President Eisenhower, also impressing the then vice president, Richard Nixon.
When Nixon, in turn, won the presidency in 1968, he would treat George H. W. Bush, a first-term congressman, as befit the son of Prescott Bush. The younger Bush had also been commended to Nixon by former Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, probably the one man most responsible for convincing Dwight Eisenhower to take Nixon as his running mate back in 1952. Thus did the Nixon administration become the all-important career elevator for the little-known U.S. representative from Houston.
Eastern patricians, even the oil-stained variety, were rare in the Nixon entourage—and for that matter, rare in national Republican elective politics. Nixon wore them as badges of social acceptance; he had taken one, former U.S. senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, as his vice presidential running mate in 1960. Eight years later, he let the name of George H. W. Bush make the vice presidential rumor mills, less because of any possible appeal Bush might have in Texas than for the socioeconomic reassurance he would offer to New York and Connecticut Republican donors and Ivy League clubland.
Appointments to the United Nations (1970) and the Republican National Committee (1973) brought Bush cabinet and Nixon-inner-circle status, maintaining the Washington visibility critical to his future. Nixon valued Bush's family connections, gung ho spirit, personal likability, and social outreach. Similar considerations helped to guide President Ford's 1975 selection of him to head the CIA, a famous repository of Yale alumni. Bush wanted to be—and perhaps was—taken as qualified for the cabinet in the unelected, bred-to-it manner of a Curzon, Cecil, or Lansdowne in Edwardian England.
This, to be sure, is getting ahead of our story. What made it possible to consider Bush for vice president in 1968, almost out of the blue, was that some fifty years earlier, his two grandfathers—George Herbert Walker, a well-connected St. Louis financier, and Samuel Prescott Bush, a wealthy Ohio railroad equipment manufacturer—had managed to implant themselves and their descendants in the eastern establishment. This helped Prescott Bush get ahead, much as later connections helped George H. W. and George W.
To tell their tale, American Dynasty unfolds like this: Chapter 1 introduces the Bushes as our not-quite-royal family. I'm not being facetious here. The Bush royal connections documented in Burke's Peerage and elsewhere have nourished the self-image of both chief executives. However, the real founding father of the Bush clan was not a Bush, but a Walker—George H. Walker, for whom both the forty-first and forty-third presidents are named.
If Samuel P. Bush made money and connections in World War I, which he did, Walker made more of each. Afterward, he was wooed in 1919 by Averell Harriman to run an ambitious set of investments about to be cobbled together in the postwar political maelstrom of 1920s Germany and Russia. Over two decades, father-in-law Walker helped steer Prescott Bush to the top of what became the Brown Brothers Harriman of midcentury—rich, full of Yale Skull and Bonesmen, London-linked, politically influential, and intimately wired through several of its top partners to the postwar birthing of the CIA. During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States had evolved its own version of permanent government akin to the British model. Although this establishment peaked from the 1920s through the 1950s, its influence lingered, to George H. W. Bush's critical advantage.
"Kevin Phillips is no hotheaded bomb-thrower but a seasoned wise man with deep roots in the Republican party. American Dynasty is as depressing as it is brilliant and important." —Chicago Sun-Times
"If Howard Dean (or any other Democrat) is elected president of the United States this year, he (or she) will owe a debt of gratitude to Kevin Phillips." —New York Times Book Review
"Given this left-liberal publishing phenomenon, where evil Bushies lurk around every civic bend dismantling our constitutional rights, it is with welcome relief that political commentator and one-time GOP strategist Kevin Phillips has stepped into the fray … With great skill, Phillips illuminates how the Bush Dynasty has long used such old-boy organizations as Yale’s Skull and Bones, the CIA, Dillon Read, and most recently the Carlyle Group to further its main objective: political-economic power." —Mother Jones
"A must-read for anyone skeptical of President Bush and other members of the Texas clan..." —New York Daily News
"American Dynasty, written with the passion of a modern-day Tom Paine, recalls all too clearly the Founding Father’s words, little more than 200 years later." —Seattle Times
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