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American Dynasty

By Kevin Phillips
Penguin Books, hardcover, 397 pp., $25.95

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Reviewer: CHRIS POTTER

 

In 1991, after the first Gulf War, the Gannett Foundation convened a panel of journalists to discuss news coverage of the war and its propaganda, including the first President Bush's dire warnings about Iraq's nuclear- and chemical-weapon capabilities. "I was with Bush when he was ...  peddling that bit about how serious this nuclear threat was," Los Angeles Times journalist Jack Nelson recalled. "Most of the nuclear scientists ... will tell you that they were four or five years away from developing one, but once the president says it, ... it doesn't make any difference what we say."

 

Asked whether the public would ever learn how the nuclear threat had been hyped, Nelson replied, "Somebody will do a book 10 years from now."

 

Not quite. Exaggerating Iraq's WMD threat seems to run in the family, but Americans -- and the media -- have fallen for it twice now. Still, Kevin Phillips has written a book, one that belatedly asks a key question about such practices: Like father, like son?

 

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, few have discussed the political implications of the Bush dynasty. (The Bushes themselves prefer the term "legacy," Phillips tells us.) Yet as American Dynasty points out, some of George W. Bush's most disturbing traits -- his preference for secrecy and chummy ties with the energy industry, military contractors and dubious figures in the Middle East -- date back generations.

 

Phillips, a former Republican political adviser, traces the ancestry of W. and his presidential dad through three generations -- to George Herbert Walker, Samuel Bush and their descendents. Those ancestors bequeathed much more than their names and their money.

 

For Phillips, the story of the Bush family's rise to power is the story of American power itself -- how it evolved and crossbred throughout the 20th century. The nation's business leaders, drawn heavily from Yale and its secretive Skull and Bones society especially, established the CIA even as they invested in oil and national defense. Bushes were key players in all these efforts, and while patriotic service was the ostensible goal, there was a dark side to this influence: Well into the 1940s, Bush-affiliated companies did business with German military firms, sometimes running afoul of the Trading with the Enemy Act. A predilection for secrecy and closed doors runs in the family today, as does a penchant for shady partnerships; only now the elder Bush's connections are to the Saudi royal family and relatives of Osama bin Laden himself.

 

George W. didn't just inherit a legacy of crony capitalism, Phillips notes; he got some of the cronies themselves. He has surrounded himself with his father's advisers, like Dick Cheney -- a practice Phillips contends is typical of royal families restored to the throne. What the younger Bush has brought to the family trade is his connections to Christian fundamentalism, prompting Phillips to fret that "the president of the United States could simultaneously be the leader of the nation's Christian Right."

 

But in this too, Phillips contends, the Bush family mirrors broader trends in society, including the increasing income gap between the wealthy and everyone else. In books like The Politics of Rich and Poor, Phillips argued that we are creating an increasingly feudal economy, with a handful of lords presiding over countless serfs; now he's suggesting that we have the political leadership to match.

 

American Dynasty relies largely on reporting compiled by others, so much of its material may be familiar. (And it certainly won't surprise anyone that Bush political adviser Karl Rove is a fan of Machiavelli.) Too, Phillips' psychological insights into the Bush family are necessarily shallow; he didn't interview them, going on the theory that "the Bushes have become a dynasty of disinformation."

 

Yet he makes a strong case that a dynasty is what they are, and that the Bushes prove the Founding Fathers were wise to shun hereditary rule. As the Good Book tells us, the sins of the fathers are often borne by their sons -- especially in the Holy Land itself. Phillips reminds us, for example, that our current bloody occupation of Iraq is the bitter fruit of the elder Bush's secret arms dealings with Saddam Hussein and his Iranian rivals.

 

Phillips' 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority counseled Republicans to use religious concerns in their bid for power. Now, Phillips admits, Republicans are "dangerously dominated" by fundamentalists willing to "attach faith healers to the advisory structure of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration." Bush's connections to defense contractors like Halliburton are equally troubling: The book is dedicated to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, and Phillips quotes Ike's warnings about the insidious influence of "the military-industrial complex." That complex, Phillips suggests, is as much George W.'s parent as his own father. And their offspring, he writes, is an "heir whose ... inheritance is privileged, covert, and globally embroiling."

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