The House of Bush
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Editor, The Konformist
The House of Bush
Rep. strategist Kevin Phillips on the Bush family's hunger for power
By Eric Bates
January 5, 2004
Serving up secrets and lies
Listening to Kevin Phillips talk about politics, it's easy to mistake
him for a populist firebrand from the 1890s. He rails against the
growing inequality of wealth in America. He bemoans the unprecedented
influence that private corporations hold over public institutions. He
attacks the "smug conservatism" of George W. Bush and accuses the
president of attempting to establish a family dynasty better suited
to royalist England than to democratic America.
But Phillips is no left-wing demagogue. He's not only a lifelong
Republican, he's also the guy who literally wrote the book that
became the blueprint for the party's dominance of presidential
politics. Phillips served as the chief political strategist for
Richard Nixon in 1968, and, in The Emerging Republican Majority, he
formulated the "Southern Strategy" that helped hand the White House
to the GOP for a generation.
In his new book American Dynasty, Phillips lays out his almost
visceral distaste for what he calls "the politics of deceit in the
House of Bush," accusing the administration of dishonesty and secrecy
that would make Tricky Dick blush. He traces the course of Bush's
family over the past 100 years, detailing how they sought
influence "in the back corridors" of the oil and defense industries,
investment banking and the intelligence establishment. Elites, not
elections, put Bush in power. "I'm not talking about ordinary lack of
business ethics or financial corruption," says Phillips, who recently
registered as an Independent for the first time. "Four generations of
building toward dynasty 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 a result, he says, "deceit and
disinformation have become Bush political hallmarks."
Is Bush really any worse than Nixon?
What makes the Bush family so different -- and, in many ways, so
dangerous -- is that they've created a dynasty. The second Bush
administration is a political restoration, not unlike the English
Stuarts in 1660 or the French Bourbons in 1815. In the last election,
the Republican Party turned to the eldest son of the Republican who
got the boot eight years earlier. That's what this country fought a
revolution to get rid of in 1776. Nobody thought that there would be
another royal house, with a couple of Georges.
Royal house? Isn't that a bit of a stretch?
The family has made a big deal of the notion that it is descended
from royalty. Burke's Peerage even got involved in the last election,
saying that Bush won because he had the most royal ancestry. The
Bushes eat this stuff up. They don't need democracy -- they feel
entitled by ancestry. For them, the presidency is something that can
be won with a Supreme Court decision.
Still, what's so bad about a son succeeding his father as president?
This type of dynasty is antithetical to the American political
tradition. The presidency is now subject to inherited views,
inherited staff, inherited wars, inherited money, inherited
loyalties. I'm not talking about particular policies -- I'm talking
about a unique evolution of a corrupting institutional process in
If this is a dynasty, who's next? Jeb?
He's the logical choice. If they decide there needs to be a gap, you
might have Jeb's son, Neil P., in twenty years. Given Hillary's
position in the polls, it could go back to the Clinton's first.
People are obviously willing to play the relatives game right now.
How are the Bushes viewed within the Republican Party?
There was always a sense that George H.W. Bush was somebody who
didn't owe anything to voters -- he couldn't even win an election for
Congress. His push came from people behind the scenes, from the
Establishment. Both his grandparents were heavily involved in wartime
finance and military contracting during World War I -- they were
there at the very start of the military-industrial complex -- and his
father was a U.S. senator who directed an oil-services company like
Halliburton. They had ties to big money, big oil and the Eastern old-
Bush's enemies in the party were people who were insulted by the way
he played on his privilege and connections. Richard Nixon was one;
Ronald Reagan was another. Donald Rumsfeld didn't like him, either --
he and a lot of others in the Ford administration thought Bush was a
lightweight. In one of Rumsfeld's greatest miscalculations, he put
Bush in charge of the CIA, thinking that would ice Bush's political
future. Instead, it was like throwing Bush in the briar patch. There
had been rumors for years that Bush had been recruited by the agency,
perhaps even when he was a student at Yale. As director, he became
near-family and a business associate of Saudi princes. He funneled
arms to Saddam Hussein and then, as president, fought the first Gulf
War to oust Saddam from Kuwait. And he was implicated in scandals
involving the Iran hostages and BCCI, the rogue bank that financed
clandestine arms deals.
What does that have to do with the current administration?
By the time George W. came in, he was a product of a family that was
more embroiled in the Middle East than almost any other American
family -- to say nothing of any other major American political
family. The administration has not been interested in turning over
any rocks that represent Saudi Arabia, because the Bush family has
been in bed with them for so long. In addition, many of the people
surrounding the president are former retainers of his father. They
wanted to nail Saddam because he got away from them before. That's a
central element of restorations: the settling of old scores.
And the continuation of old favors?
Enron is a prime example of that. No other presidential family has
made such prolonged efforts on behalf of a single corporation. This
was the first scandal spread out over two generations, and it was the
biggest in terms of size. Enron was the nation's fifth-largest
company when it went belly up -- it had a lot more impact on the
economy than the small oil companies in the Teapot Dome scandal. Ken
Lay needed government favoritism, and the Bushes supplied it. George
W. made calls to drum up business for him in Texas, and George H.W.
made Lay the chief planner for a G-7 meeting, which helped Enron get
approval for major overseas projects. Thanks in large part to the
Bushes, Enron received more than $7 billion in government subsidies.
Religion played a major role in W's victory. How does his
relationship to the religious right differ from, say, Reagan's?
In moral terms, Reagan wasn't exactly running the Bluenose Express --
he was the first American president to be married to two different
Hollywood movie stars. He knew how to put on a good show when he was
talking to the religious right, but there wasn't a whole lot they
were going to get out of him. And when it came to Bush's father, the
religious right thought he was some guy with striped pants who came
from these schools where their fathers had been janitors. They didn't
relate to him at all.
George W. is another story. He's a guy who's been born again, who
believes in a lot of what the religious right does. He's Reagan
quadrupled in terms of his holier-than-thou, I'm-the-Messiah
attitude. He sort of fell into national politics serving as his
father's representative to the religious right in 1986. It was right
around the time that he was finding religion himself -- and the time
that fundamentalists and evangelicals, having made their big splash
with Reagan, were beginning to institutionalize power within the
state Republican parties and a national framework. George W. spent
enormous amounts of time with these people, and he learned how to
walk the walk and talk the talk. He is able to be so strong with the
religious right because he got inside their whole setup. He can
figure out how much to give them to get them on his side and keep
them under control. For the first time in history, the president of
the United States is the acknowledged leader of the religious right.
How has that role shaped his approach to the war on terrorism?
Based on his support among fundamentalists and evangelicals, I would
say that a slight majority of the people who voted for him probably
believe in Armageddon. After 9/11, that allowed him to think of
himself as somebody who has an almost God-accorded role. He sees
himself as an anointed leader, and his speeches evoke religious code
words: evil, crusade, the ways of Providence, wonder-working power.
One biblical scholar who analyzed Bush's speech to the nation on
October 7th, 2001, announcing the U.S. attack on Afghanistan,
identified a half-dozen veiled borrowings from the Book of
Revelation, Isaiah, Matthew and Jeremiah.
Besides religion, how has the Republican Party changed since your
days with Nixon?
In some ways, you could say that Reagan was a halfway point. Reagan
was tired of government programs, but he didn't want to dismantle the
New Deal -- he just didn't want those programs to get out of hand.
George W. grew up in a family where they never needed a safety net in
the course of the twentieth century -- and they weren't interested in
anyone who did. He believes private charity will take care of the
Reagan also didn't believe in preemptive war. He talked tough, but
there wasn't this whole theology in place, like we've seen in the
last couple of years, that says, "We're entitled to fry anybody we
Can Bush be defeated?
History shows that restored dynasties eventually overdo it and tank
themselves -- but it usually takes more than four years. The French
Bourbons were restored in 1815 and got the heave-ho in 1830. The
English Stuarts were restored in 1660 and ejected in 1688. The
problem is, the other side gets dismasted by the restoration and
can't mount an effective opposition.
What should Democrats do to beat Bush?
The economy is obviously still iffy, and Bush could sag hugely if
Iraq turns into a civil war. But I also think the Republicans are as
ideologically overextended today as the Democrats were in the 1960s.
They're vulnerable on religion. John McCain actually ran against all
of George W.'s games with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Bob
Jones University in 2000, and he didn't do badly. He didn't take a
goddamn poll -- he just went out there and said all the stuff the
Democrats don't have the guts to say.
I think half of the Democrats are afraid of their own shadow. That's
why Howard Dean has been so successful. Even if he made mistakes, he
had something to say, and he had the courage to say it. And that'll
go a long way when you've got so many Establishment politicians who
basically just look for whatever the received wisdom is and put a
little maraschino cherry on it. If Dean and Al Gore can get the
Democrats to face the Republicans' obvious weaknesses, maybe we'll
see a real blueprint. But if it's emerging, it's still very quiet.
What would that blueprint look like?
You have to focus on the Bush family itself. They have made the
presidency into an office infused with an almost hereditary
dishonesty. There's so much lying and secrecy and corruption to it.
Just look at the way Neil and Jeb and Marvin and George W. have
earned their livings, with all these parasitic operations: profiting
from their political connections, cashing in on favors from big
corporations and other governments. It's a convergence of arrogance --
the sense that you don't have to pay attention to democratic values.
It's happening again with Halliburton. They can't help but let their
old cronies in there to make buckets of money off the war.
Their own arrogance provides a handle for their defeat. If the
country does not come to grips with what Bush has done, then we may
lose what we value about our republican and democratic government.