May 6, 2006

American Dynasty: Please don't go there, America!

I'm finally ready to give you a review on American dynasty : aristocracy, fortune, and the politics of deceit in the house of Bush, by Kevin Phillips.

First, as I probably mentioned before, Phillips is no lover of liberals. He was a staffer in the Nixon administration, voted twice for Reagan, and is generally a traditional conservative. To me, this gives his critique added weight; he joins such conservative stalwarts as George F. Will in being absolutely horrified with what George W. Bush has done to the Republican party. While I don't think my political leanings are a big secret (o.k., you got me: I'm an old-school Progressive!), I have been known to vote for Republicans when I have a good reason.

This particular book does what good history should do: it analyzes the hows and whys of where we are. He especially focuses on the history of the whole Bush family, pointing out that any in-depth study of their previous dealings would have revealed a common pattern; in other words, if the party had done their homework, they would not now be so embarrassed (quietly embarrassed, I'll grant you. One thing the Rep.s do seem to have going for them is a "stand-by-your-man" mentality. While there's always an interesting tug-of-war between such loyalty and plain hypocrisy, the Dem.s certainly have a thing or two to learn about such solid solidarity. The fact that more and more conservative commentators are abandoning him is, I think, a symptom of a much wider dissatisfaction.)

Anyway. I can't do justice to the whole book in a short review, so I'll just tell you some of the things that struck me:

~Oil is key. No matter how much dissembling goes on, every meddle we make in the Middle East is basically about keeping the oil spigot flowing, and preferably, keeping our hand on the controls. Phillips traces the history of the Bushes in the oil business the whole way back to World War I, which is when the petro-economy first really got going; the newly mechanized war machinery made oil important, and the Second World War and subsequent Cold War just entrenched this. As over the course of those years America needed more oil and depleted its own reserves, a presence in the next big area of exploration became paramount. While I deplore our dependence, he makes a valid point that it really has been a matter of national security to protect the flow: until we change our habits, our economy and our military need it. What he faults the Bushes for is in not admitting this publicly; it is part and parcel of their pattern of deception.

~The entire family (and its network of friends and associates) has kept a nineteenth century adherence to crony capitalism. The problem is, most latter-day politicians (and, um, the LAWS), have moved past this. It's no longer acceptable to pass legislation that directly affects your own business. Yes, I know about lobbyists, etc., but this family goes way beyond pandering for campaign dollars; they're pandering for their OWN, PERSONAL dollars, and for those of their friends. The most disturbing part of this is that in spite of widespread coverage in the media, it seems the electorate just refuses to believe it. (Just as with the Medicare prescription mess; in spite of having accurate numbers which have, in fact, been recently, sadly, verified in action, a majority of the public just didn't believe that they could be right. Is that baa-ing I hear? I thought so....) Basically, unless you are both in the top 1% of income possessors (note I do not say *earners* in the country), AND you don't hold a lot of investments in the U.S. Treasury, voting for anyone in this particular crowd is NOT in your best economic interest.

~This capitalism has especially centered around the arms industry, in addition to oil. Here was some fascinating history, on how much American arms dealers probably contributed to both world wars (one reason Eisenhower made his famous warning about the rising military-industrial complex was because he was involved with the commission in the 1930's that examined arms dealer's roles in fomenting World War I.) One subject that I want to read up on more was about how many familiar names--GE and DuPont are two that stuck with me--had not just cozy relations, but many subsidiaries in Hitler's Germany before the war began. Just an eerie, eerie precursor to G.H.W. Bush's problems in Iraq, when he had to fight against the weapons we had (until recently) been sending there. The Bush family were directors and/or owners and/or officers for many of the companies involved.

~The Bushes have long had a close relationship with the CIA. And so does Yale, especially Skull and Bones. Phillips traces the membership that flowed from one to the other over and over since the beginning of the century, as well as the welcoming arms of companies that also maintained relations with both; the covert world basically became part of the network of cronies, with many future businessmen serving a sort of missionary term as spies before becoming titans of industry and/or politicians. It is no wonder that lying is a way of life passed from generation to generation in this family. To be honest, this puts all the flaps over Homeland Security in a whole new light for me. And I'll bet you anything that Porter Goss's career is pretty much over, at least in the Republican community; another point Phillips makes is that this family also has a history of playing both dirty and for keeps.

~One key aspect of the deceit lies in lying about their backgrounds. Prescott Bush, W.'s grandfather, pretended *his* dad couldn't afford to send him to law school. G.H.W. Bush emphasizes his time in Texas, rather than the family's lush compound in Connecticut. But W. surpasses them all; in spite of having ALL of his business dealing financed by his father's monied friends, he exudes the aura of a Texas self-made man. Phillips also points out that in spite of all the help, W. was not much of a business man (he quotes someone else--can't remember who, now, sorry) who said, "Anytime George found an empty oil well, he had lots of people willing to throw money down it." This is no up-from-the-bootstraps story; this is a story of an old-fashioned vieux riche family who uses its networks--covert and overt--for all they're worth. But that's not what the average-Joe American sees. Without condoning Michael Moore, Phillips actually points out that one reason bin Laden may have targeted the World Trade Center is that one of the companies who manages it is largely owned by Bush friends, the Saudi bin Laden family. These are exactly the people that Osama is mad at, since he figures they've sold out to the U.S. The fact that the Bushes are also connected to the company--and associates of the same Saudis--does not, in my view, make them culpable in 9/11 (although I can see a certain lovely conspiracy theory there--I'd need more evidence to buy it, personally), but it DOES make many actions of both 41 and 43 seem pretty...well...dishonest. The much ballyhood blacking out of the pages in the 9/11 report that dealt with Saudi Arabia: was that truly about national security, or was it about protecting the buddies of the Bush family? Judging by the current and past behavior of the Bush family as Phillips documents it, there's no question that it's the latter.

~Phillips' analysis of the reasons behind both Gulf Wars were pretty interesting. In part, he points out that the control of Iraq was not just to ensure oil supplies for America, but also to make sure that the U.S. maintains a strong presence in the region. The U.S. is rapidly becoming NOT the largest consumer of oil; that honor is shifting to China and India, so to keep in the game, U.S. oil companies need to keep control of the supply. Do not expect a U.S. withdrawal anytime soon, in other words, as long as oil-company execs are in power. (He reiterates here the gullibility of the American public: in spite of evidence to the contrary, the fact that in speeches Bush just kept saying "9/11", "bin Laden", and "Saddam Hussein" persuaded people that Iraq was in on the terror attacks. Even many in the military, the last bastion of stand-by-your-manninshness, were o.k. with Afghanistan but could not see the point in invading Iraq, at least not because of 9/11 (and especially when bin Laden was not yet captured). Further muddying the waters, of course, is that there are lots of terrorists in Iraq NOW, in large part as a response to the continuing American presence there. What a mess--and the more complicated it gets, the less likely it is that your average Joe will understand how much he's been misled, of course.)

~Phillips is angry because the Bushes got to power using the conservative Republican machine, and have perverted traditional conservatism. Budget deficits are seen as o.k. under the Bushes, because they only hurt the masses; as long as oil and arms companies can continue to get government funds, who cares about the future cost? (As Al Franken says, if you're poor and Republican, you really need to know that W. not only isn't listening, but he doesn't care. The "compassion" in "Compassionate Conservatism" is that he doesn't quash your hopes by letting on that he doesn't care.) Bush isn't stupid, and he's not interested in trickle-down theory (remember, his dad called that "voodoo economics" in the 1980 primary?). He's just interested in making sure that his buddies, his family, and after he's out of office (or maybe now, for Dick) stay rich. It's just too bad for the rest of us that we weren't born into the right family.

~This is exactly the sort of aristocracy that Phillips is talking about in the title. This is not a good thing. Phillips' fear is that in history, conservative monarchs who have been temporarily deposed, then restored (he uses France and England as prime--and close--examples), have inevitably been overthrown in bloody and deleterious revolutions that left their countries in shambles for years to come. His hope, such as it is, is that traditional Republicans can gain control of the party before any more Bushies can come to power (he would not be a big fan of Condoleeza Rice, by the way, who used to be a Chevron exec....). Making this hope somewhat shaky is the way that W. has co-opted religious fervor to stir up "the base". Many wonderful fiscal conservatives are now not as palatable to the "base" in the South because they are not as down-the-line socially conservative as fundamentalist Christians want (Phillips does draw a neat distinction between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, by the way). It's a fine fuddle the Rep.s have gotten themselves into.

There are lots more issues and side issues, but those are the things that stuck with me. It's pithy reading, but he tries to be fair (and, as I mentioned, he's no big fan of liberals and does point out some things Clinton did stupid). I recommend it for Republicans; Democrats already don't like Bush. This book explains, with solid research, lots of examples, and clear reasoning, why good Republicans should be appalled with him as well.

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