Several weeks ago a curious title popped up on Amazon.com. Good People Beget Good People: A Genealogy of the Frist Family. The Frists are aristocratic Southerners whose favorite son, Dr. Bill, is a senator from Tennessee and the Republican Majority Leader. While the book’s title has provided fodder for left-wing satire, it speaks volumes about our times that the senator would attach his name to such a naked assertion of inherited virtue.
But where political dynasties are concerned, the Frists are neophytes. The Bushes, as erstwhile Republican strategist and author Kevin Phillips argues in his new book, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, are becoming old hands at passing down political power. That spells trouble for the Republic.
“It should be noted,” Phillips writes, “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.” This reclamation, Phillips argues, exhibited all the classic features of a Restoration in the European royalist sense: A reactionary movement that restores the rightful heir of a deposed ruler, packs his circle of advisors with trusted men from the father’s régime and pursues a conservative, anti-egalitarian agenda.
American Dynasty impressively describes an America where a small number of key industries — defense, intelligence, finance and energy — are so integral to the machinery of state that they are no longer subject to the rule of law. Phillips forcefully argues that much of the Bushes’ power and influence derives from their four-generation association with these same industries. In painstaking detail, we are guided through the Bushes’ entanglements in sundry forms of crony capitalism: from Sam Bush (the current president’s great grandfather) who served on the War Industries Board and made a modest fortune in producing armaments; to the postwar investments in Weimar and then Nazi Germany that became a staple of Prescott Bush’s Brown Brothers Harriman investment firm; to the later Bushes two-generation lovefest with an energy trading company called Enron.
Phillips traces the origins of the Bush Dynasty to two of Dubya’s great grandfathers: Samuel Bush, an Ohio railroad-equipment manufacturer and father of Prescott, and George Walker, a St. Louis financier who would become Prescott’s father-in-law and lend his name to two subsequent generations of presidents.
After a successful career as an investment banker, Prescott became the founding member of the Bush political dynasty when he was elected senator from Connecticut in 1952. He begat the next in line: George Herbert Walker Bush, who after requisite stints at Andover and Yale, and several years milking his father’s buddies for oil investment dollars in Texas, was elected to Congress as the representative of an affluent Houston suburb. Two terms later he was named U.N. Ambassador, then Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and finally Director of the C.I.A. In 1980 Bush launched an improbable bid for the presidency and, despite running against Reagan, his blue-blood clout was strong enough to secure him the VP spot on the Republican ticket, which he parlayed eight years later into a successful presidential bid.
By the time young George W. Bush became a Yale grad running a string of money-losing businesses and an unsuccessful congressional campaign, he was located at a nexus of government, business and military leaders that C. Wright Mills once described as the “Power Elite.” It was this establishment that lined up behind the inexperienced one-term Texas governor and paved his way to the White House.
The Bushes have made no bones about exploiting their family name for access, capital, political entrée and lobbying power. One typical example is a call George W. placed in 1988, after his father’s victory, to Argentina’s minister of public works. Reportedly, he told him that awarding Enron a pipeline contract would “be very favorable for Argentina and its relations with the United States.”
Phillips writes with a haughty, cool fury, and there are more than a few passages acerbic enough to make even the most sympathetic reader pucker. Also, too often, Phillips offers up rumors, speculation and conjecture that could tweak readers’ skeptical antennae. However, the book is indispensable for those who want to understand the direction that our precarious Republic is headed.
As Phillips shows, the idea that “good people beget good people,” is as alive and well in 21st Century America as other, better-known republican aphorisms, such as “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Time will tell which of these sentiments has more staying power.