Sins of the Fathers

Christopher Hayes

Sev­er­al weeks ago a curi­ous title popped up on Ama​zon​.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.

Christo­pher Hayes is the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an edi­tor at large at the Nation and a for­mer senior edi­tor of In These Times.
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