His last book, Wealth and Democracy, was a modulated but unmistakable work of anger at what he saw as the accumulation of enormous unearned wealth at the top of an ever-narrowing pyramid that has left the average American facing economic vulnerability and political impotence. With American Dynasty, Phillips has put modulation aside; this is nothing less than an indictment of four generations of the Bush family, composed at a barely contained white heat. In Phillips’s eyes, the Bushes represent the embodiment of a mortal danger to the American republic: “the advent of a Machiavelli-inclined dynasty … [with] a dynastic heir whose unfortunate inheritance is privileged, covert, and globally embroiling.”
That conclusion follows 330 pages of an argument that reaches back to the financial beginnings of Samuel P. Bush and George Herbert Walker, both of whom launched the Bushes on a path of huge financial gain, war profiteering, international entanglements, and–generation by generation–crony capitalism and political finagling. It is both the great strength and great weakness of the book that Phillips piles on so much detail that a dispassionate reader does not know whether to be dazzled by the argument or paralyzed by it. Here is George Herbert Walker at the helm of a great investment house headed by Averell Harriman; here is Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of presidents, weaving a web of power that reaches back to his Skull and Bones days–that Yale secret society plays a recurring role here–and forward to suspicious financial dealings with Nazi Germany and (possibly) work as an intelligence agent. Here is George Herbert Walker Bush, riding family connections to unearned business success and (possibly) covert intelligence work years before his ascension to the directorship of the CIA. Here is George W. Bush, leveraging the increasing power of the Sunbelt religious right into the presidency itself: what Phillips labels “the first American restoration.” It is for Phillips the latest–not the final, just the latest–chapter in a “pattern of deception, dissimulation, and disinformation.”
Phillips’s–portrait in many shades of black–encompasses so much detail that it calls to mind a Bosch triptych of Hell, with Bush demons cavorting on every inch of the canvas. From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953, to the Bay of Pigs, to air and water pollution in Texas, to the Enron scandals, to the Florida fiasco of 2000, Phillips finds the not-so-fine hand of the Bush family and what it represents: “the apotheosis of that unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address. Bush-o-phobes will find virtually every one of their fondest (worst) assumptions here. Did the Reagan-Bush campaign conspire with the Iranian government to keep American hostages captive until after the 1980 election? While not embracing the more colorful allegations (Bush flying off to Paris in a supersonic jet), he clearly believes that the campaign did indeed deal with agents of the Iranian government. Did George W. Bush in effect steal the presidency in Florida? Yes, Phillips argues, aided by a weak-kneed Gore campaign. Moreover, he says, “In addition to securing the presidency, they kept any debate from focusing issues of restoration, legitimacy, and a thwarted popular plurality,” a discussion silenced by the events of September 11.
As with Wealth and Democracy, Phillips’s reach is remarkably ambitious. When he talks of “restoration” he reaches back centuries, to the Bourbons and the Stuarts. His analysis includes everything from the details of the Bush’s immersion in Texas oil to the appeal of ABC’s “Dynasty” and the popularity in America of “Burke’s Peerage.” He frames the public lives of G.H.W. and G.W. Bush in the context of Texas, by which he means everything from its increasingly polluted air to the increasing power of fundamentalism; and when he speaks of the latter, he reaches to examples of fundamentalism in Israel and the Islamic world as well.
Yet after this dizzying ride, what are we left with? We learn more than we can possibly absorb about the interlocking worlds of high finance, covert intelligence work, secret societies, and global interventionism. But we are also offered, time after time, not proof of Phillips’s most serious charges, but surmise. Consider this notion about the “October surprise” allegations that the Reagan campaign conspired Iran to keep hostages captive until after the elections. No, he says, Bush almost surely did not jet off to Paris, but the idea of Bush “reviewing plans over dinner with [Reagan Campaign Manager Bill] Casey at Washington’s elite Alfalfa Club–the two did in fact meet and dine right after Casey came back from Europe in midsummer 1980–has a great ring of plausibility.” Well, yes, a Washington dinner is more “plausible” than a surreptitious trip on a supersonic plane, but it does not establish much when the charge is as explosive as this one. Similar “plausibility” arguments undergird everything from George H.W. Bush’s possible work as a CIA agent to George W. Bush’s suspected cocaine arrest. These morsels will feed the appetites of Bush’s political adversaries, but too often the proper judgment is the Scotch verdict: “not proven.” Further, it seems at times that Phillips is coming perilously close to a “Bad Seed” argument; that entitlement, arrogance, and anti-democratic impulses, are somehow encoded in the Bush DNA.
For all of such overreaching, though, American Dynasty is still a book of substantial power. As in Wealth and Democracy, Phillips is not content to be confined within the consensus boundaries of American public-policy debate. He is after bigger game: in this case, the extent to which the republican objectives of the Constitution’s framers are threatened by the structure of economic and political power now in place. Whether Phillips is right to use the Bush family as its embodiment, the reality of that power is undeniable–as is the unsettling fact that its existence is all but ignored in our frenetic political discourse. No one is more willing–and able–to dissect that power than Kevin Phillips.