American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush
by Kevin Phillips
Published by Viking Press
416 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Knute Berger
Books predicting the next political watershed are a dime a dozen, but one writer who has a high batting average in the genre is political analyst, columnist and National Public Radio commentator Kevin Phillips. In prior books, he's shed light on important trends including middle-class voter disenchantment; the "Red" and "Blue" state divide of the 2000 U.S. electoral map; and the alarming concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy.
One of the most interesting things about Phillips, aside from how often correct and earnest he is, is that he's a traditional, establishment conservative. At least he was. It's not so much that his politics have changed, but that this onetime Nixon campaign aide has witnessed the center of American politics shift so far to the right that he now finds himself ensconced on the left.
Scary to think that the Nixon-Eisenhower Republicans of one era are on the fringes of mainstream politics today, especially as both parties promote massive tax cuts, embrace globalization, tolerate huge deficits and relish a strong-arm foreign policy. Indeed, Bill Clinton's declaration that the era of big government is over seems to have given impetus to the extremist idea that government itself is barely justifiable -- unless it helps the rich.
But traditional conservatives didn't question the need for government; they warned about being held hostage to corporate interests (Teddy Roosevelt) and the military establishment (Ike); pushed strongly for lower- and middle-class entitlements (Nixon); and strongly defended civil liberties (Barry Goldwater). Forget about the menace of creeping Canadian socialism. These ideas are now the "radical" notions in the Bush II era, as Phillips foresaw before most of us.
His latest book takes a surprisingly hard swing at the presidents Bush, senior and junior. Dynasty is not simply another exercise in Molly Ivins-esque Bush bashing, but an outgrowth of Phillips' longtime concerns that our republic is falling prey to the fusion of money, power and entitlement -- a danger our founding fathers anticipated. He attempts to explain how the Bush dynasty embodies the very worst aspects of this trend. For three generations, the family has devoted itself to making money (investment banking, oil) and fusing private interests (cronyism) with public ones (especially in the intelligence arena). Grandpa traded with the Nazis; Poppy headed the CIA; and Dubya is now entrenching family interests at home while ruthlessly expanding markets abroad. Tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating the inheritance tax are not initiatives to curry trickle-down favor with the electorate. Instead, they benefit the wealthy ruling-class cabal that increasingly runs the place. In case I didn't emphasize this enough, this case is being made by a onetime Republican.
America, Phillips argues, has long been warned about the volatility of a gulf between rich and poor, and the corrupting power of aristocracies. Franklin, Jefferson and Madison must be spinning in their graves as their beloved small-R republican experiment is reversed by the Bushes.
Dynasty does read a bit as if written on the fly -- ideas are repeated, and historical analogies are mismatched (Bush senior is compared with William Howard Taft, while Dubya is likened to Britain's Charles II). Phillips' thesis could be more methodically -- and even more dispassionately -- argued. But it is also important to listen to a conservative argue, forcefully and more convincingly than many liberals, that there are real dangers lurking in the Bush dynasty. (And let's not forget Governor Jeb, biding his time in Florida until 2008.) If an establishment guy like Phillips is becoming unhinged at the prospect of four more years, we should all pay attention -- and question who is genuinely out of the political mainstream. | January 2004
To read more of Kevin Phillips' opinions about George W. Bush and how his family have "made the presidency into an office infused with an almost hereditary dishonesty," read Rolling Stone's interview with the author.