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Friday, January 23, 2004  

Reading, too: Phillips' take on Bushes a must read

When a book by Kevin Phillips is reviewed, it gets reviewed. Books maven Michiko Kakutani examines his new book, about the Bush dynasty, in a New York Times column today. She finds it a crazy salad with some pretty substantial slices of substance among the lettuce.

In American Dynasty, his furious jeremiad against the Bush family, Kevin Phillips does not explicate the many differences between President George W. Bush and his father, or their very different brands of foreign policy. Instead he delivers a high-decibel, high-dudgeon rant against what he sees as their dynastic ambitions and their shared biases and motives.

"Dynasties," he declares at the start of this book, "tend to show continuities of policy and interest-group bias - in the case of the Bushes, favoritism toward the energy sector, defense industries, the Pentagon and the C.I.A., as well as insistence on tax breaks for the investor class and upper-income groups."

Mr. Phillips worked in the Nixon administration and made his name back in 1969 with "The Emerging Republican Majority," a book that predicted the ascendancy of the G.O.P. In recent years, however, he has become a populist social critic, increasingly focused on the gap between the rich and poor, and to his mind the Bush family embodies the worst sort of elitism. In these pages he accuses family members of Machiavellian deception and "blatant business cronyism" with ties to big corporations, big oil and the military-industrial complex.

"After four generations of connection to foreign intrigue and the intelligence community, plus three generations of immersion in the culture of secrecy (dating back to the Yale years of several men in the family)," he writes, "deceit and disinformation have become Bush political hallmarks. The Middle Eastern financial ties of both Bush presidents exemplify this lack of candor, as do the origins and machinations of both Bush wars with Iraq."

Those charges are not difficult to substantiate. The Bushes' latest maneuvers, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and tax cuts that favor the wealthy, fit right into that pattern. George W. may say the U.S. is in Iraq to forward a war on terrorism, but the winners there will likely be Halliburton and other elite corporations.

Kakutani is less pleased with what she considers Phillips' scattershot approach to analysis.

Mr. Phillips is eloquent on the continuing fallout of American decisions, beginning in the 70's, to pour huge amounts of armaments into the tinderbox of the Persian Gulf and Middle East, into countries "menaced by religious and resource conflicts." He also raises disturbing conflict-of-interest questions about the Bush family's intertwining political and business relationships around the world, relationships embodied by Bush Senior's post-presidential affiliation with the Carlyle Group, a merchant bank with military-sector investments.

The narrative of American Dynasty, however, is so discursive, its ambitions so amorphous, that the book all too often devolves into a simple litany of accusations against the Bushes, some grounded in careful research, others based on little more than innuendo and speculation.

I trust Kakutani's judgment enough to respect her opinion. But, I have found Phillips' previous works to justify close reading, despite their imperfections. I will be purchasing American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, and encourage other people concerned about our political future to do the same.

Additional reading

  • I'm currently reading Richard Powers' National Book Critics Circle Award nominated The Time of Our Singing. Rarely have I seen a writer capture the essence of American hypocrisy as well as he does. The novel, about the offspring of an interracial marriage that occurred in 1939, is the perfect microcosm to explicate matters as seemingly distant as the theory of relativity and the world of classical musical, as well as race, that continuing cleaver of our society.
  • When I can bring myself to put the near perfect Singing aside, I turn to the stories in The New Yorker's Winter Fiction Issue. Among the writers included are Edward P. Jones and Edward Sedaris. If you can find it on a newsstand, buy it.

  • 9:00 PM