American Dynastyby Kevin PhillipsPenguin/Allen Lane, £18.99, pp. 397, ISBN 071399746X
The prosperous Floridan seaside resort of Sarasota should be natural Bush country. Home to golf courses, marinas and retirement condos, the town’s Republican Congress- woman Katherine Harris shot to fame in the 2000 presidential election as the official appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to make sure the Florida recount gave the right result. Last month, a friend of mine who is an astute observer of American politics was having lunch in a Sarasota shopping mall and saw something significant. A young man was selling ‘Help Beat Bush’ badges to passing shoppers — not just one or two but dozens of them. People were stopping and queuing to buy them, and then pinning them on. If you thought that the President was a dead cert to be re-elected this November, then think of the Sarasota shopping mall and think again.
It is not just the badges that are selling. Anti-Bush books top the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Most are harmless, healthy satire. My brother gave me a desk diary that has a different Bushism for every day of the year. Others, like Michael Moore’s blockbusting Stupid White Men, claim to be serious critiques of the Bush presidency. They are not at all harmless, for they seem to have helped create a commonly held view, particularly in the UK and Europe, that the President is a moron and the Administration is run entirely by oil lobbyists, Enron executives and Zionists.
The latest in this vein is Bushwhacked, by Texan journalists Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. Their claim is that George W. Bush is ‘congenitally incapable of checking the excesses of capitalism’. So we read of the New Jersey family being poisoned by a chemical insecticide plant because the Republican-run Environmental Protection Agency refuses to lift a finger. Ivins tells us why: ‘Bush has a chemical-dependency problem, but it’s not cocaine. It’s Monsanto, Dow and Union Carbide.’ Then there are food conglomerates who are knowingly spreading deadly listeria, but an Administration funded by the food industry won’t regulate. Ivins’ answer: ‘If you must eat while the Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, and the judiciary, you might want to consider becoming vegetarian.’ And so it goes on: Dick Cheney’s gas giants destroying Wyoming’s wilderness; the poor, sick Mississippi catfish plant workers cheated of proper compensation by the son of a Republican Supreme Court Justice. You get the picture.
I was hoping for something a little bit more unpredictable and interesting from Kevin Phillips’s American Dynasty because Phillips had been Richard Nixon’s chief electoral strategist whose ‘Southern Strategy’ delivered the 1972 landslide against George McGovern. Surely, I thought, he would have something interesting to say about an incumbent Republican president fighting off an anti-war Democrat challenger? Sadly no. Or perhaps, I thought, the author of the 1969 political classic The Emerging Republican Majority would have some insight into the argument that, thanks in part to the growing Hispanic population, there is an emerging Democrat majority. But there is no insight in this dreadful book. Phillips wants us to believe that ‘George W. Bush’s behaviour, far from being entirely his own product, is rooted in his dynasty’s four-generation evolution and concomitant pattern of deception, dissimulation and disinformation’. So he relays the ‘history’, if it can be called that, of Bush and Walker (the ‘W’ in George W. Bush) families and their links to the arms trade, big oil, the Middle East, the CIA, money-laundering and everything else in the conspiracy theorist’s bag of tricks. The opening sentence, which makes an analogy between George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and the restorations of the Stuarts and the Bourbons, sets the tone for the whole book. Why Phillips chose to write such nonsense is anyone’s guess, but perhaps he shares his old boss Richard Nixon’s loathing of the snobby Ivy League types who used to run the Republican party. Ironically, it is Phillips’ principal target, George W. Bush, who has managed with his folksy frontier evangelism to bridge the gulf between Wall Street and Main Street.
As Michael Moore has shown, there is obviously a huge market for books like Bushwhacked and American Dynasty. People want their prejudices reinforced. George W. Bush has always been regarded as a dangerous fool by liberal metropolitan opinion in the US and Europe. Never mind that he defeated an incumbent vice-president sitting on a strong economy; or that he then assembled around him the most brilliant White House team since Kennedy; or that his response to the extreme provocation of 11 September was measured and multi-lateral; or that his tough foreign policy has not just rid the world of a dictator but is also now bringing Iran, Libya and North Korea to heel; or that his much criticised dividend tax cuts have helped turn the US economy from recession into rapid growth. Not that Bush himself minds in the least. In his own inimitable words, people have always ‘misunderestimated me’.