Keeping it in the first family


America: Kevin Phillips is a former Republican strategist with the Nixon administration who gained much notice for a 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, which predicted long-term Republican possession of the White House.

This was something Phillips clearly approved of. However, as the Republican Party moved to the right during the 1980s and 1990s, he grew disillusioned. His own personal journey took him in the opposite direction. When I first saw him on TV talk shows during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, he was still being described as a conservative, but was expressing views that were often critical of the administration.

Today there is no ambiguity. He has come full circle. Each of the 10 books he has written is more critical of the Republicans than the last, and especially of the Bush family, whom he admits to disliking. Their cosy image of Maine summer cottages, grey-haired national grandmother and cowboy boots has emphasised comforting family values, he writes. It has also distracted from the fact that the Bush family has used all its resources to create a political dynasty "to further its family and ideological agenda which would have horrified America's founding fathers".

This book is the first really detailed study of the way the Bush family gained its power and influence. A lot of it is old-style muck-raking and some of the comparisons with other dynasties are a bit of a stretch, but he has woven a fascinating, oil-stained tapestry of the machinations of four generations of Walker Bushes.

The alliance began when two business entrepreneurs, George Herbert Walker, a well-connected St Louis financier who made his money in war contracts, and Samuel P. Bush, who ran an Ohio arms company called Buckeye Steel Castings, were joined by marriage early in the 20th century. Walker helped steer son-in-law Prescott Bush to the top of Brown Brothers Harriman, which in mid-century was a bastion of Yale Skull and Bones men and was wired to the intelligence community. Crony capitalism and murky dealings with the military-industrial complex became a family staple, writes Phillips, and grudge-bearing a family trait (not least of the national granny). The family focused on finance, intelligence, oil and national security and to date has not produced a single doctor, judge, teacher or scholar of note.

No previous presidential family has been subject to so little scrutiny of the narrowness of its political views, the author states. It first became involved in politics when Prescott Bush got himself elected senator for Connecticut.

His son George H.W. Bush first worked for Dressler oil services, which had CIA connections, and then became head of the CIA at a time of secret arms deals with Afghan rebels (today's Taliban) and with Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Walker Bushes moved from New England to Midland, Texas, and transformed themselves from silver-spooned Yankees to born-again Texans, a route that mirrored the migration of population and power in the US. In Midland, an exclusive outpost of New York capitalists, they became aligned with the state's stereotype, that is, they thrived on tax shelters, business connections and government influence. They also became preoccupied with US Middle Eastern oil interests.

In 1988 George H.W. Bush became president, only to lose to Bill Clinton four years later. George W. Bush took up the dynastic succession, though his brother, Jeb, who became governor of Florida, was considered the smarter of the two. He started off as a hard-drinking, play-acting prodigal son - Phillips drags up but doesn't substantiate an old allegation that Bush worked off a cocaine charge at a Houston community centre - and was eased into the oil business by powerful family friends.

They were around, too, when he needed someone to bail him out, to pour money into his dry wells. Phillips tracks Dubya's run for governor of Texas and then for the White House, in both instances with the help of Enron money, and digresses to pour scorn on the Gore campaign for allowing itself to be outclassed and outspent by the Bush legal team in Florida in 2000. And anyone who believes that the Iraq war, conducted by the two oilmen in the White House, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, was not about oil will find plenty to mull over here.

One of the things the author doesn't like about the Bush family is its propensity to distort language. The elder Bush boasted of a "kinder and gentler" policy but it was phoney, and the younger touted a "compassionate conservatism" which was "velvet cloaking" for anti-environment, pro-business and pro-energy policies geared to the richest 1 per cent in the country.

The Bushes won't like anything about this book, least of all the title. The guarantee of a short conversation with George H.W. Bush is to mention the word "dynasty", the process whereby the eldest son of a defeated president was eight years later chosen by the father's party and inaugurated as the next president.

"We don't think that way," he says.

• Conor O'Clery is North America Editor of The Irish Times