Kevin Phillips’ American Dynasty

During my last visit to China I was lucky enough to have dinner with my friend Joseph Bosco, who told me there was one book I needed to read to understand what George Bush and his unfortunate presidency were all about, and that is American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush by Kevin Phillips.

I’ll try not to bore everyone with a detailed book review, as there are already some excellent ones out there (this one being my favorite). But I want to urge everyone who thinks they understand who our president is to get a copy. Everyone.

It’s important to know that Phillips is in no way a leftie or conspiracy nut. He’s a famous and well respected political analyst, more associated with the GOP than the Dems, and a former strategist to Richard Nixon. His brilliance was proven 30-some years ago when he presciently wrote that dramatic new political lines were about to be drawn across the American landscape based on the South’s imminent abandonment of the Democrats, and that religion would play a key role in determining those lines. Give the man a gold star for that one. According to friends familiar with his other books, Phillips has since been right on just about everything he writes about.

The premise of American Dynasty is simple and scary: That George W. Bush’s rise to power was the first true example of a full-blown dynastic restoration in American politics, comparable to the restoration of Louis XVI after the fall of Napoleon — and that dynasties were precisely what the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid in America. As with every restoration, you saw not only the staff of the earlier regime brought back to center stage (Colin Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld et. al), but also all of the family’s gripes: the lust for vengeance against “family enemies” like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, for example.

We all know the story of Bush’s “victory,” but Phillips makes it clear how in every way this was no ordinary ascent to power. According to American political tradition, a candidate who “wins” with such a small margin (a negative margin, actually) shows some humility and recognizes the public didn’t elect him with a strong mandate. Bush thoroughly ignored this tradition and began to run the nation as though he won by a landslide, pushing for immense tax cuts at once, as well as “moral reform” (stem cell research, abortion, prostitution, etc.).

This was an early warning that this presidency was, in every way, an anomaly.

Other revelations. It isn’t possible to understand Bush –Jr. or Sr. — without understanding Texas, and its cut-throat, laissez-faire, pro-corporate mentality. Phillips opened my eyes about Texas, where the little guy counts for nothing, and the state loathes spending money on its citizens. Altruism is actually a symptom of weakness, and “compassionate conservatism” is in reality a smokescreen, a way of saying, Pay for it yourself.

There’s so much in this book. Just a few more revelations: The huge role that Enron played in the Bush governorship and presidency and the myth that Bush handled the company fairly and without prejudice upon its collapse. Why the family’s hatred of Fidel Castro is deeply personal and goes back generations. What the Carlyle Group is really about, the role Bush Sr. plays in it, and the implications of a former president lobbying his son, the current president, on behalf of a company heavily invested in weapons companies and to a large extent in the pocket of the Saudis. Many of Bush’s colleagues, like Richard Perle, got very rich counselling him on a war in which they were heavily invested, via Carlyle and other munitions investments. The sheer disregard for ethical considerations or even the pretence of fairness is without precedent.

Hubris and lack of accountability are also key themes.

Increasingly aware of the disconnect between compassionate rhetoric and real-world action or funding, portions of the press corp took particular issue with Bush’s 2003 State of the Union and budget messages, employing descriptions that ranged from “gulf of credibility” and “artful misdirection” to “surreal” and “bold-faced lie.” David Broder, columnist for the Washington Post, marveled at the administration’s commitment to $726 billion worth of upper-bracket-tilted tax cuts over ten years in the face of the education, mental health, scholarship and law-enforcement cuts taking shape as states prepared to deal with an estimated $80 billion revenue shortfall for the 2004 fiscal year. He concluded that “this nonchalance — the brush-off to nitpicking questions about the massive debt being handed down to our children and grandchildren — is what makes the atmosphere in Washington so mind-boggling these says.”

Mind boggling, yes. But utterly in keeping with the Texan mentality and the Bush tradition of placing loyalty to corporate wealth above all else. Here’s how Phillips ends his masterpiece:

Since the events and upheavals of 2000-2001, the United States has had an abundance of unfolding transformations to discuss — in economics, national security and even religion. Of these, many can be considered and managed separately. But one is pervasive enough to make its impact felt almost everywhere: the extent to which a national governance has, at least temporarily, moved away from the proven tradition of a leader chosen democratically, by a majority or plurality of the electorate, to the succession of a dynastic heir whose unfortunate inheritance is priviliged, covert, and globally engineering.”

I think it’s pretty clear where Phillips stands on the GWB presidency.

The book isn’t perfect, and it has one big problem: It’s hard to read. Not that Phillips isn’t a great writer, but he’s giving so much information, it’s hard to keep track of it all. No matter; it’s a book you can never forget, and it sure puts the whole House of Bush into perspective. If you have to choose between Fahrenheit 9/11 and American Dynasty, definitely go for the latter (though both are recommended). They are world’s apart and, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Michael Moore is no Kevin Phillips.

If you managed to make it this far, allow me to end with a few lines from the aforementioned review by Jonathan Yardley.

It is a gloomy, even frightening picture: “global oil ventures, national security, sophisticated investments, arms deals, the Skull and Bones chic of covert operations, and committed support of established business interests,” now compounded by the “religious impulses and motivations” that the born-again George W. brings to the mix. It operates not in the free market its rhetoric prattles about, but in “crony capitalism” that gives every advantage to the cronies with enough capital to buy their way into the game. Crony capitalism has turned the funding of American elections into both a joke and a menace, and has made the public’s business a matter of private interest.

That this powerful argument has been made by Kevin Phillips should be a measure of how seriously it should be taken. He is not an ideologue of the left — to the contrary, he has been identified with the Republican Party for some three decades, though he now calls himself an independent — and he is not a conspiracy theorist; indeed he makes plain at the outset that “we must be cautious here not to transmute commercial relationships into . . . conspiracy theory.” It is true that in some instances his argument rests on circumstantial evidence and in others (mostly involving the family’s engagement with espionage and secret arrangements) on conjecture. It is also true that at times reading his dense prose can be an uphill battle. But American Dynasty is an important, troubling book that should be read everywhere with care, nowhere more so than in this city.

No matter what your politics, this book has a lot to offer, and the breadth and depth of Philips’ knowledge and wisdom are awe-inspiring.

Last comment (I promise): Ugga Bugga has done a masterful job diagramming American Dynasty in a graphic that’s almost as ingenious as the book.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Richard that is very interesting but your post is very long. Please keep it shorter!

July 13, 2004 @ 9:26 pm | Comment


Excellent! “ms. b.” notwithstanding, you have done the blogging world a great service and it is not too long! I sure am glad I talked to you about the book. Being lazy I have only blogged about it in passing with short endorsements spread across various posts. Now you know why I so often use the phrase “Dynastic Restoration” when I write about Bush, the Bush family, and the Bush inner circle.

Keep up the good fight!


July 13, 2004 @ 10:16 pm | Comment

say aomething to president Jiang ,richard, he is more disgusting, not always “praise Hu Jingtao ,praise Jiang, have doubt on…”.please be more tough to CCP like an Republic.( i think 80% people in China that were or are victims of CCP support Bush, and BTW fuck the Saddam, )i like the IRAQ war!!!

July 13, 2004 @ 10:46 pm | Comment

Come on … The Bush family is the first example of dynastic succession in US politics? Please …

July 13, 2004 @ 10:59 pm | Comment

Joseph, Richard, it is not fair and really quite thoughtless of you to discuss such excellent sounding books when the rest of us in Beijing have so little access to them.

Truly, you have Hurt The Feelings of The Chinese Expat Community, and should apologize.

July 14, 2004 @ 1:17 am | Comment


Jeeze, if you wanna borrow a copy, all ya gotta do is ask. Oh, if you’re in Beijing, it will actually cost you the price of a couple Scotch on the rocks.


July 14, 2004 @ 3:47 am | Comment

Dear Filthy Stinking No. 9,

It is the only Dynastic Restoration in American political history. The two Adams were father and son, but their terms as president were more than two decades apart.

Never have we had a father/son succession separated only by the reign of the man who dethroned an enfeebled king, served the kingdom well until time for his lawful, natural departure, only to see a bloodless Palace Coup that ended with the son of the elder former despot ascending to the throne and promptly reinstalling the royal court of his fallen father.

If that ain’t a whole lot like a European Dynastic Restoration from centuries gone by, you don’t read enough.


July 14, 2004 @ 4:09 am | Comment

Palace Coup that ended with the son of the elder former despot ascending to the throne and promptly reinstalling the royal court of his fallen father.”

And let’s not forget the prominent role played by the Dauphin’s brother in all this. Not to mention the learned sages who decreed the restoration of the dynasty, three of whom were appointed by the Dauphin’s father.

But it doesn’t matter whether this was the first dynastic succession in American history, or the second, or the tenth. America is not supposed to be a hereditary monarchy. We even fought a Revolutionary War against that sort of thing.

July 14, 2004 @ 4:18 am | Comment

You know, I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 with my mother and it only made my mother’s argument skills decline into defensive and brutal posturing immediately after. Perhaps it’s because people like Moore and Bosco are correct?

July 14, 2004 @ 9:13 am | Comment

Talk about wearing blinkers! My god, I would hardly have believed it without reading it here … though I can’t say I’m surprised.

July 14, 2004 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

wearing blinkers

Would you care to elaborate, No. 9?

July 15, 2004 @ 3:49 am | Comment

The comment wasn’t directed at you Vaara, but now I read your post it does seem applicable too.

Well, in both cases the answer to what I mean is so obvious that if you can’t see it, then that just proves my point.

July 17, 2004 @ 8:27 am | Comment

I don’t want to step in the middle of this, but I do hope you have the opportunity to read the book, Li En. I was very surprised, and you might be, too.

July 17, 2004 @ 10:25 am | Comment

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