Todo Por Poder


All right, America. Listen up. This is a test. Who wrote the following passage:

“Where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds,” asked the English philosopher John Locke in 1689, “or of the falsehood of all he condemns?”

Just such a man was sitting in the statehouse in Austin, Texas. Within days of his reelection as governor, George W. Bush was secretly planning to run for President, because, as he said, he felt certain he had been called.

Was it (a) Kevin Phillips, former White House strategist, author of The Politics of Rich and Poor and Wealth and Democracy, as well as the widely acclaimed American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (described by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times as “eloquent on the continuing fallout of American decisions, beginning in the ’70s, to pour huge amounts of armaments into the tinderbox of the Persian Gulf and Middle East,” and by The Chicago Sun-Times as “so sober and steeped in learning that readers will wonder how President Bush, or any one’s man’s family, could stand this depth of exposure”)?

Or was it (b) Kitty Kelley, author of Jackie Oh!, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, and Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, and The Family: The Real Story of The Bush Dynasty, criticized by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times as “a perfect artifact of a cultural climate in which gossip and innuendo thrive on the Internet.” (And described by noted literary critic and congressional ethicist Tom DeLay as a book that “would reflect poorly on its author, if in fact any reasonable person still respected her at this advanced state of her pathological career.”? Kelley’s publisher sent a courtesy copy to DeLay; he returned it c.o.d.)

If you chose (a), well, I can see how you would. But you’ve answered incorrectly. If you chose (b), congratulations! You’re obviously up on your Bush family biographies. Or maybe you just stumbled on that passage while zipping through 700+ pages of Bushes and Walkers, Skull and Bones, Yale and Texas, looking for the good parts: allegations about the go-to girl for marijuana, pot parties in Tortola; cocaine at Camp David.

Okay. Ready for another one?

A hard worker, even during his hard-drinking days, George’s career is marked by a slash of carelessness. He was careless with other people’s money, careless about rules, careless about using the Bush name, and careless with the truth. He, like his brothers, was careless in the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the term in The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Once again, the options are (a) Kevin Phillips and (b) Kitty Kelley. And once again, the answer is Kitty.

All right. Just one more:

After showing Barbara through the family quarters on January 11, 1989, Nancy got the stiletto the next morning when she read Barbara’s comments: “All those closets—why you just can’t believe all the clothes closets Mrs. Reagan has … I don’t know how I could possibly fill them.” Barbara had already bought an $8,000 ermine jacket and a $1,250 Judith Leibner purse for her husband’s inauguration, but no one knocked her extravagance the way critics did Nancy Reagan’s. Barbara avoided her predecessor’s mistakes by withholding news about her Seventh Avenue shopping sprees and the designers who contribute to her inaugural wardrobe. When a reporter asked her at one event whose dress she was wearing, she replied, “Mine.”

No contest there. Vintage Kelley.

Four years in the making, released last month to pre-emptive denials from the Bush administration (“garbage,”) The Family is a vast, unwieldy telenovela of a book. I try to use that word sparingly, since I’ve already gotten a lot of mileage using it as a hook to write about Mexican politics. But when you’re dealing with one family, two presidents, two governors (with a governor wannabe sidelined by the S&L scandal), a former CIA director, drugs and drug addiction, two wars with Iraq, the military-financial-industrial complex, and legions of offspring and siblings—many of whom require an army of forensic accountants to adequately figure out what they’re up to—what are we talking about here? Hello, sweetheart. Forget rewrite. Get me Televisa and TV Azteca. Have we got a story for you. Let’s call it Todo por poder—Everything for Power.

Kelley begins in the late 19th century with Samuel Bush in Ohio and George Herbert Walker—”the real founding father and spiritual progenitor of the Bush clan,” to borrow a phrase from Kevin Phillips—in St. Louis. The story gets rolling—slowly—with Prescott Bush, former senator from Connecticut, father of George Bush, Sr., and the epitome of the Big Man on Campus at Yale. As the story progresses from generation to generation, and the financial ties shift from Connecticut to Texas, Kelley reaches the same broad conclusion reached by many others before her: With each generation, there’s a good deal more noblesse and a lot less oblige. The book ends with W. (referred to at one point as “the Sonny Corleone” of the family), on the USS Lincoln in Operation Flight Suit, to borrow a phrase from Paul Krugman.

The Family is chock full of chisme, good, old-fashioned gossip, as well as extensive archival research and interviews (nearly 1,000 by Kelley’s count; frustratingly, there’s only a listing of sources for each chapter, many are unnamed, and it’s often impossible to match facts to source). Her interviewees range from Ron Reagan, Jr., who speaks freely about the Bushes’ sense of entitlement; to Kent Hance, the former Texas legislator-turned-lobbyist who defeated George W. Bush in 1978 in his first run for political office, who offers a few country yarns; to Yoshi Tsurumi, the president’s macroeconomics professor at Harvard Business School, who recalls very clearly George W. Bush as a young man with “no sense of compassion, devoid of social responsibility.” When the professor announced his plan to show the film The Grapes of Wrath (it was the 1970s and people did that sort of thing in B-School then) to foster a discussion of poverty, Bush objected: “Why are you going to show us that Commie movie?”

“I laughed because I thought he was kidding,” Tsurumi says, “but he wasn’t.”

After we viewed the film, I called on him to discuss the Depression and how he thought it affected people. He said, “Look. People are poor because they are lazy.” A number of the students pounced on him and demanded that he support his statement with facts and statistics. He quickly backed down because he could not sustain his broadside….I did not judge him to be stupid, just spoiled and undisciplined….so abysmal that I once asked him how he ever got accepted in the first place. He said, “I had lots of help.” I laughed and then inquired about his military service. He said he had been in the Texas National Guard. “My dad fixed it so that I got into the Guard. I got an early discharge to come here.”

While Tsurumi’s story has since been picked up by, and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has also quoted the professor, most of the media buzz, of course, has centered on First Ex-Sister-in-Law (or should that be Ex-First-Sister-in-Law?) Sharon Bush’s accusations—which she later denied ever making to Kelley—that W. and the youngest Bush brother, Marvin, did cocaine at Camp David when their father was president. (Neil, whom Kelley refers to as the “Fredo Corleone” of the family, and Sharon were in the midst of a bitter, highly publicized divorce. Kelley and Doubleday can back up their claims that Sharon said what she said, but ultimately, the story goes nowhere but down the rabbit hole.)

Despite what the book jacket copy portends, The Family is far from literally being the “Tell All” book about the Bushes. While reading it in tandem with American Dynasty (the best of the Bush family books), I’ve often wondered who will be W.’s Robert Caro. And God bless the poor soul who would even think of undertaking such a project, not just because it’s so daunting, but also because there are serious questions about the availability of records. Perhaps the most valuable thing to take from The Family is the author’s warning in the introduction: W. placed his records as Texas Governor in his father’s presidential library in College Station. On November 1, 2001, he signed an executive order that blocks the release of all presidential documents. “Under Bush’s new rules,” Kelley writes, “presidents now have the right to prevent the public from ever viewing their papers, even after they have died.”

If that happens, we all flunk.