The royal family of American democracy
Former Republican strategist criticizes the Bush men
Kevin Phillips doesn't like George W. Bush. In fact, the former GOP operative turned disgruntled analyst doesn't have a lot of positive things to say about the entire Bush clan - from George H.W. to Prescott and on back into the family tree.
What has Phillips so upset about the Bush clan? Well, what have you got?
Ostensibly, his new book "American Dynasty" is as much about the implicit dangers of dynastic politics as it is about the Bushes in particular. And early on, Phillips makes a sort of historical argument against the Bushes, comparing the family to restored monarchies of old Europe - the Stuarts of 1600s England, and the Bourbons of 1800s France. He explains his concerns about dynasties: their tendency to pursue the same geopolitical goals over generations, their bias toward the same interests, their desire to seek revenge on old family foes. All legitimate points.
But it becomes clear pretty quickly that the real problem for Phillips is the Bushes themselves - everything from the way the family amassed its wealth through war profiteering and the flaws in the family's economic policies to the president's link to the religious right.
"Despite the new overlay of Evangelical Protestantism," Phillips writes, "the economic record of the 43rd president (George W. Bush) essentially extended the practice of the 41st: favoring the small group of rich Americans while systematically misleading a much larger portion of the population."
The dynastic premise that Phillips discusses in the early pages largely becomes a vehicle in which to pour a long list of criticisms. In fact, it's tempting to call this tome an angry polemic against all things Bush, but Phillips offers more than just anger in these pages. It's a thinking person's diatribe.
The extent of research and knowledge here is impressive and most readers will come away learning something, perhaps much, they didn't know about the Bushes in general or the president in particular.
But overall, as a cohesive book, "American Dynasty" is a mixed bag. It wanders, a lot, and some chapters are better than others. Socioeconomics has long been Phillips's forte as both an analyst and a writer, and when Phillips writes about how the president's economic plans tie into his "compassionate conservatism," he is in top form. His discussion of "Texanomics" and the Bush family "investment-model perception of the US economy" is compelling. Many of the factlets, such as the way Bush's 2001 tax cuts gave 36 percent of their full-term benefit to the top 1 percent on the nation's earners, are damning.
A chapter on George W. Bush's place in the rise of the national and global religious right, which is "on a roll from Texarkana to Tashkent," as Phillips says, is engrossing and at points scary. The president's alleged comments about being chosen by God to lead the nation are disturbing. And his recounting of the well-known story of how US intelligence agencies built up and supported Saddam Hussein and other enemies is well done.
But the chapter on the rise of the national security structure and the Bush family's role in it is at times dense and difficult to follow, especially for those not overly familiar with spookery. And there are points where Phillips seems to stretch facts to fit over his argument. It may be true, for instance, that large segments of the religious right support the president because they believe his policies are bringing the "end of days" closer, but it is open to speculation whether large parts of the Republican Party buy into that talk. Probably, they're playing along, happy to take whatever votes come with it.
But Phillips is the harshest kind of critic, the kind who can examine an organization to which he once belonged. It was Phillips, in fact, who helped create the modern Republican Party in the late 1960s when he devised the "Southern Strategy" that pushed the Democratic Southern states into the GOP column by hitting on issues like race and culture.
Since the late 1980s, the author's books have contained a rising tone of dislike for what the GOP has become. He feels the party has lost its way, and he clearly doesn't appreciate the anti-intellectual approach that has come to dominate it over the past two decades. In the president and the Bush family, he sees his case in point. "None of the Bushes has ever been a serious intellectual in defense or foreign-policy matters," he writes. "For them, physical activity - especially sports such as golf or speedboating - has been more appealing than long evenings devoted to abstract thought."
Of course, a large potion of the country would not find fault in that, which is why, in the end, "American Dynasty" is, like so many other things in this politically divided nation, a litmus test. Depending on where you stand, you'll probably like it or hate it, but there won't be many people in the middle.
• Dante Chinni is a Monitor columnist who lives in Washington, D.C.