The Flu
Mother Spa Week

American Dynasty and The Price of Loyalty

While I've been lying around recuperating, I read American Dynasty by Kevin Phillips. Last week, while getting over jet lag, I read Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty. Both are books on Bush by disgruntled republicans.

Of the two, the Suskind book is the more pleasurable read. (Also, the book's web site has some of the raw documents, presumably unavailable elsewhere. Brad DeLong is all over them.) Paul O'Neill is an engaging protagonist with a good story to tell. So although I found it a bit slow in the beginning, it picks up pace later. It answered some questions I'd had, like Was the administration really talking the stock market down early on? Answer: Yes. And the administration's gloom-and-doom economic prophet was Larry Lindsey, one of the book's antagonists, who would say anything to justify Bush's tax cut impulses.

Reading the Phillips book, I often had to go back and re-read the previous few paragraphs because I was no longer sure what he was talking about. In part this is because the book is organized by subject rather than chronologically, but it's also a stylistic issue. (It may also have something to do with reading the book while down with the flu.) It's probably a much easier read if you are already familiar with all the key players and events discussed. Phillips is not a natural-born story-teller.

If I had encountered American Dynasty as an unsolicited submission in my literary agency days, my reader's report would have said something like This is hot stuff, but the author really needs to work with a writer who knows how to tell a story. But I would have been wrong.

The most important thing to understand about Kevin Phillips is that he was one of Nixon's political strategists. Eric Bates, writing for Rolling Stone, describes him this way:

But Phillips is no left-wing demagogue. He's not only a lifelong Republican, he's also the guy who literally wrote the book that became the blueprint for the party's dominance of presidential politics. Phillips served as the chief political strategist for Richard Nixon in 1968, and, in The Emerging Republican Majority, he formulated the "Southern Strategy" that helped hand the White House to the GOP for a generation.

Phillips's intentions for the effect book need to be understood in this context. This is not a book which will bring an end to the Bush dynasty he describes. But rather it contains the background material and even strategic suggestions for any number of journalistic efforts which might.

The other important thing to understand about the Phillips book is that one can be absolutely sure that Viking's legal department went over it with a fine-toothed comb. Former President Bush threatened to sue St. Martin's Press to stop distribution of J.H. Hatfield's Bush bio Fortunate Son in October of 1999 which alleged that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, but had his record expunged by a Republican judge in exchange for Bush's participation in a community service program. (St. Martin's did indeed stop distribution on the basis that Hatfield had a criminal record.) One can be sure that a book as potentially damaging as the Phillips would have brought a similar legal action if Phillips or the Viking legal department had left them the opportunity. (I do wonder what the legal department made Phillips take out. He lays most of the groundwork for a claim that George H. W. was the chief architect of Iran-Contra, but then doesn't come out and say it.)

Given the general themes of the book -- that the Bush family has a multigenerational involvement with nepotism, money-laundering, dubious arms trading, secrecy to the point of tampering with government records, financial entanglements with criminals and enemies of the US, etc. -- Phillips is perhaps well-served by his literary style. He presents longterm patterns of evidence which cannot be disposed of in a few news cycles. This is for him, after all, a game of strategy. I have the strong suspicion that he's saying a lot more than I understood and has laid quite a few landmines for the Bush family.

Although a lot of people like me are buying these books, I suspect I'm not really the audience. Although the books are sold for the general audience, the true core audience for these books is traditional republicans. I wonder how many disgruntled traditional republicans there are out there who didn't happen to write a book or get it published.