The PBS series on the Roosevelts reminds us that if we don’t have royalty, we do sometimes have a First Family that sticks around. It’s the Clintons in the news lately, but it’s the Bushes with the staying power. Jeb Bush might be the most humane and generally enlightened of his formidable clan, but as a possible president, he brings more than meets the eye. A respected Florida governor, he has executive experience (under BushBama we’ve seen the importance of that), and his Mexican-born wife would be a political asset if his party came to its senses. But the “W” legacy is only the tip of a large disturbing iceberg. The Bush family is as prominent and powerful as the Roosevelts were, and richer, and has produced two modern presidents. But the baggage is staggering.
Researching a thriller set circa the infamous Iran/Contra “arms-for-hostages” deal, I kept coming across W’s father, G.H.W. Bush, or Bush 1, vice president under Ronald Reagan and former head of CIA. That totally illegal deal put Reagan in the White House, and Bush was a power in the CIA that concocted it. Looking into Bush 1 further, I was struck by his bold move to Texas directly on graduating Yale. Texas was new ground for a man with deep New England roots whose father was a Connecticut senator. In the land of the tumbling tumble weed, you could get a fifteen year sentence for twenty grams of that other kind of weed back in the 1950s (Candy Barr, stripper). You might drag a black man to death behind your pickup not long ago, or arrange a hit on just about anyone without worrying much about serious investigation if you were connected. Bush 1 for our purposes, Poppy to his family, was a good fit, moving into the oil business while working with CIA in various roles that conveniently involved prominent oil Arabs. America being a country where history is no longer taught in any serious way, media lemmings have sold the retired “Poppy” as kind of a fun guy, be he in wheelchair or parachute. In fact he is more like the spook terrorist in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, also in a wheelchair, with a gun under his blanket.
How did the Bush dynasty come about? Writing a novel about thoroughbred racing made me aware of the profound respect animal breeders have for bloodlines. Heredity is huge with animals, and whatever else, we are an animal species. The Bushes are no exception and run to type. They have big balls, but that development is fairly recent. Bush 1’s father, Senator Prescott Bush, is often seen as the man who lifted the family from obscurity back in the 1930s, but it was his marriage to the daughter of a brilliant St. Louis banker-businessman, George Herbert Walker, that changed the game. Walker came from a Missouri family, was educated at an English Jesuit school, and had a talent for banking and business that was never evident in the Bush side. In thoroughbred breeding, Bush 1 would be a successful “outcross,” in which two unrelated lines mate, avoiding the perils of inbreeding and creating fresh energy.
Until marrying Dorothy Walker, Prescott Bush was a popular, athletic Yale man known for his confidence, looks, social skills, musical talent, and daring. He was involved in the Skull and Bones theft of Geronimo’s skull, and a standout Whiffenpoof, a founder of the Yale Glee Club. But aside from solid success, nothing remarkable could be expected of him. The family went back to colonial times and had never greatly distinguished itself. Guided by his father in law, Prescott Bush quickly rose to a dominant role in several large banks, and his daring was enhanced. In 1933 he led a failed coup to remove FDR from office. This amazing scheme was outed by Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, who was wanted as a front man for the coup. He did the right thing, and exposed it. A congressional investigation found Butler’s allegations “credible” but he paid whistleblower dues and his career did not prosper.
The public Bushes have been discreet and meticulous over generations, with Bush 2 (“W”) as the exception. They stay out of trouble, even when playing with fire. Prescott Bush’s banks aided Hitler in his rise to power, and continued doing major business with members of the Nazi party into WW2, until FDR ended it in 1942. The Dulles brother's law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, handled the problem for him, and he emerged unharmed to be elected to the Senate ten years later.
He sired Bush 1, the lovable Poppy, who brought that same crisp bankerly style to his oil/banking/intelligence career. Even as the father was continuing with the Nazis, his son, fresh out of Andover, volunteered for military service and saw action in a torpedo bomber. After the war he attended Yale and followed his father into Skull and Bones, which largely staffed upper levels of the OSS, then CIA, of which Poppy was later head. He remained involved in intelligence most of his life, forming Zapata Oil with a CIA associate, and profitably combining oil, banking and espionage activities. An effective, hard working bureaucrat and vice president, he succeeded Reagan as President despite the Iran-Contra scandal, but was tainted by this totally illegal operation. Only fellow Texan Dan Rather of CBS dared confront him, and Bush 1 blustered his way out of dialog. But his long close involvement with the Bin Laden family and other prominent oil-Muslims, Saudis in particular, was discreet, and remained largely unknown. The string of Iran-Contra pardons that began under Reagan, continued under him for obvious reasons, headed by the former Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, CIA Central American Task Force Chief, CIA Deputy Director for Operations, and CIA Counter-Terrorism Chief. Then came the mysterious and convenient death of Amram Nir, prior to Bush 1’s election, not publicized here. Nir was the key Israeli figure in Iran-Contra, and had threatened to publish a warts-and-all version arms-for-hostages.
Equally damning, Bush 1 also played a crucial role forming legendary BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), working with many Muslims, as documented by Joseph Trento, multiple Pulitzer nominee. (“ . . . with the official blessing of George H.W. Bush as head of the CIA...”) BCCI was probably the dirtiest bank ever, a money laundry for CIA and drug merchants, toppled only after years of international effort. In the process, French investigators discovered Bush 1 had had a personal account with them, and long-term connections with its founders and owners, notably a former head of Saudi intelligence. Filthy as BCCI was, Bush 1 was never called to account.
His son “W”, Bush 2, was less adroit, but somehow became president after failing, first in the oil business (bailed out by Saudi friends) and then as a ball-club owner. Despite this thin record, he was elected Governor of Texas, because he was politically gifted, a cheerleader and social power at Yale. Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau, who overlapped him at Yale, described him in Rolling Stone as “another sarcastic preppy who gave people nicknames and arranged for keg deliveries.” “W” was head of the Armour Council, to which Trudeau was elected as a freshman “under the mistaken impression it had something to do with student government. In fact, it was the social committee… ”
Trudeau didn’t fully grasp that his social power was a serious political gift. Lacking the Bush work ethic, Bush 2 came off as an easy-going good old boy, and he had a real talent for getting elected. A slow-tracker in a fast-track family, he knew his place and took directions from smarter and more ambitious men, willing to lie about ultimately serious matters and start an oil war. It was hugely profitable for certain corporations, and the war debt was concealed by creative bookkeeping. It also led to an unprecedented collapse of US prestige abroad, with legal and economic consequences we are still living with. Under Bush 2, American prestige dropped below the nadir established in Vietnam. The hysterical legislation following 9/11 removed many civil liberties, while further empowering the already vast Intelligence Community.
This then is some of the family baggage that Jeb Bush brings. And the sad fact is, he may be the pick of the Republican litter in 2016, simply because he is not a fool or a Tea Party enthusiast. He’d probably be superior to Mr. Obama when it comes to cutting a deal, and he might have stopped Mrs. Nuland’s botched Ukraine coup, which ended any Russian cooperation in the near east. But the real question is whether that unrelenting tradition of Bush greed, consistent through banking, oil or the accretion of power, would ever allow him to operate the government in a way that ran against the interest of his class. That would require a great man, and he has not showed signs of greatness. No Bush ever has. Bush 1 was a mediocre president, Bush 2 a disaster.
Both Roosevelts ignored the special interests of their class, FDR to a degree that made him hated by the rich as no other president has ever been. That, as they say, is class. Whether a member of the Bush family can even imagine aspiring to this kind of selfless dedication is the question. FDR never lost the trust of the people, and it’s been a while since any American politician has accomplished that more than briefly.