LITCHFIELD, Conn. -- Utter three words -- George Walker Bush -- and watch eminent author Kevin Phillips, a longtime Republican, a former Nixon aide and past party theoretician, pucker like he has inhaled a pickle.
"I've never understood why we take Bush and his family seriously," he says. "They come from the investment-inherited-money wing of the Republican Party. They display no real empathy for anyone who is not of their class."
"I've never understood why we take Bush and his family seriously," says Kevin Phillips, who quit the GOP to become an independent.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
He pauses a few seconds as his fingers execute a tap dance on his picnic table.
"They aren't supply-siders; they're crony-siders. As far as I'm concerned, I would put Bush on a slow boat to China with all full warning to the Chinese submarine fleet."
Silence again. Phillips sits on his back porch and looks at you from under hooded eyes, with only the vaguest hint of a chipmunk smile. He's a curious cat, this 63-year-old Nixon-era Republican populist. His best-selling, muckraking book on the family that has held the presidency for eight of the past 16 years, "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," is a sustained rummage through the Bush family closet. He pulls out all manner of files on the early Bushes and the Walker branch of the family, and their dealings with post-World War I German industrialists and post-World War II Saudi princelings. And he draws a bright connecting line between those wheeler-dealer financiers and their Texas-lite descendants.
Phillips's bottom line is unsparing. He describes the Bushes as second-tier New England monied types who made the strategic move from Greenwich, Conn., to Midland, Tex., just as the nation's power pendulum took a southern swing. This was not a particularly daring strike into the interior. Rather, like proper Wall Street capitalists, the Bushes and many other financier families had sniffed the scent of sweet cash and sent a relative or two to investigate.
Texas, Phillips writes, "represented one of the century's great American wealth opportunities."
The Bushes settled in a west Texas city that, far from being the cowboy wildcatter's paradise of political myth, was a leafy enclave thick with Ivy League scions, street names such as Princeton and Harvard, and enough Wall Street gilt to keep everyone in country club fees.
As it happens, this state and that family have come to embody everything that Phillips can't stand about turn-of-the-century America. Texas is wealthy and obsessed with the accumulation of more. It's economically polarized and ranks 42nd in per-capita state spending. Its Republican elite seem splendidly immune to guilt.
"Texas civic culture," Phillips writes, "more akin to that of Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, has accepted wealth and its benefits with minimal distraction by guilt and noblesse oblige."
Phillips elaborates on this critique during an interview. "George W. is the first president to come directly out of the oil industry, even if he was a failure at the actual business of looking for it," he says. "And who did he pick as his vice president? Another man from the oil industry. It's astonishing that nobody really questions the implications of this."
It's a righteous rap, and the sort of angry and richly detailed critique that one might expect from any number of left-liberal luminaries working the Bush-Just-Might-Signal-the-End-of-the-World circuit. These authors and filmmakers are the toast of Santa Monica and Madison and Cambridge and Montclair and Burlington, and they fire up the Democratic faithful. Except that Phillips doesn't remotely hail from there.
He's a New Yorker, yes, but also a Republican born and bred, a kid who couldn't stand that liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller. He penned "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969, one of the first books to argue that the Sunbelt could catapult the Republicans to national power. And he locates the source of his populist scorn for Bush not in the polemics of the left but in the politics of his hero, Dwight Eisenhower. The former general was a politician who embraced a top marginal tax rate of 90 percent, who warned of the abuses of the military-industrial complex and who -- in Phillips's telling -- had little use for the country club Republican set.
"The Republicans I respected really cared about the meatloaf crowd," Phillips says. "The Bush crowd can call me a pinko if they want, but that really doesn't go down well with people who know anything about politics."