POLITICS

Behind Every Rock, a Bush

Reviewed by Jamie Malanowski
Sunday, January 11, 2009

FAMILY OF SECRETS

The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America

By Russ Baker

Bloomsbury. 577 pp. $30

Halfway through the concluding chapter of Family of Secrets, Russ Baker mentions, not entirely modestly, that when a colleague heard some of the things he would be disclosing in his almost 600-page book about the Bush family and its connections to John F. Kennedy's assassination, Watergate and many other pivotal events, the colleague "suggested, only half in jest, that the book be called 'Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong.' "

Well, any investigative journalist whose credo isn't "Everything You Thought Is Wrong" should probably pack it in. No quality, not even doggedness, is more important than the ability to embrace the belief that, despite what everyone else thinks, only the reporter really knows the truth. But with this big challenge comes a big burden of proof. As history's tide rolls out, we may eventually discover that everything we think we know about the George Bushes, père et fils, is wrong and that everything Baker alleges about them in his book -- their secrets, their labors on behalf of powerful, self-serving interests -- is right on the money. Despite strenuous efforts, however, Baker doesn't prove it here.

A softer sell would have served him better. A capable investigator who has written for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, Baker is skillful at taking bits of information and placing them in contexts that make the Bush family's behavior and decisions look unusual and, frequently, nefarious. Had he been satisfied to raise suspicions, he would have been provocative and, on some counts, persuasive. But by trying to explain everything, to create a unified field theory of American tragedy that has the Bushes as the key actors and beneficiaries, Baker exceeds his grasp.

Take, for example, the many details Baker has collected about George H.W. Bush and his activities in Texas in the 1950s and early '60s. Baker's cornerstone is a memo, reported by the Nation magazine in 1988, in which J. Edgar Hoover says the FBI spoke to "Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency" after John F. Kennedy's assassination. To that Baker adds suggestive pieces of information about the Bush family-Yale-Skull & Bones-CIA-oil industry nexus. All this, taken together, advances the possibility that the elder Bush was at least a minor asset to the CIA, and maybe more, when he was doing business in Latin America and the Caribbean early in the Cold War. As everyone knows, Bush became the CIA's director in 1976. But Family of Secrets posits that his connections to the agency go back much earlier. Baker then scrutinizes the elder Bush's movements on Nov. 22, 1963. On the morning of the assassination, he was in Dallas, then flew to Tyler, Tex., to speak at a luncheon (the speech was cancelled when the shooting was reported; Baker notes that Bush remained "supremely well composed''), then flew back to Dallas and on to Houston, but not before phoning the FBI from Tyler to report his suspicions that a Republican Party activist might have been involved in the killing. Add in a handful of Bush associates who had interesting (and in one case downright bizarre) connections to the event, the author's general distrust of right-wing oilmen, an argument that the CIA had its own reasons for hating Kennedy, and suddenly you have a scenario that starts to sound like a conspiracy. Baker never explains how Bush might have been involved in the assassination; he only suggests that having apparently developed ties to the CIA and having had these weird friends and having done this odd informer thing -- possibly to establish an alibi -- well, he must be up to his neck in something.

And who knows? But the Nation asked George H.W. Bush in 1988 if he were the person Hoover was referring to, and a spokesman for the then-vice president said no. The CIA produced another George Bush who had been on its staff at the time of the assassination, although that guy also denied having dealt with the FBI. Baker suggests that this was some kind of cover story to protect Bush 41, but what kind of cover story is it when the coverer doesn't stick to the story?

The point is, Baker is not content merely to raise uncomfortable questions; he has latched onto the Grand Theory of Bushativity, and he insists on pressing his case with evidence that will not bear the weight. Every time he reaches a gap in someone's means or motivation, he hops, skips and jumps across it as nimbly as a mountain goat. Such words as "appears,'' "apparently,'' "likely,'' "seems,'' "seemingly'' and "in all likelihood" appear at many crucial junctures; there are more crutches in these pages than in the grotto at Lourdes.

Baker also hurts himself by consistently thinking the worst of his subjects, even on matters only tangentially related to his central argument. He makes a big deal, for example, out of inconsistencies in the elder Bush's accounts of being shot down during World War II. Smith suggests that Bush changed his story to seem more courageous and to diminish his responsibility for the lives of his crew. Never mind studies that point to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and set aside all we know about how the passing of time messes with memory. Just think: Bush was flying an airplane and trying to bomb a target while people were trying to kill him, and they very nearly succeeded. I've never been in that position, so I can't say how well I would have recollected events. I can say I have gone into a supermarket with two small children and come out having forgotten to buy the very item I went to the store to get. Baker's Javert-like pursuit makes him seem unreasonable.

This is just one of many places where the author overplays his hand. In a particularly weak section, he argues that Bush was complicit in a plot to undermine Richard Nixon. Here Baker relies on revisionist accounts of Watergate that point to John Dean as the one who ordered the break-in, or to the CIA as conspiring to oust Nixon. Bush is linked to these fuzzy schemes primarily by having, like the Watergate burglars, a CIA connection. In addition, Baker finds it suspicious that Bush advised Nixon to come clean about the break-in. But such advice was highly conventional and could be considered anti-Nixon only if you buy the idea that Bush prodded an innocent president to admit to something that didn't involve him. Baker doesn't convincingly cast Bush as anything beyond a sycophantic, Zelig-like presence in the Nixon years.

The later chapters of the book, about George W. Bush, are more plausible, if only because Baker breaks less ground in his coverage of the family's connections to Saudi Arabia and the younger Bush's record in the National Guard. But having seen Baker stretch his evidence in the early chapters, a reader cannot be entirely sure that he isn't doing the same thing again. The next time this intrepid investigator takes aim at a subject, he might remember that it is wiser to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa. ·

Jamie Malanowski, a New York writer, is the author of the novel "The Coup."


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