-- 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."
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."
Phillips mentions a recent television appearance with a panel of liberal historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr. As Phillips recalls the moment, his fellow panelists spoke of Bush and the Republicans in terms, to Phillips's mind, that were far too mild and tempered. When Phillips's turn came, he said to Schlesinger: "Now you're about to hear the real Republican viewpoint."
And with that Phillips fired both rhetorical barrels at Bush.
As you might expect, Phillips's salvos, and his essays for such liberal magazines as the Nation and the American Prospect, don't amuse conservative Republicans. They talk and write of this former Republican theorist -- now a registered independent -- as a nephew might of a favorite uncle grown dyspeptic and perhaps daft. They describe him as a relic of the Nixon era, which in the vernacular of modern conservatism connotes something akin to dangerous liberalism.
"Like many Nixon admirers, Kevin Phillips left the Republican Party when it shifted its attention away from the nanny state towards a resurgent conservatism," writes Meghan Keene in a review of "American Dynasty" for the American Enterprise Institute. "Phillips . . . has long since distanced himself from Republican principles."
Some go further still. Robert Locke, a columnist with arch-conservative Frontpage.com, lacerated another conservative magazine for daring to print an essay by Phillips. To do so, Locke argues, "is very disturbing, and indeed bordering on political treason." Phillips, he says, has "descended into the muck of crude economic populism."
It's a strange business, this notion that Phillips is beyond the conservative pale and that Richard Nixon was a closet liberal and lover of the welfare state. Except that perhaps there's some truth to this. Nixon endorsed a 50 percent tax rate on the wealthy, courted labor unions and had an instinctive feel for lower-middle-class economic resentments. And far from destroying the welfare state, he proposed a guaranteed minimum income.
Several prominent old Nixon hands, from Patrick Buchanan to former Treasury secretary Peter Peterson, have enunciated tough critiques of Bush's foreign policy and his tax cuts. (Asked recently by Bill Moyers if he needed the Bush tax cuts, Peterson replied: "I'm really almost embarrassed by the idea . . . that I'm going to be getting tax cuts so that my 6-year-old . . . grandchildren can pay bigger taxes in the future.")
None of this surprises Phillips.
"Every time I wrote an attack on Bush Sr., Nixon would send me a handwritten note of praise," Phillips says. "People ask why I won't register as a Democrat. I tell them that after Bush, the [Republican] party may come back. I'm historiographically a Republican."
Phillips has sailed far from the Republican ports of his youth, but he's not comfortable throwing down an anchor in a Democratic harbor. He congratulates Democrats on their journey away from their political and cultural irrelevancy of the 1980s. As he puts it, they learned "the art of shutting up." But he sees a party that, like the Republicans, has developed an umbilical taste for the campaign money flowing from the Wall Street and media elites.
"The Democrats understand that they killed themselves politically when they reached a point where they couldn't talk to the blue-collar worker in South Philadelphia or Queens," he says. "But now they just want to raise as much money as the Republicans, and so they're mute."
He's confounded, too, by the Democrats' inability to savage their opponents. He frowns -- it's as if someone took pliers and pulled out the party's canine teeth. "The Democrats accumulated all this dirt on Bush, but they wouldn't use it," he says. "These people have no taste for the jugular."
Phillips's critique meets with eager nods from the Democratic left. Richard Borosage, a longtime left thinker and activist, has urged Democrats, particularly those of patrician mien like John Kerry, to adopt a populist edge, the better to defuse the cultural attacks of the Republicans. "Phillips has always been scornful of Wall Street Republicans, and he understands that the Republicans are scared of a populist critique," Borosage says. "Phillips and Lee Atwater always warned that a populist Democratic candidate would cause the most problems for Republicans."
Phillips's populism was not bred in the bone. He grew up a bright lad in a middle-class neighborhood of the Bronx. His parents were active Republicans and he found in voting trends and political history the same fascination that his teenage friends discovered in batting averages. Even today, if you ask Phillips about a particular hill county in Tennessee, he will walk you back to the Scots-Irish and their antipathy toward the royalist Cavaliers, and then take you forward to last year's Senate race.
It's this talent, slightly nerdy and invaluable, that piqued the curiosity of Nixon. The presidential candidate heard Phillips expound on how Republicans could reach southern working-class whites and northern Catholics who had been turned off by the Democratic Party's turn to the cultural and social left. "I argued that there were a lot of white ethnics for whom a vote for [John F.] Kennedy was a last hurrah," Phillips recalls.
Nixon hammered at these themes and took key border states in his 1968 election. Nixon sent Phillips to work as a political aide for Attorney General John Mitchell, but Phillips didn't care for much of the Nixon crowd -- H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman deep-sixed most of the young aide's ideas. But he developed an enduring fondness for his strangely awkward president. Nixon was an inchoate man after Phillips's own heart.
"Nixon only liked first-generation millionaires, the guys who had four car dealerships in Los Angeles," Phillips says. "He probably wanted to get into the private golf clubs, but he always knew it would be an uphill struggle."
Phillips left the Nixon White House after about a year. While his writing remained influential within Republican circles for the next decade, he never became a political consultant. Instead he has written 11 well-respected books on history and economics, and made a considerable pile of money writing business newsletters and giving speeches on politics. "I've done well with Bush-o-nomics, no doubt," he says. "Unfortunately, it's disastrous for the country."
Phillips's antipathy for the Bushes took root in the Nixon administration. Nixon, he says, regarded the elder Bush as a lightweight and so assigned him to the United Nations. Nixon then appointed him as chairman of the Republican National Committee, where Bush proved swell at sweet-talking donors into parting with large sums of money for the sake of the party. (In this way, Phillips says, the father prefigured the son. George W. Bush never ran a profitable oil business, but he was terrific at raising copious sums of finance capital and walked away from each oil venture with a fatter bank account).
In the end, though, it's not the money that most galls Phillips, nor even the unseemly origins of the Bush fortune. (Earlier generations of Bushes apparently profited handsomely from World War I contracts and from the reckless lending of bonds to a collapsing Weimar Republic government, not to mention some Bush-Harriman investments in Germany as it rearmed during the 1930s.) Phillips is too much the scholar not to know that scoundrels stand behind most great fortunes.
What bothers him is that generation after generation of Bushes are so unwilling to transcend their class interests.
"An old buccaneer and bootlegger like Joe Kennedy became an SEC head for Roosevelt and cracked down on his own class," Phillips says, adding: "The Bush family would just appoint a Gucci-shoe-licking sycophant. The family has simply developed a culture of being enormously supportive of their class."
Even the president's Texas twang grates on Phillips, whose own accent is clipped and clear and, we must note, a tad patrician. "Listen to them! Assemble the very best panel of linguists you could find and have them listen to brothers Jeb and G.W. -- they wouldn't even guess they're in the same family," Phillips says. "G.W. talks like a cowboy and he's no more a backwoods Texan than I am."
So what's an Nixon-Eisenhower Republican to do when he steps inside a voting booth in November 2004? Phillips shrugs. As it stands, Kerry has his vote, although the text of Phillips's endorsement probably won't appear in any Democratic ads. "I'm hoping that Kerry's a seven on a scale of 10, but I'm afraid maybe he's just a five," Phillips says. "But Kerry's running against a zero. So my choice is clear."