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Bush Family Values: War, Wealth, Oil

Four generations have created an unsavory web of links that could prove an election-year Achilles' heel for the president.

February 08, 2004|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips' new book, just published, is "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush."

WASHINGTON — Despite February polls showing President Bush losing his early reelection lead, he's still the favorite. No modern president running unopposed in his party's primaries and caucuses has ever lost in November.

But there may be a key to undoing that precedent. The two Bush presidencies are so closely linked, especially over Iraq, that the 43rd can't be understood apart from the 41st. Beyond that, for a full portrait of what the Bushes are about, we must return to the family's emergence on the national scene in the early 20th century.

This four-generation evolution of the Bushes involves multiple links that could become Bush's election-year Achilles' heel -- if a clever and tough 2004 Democratic opponent can punch and slice at them. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the clear Democratic front-runner, could be best positioned to do so. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he investigated the Iran-Contra and Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandals, both of which touched George H.W. Bush's Saudi, Iraqi and Middle Eastern arms-deal entanglements.

Washington lawyer Jack Blum, the ace investigator for Kerry's subcommittee back then, is said to be advising him now, which could be meaningful. Ironically, the Bush family's century of involvement in oil, armaments and global intrigue has never been at the center of the national debate since the Bushes starting running for president in 1980.

The reason? Insufficient public knowledge. The only Bush biography published before George H.W. Bush won election in 1988 was a puff job written by a former press secretary, and the biographies of George W. Bush in 2000 barely mentioned his forefathers. Millions of Republicans who have loyally voted for Bushes in three presidential elections simply have no idea. Here are circumstances and biases especially worth noting.

The Bushes and the military-industrial complex: George H. Walker and Samuel Prescott Bush were the dynasty's founding fathers during the years of and after World War I. Walker, a St. Louis financier, made his mark in corporate reorganizations and war contracts. By 1919, he was enlisted by railroad heir W. Averell Harriman to be president of Wall Street-based WA Harriman, which invested in oil, shipping, aviation and manganese, partly in Russia and Germany, during the 1920s. Sam Bush, the current president's other great-grandfather, ran an Ohio company, Buckeye Steel Castings, that produced armaments. In 1917, he went to Washington to head the small arms, ammunition and ordnance section of the federal War Industries Board. Both men were present at the emergence of what became the U.S. military-industrial complex.

Prescott Bush, the Connecticut senator and grandfather of the current president, had some German corporate ties at the outbreak of World War II, but the better yardstick of his connections was his directorships of companies involved in U.S. war production. Dresser Industries, for example, produced the incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo and made gaseous diffusion pumps for the atomic bomb project. George H.W. Bush later worked for Dresser's oil-services businesses. Then, as CIA director, vice president and president, one of his priorities was the U.S. weapons trade and secret arms deals with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the moujahedeen in Afghanistan.

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about how "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." That complex's recent mega-leap to power came under George H.W. Bush and even more under George W. Bush -- with the post-9/11 expansion of the military and creation of the Department of Homeland Security. But armaments and arms deals seem to have been in the Bushes' blood for nearly a century.

Oil: The Bushes' ties to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil go back 100 years, when Rockefeller made Buckeye Steel Castings wildly successful by convincing railroads that carried their oil to buy heavy equipment from Buckeye. George H. Walker helped refurbish the Soviet oil industry in the 1920s, and Prescott Bush acquired experience in the international oil business as a 22-year director of Dresser Industries. George H.W. Bush, in turn, worked for Dresser and ran his own offshore oil-drilling business, Zapata Offshore. George W. Bush mostly raised money from investors for oil businesses that failed. Currently, the family's oil focus is principally in the Middle East.

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