Clan Gatherings

Inigo Thomas

  • The Bush Tragedy: The Unmaking of a President by Jacob Weisberg
    Bloomsbury, 271 pp, £16.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9394 2

An obscure utopian novel published in Dallas in 1960, Alpaca is notable less for its depiction of an ideal polity than for the fact that it was written by the oil tycoon H.L. Hunt. ‘Except that I am slow, I am the best writer I know,’ Hunt once said. Alpaca is a South American country threatened with dictatorship, though Hunt’s fictional would-be dictator is a Communist, not a general. Juan Achala, a citizen of Alpaca, travels to Europe to meet its political brains, hoping to learn the secrets of Communist-dictator-proof government. He returns to Alpaca to implement what he’s been told. There will be no discussion of politics on the radio or TV: the papers will have to do. The government will have the authority to say who is fit for a job and who is not. Those who make fortunes, men whose profits the state depends on, will have more than one vote: tycoons will have as many as nine.

‘Hello, I am H.L. Hunt,’ he would introduce himself. ‘I’m the richest man in the world.’ In the 1950s that wasn’t far from the truth, but because Hunt flew economy, parked his car five hundred yards away from his Dallas office to avoid parking meters and sent his children to state schools, you wouldn’t have guessed. After failing as a cotton planter Hunt had struck it rich, making the first of his fortunes from oil wells near the town of El Dorado in Arkansas in the 1920s, before acquiring rights in the just discovered oilfields of East Texas. Among those who followed in his footsteps were the George Bushes, father and son, both of whom bought oil leases in the hope of generating an unstoppable flow of cash.

In The Bush Tragedy, Jacob Weisberg shows how Bush family traits explain some of George W.’s tactics and modes of decision-making. ‘What makes the family drama unusual,’ Weisberg says, ‘is the way it played out on a national and world stage.’ But the Bushes are less of a family and more of a clan: a clan that incorporates two prominent families, the Protestant, austere Bushes and the once Catholic, swashbuckling Walkers. They have their spendthrifts and hoarders, their rebels and conformists, their tensions between fathers, mothers, daughters, sons and cousins. So do other families: there are the Kennedys, just as there are, or have been, the Adamses, Roosevelts, Fishes, Morgenthaus, Whitneys, Gores, Hearsts, Newhouses, Mellons, Winthrops, Sulzbergers, Basses, Gettys, Rockefellers – and the Hunts.

It isn’t the case that US politics has been dominated by the internal politics of families; the clans are not a cartel. But it’s also possible to underestimate or misrepresent the importance of such families, and the impact some of them have had on business and politics. The Bushes are ‘Wasp Corleones’, the Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman said, as if their power could be accounted for only by hinting at criminality. Yet the Bushes and the Hunts are infinitely more powerful than the Corleones ever were: it is the Corleones’ lack of power that explains Don Vito’s aspirations.

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