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.

Clans that have sought to preserve their wealth and political clout through successive generations are a feature of American political society. They aren’t typical of a particular region, although Southerners – and especially Texans – tend to be less wary about their admiration for them. It’s not a coincidence that Gone with the Wind and Dallas, both hugely popular dynastic stories, were largely about Southern clans. Mark Twain had a theory about that: he said the fondness for clans was a consequence of a Southern addiction to Walter Scott. He was only half-joking when he said that Scott’s heroic clans, and their readiness for battle, were responsible for the Civil War.

Unlike the Hunts, the Bushes have never had their tycoon, although several have tried to become one. ‘If you know how rich you are, you aren’t very rich,’ was an H.L. Hunt maxim. ‘A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be,’ one Hunt son said after he lost a billion trying and failing to corner the world silver market in 1980. On the other hand, none of H.L. Hunt’s hundred descendants – he had ten children from two marriages and four from a long-standing affair – has become a politician. So far, there have been two Bush presidents, one governor and a senator. According to Weisberg, it’s typical of Bush men to say that they aren’t really that rich: a nonchalant attitude to money is apparently a characteristic of the Walker branch of the family, and George W. is more a Walker than a Bush. He enjoys risks, he is ruthlessly competitive, brash, and bullies people who work for him. His presidency may be remembered for its profligacy.

On the Friday when it was announced that the merchant bank Bear Stearns – famous for its risk-taking, cigar-chomping deal-making – was close to bankruptcy, Bush addressed the Economic Club of New York. He said it was important that foreign banks continued to invest in the US. ‘It makes no sense to deny capital, including sovereign wealth funds, from access to the US markets. It’s our money to begin with,’ he said, which got a laugh from his audience. The idea that all capital is inherently American is one that even H.L. Hunt, a champion bragger, might have blanched at.

One Hunt business rule was that no company is worth investing in unless you don’t already wholly own it. The Bushes have never successfully owned a company outright; Arbusto, the oil company founded by George W., went bust; almost every company he has been involved with has had financial problems. Not so with the Hunts. The Hunt Petroleum Corporation and the Hunt Oil Company are both still in the family’s hands: the former is owned by Hunt family trusts; the latter is run by Ray Hunt, one of H.L. Hunt’s 14 children. The Hunt Oil Company is not a huge corporation, but it specialises in bringing off surprises. In the 1970s, Hunt acquired a North Sea field called Beatrice for $50,000; a few years later it was valued at $500 million. ‘We have a reputation for never squeezing the last nickel out of a deal,’ Hunt has said of his company’s ethos. ‘My grandmother had an expression: “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.”’ Hunt Oil is currently demanding $7 billion in compensation from the Yemeni government, which cancelled a natural gas contract with the company. That’s almost 30 per cent of Yemen’s GDP.

The Hunt clan’s influence and its money reaches far beyond Texas. Lamar Hunt, one of Hunt’s sons, whose nickname was Games, founded the Kansas City Chiefs: the Super Bowl was his idea. Another son, Nelson Bunker Hunt, made an oil fortune of his own drilling in Libya, but then Gaddafi took power and nationalised the wells. In the 1970s he funded the political evangelicals of the Bible Belt, a movement whose votes every Republican president since Reagan has depended on. John McCain is the party’s first presidential candidate in forty years who hasn’t secured the evangelical vote.

H.L. Hunt, according to one of his enemies, ‘would be the most dangerous man in America if he wasn’t such a damn hick’. Hick or not, he was considered dangerous enough. He funded Joseph McCarthy, and Lyndon Johnson wasn’t joking when he told a colleague that he believed Hunt was responsible for inciting the riots in Newark and Detroit in 1964: he thought the tycoon was trying to derail the passage of civil rights legislation. Hunt launched an anti-Communist TV station, Live Line, and supported the vehement Protestants who opposed the election of the Catholic Kennedy. The Bushes have never liked the Kennedys either, because they were Catholics – although the Walkers had been too – and because they were wealthy. ‘They never had to work,’ the second President Bush said of the Kennedys in 1989. ‘They never had to have a job.’ Nor did the Hunts, but their money – oil money – was more interesting to the Bushes.

The connections persist. Ray Hunt made hefty contributions to the election campaigns of both Bush presidencies and is on the board of Halliburton. Recently, the Hunt Oil Company signed an exploration deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, joining what a recent issue of Portfolio magazine portrayed as one of the biggest oil rushes of all time. ‘I knew nothing about the deal,’ Bush said at a news conference. ‘I need to know exactly how it happened. To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil revenue-sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously I’m – if it undermines that, I’m concerned.’ Ray Hunt sits on the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Weisberg describes the Walker-Bush clan very well. George H.W. Bush said that in his family fathers never dictate to their sons what they should do. ‘It’s not that this is John F. Kennedy’s father driving his sons to do something,’ he said shortly after the 2000 election. ‘We are not that way in this family. This is not about vindication or legacy or entitlement.’ There seems little reason to question this depiction of his family’s values: feral would be one way to describe George W. Bush in his youth. Weisberg tells how he returned drunk one night to the family home in Houston and crashed his car into the dustbins. When his father appeared, Bush challenged him to fight ‘mano a mano’.

Untethered to paternal expectations as he may have been, Bush hasn’t been oblivious of his father. When he was a student at Yale, William Sloane Coffin, the theologian who was taken to court for leading protests against the draft during the Vietnam war, told Bush that his father had lost his campaign to become a Texas senator in 1964 to ‘a better man’: Ralph Yarborough, unlike Bush Senior, had supported the civil rights legislation. Coffin’s remark stung. As Weisberg writes, George W. never forgot it, or the reason his father lost that election. George H.W. Bush had been ‘preppie-baited by a more authentic Texan. This was something his son would do everything to avoid in his own political career.’

‘Huge amounts of charisma, swagger, cowboy boots, flight jacket, wonderful smile, just charisma – you know, wow.’ That was Karl Rove’s reaction on meeting Bush for the first time in 1973. Wowed as he was by this self-made Texan, Rove, of all the president’s advisers, has been treated with more than occasional contempt. When Rove’s mobile phone rang during a meeting on Capitol Hill, Bush evicted him and locked the door so he couldn’t get back in. Bush would get Rove to hang up his jacket; he never invited Rove to his birthday. Weisberg says such acts only increased Rove’s infatuation.

Bush is not a hick, though he sometimes acts like one. At this year’s Gridiron Dinner, one of the annual press-meets-the-president dinners held in Washington at the beginning of spring, Bush sang a version of ‘Green Green Grass of Home’, a song made famous by Tom Jones:

I spend my days clearing brush.
I clear my head of all the fuss,
Like the fuss you made over Harriet and Brownie.
Down the lane I look, and here comes Scooter,
Finally free of the prosecutor.
It’s good to touch the brown, brown grass of home.

And then I wake and look around me,
At the oval walls that surround me.
And I realise that I was only dreaming.
For there’s Condi and Dick, my old compadre,
Talking to me about some oil-rich Saudi.
But soon I’ll touch the brown, brown grass of home

Yes you’re all gonna miss me,
The way you used to quiz me.
But soon I’ll touch the brown, brown grass of home

That old White House is behind me,
I am once again carefree,
Don’t have to worry about a crisis in Pyongyang.
Down the lane I look, Dick Cheney is strolling
With documents he’s been withholding.
It’s good to touch the brown, brown grass of home

Yes you’re all gonna miss me,
The way you used to diss me.
But soon I’ll touch the brown, brown grass of home.

‘Green Green Grass of Home’ is about a man awaiting his execution, who will come home to a grave.