Family of Secrets
Bloomsbury Press, 2009
There's alternative history and there's secret history. Generally, in the former, the invisible hand of the market and other presumed movers of events are revealed not to work exactly as advertised and the "standard, orthodox, conventional and usually hierarchical ways of telling the story are overturned"(1) as the perspectives of those at the margins of social and political life are given voice. In the latter, the invisible hands are revealed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the supposedly democratic forces of supply and demand, let alone other publicly acknowledged actors and forces. The generally accepted historical narrative is revealed to be not simply skewed, but flat-out wrong. Investigating and reporting the existence of those other invisible hands may be professionally - and even physically - dangerous, as even fair-minded people of like political convictions resist alternative accounts for what they know to be true and dismiss the messenger as a "conspiracy theorist."
Investigative reporter Russ Baker has braved that risk and spent over five years of his life researching critical events of the last sixty years in "Family of Secrets," an inquiry into "the Bush dynasty, the powerful forces that put it in the White House, and what their influence means for America." As reporter James C. Moore writes in his preface to the just-issued paperback edition, "There is no conspiracy theory here, simply information that has been corroborated and never before reported and it cries for an explanation."
Moore writes in awe that Russ Baker succeeded in uncovering facts that had eluded generations of furiously digging Texas reporters, such as new material related to George Bush's bachelor days and military service, as well as unreported connections in such better-known stories as the younger Bush's oil business failures and suspect profit-taking on the Texas Rangers. Significant as these events are, they seem so many telling details in the great arc of Baker's story, statistics in the "numberless needs to do business unobserved"(2) that characterize the Bush family itself along with its friends and associates. In a narrative that loops back and through its main subjects, Baker traces the connections between the Bush family and private financial circles starting with Prescott Bush and Brown Brothers Harriman and Company, the various Yale and OSS connections; the imbrication of finance, energy and intelligence circles with Bush connections, the career of "Poppy" - former President George H.W. - Bush, his presence in Dallas the day of John F. Kennedy's death, and the dense web of relationships between the Bushes and various actors and sites involved in the Kennedy assassination.
The entire book is solidly footnoted and precisely indexed: Baker's meticulous research methods and extremely measured conclusions certainly promote the reader's confidence in the accuracy of his reporting.
This method is crucial to his enterprise: however little it will surprise most readers that the Warren Commission's report on the Kennedy assassination was deeply flawed and fatally compromised, most of us who lived through the Watergate hearings will be highly resistant to Baker's evidence that Nixon was actually set up and dragged down by some of the same interests that benefited from Kennedy's assassination.
Only the last 200 pages of the nearly 500 pages of text are devoted to the career of the country's last president: the unaccountable young manhood that presaged his unaccountable presidency, the stagecraft - even spycraft - implicated in his religious conversion, the connections between his associates and his father's, the vainglorious motive underpinning his invasion of Iraq, the corruption of FEMA that assured its failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina.
Russ Baker has made the broad outline of this history and its implications available in recent articles for Truthout and AlterNet, but for those who crave the details, the nitty-gritty of the accumulated evidence, there can be no substitute for his book in which, with his casual-seeming command of a wide variety of actors, timelines and relationships, he contrives to maintain a narrative drive that propels the reader through these webs and effortlessly supports his premise.
Again and again, as he writes in conclusion of the chapter covering Bush's military service and the take-down of Dan Rather,
"In the end, it was not reporting or truth that triumphed, but the forces of disinformation. Memogate appears to underline the extent to which the cynical techniques of the spy world have leaped the wall and taken root in the processes of American democracy itself.
"This is what Karl Rove and his allies effectuate on a daily basis. While the media thinks it is reporting an electoral contest with a Madison Avenue gloss, something deeper and more insidious is going on, largely unexamined. It is fitting that the Bushes, with their long-standing ties to the covert side of things, have been a vehicle through which the political process has been subverted and the public sandbagged."(3)
Since the Kennedy assassination, if not earlier, our electorate has been characterized by a growing malaise - even paranoia - evidenced, for example, by responses to a "CBS News/New York Times poll, from 2004, in which 64 percent of the respondents answered in the affirmative to the first of these choices: "Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?" twice the proportion who responded in the affirmative to the same question in the 1960's. Also "within the same 40 year period, the number of Americans who agreed that 'public officials don't care about what people think' also nearly doubled, from 36 to 66 percent."(4) So there is a strong sense that we the people are not in charge; malignant vectors have taken over the real power; what happens in the halls of Congress or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is but a simulacrum of democracy.
Russ Baker makes clear, "We are not dealing here with what are commonly dismissed as 'conspiracy theories.' We are dealing with a reality that is much more subtle, layered and pervasive - a matrix of power in which crude conspiracies are rarely necessary and in which the execution or subsequent cover-up of anti-democratic acts become practically a norm."(5)
"Family of Secrets" makes clear that those subjects most taboo in the public conversation: class warfare, undue corporate influence, and the corruption of democratic processes such as the conduct of elections and the conveyance of information are also those most germane to an understanding of recent American history. "History is not what we know; it is what has truly happened. Often the reality of events is hard to process because it shakes our system of beliefs."(6)
Cui bono? Those who benefit from both the specific events and the broader shadowy maneuvers Russ Baker details are often described as, think of themselves as, an "elite," the original meaning of which is "elect." Yet, no one other than themselves has consciously chosen this covert coterie that has seeded itself through the governing mechanisms of US society, arrogating power and wealth to itself, a fat and growing parasite on the body politic too greedy and stupid to know to stop before it consumes its host.
These forces remain at work regardless of changes in the presidency or the Congress and are already blocking at every pass the overwhelming desire for change expressed by the country in the last presidential election. They require secrecy to succeed because their enterprise could never withstand full public disclosure. Russ Baker's book goes further than any other heretofore in laying bare that tangled web.
(1) David Shulman, "A Passion for Hindu Myths," NYRB,
November 19, 2009, p. 52.
(2) Thomas, Pyncheon, "Inherent Vice," Penquin, 2009, p. 80.
(3) Russ Baker, "Family of Secrets," Bloomsbury Press, 2009, (hardcover edition) p. 464.
(6) James C. Moore in the Introduction to "Family of Secrets," Bloomsbury Press, paperback edition to be released November 10, 2009.