Wednesday, March 11, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF RUSS BAKER'S FAMILY OF SECRETS

This is one of those books which, while not being great, is nevertheless of some value.

Baker takes the point of view that it is impossible to write a book about George W. Bush without writing also about his father. I agree: George Junior would not ever have amounted to more than a small-time failure at business in Texas without his father's friends and influence.

The dual approach has certainly been taken before, a favorite father-and-son biography of mine being Anthony Cave Brown's Treason in the Blood about master-spy Kim Philby and his remarkable father, Harry St. John Philby.

But the parallels do not continue. George Junior is not a figure of personal achievement or significant talent; Kim Philby very much was, whatever you think of his treasonous work. Harry St. John was almost a character from Shakespeare; Bush pere is a fairly uninteresting, but intelligent, government-service lifer from a wealthy family. Brown's book is masterly; Baker's only interesting and competent.

I think Baker failed to investigate some of these matters adequately. For example, I, along with many others, do not believe Bush Junior either bright or hard-working enough to have earned a place in the prestigious universities he attended, much less graduate. He was certainly what is called a "legacy" student: someone who does not make the grade but is given a pass in the hope his wealthy family will contribute generously to the endowment fund. This is a common practice at "ivy league" universities, one of whose constant aims is their own perpetuation as institutions.

The main fact about Bush pere Baker attempts to establish is that he has a lifelong association with the Central Intelligence Agency. He does not prove this, but I think he offers strong circumstantial grounds for a reasonable assumption.

Bush pere's C.I.A. connection was not news for me: being in the past a serious student of the Kennedy assassination, I knew Bush pere's name came up in the long and costly secret war against Castro's Cuba. Also, the C.I.A.'s headquarters at Langley, Virginia, is named after Bush pere, and that kind of honor isn't granted for serving one quite short stint as Director.

I found the first half of the book a bit slow-moving. The pace picks up in the second half, and while Baker never achieves a consistent level of fascinating story-telling, some events are beautifully summed up. He does a handsome job, for example, with the story behind the story that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS News over documents purporting to prove Bush's shabby record with the National Guard in Texas.

There is a mistake or two here, but they are minor. Baker says Lewis "Scooter" Libby was pardoned, but, in fact, Bush only granted clemency on Libby's sentence. His conviction stands, despite the efforts behind the scenes of Dick Cheney, whose dirty work he did, to get him a pardon.

But then Bush never was one much for pardons, or compassion for that matter.

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