Sunday, January 18, 2004

Kevin Phillips and the October Surprise

I went down to Elliott Bay Books the other night to hear Kevin Phillips talk about his new book, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush. It was a surprisingly large crowd packed into the store's little reading space -- at least a hundred, many of them standing. (I went attired in my nattiest headgear, of course.)

I've long been an admirer of Phillips' work on a purely analytic level, in no small part because the guy is right about 95 percent of the time. People probably don't remember that he predicted a Democratic victory in 1992 with The Politics of Rich and Poor., though he was of course already famous for predicting the Republican ascension back in 1969. Wealth and Democracy was an important book, but no one paid it any attention because it didn't fit in with everyone's obsession with the "war on terror." Nonetheless, his assertions that the nation's growing wealth gap would prove a significant political force is proving on the money, since this is precisely the factor which looms, more than any other issue, over next year's election. (Read James K. Galbraith's excellent piece in Salon for the latest on this point.)

People are paying more attention to American Dynasty partly because it fits in with the latest trove of anti-Bush books. (The crowd at Elliott Bay was decidedly partisan Democrats, which has never been his audience, at least not until now.) But Phillips' tome is heads and shoulders above everyone else's, and not just because, as with everything he writes, the information in it is precisely accurate and well balanced.

American Dynasty is one of the most important books produced since Bush's election, largely because it has delved into the forgotten history surrounding the Bush family -- history that not only should never have been buried, but is the key to understanding the mess we're in now.

There has already been some discussion about Phillips' treatment of the Bush family's business connections to the Nazis. While the re-emergence of this story may give the Ed Gillespies of the world an aneurism, Phillips' treatment is thorough, balanced and scrupulously factual. It is also damning. As he said Thursday night, "the connection is real."

Suffice to say that he reaches essentially the same conclusion that I did in "Bush, the Nazis and America" -- namely, that while there is no evidence of ideological or other affinities for Hitler and his fascist regime, there was a notable willingness to evade the moral ramifications of these dealings in the pursuit of business as usual. Phillips goes on to explore in detail the point I suggested, to wit, the consequences of this style of foreign-policy dealings in the form of the American national-security establishment that arose after the war.

This portion of the book is important, of course, because it represents a real revival of this episode of American history. As I have argued previously, the significance of this information extends well beyond the mere purview of historians; it is essential, in fact, to understanding how America came to be embroiled in its current foreign adventures and its "war on terror." Democrats and liberals should not shy away from discussing it, either, out of concern that doing so somehow constitutes a "smear" of the Bush family. As Phillips demonstrates on every page of this book, the reality of this episode is constituted largely of hard fact.

But this is not the only bit of buried history that Phillips successfully resurrects. Even more significant, perhaps, is his treatment of the "October Surprise" story.

Some of you may even recall the story. Its basic outline went like this: In the runup to the 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, it became clear that the outcome largely hinged on the release of the 52 Americans who had been held hostage by Iran since November 1979. If Carter was able to obtain their freedom, he was likely to win re-election. If he failed, it was nearly certain Reagan would win. As you may recall, the latter was what happened. The hostages were freed on the day of Reagan's inauguration. Later it emerged that a cadre of Reagan campaign officials -- led by former CIA chief William Casey, who was the campaign manager -- may have actually negotiated with Iran behind the scenes to ensure precisely this outcome. There were even indications they may have been involved in sabotaging the attempted rescue of the hostages.

The story gained real traction in the early 1990s when a former Carter intelligence official named Gary Sick released a book detailing the plot. It was promptly pooh-poohed by articles in Newsweek and The New Republic, and a brief House investigation came up dry. Afterward, anyone who even suggested they thought the scenario had any credibility was dismissed as a loony conspiracy theorist. Even the respected AP reporter Robert Parry found himself a journalistic pariah for his dogged pursuit of the story; you can find the results of much of his work at his marvelous Web site Consortium News.

Phillips not only resurrects the story, he examines the evidence and finds that it is almost certainly substantial, despite the all-too-eager earlier dismissals of its substance. More to the point, he compiles a wealth of subsequent evidence, most of it having emerged since 1992, pointing to his conclusion that "Bill Casey -- a born schemer and true buccaneer -- and his associates probably were involved in machinations akin to those Sick alleged." This evidence includes intelligence material from the French, the Soviet Union, Israel and Iran, as well as material that has been ignored by the House investigators.

All of this ties in with Phillips' theses that the October Surprise was a precursor to Iran-Contra (in fact, he argues, the latter was actually a confirmation that the former had occurred) as well as Iraqgate -- the consequences of which, he ably demonstrates, have come home to roost in the current war in Iraq.

American Dynasty is a book of major significance -- and a riveting read as well. It provides the most comprehensive, and damning, analysis of why George W. Bush's presidency is an unmitigated disaster for American democracy. The question is: Will anyone in the media recognize it before the next election?

I'll be posting more on the October Surprise case over the next week or so. Stay tuned.

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