Friday, March 29, 2019

Dynastic Politics

For several Sundays since the beginning of March, CNN has been airing  a series entitled The Bush Years: Family, Duty, Power, which purports to be "the story behind the Bushes - America's most powerful political dynasty." Episode 5, scheduled for this past Sunday was pre-empted by TV's obsessive-compulsive coverage of the reactions to the Mueller Report. That says more about cable news than it does about the Bushes, but it made me pause to consider why I care about this series at all and why I wished CNN had stuck to its Sunday schedule and abandoned its All Mueller, All the Time routine for some other occasion!

It is, as I have often remarked, one of the curiosities of American culture how mesmerized we have repeatedly become by powerful, wealthy families (e.g., Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes), apparently confirming the thesis that monarchy and aristocracy are ultimately much more natural - and perhaps for that reason much more congenial to many - as a way of organizing social and political life. Back in 1988, I remember how a close friend, a former graduate school classmate, horrified me by telling me he had voted for George H.W. Bush for president. His reason? Bush came from a good family, was well bred, had an aristocratic (in American terms) background which better prepared him for serious leadership. With my own academic background in classical political philosophy I had to admit his argument made a certain sort of sense (although its applicability in our contemporary context may seem increasingly strained).. 

It is an argument that seems to resonate as well with the makers of this documentary. CNN had previously done a documentary series on the less properly pedigreed but correspondingly that much glamorous Kennedys, who made up for what they lacked in old-school substance with celebrity style. The series about the less glamorous but better pedigreed Bushes employs lots of old footage, replete with interviews with family members, historians, and  journalists, to weave together an attractive portrayal of complex individuals living out their complex heritage in complex contemporary circumstances. Personality and character count - in politics as in the rest of life. So there is much to be learned about public figures from their family dynamics and the personal and private highs (like heroism in war) and lows (like the death of a daughter) that they have experienced both before and during their public careers.

Since the Bush family story is well known, I think it is the overall trajectory rather than the already familiar details that a series such as this may serve to highlight. The first President Bush may have presented himself as a self-made conservative Texas oil-man, which in some ways he was. But he was also (and inescapably so) the son of a liberal Republican Senator from Connecticut, who supported civil rights and birth control, who opposed Joe McCarthy, and whom President Eisenhower could envisage as a possible future president. The family history from grandfather Prescott Bush to grandson President George W. Bush is an interesting family story, but it is also the even more interesting story of the evolution of the Republican party and of the virtual extinction of the high-browed, high-minded, moderate-to-liberal republicanism that once characterized the "establishment" of both the party and the nation. My friend who voted for Bush in 1988 may well have hankered for the virtues of that "establishment," but the compromises candidate Bush had made to get to 1988 already heralded the demise of those virtues in our national political life (and even more so in Bush's political party).

Most Americans don't spring from prominent, Bush-like families, and few achieve anything comparable to the Bushes' political power. But duty (the middle term in the series' sub-title) is accessible to all, or at least can be when citizens are socialized accordingly. So, along with dramatizing the evolution of the Republican party and its consequential impact on our political culture, the series also illustrates the significant impact of generational change - from the duty-governed political ethos of the "greatest generation" of the President Bush who fought in World War II (as did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford) to the very different moral world-view and values of subsequent generations.

What the two English-speaking imperial capitals (Washington and London) have in common right now is the sorry spectacle of the collapse of the political class. (The political class is more diverse in background than the old oligarchy of Roosevelts and Buishes that tied to pass itself off as an aristocracy. It includes the newer "meritocratic" elite, arrivistes like the Clintons and Obama.) This collapse may have multiple roots, but one of them is certainly the loss of the older rationales for exercising power, rooted in family and duty. The Bush Years celebrates what it chronicles, but it also chronicles its definitive demise. 

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