Family of Secrets (2008)

I first became aware of Russ Baker’s history of the Bush family during the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Baker, an investigative journalist who has written for the Christian Science Monitor and the Village Voice, had dug up an intriguing, but little known historical anecdote. George H. W. Bush had almost certainly been in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Yet to this day, he “cannot recall” what he was doing.

The Kennedy assassination, Baker argues, was a coup d’etat against the most liberal President of the 20th Century. John F. Kennedy was not the centrist cold warrior of the mainstream historical consensus. On the contrary, he and his brother Robert were a serious threat to what Eisenhower termed “the military industrial complex.” Even though John Kennedy allowed the Bay of Pigs operation to proceed — it had been designed under the Eisenhower administration — he fired Allan Dulles, the powerful and extraordinarily well-connected CIA director, after it failed. He eventually intended to demand FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s resignation. Least known, but perhaps most important of all, he campaigned to repeal the “Oil Depletion Allowance,” a United States government handout to the oil industry that allowed capital investment in drilling or mining to be written off as a “wasting asset.”

While George H. W. Bush later developed a reputation as a moderate Republican, in 1963 he was involved in some way with each and every one of John F. Kennedy’s right-wing enemies. In vast detail, Baker makes a very strong case for three things. First, George H. W. Bush was involved with the CIA long before being named as its director in the 1970s. Second, the CIA and the Texas oil interests have always been closely intertwined. Third, the Bush family had close ties with the man who was almost certainly Lee Harvey Oswald’s CIA handler, the White Russian exile George de Mohrenschildt.

I don’t think Baker’s circumstantial case tying George H. W. Bush to the Kennedy assassination would hold up in a court of law. He is confident that “Poppy” Bush at least knew of the conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. He strongly believes that Bush also had a hand in George de Mohrenschildt’s death. In 1976, de Mohrenschildt had written a terrified letter to then CIA director Bush essentially asking him to “call off the dogs” — de Mohrenschildt had been talking more openly to journalists about Oswald and the Warren Report – but was coldly rebuffed. A year later, after Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, approached him for an interview, he blew his brains out with a shotgun. Baker suggests that it wasn’t a suicide, that a man named Jim Savage, who had ties both to the oil industry and to the Bush family, murdered de Mohrenschildt. But he never proves anything beyond a reasonable doubt, or even comes close.

Russ Baker’s frustration at the ability of the Bush family to keep their fingerprints off the Kennedy assassination, and to manipulate the “official story,” is palpable. It’s part of the reason Family of Secrets goes off the rails in the second half. Unable to make any single accusation stick, Baker piles on detail after detail. He overwhelms the reader with an avalanche of information about the Bush family’s ties, however tenuous, to almost every important event of American history after 1945.

Baker argues, for example, that Watergate was not what it seemed, that, like the Kennedy Assassination, it was a coup against an elected President. Nixon had also threatened the Oil Depletion Allowance. His account of the “Townhouse Operation,” a campaign ostensibly about raising money for Republican Senate candidates, but in reality a plan to muddy up Richard Nixon’s reputation, is fascinating. He succeeds in tying it to Texas oil money but not to George H. W. Bush. It’s fairly well-known that the Watergate burglary was intentionally amateurish, that Nixon suspected the CIA and the Cuban exile community was trying to frame him, but, once again, while Baker raises strong suspicions about George H. W. Bush, he never quite puts him at the scene of the crime.

Baker’s claims about the Bush family become so broad, yet so shallow, the book gets tedious. The more he piles on, the thinner it gets. Family of Secrets ends up as just another liberal rant about George W. Bush. It’s all familiar. George W. Bush’s National Guard service, or lack there of, was crucial to the 2004 Presidential campaign, but by this point, Baker sounds like a Daily Kos diarist circa 2005. If you want a quick, well-written introduction to the travesty that was the George W. Bush administration, the final chapters of Family of Secrets work pretty well. But we’re a long way away from the book’s intriguing first half.

Was Kennedy murdered by a nexus of the CIA, the Texas oil interests, and the Bush family? The first half of Family of Secrets proves that it’s certainly possible, even likely. The second half proves almost in spite of itself that we’ll probably never really know.

Perhaps the book’s biggest flaw is Baker’s lack of attention to what the Kennedy family thought. If, as Baker argues, the Bush family was at least partly behind it the assassination, why didn’t the Kennedys expose them. You can’t just murder the two favorite sons of a ruling class family without at least some consequences. Perhaps the Kennedys knew no more about the Bush family’s ties to the events of November of 1963 than the American people. But what if they did? What if they covered up for the Bush family and the CIA out of class loyalty, out of some sense that exposing the truth to the American people would undermine the social order? That would be the most interesting story of all.

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10 comments

  1. Stanley, excellent article. You’re probably the only person I’ve ever met who knows who Gaetano Fonzi is. Fonzi wrote a blockbuster article on the JFK assassination that ran in the Washingtonian Magazine some time around May- July of 1981. It was one of the last magazines I bought in DC before moving back to NYC, & I took it with me. It was on my shelf for many years, but unfortunately, I tossed it. Fonzi’s theory of the assassination was extremely well researched. He thought he’d solved who was the man played by Donald Sutherland in the film. I remember him discussing George de Mohrenschildt.

    Also interesting and related topically is the assassination of Mary Myers on the C&O Canal in broad daylight about 9 months after JFK died. A book on her assassination came out a few years ago, but my interest began after reading about her murder in the Sunday magazine section of the Washington Post, also published some time in 1981. She was shot at close range while jogging. Her murder was never solved. She was one of JFK’s last mistresses. My immediate thought was that if she was assassinated, it was because JFK had confided in her, and it was dangerous to have her alive. Why else would anyone want to rub her out? She didn’t owe money. She was rich and prominent. No one does a hit job on a socialite jogging at 11 am on the C&O Canal.

    1. Baker never mentions Mary Meyers but he does talk about how the CIA got the Readers Digest to write an article to pre-empt Fonzi and the House Select Committee on assassination. The article was by Edward Jay Epstein.

  2. if the Kennedys didn’t do anything to expose the Bush family, to me the answer is fairly obvious and simple: they were afraid of being killed and realized they were outflanked and out-maneuvered.

    1. I think that’s the book’s biggest weakest. Baker is very good at showing how organized the ruling class is, how intertwined it is with government, how this country isn’t a democracy. George W. Bush just keeps failing but keeps moving up the ladder.

      But then he puts the Bush family above every other ruling class family. They almost seem all powerful. This aspect of the book comes very close to the same sort of nonsense Alex Jones talks. Only he doesn’t imagine an all powerful Jewish conspiracy led by “The Illuminati” it’s an all powerful WASP conspiracy led by the Bushes.

      I just don’t buy that the Bushes and the oil oligarchs would have the Kennedys that afraid to talk.

    2. He’s also very good on establishing the ties between the Bushes and the Saudis. I don’t think George W. Bush would have been president without them. It’s very clear why he got the Bin Ladens out of the country after 9/11 and why he staged the misdirection in Iraq. But he doesn’t follow up on it. Just when it gets interesting, he goes into the standard liberal rant about Bush. It’s almost as if he didn’t want to touch 9/11.

    3. Most likely though the Kennedys didn’t know the Bushes were involved. The strongest part of the book is how well Baker expresses their secretiveness. You just can’t get a handle on them. They’re masters at covering their tracks.

      But the idea that the Kennedys would let Allan Dulles onto the Warren Commission without complaining is still pretty incredible. He would have been the prime suspect in any real investigation.

      Was it just the Cold War? Was everybody afraid of “rocking the boat?”

      1. I don’t know how Alan Dulles came to be on the Warren Commission, but I would not think that Jackie had any input into who sat on the Commission and don’t know what role RFK might have played. I read David Lifton’s book “Best Evidence”,which is an extremely thorough review of the forensic analysis done by the Warren Commission and the second report on the autopsy results, mentioned on Wikipedia. The book is over 500 pages long, and heavily footnoted. I found a lot of his theories to be persuasive. But of course, I am not a forensic pathologist. He published a video in addition to the book. http://www.amazon.com/Best-Evidence-Video-Book-Jfk/dp/6301606000/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1417940496&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=robert+J.+Lifton+%2B+best+evidence

  3. Do you have a link to the Epstein article? Fonzi’s piece, which I mentioned in several discussions last year on the 50th anniversary, was really a blockbuster, and well researched. I recommend that you check out the recent Vanity Fair (either Sept. or Oct.) story on Jackie Kennedy’s life in the years after JFK’s assassination, mostly pre-Onassis. You see a woman who was tortured by guilt, nightmares, PTSD, unable to sleep, often suicidal, smoking heavily, and at times a complete basket case. Jackie always made sure while she was alive never to be photographed smoking (that was in her unauthorized biography). I took a 1-semester course with Mark Lane at CUA law school on the JFK assassination. He told many interesting stories. The one that is indelible, which I have never forgotten, was the story about how RFK sent a hand-written note via messenger to Frank Mankiewicz, some time around March or April of 1968: “There are guns between me and the White House”.

  4. […] we’ve seen in books like James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable and Russ K. Baker’s Family of Secrets, there is a fairly good circumstantial case to be made that John F. Kennedy was killed, not by the […]

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