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.