Forever free

Made in Texas: George W Bush and the southern takeover of American politics

Michael Lind <em>Basic

George W Bush is an "authentic cultural Texan". Of that there can be no doubt. He might have been born in New York, his dad might have hung out in Maine, but America's gunslinger-in-chief is a true son of the Lone Star state. From this source, all the evils of US foreign policy spring - or so we are told. Texas is the home of born-again Protestant fundamentalism, its bewitching views of impending Armageddon leading it to new-found affinity with Israel; it is the home of an old-fashioned military ethics that disdains the outside world; and it is the home of "southernomics", a mix of cronyism and capitalism that reached its apogee with Enron.

It takes one to know one. The author Michael Lind is a fifth-generation Texan, but one of a rare breed of liberals. His is a searing account of the prejudices of the Old South that have infiltrated the Bush White House. But Lind wears his heart on his sleeve, and the book is the poorer for that. His account reads more like an extended essay for one of those East Coast think-tanks that are so out of favour with the current Washington establishment than a defining work. He does, however, provide useful ammunition to support the view that Bush's world is deeply flawed.

Just up the road from the Bush ranch at Crawford, where world leaders from Tony Blair to Jiang Zemin have been feted, is Waco. Wacky Waco is synonymous with the Branch Davidian cult, 80 of whose members burnt to death ten years ago. The town, we are also told, was in years gone by a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Bush grew up in western Texas, an area homogenous in race, ethnicity and religion. He kept some politically incorrect friends and made some speeches in some unsavoury places. But that does not, as Lind seems to suggest, mean that Bush is more suspect on race than mainstream US. The composition of his cabinet, after all, points against that. The presence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice is more than token.

Far more convincing is the link Lind makes between Bush's southern Christianity and the Jewish lobby in Washington, finding perfect synergy and common cause post-11 September. The author takes us from the final months of daddy Bush's regime in the early 1990s, when the neo-cons began to flex their muscles, through the wilderness of the decadent years of Clinton, when they planned their counter-attack, to their takeover of the White House at the start of 2001. The themes of American military primacy, contempt for international institutions, pre-emptive strikes and unflinching support for the Likud government in Israel are inextricably linked.

Most enlightening, and in turns entertaining and alarming, is the nexus between these neo-cons, social conservatism and money. Lind reminds us that Bush's social world is not comprised of hillbillies, but a hereditary elite supported by a deferential professional class of executives, bankers and lawyers who do not challenge the oligarchy because they aspire to join it. "The 'good ole boy' network - the southern cognate of guanxi [Mandarin Chinese for 'connections'] - was not an abuse of traditional southern capitalism; it was traditional southern capitalism."

Enron provided the pivot. Lind reminds us that in 2000 it was the largest corpor- ate contributor to the Bush presidential campaign. He reminds us that Vice-President Dick Cheney was a previous shareholder, that the White House chief of staff, Karl Rove, sold around $100,000 in Enron stock only a few months before the company's bankruptcy. What came as news to me was the largesse extended to neo-con commentators. According to Lind, the company gave money to the Weekly Standard, the bible of the new right. Other "Enron pundits" included senior writers on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Lind's observations are a useful contribution to understanding Bush's White House. This is an outsider looking in, an antidote both to David Frum's The Right Man, a revealing but self-justificatory account by the president's former speech writer, and to the detail-rich but context-poor narrative of Bob Woodward's Bush at War. Each provides part of the picture, but that full picture is still being painted. Bush's fate is being played out in the deserts and the towns of Iraq. These battles will determine whether a world-view formed on the ranches of the Lone Star state will provide the template for future American policy. Few would bet against it.

John Kampfner's next book, Blair's Wars, is published by Simon & Schuster this autumn