Book: Family of Secrets
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“A tour de force…Family of Secrets has made me rethink even those events I witnessed with my own eyes.” - Dan Rather
“One of the most important books of the past ten years” -Gore Vidal
“Russ Baker’s work stands out for its fierce independence, fact-based reporting, and concern for what matters most to our democracy…A lot of us look to Russ to tell us what we didn’t know.” -Bill Moyers, author and host, Bill Moyers Journal (PBS)
How did Bush happen? How did George W. Bush, that most improbable of statesmen, rise to the top? Trying to understand this conundrum launched Russ Baker on what became a five-year investigative odyssey. Given the enormous amount of scrutiny the Bush family had faced, it was hard to believe that anything new might be learned. Yet Baker’s findings took him to deeper and deeper levels of revelation, and he came to see that the Bushes had come and gone without our ever learning their true story. It also gradually dawned on him that the unlikely and controversial presidency of “Bush43″ (or “W.”) could only be understood in the context of larger forces that had up to now evaded sustained scrutiny. These forces, Baker saw, are bigger than W., bigger than the Bush dynasty, and so institutionally powerful that they can, to varying degrees, shape one administration after another, Republican and Democratic alike.
Baker began the investigation leading to FAMILY OF SECRETS with a narrow forensic approach. He studied the carefully constructed public persona of George W. Bush. Almost every popular belief about the man turned out to be based on carefully contrived falsehoods. One of the people orchestrating all this was, no surprise, Karl Rove. But an even bigger factor behind the systematic deception, Baker found, was none other than W’s father George H.W. Bush (”Bush41″ or “Poppy.”) He appeared to be both protecting his son’s political future and hiding something larger and more troubling. This bond of secrecy contradicted the popular impression of a generational struggle between the Georges. The discovery led Baker to the insight that the duo were actually far closer personally than the public had been led to believe- cooperators and confidantes, comrades in arms, really, in some kind of cause that was yet to fully emerge.
Shifting his attention to the elder Bush, Baker found that here, too, reinvention was the very essence of the man. Painstakingly studying the particulars of Poppy Bush’s life, Baker began to grasp that the public portrayal of George H.W. Bush as a bland, patrician, genial bumbler was essentially a clever cover-up. But what was it hiding? From conflicting accounts of Bush41s wartime service to the outsized global reach of Bush’s tiny start-up offshore drilling company, Baker began connecting the dots. Step by step, his research led him to an astonishing truth: that Bush41’s career in oil, politics and diplomacy had provided cover for a secret life-as a clandestine intelligence operative involved with highly sensitive operations, many of them domestic.
The only thing the public knew about Bush41 and the spy world, prior to publication of FAMILY OF SECRETS, was that he spent a single year as CIA director. Appointed by President Ford in 1975 at a time of intense congressional inquiries into CIA abuses, Bush was, according to government and media, a fresh face and outsider who as a former congressman could fend off congressional attempts at oversight.
It is significant, however, that during the same period Congress was also on the verge of reopening inquiries into the death of John F. Kennedy. Baker notes this factor as he begins to tote up curious inconsistencies and anomalies in the elder Bush’s accounts of his activities at the time of Kennedy’s death. Baker presents three faces of George H. W. Bush: the one who cannot remember where he was on November 22, 1963; the one identified (in a declassified FBI memo about the assassination) as a CIA officer working with Cuban exiles; and the one who, identifying himself as an ordinary citizen, calls in a tip on a potential assassin.
“At 1:45 pm on November 22,” Baker reports, Bush Sr. “called the FBI to identify James Parrott as a possible suspect in the president’s murder, and to mention that he, George H.W. Bush, happened to be in Tyler, Texas.” That is, not in Dallas (at least not at that precise moment). While Poppy was making the call fingering Mr. Parrott, Baker writes, Poppy’s own assistant was visiting the suspect at home-thus enabling the Bush aide to provide Parrott with an alibi. This evidentiary daisy-chain begs what follows: an exhaustive examination of Bush’s own furtive activities and his whereabouts that day-and his close ties to a large gallery of intelligence operatives who played a role in the events unfolding in Dallas. Among the subjects of interest: Allen Dulles, a former business associate and close friend of Poppy’s father, the former banker, Senator Prescott Bush. Dulles had been forced out of his post as CIA director by John F. Kennedy-who spent his three years in office virtually at war with the uncontrollable spy agency. Another important figure was Bush’s old friend George de Mohrenschildt, a mentor to Lee Harvey Oswald in the months before the shooting. More than a decade later, after Bush had become CIA director, De Mohrenschildt wrote him a panicked note mentioning Oswald; six months later, De Mohrenschildt was dead from what was described by local police as a self-inflicted shotgun blast.
Baker contextualizes these troubling events by establishing the extent to which Kennedy had alienated the powerful-from the CIA to the FBI leadership, from the mafia to the oil industry, from the Pentagon to major corporate figures. He also demonstrates the crucial role the Bush dynasty, through five generations, played in loyally advancing the agendas of many of these same interests.
The more people Baker interviewed, the more documents he obtained, the more he delved into diverse and often obscure treatises, the more he could see the outlines of an American history that had not been fully told before-a story of behind-the-scenes battles for control of this country’s policies, with incredibly high stakes.
In FAMILY OF SECRETS we learn that it was a business partner and secret-society confrere of Prescott Bush who drew up the blueprint for a new Central Intelligence Agency for President Truman; in retirement, Truman would assert that he had been tricked-and never intended to authorize the CIA’s covert action component. We grasp what the former soldier, Dwight Eisenhower, meant when, leaving the presidency, he warned us of a “military-industrial complex.”
We learn about parallels between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and how Nixon was battling some of the same interests as Kennedy had at the time of his own downfall (and we get a whole new explanation of Watergate.) We see Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, forced to the right by staffers named Rumsfeld and Cheney, and compelled to appoint Poppy Bush to the CIA directorship.
We come to understand better why so many problems befell an idealistic and naïve Jimmy Carter after he took on the cowboy element in the CIA’s unsupervised covert operations wing. We get an inkling of why Ronald Reagan, notwithstanding his dislike for his primary challenger George H. W. Bush, was compelled to take him on as his vice president. We come to see why Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were disinclined or unable to seriously challenge the military-industrial-banking complex or the vast and unaccountable spy establishment.
We discover new context regarding the true nature of the relationship between Saudi Arabia’s royal family, the enrichment of the Bushes’ Texas social circle, and our addiction to oil. We are presented with persuasive new facts about the role of foreign dictators and murky international money men in shaping the upward trajectories of our politicians-and the downfall of those who cross these shadowy powerbrokers.
By the time Baker turns to the rise of the George W. Bush, we realize the extent to which we have been duped. We see the supposedly incompetent ne’er-do-well being trained in secret operations and involved in curious international business ventures that he avoided discussing. We also see the hand of the father and his intelligence operative cohorts in erasing all records of W’s misdoings, while a sophisticated disinformation team builds him a résumé befitting a future president. Baker documents how W’s long track record as a womanizer and party animal was laundered via a politically calculated born-again Christian conversion that none dared question. And digging deep into Bush Jr.’s still-murky National Guard service record, Baker provides the most definitive account ever of the events behind Bush’s premature departure from his flying unit and a decades-long cover-up that ensued.
Baker unearths astonishing nuggets even about the most purportedly well-covered events. For example, we learn something new about the motivations behind the US invasion of Iraq, from Texas journalist Mickey Herskowitz, who had worked with Bush on a pre-presidential book. “He was thinking about invading Iraq [back] in 1999,” Herskowitz told Baker. “He said to me, ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander in chief… If I have a chance to invade…I’m not going to waste it.”
And finally, we come to grasp how the excesses of W.’s team of national security hardliners and corporation-friendly bureaucrats represented the ultimate triumph of this long-playing clique-the moment when the façade ever-so-briefly slipped and we could see their unapologetic oligarchic mindset and open contempt for democracy.
FAMILY OF SECRETS is massively documented and heavily annotated, but it reads like a spy thriller. Combining gripping stories, explosive revelations and trenchant analysis, Family of Secrets is much more than a new look at a presidential family. It is a secret history of the elites that have shaped American politics over the last century.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter with a track record for making sense of complex and little understood matters. He has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and Esquire. He has also served as a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. Baker received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush’s military record. He is founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news
More information about FAMILY OF SECRETS is available at www.familyofsecrets.com
Russ Baker's Journey Publishing and Promoting the Controversial FAMILY OF SECRETS
by Nina L. Diamond
So, you think it’s hard to find an agent and a publisher, and then to get press coverage for your published book?
Try all that when you’re an award-winning investigative reporter and your book is about the Bush family and focuses on a decades-long, and generations-long, web of intrigue with oil and intelligence operations at the core of everything from domestic and foreign policy to party politics, assassinations, Watergate, banking, and the ever-popular military-industrial complex.
Russ Baker, who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and Esquire, and who has been a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, faced just that challenge.
The result is his book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America, which was published in January by Bloomsbury Press, an imprint of Bloomsbury USA, part of the London-based independent publishing house.
Baker, who received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush’s military record, now runs the Real News Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization that can be found online at WhoWhatWhy.com.
We spoke on the phone just as his book was hitting the bookstores, and we focused on the difficulties inherent in getting such a controversial book published and promoted in an era when publishers and the mainstream press are skittish about delving too deeply into the powers-that-be.
When did you start working on the book and why?
I was living abroad training journalists in the former Yugoslavia to do investigative reporting on abuses of power in their own countries. The Iraq War started, then the evidence emerged of the deception involved in selling the war, and of all the abuses by the Bush administration, and I became determined to figure out what was going on with my own government and how all of this could happen in a country that supposedly had checks and balances. And a country in which an independent media was supposedly on the job. I hadn’t seen a plausible explanation.
I came back to the U.S. in early 2004 and started traveling around the country, asking knowledgeable people what they felt was behind Bush’s rise to power—what was the deeper meaning and what were the lessons. In 2004, I wrote some magazine articles about George W. Bush. I became particularly intrigued by the notion that this warrior-president himself had a dubious military record, and that perhaps there was a connection between that and his apparent need to think of himself as a tough military leader.
This led to further mysteries and further questions. And after the election, I decided that there was a book to be done. My reporting led me in directions I could never have imagined, down the rabbit’s hole to a kind of whole new understanding of recent American history and linkages between events and power structures I had never seen. The Bush family and their allies turned out to be far more central to the events of the postwar decades than I had thought, and in many more deeply troubling ways. That led me to the book’s revelations on everything from Watergate to the Kennedy assassination.
Was it difficult to find an agent?
I found one early on, someone I knew and liked. But we were trying to sell a book on Bush and the reaction we were getting was that everyone was sick of Bush. The sentiment was, ‘Let’s move on.’ That’s not a useful sentiment. People don’t want to look at the mess because if you look at it then you have to do something about it. We live in extremely apathetic times. We’ve all been looking for ways to cocoon.
People look at other countries and see the domination of the political process by oligarchies and elites, the coups and the manipulation of the public through propaganda and deception, but think those kinds of things could never happen here. That’s the prevailing view, but it is a form of self-deception.
What did you do after all those rejections?
When despite his valiant efforts, my original agent hit a wall, I took some time to regroup, started fresh, and wrote a new proposal. My current agent, Andrew Stuart, was recommended to me by a friend who was a client of his. He believed in the project right away. He got it.
Did you think it would be hard to get an American publisher?
I had that notion from the first round. Quite a few editors expressed interest but they weren’t sure about the topic being commercially viable at that time.
Did the proposal have bombshells?
It did. I did them as bullet points. I’ve read so many horror stories about the publishing industry that I wasn’t naïve about the process. At some houses, someone wanted to do the book, but then they went into a meeting with people from different departments who run all these imaginary numbers and based on that decide whether they can make money from a book or not.
And they turned it down.
Yes, but Bloomsbury was quite enthusiastic and we liked them, and they made an offer in late 2007. They’re a mid-sized independent that, as best as I can tell, gets a lot of leeway from their parent company in London to do their own thing. The editor who bought the book, Peter Ginna, liked it. He was at Oxford University Press before Bloomsbury. It reflects well on Peter and his colleagues, and George Gibson, who runs Bloomsbury USA, that they were willing to take a risk with material sure to be seen as controversial. After the sale, I continued doing research and reporting, and many of my more arresting discoveries came in the final year or two.
I rewrote and rewrote as I arrived at new levels of understanding from uncovering new facts, documents, and doing interviews. I did the vast majority of the writing in the last year, the last six months especially. I got this clarity and realized the enormity of what I was tackling. The book was a voyage of discovery for me, and, I hope, will be for readers.
What are your challenges in promoting this besides the obvious?
The more a book confronts views cherished within the media and publishing industry itself, the higher the hurdle.
What has been the reaction from the corporate media?
On an individual basis, quite positive. On another level, many people indicated that they were a bit concerned about whether they could afford, practically, to be seen even engaging the sorts of questions and evidence addressed in Family of Secrets. Also, when you dig up a lot of new information, you’re asking other people who perhaps covered the same territory, but didn’t find that information, to acknowledge it now. And in certain chapters, I’m tackling subjects that others have spent their entire careers researching. The typical thing in the media is to ignore your competitors and only embrace their insights when they become a cultural phenomenon.
What kind of press have you gotten so far?
The Vanity Fair website ran an interesting graphic related to the book, the Washington Post is doing a review, Time magazine reviewed it, Huffingtonpost.com covered it, and a lot of other online publications. I’ve gone on the radio. Also TV, here and there. Interest seems to be growing pretty quickly right now.
Time is mentioned as being involved among the book’s controversial events. How did they handle the review?
They were in a difficult position, and did not offer the book major scrutiny, but I thought it significant that they treated it seriously enough to include it in their Man of the Year issue.
How do you think the press will react?
I do think the timing is so right for this that it’s possible that many of the mainstream organizations will feel compelled to acknowledge — or in some cases attack —
what’s in this book. But you never know.
* * * * *
Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.
Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction.
Praise for Russ Baker
“In an era dominated by corporate journalism and an ideological right-wing media, Russ Baker’s work stands out for its fierce independence, fact-based reporting, and concern for what matters most to our democracy…A lot of us look to Russ to tell us what we didn’t know.”
–Bill Moyers, author and host, Bill Moyers’ Journal (PBS)
“If Russ Baker’s proposed book does nothing more than catalog, analyze, amplify, and contextualize the bewildering array of Bush II crimes and misdemeanors that we already know about, it will perform a needed and valuable service. I ‘m betting that it will show us a good deal more than that-that what we’ve seen so far is smoke, and that Baker will expose the fire.”
–Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor, the New Yorker
“Russ Baker has the three most important attributes of any great investigative reporter: He is skeptical, he is fearless, and he is indefatigable. Whenever he examines anything-including the most allegedly wellcovered topics-he breaks important new ground.”
–David Margolick, author and contributing editor, Vanity Fair
“This is the right moment for just such a project, I think. The country is waking up asking itself who is this Bush guy and how did he do this number on us. It seems to me that we need a book that narrates what happened and how. As to Russ Baker, he doesn’t need me to say that he is not only among the best at his craft but also a man of rock-solid integrity. I look forward to reading this book.”
–Nicholas von Hoffman, author, columnist, and former Washington Post journalist