unger.jpg[Please welcome Craig Unger in the comments. As with all guest chats, please stay on topic and be polite. Any off topic discussions should be taken to the prior thread. Thanks! — JA]

Yesterday, at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall described "the GOP Triangular Trade, in which Southern evangelicals provide the votes for a party financed by and run on behalf of Wall Street and with policies devised by a gang of New York intellectuals and scribblers." In its essence, what this means is that, "Richard Scaife provides the money to help keep his taxes low. Bill Kristol comes up with the ideas. And Mike Huckabee provides the votes."

Later in the day, at Huffington Post, the veteran political reporter Tom Edsall warned that this Triangular Trade might well flounder on the Huckabee candidacy: "Huckabee has demonstrated a willingness to defy party leaders, whom he dismissed as a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street,’ a statement that goes beyond heresy to apostasy."

How the Triangular Trade came to be the bedrock of an ascendant Republican Party—and how it has begun to fracture, not only under assault from the pseudo-populist Huckabee, but more importantly under the weight of the failed George W. Bush presidency—is at the heart of Craig Unger’s splendid new book, The Fall Of The House Of Bush.

Craig is, of course, the author of the national best-seller House of Bush, House of Saud, published to great fanfare by Scribner in 2004. An award-winning investigative journalist, he has had his work published in The New Yorker , Esquire, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many other publications. The former deputy editor of The New York Observer and editor of Boston magazine, he is currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

As it happens, I’ve known Craig for almost fifteen years. I am proud to count him as a friend, but I also know him as one of the best and bravest investigative reporters in America. Along with Murray Waas, Craig broke the story of how the Reagan-Bush administration provided Saddam Hussein with arms and intelligence during the mid-1980s. For his efforts in uncovering the true story behind the Iran-Contra affair, Craig found himself in court, sued by former Reagan national security advisor Bud McFarlane. What should have been a high point in his career turned into a low point. Like his friend Bob Parry, another brave investigative reporter, Craig found himself virtually hounded from the profession.

Today, as I write, Craig has the wind at his back, with news of former Arkansas Governor and Baptist preacher Huckabee’s triumph in the Iowa Republican caucuses and word that the New York Times has made the arch-apostle of our bloody Middle Eastern adventure, Bill Kristol, a weekly columnist on its op-ed pages.

In that sense, Craig’s book is not history. It’s the front page. Or, rather, it’s one step ahead of the front page. There is no better primer for understanding the Republican Party of today than this book.

But make no mistake about it, The Fall of the House of Bush is great history. Here, and in exquisite detail, Craig lays out the improbable story of how an army of evangelical Christian millenialists led by Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye found themselves in the service of the neocon crusade to remake the Middle East and, in the process, became the club shaped by Karl Rove and wielded by those two unabashed power-freaks and unreconstructed Nixonians, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.

The short answer to how all this happened is, somewhat strange to say, George W. Bush. Strange because Bush the younger is one of the weakest characters ever to have occupied the White House. In contrast, even the wretched Warren Harding looks good precisely because Harding knew so well his own limitations, constantly fretting over his very inadequacy to be president. This president, it would seem, neither knows nor frets. He, of course, decides.

First, though, consider the neocons. To me, there’s not a better or smarter chapter in this book than, "Dog Whistle Politics." For here we see in detail how the second generation neocons, embodied by this same Bill Kristol, have come to have so much power and influence while wielding so few popular votes.

As Craig explains:

"Even though their ideology was obscure at best to the vast majority of Americans, these three families [Kristol, Podhoretz and Kagan] alone promoted the neocon cause at the Weekly Standard, the New York Post, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, Commentary, the Coalition for the Free World, the American Enterprise Institute, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, West Point, the Project for a New American Century, the National Security Council—not to mention the White House in no fewer than five administrations beginning in 1981."

Serving as a safe haven in good times and bad "was the neocon infrastructure, a conglomeration of well-funded, heavily ideological institutions that were often obscure to the general public but provided secure oases for scores of right-wing policy intellectuals and one echo chamber after another to reinforced their ideology." It all made for "a cozy, tightly knit affluent intellectual community," a "closed loop intellectually, personally and socially."

Unwittingly, I was myself witness to the rise of one of the most prominent of the neocon dynasties. As a grad student at Yale in the late 1970s, I observed the blossoming Kagan dynasty. The author of a celebrated four-volume history of the Pelopennesian War, Don Kagan was then in his mid-forties and already one of the great personages in the Yale history department. In another guise, he was also the authoritarian-minded master of one of Yale’s undergraduate residential houses. His tenure as master was short-lived.

In those years, I used to see the Kagan boys, Bob and Fred, at the Yale Elizabethan Club. Discussions over tea with their undergraduate friends tended to focus on rehashing the Vietnam War, finding lessons there that almost no one among my friends believed were the right ones. In a word, we thought they were crazy.

A decade later, I returned to the Yale campus to report on the dying days of the Benno Schmidt presidency. By now, Kagan was dean of Yale College—and Schmidt’s right-hand man. The campus was in an uproar, not least over Kagan’s authoritarian rule and the neocon ideology that he was pushing. Part of the package was a multi-million dollar gift from the billionaire Bass family from Fort Worth. The ostensible goal was to fund an undergraduate program intended to reinvigorate the ideals of a classical education. The real goal, as most everyone knew, was to create jobs for worthy neocons and purge the curriculum of "soft" ( i.e., liberal) courses. Kagan also didn’t hesitate to purge the faculty of those he deemed leftists.

But when Benno departed for Wall Street as head of the Edison Project, a scheme for marketing for-profit schools, Kagan was sent into exile—he took a sabbatical—at Cornell and was finished as dean.

He left it to the Younguns to carry on the crusade. And crusade they did.

Bob Kagan went on to co-found the neocon Project for the New American Century (PNAC) with Bill Kristol. Typical of the neocon lot, Bob Kagan married the daughter of another Yale professor, the famous medical school professor and author Sherwin Nuland. The Hon. Victoria Nuland went on to become George W. Bush’s ambassador to Turkey and is now ambassador to NATO.

Younger Brother Fred is a resident scholar at the neocon American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the author, along with retired Army General Jack Keane, of the vaunted "Surge." His wife Kimberly, a Yale Ph.D., teaches military history at West Point and is the executive director of the Institute for the Study of War. Like her husband, she writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages.

Well, you get the picture.
* * *

If George W. was an underachiever for most of his life, the Kagans were classic overachievers. If he was ignorant and lazy, ever satisfied with his lot, they were bright and endlessly hardworking, ambitious beyond measure. How then did W. and the neocons happen upon one another? Whatever did they see in the other?

At Yale, George W. Bush didn’t even measure up to the typical "Gentleman’s C", averaging instead a barely passing C-. He was intellectually lazy to the point of shiftlessness.

He bore well his cheeky frat boy personality; the ever-present smirk; the clubby competitiveness, especially with his revered but awe-inspiring Oedipal father and much younger and brighter brother Jeb. But always lurking beneath the surface was the touchy insecurity of one who was privileged, but also lazy and ignorant. A C- intellect combined with the open-sesame of Skull and Bones membership and Bush family connections should have marked him early on as a dangerous man. But it didn’t. The grim and dangerous side was hidden behind the grin.

How then could such as he be befriended, advised and almost altogether co-opted by the likes of the nerdy, Jewish, Phi Beta Kappa crowd that were the neocons? The answer is much the same as with his relationship to Dick Cheney, the failed Yalie. Because, as Craig so rightly puts it, different as Cheney and the neocons were, they alike saw George W. Bush as an empty vessel. Cheney for his grandiose plans to restore the Imperial Presidency; the neocons for their Middle Eastern adventures.

And precisely because George Bush was ignorant, he was game for those, like Cheney and Rumsfeld who played on his insecurities (whispering what sweet nothings in his ear we know yet not), built up his ego, and did the hard-lifting that he so despised doing.
* * *

But what of the religious right?

As a child and young person growing up in the 1960s, I spent much of my life perched on the hard edge of a Baptist church pew. My very Southern hometown, set in the piney woods and red clay hills of East Texas, was overwhelmingly Baptist, white and black alike. From the pulpit, a generation of bluff, red-faced Baptist preachers—they all seemed to come from Mississippi, from places like Laurel and Picayune, after having served time in the Marine Corps—would thunder at us about the evils of Catholicism. Other favorite sermons featured, "Sex, Communism and the Coloreds," as a pamphlet from those days had it. A starlet’s tragic death led to a classic "sermonette" that the church then had printed-up: "The Twenty-One Things I Learned from the Death of Miss Marilyn Monroe, America’s Sex Goddess."

The writer Willie Morris, who would later be famous for his North Toward Home, arrived in my hometown in the summer of 1960. His goal: to try to gauge how John Kennedy’s Catholicism would affect that year’s election in the Baptist South. Well, he certainly got an earful. The local, white Baptist ministers, Morris reported, were apoplectic. Morris’ piece occupied most of the next issue of the liberal Texas Observer, of which he was then editor. "East Texas Sojourn," he called it.

Morris knew whereof he spoke too. I well remember the aptly named Brother Flynt’s cousin sermonizing about a recent trip to Rome. The Mississippi minister claimed to have watched pilgrims, "bleeding at the knees," make their obeisance before the Papal Throne, the back of which, he swore, bore the "mark of the Beast," XXX. It was all, I later surmised, a lot of hooey, but it caused many a mouth to drop open, circa 1960, including my own.

The Jews were fabulous creatures limited to the Bible. When it came to flesh and blood human beings, we knew none. To my knowledge, there was not a single Jewish family in my town.

Sermons, as I have said, were mostly devoted to the issues of race, Communism, Catholicism, sex and booze. Old Demon Rum was still very much on the radar. Prohibition had never ended in Cherokee County. The Rapture and Armageddon were, however, if not tangential, then certainly not at the forefront. Today, they are. And, along with countless American flags hanging from church rafters, bumper sticks handed out after church that proclaim "Bless God, America!" and right-wing Republican ideology served-up in heaping helpings in both live and televised sermons, this is where Baptist America finds itself today.

How that change took place is central to Craig Unger’s book. And it is of the utmost importance in understanding the political landscape of this country today.