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High Plains Grifter

The Life and Crimes of George W. Bush

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Part One: The Ties That Blind

The mad cowboys are on the loose. Pack only what you can carry. Liberate the animals. Leave the rest behind. The looters are hot on the trail. Only ruin stands in their wake. Not even women and children are safe. Especially not them. Run for the hills and don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.

So the story goes, anyway.

We find ourselves living out a scene in a bad Western. A movie filmed long after all the old plot lines have been exhausted, the grizzled character actors put out to pasture, the Indians slaughtered and confined to desert prisons, the cattle slotted into stinking feed lots, the scenic montane backdrops pulverized by strip mines. All that remains are the guns, bulked up beyond all comprehension, and the hangman and his gibbet. We’ve seen it all before. But there’s no escape now. Someone’s locked the exits. The film rolls on to the bitter end. Cue music: Toby Keith.

Perhaps only the Pasolini of Salo: 120 Days of Sodom could have done this celluloid scenario justice. Or the impish Mel Brooks, who gave us Blazing Saddles (one of the greatest films on the true nature of American politics), if you understand the narrative as comedy, which is probably the most emetic way to embrace it. Both Pasolini and Brooks are masters of scatological cinema. And there’s mounds of bullshit to dig through to get at the core of George W. Bush.

Because it’s all an act, of course, a put on, a dress game. And not a very convincing one at that. Start from the beginning. George W. Bush wasn’t born a cowboy. He entered the world in New Haven, Connecticut, hallowed hamlet of Yale. His bloodlines include two presidents and a US senator. The cowboy act came later, when he was famously re-birthed, with spurs on his boots, tea in his cup and the philosophical tracts of Jesus of Nazareth on his night table. Bush is a pure-blooded WASP, sired by a man who would later become the nation’s chief spook, a man frequently called upon to clean up the messes left by apex crooks in his own political party, including his own entanglements (and those of his sons) with the more noirish aspects of life. His grandfather was a US senator and Wall Street lawyer, who shamelessly represented American corporations as they did business with the Nazi death machine. Old Prescott narrowly escaped charges of treason. But those were different times, when trading with the enemy was viewed as, at the very least, unseemly.

His mother, Barbara, is a bitter and grouchy gorgon, who must have frightened her own offspring as they first focused their filmy eyes onto her stern visage. She is a Pierce, a descendent of Franklin, the famously incompetent president, patron of Nathaniel Hawthorne and avowed racist, who joined in a bizarre cabal to overthrow Abraham Lincoln. (For more on this long neglected episode in American history check out Charles Higham’s excellent new book Murdering Mr. Lincoln.)

Understandably, George Sr. spent much of his time far away from Barbara Bush’s icy boudoir, indulging in a discreet fling or two while earning his stripes as a master of the empire, leaving juvenile George to cower under the unstinting commands of his cruel mother, who his younger brother Jeb dubbed "the Enforcer." This woman’s veins pulse with glacial melt. According to Neil Bush, his mother was devoted to corporal punishment and would "slap around" the Bush children. She was known in the family as "the one who instills fear." She still does…with a global reach.

How wicked is Barbara Bush? Well, she refused to attend her own mother’s funeral. And the day after her five-year old daughter Robin died of leukemia Barbara Bush was in a jolly enough mood to spend the afternoon on the golf course. Revealingly, Mrs. Bush kept Robin’s terminal illness a secret from young George, a stupid and cruel move which provided one of the early warps to his psyche.

Her loathsome demeanor hasn’t lightened much over the years. Refresh you memory with this quote on Good Morning America, dismissing the escalating body count of American soldiers in Iraq. "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many," the Presidential Mother snapped. "It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

Even Freud might have struggled with this case study. Imagine young George the Hysteric on Siggy’s couch in the curtained room on Berggasse 19. The analysand doesn’t enunciate; he mumbles and sputters in non-sequential sentence fragments. His quavering voice a whiny singsong. The fantasy has to be teased out. It’s grueling work. But finally Freud puts it all together. This lad doesn’t want to fuck his mother. Not this harridan. Not this boy. He wants to kill her and chuckle in triumph over the corpse. Oh, dear. This doesn’t fit the Oedipal Complex, per se. But it explains so much of George the Younger’s subsequent behavior. (See his cold-blooded chuckling over the state murder of Karla Faye Tucker.)

Perhaps, Freud isn’t the right shrink for Bush, after all. Maybe the president’s pathology is better understood through the lens of Freud’s most gifted and troubled protégé, Wilhelm Reich. (I commend to your attention Dr. Reich’s neglected masterpiece Listen, Little Man.) Sadly, we cannot avail ourselves of psychological exegises of either Freud or Reich. So Justin Frank, the disciple of Melanie Klein, will have to substitute. In the spirit of his mentor, Frank, author of Bush on the Couch, zeroes in on the crucial first five years of W’s existence, where three factors loom over all others: an early trauma, an absent father and an abusive mother. It is a recipe for the making of a dissociated megalomaniac. Add in a learning disability (dyslexia) and a brain bruised by booze and coke and you have a pretty vivid portrait of the Bush psyche.

With this stern upbringing, is it really surprising that Bush evidenced early signs of sadism? As a teenager he jammed firecrackers in the orifices of frogs and snickered as he blew them to bits. A few years later, as president of the DKE frathouse at Yale, Bush instituted a branding on the ass-crack as an initiation ritual. Young pledges were seared with a red-hot wire clothes hanger. One victim complained to the New Haven police, who raided the frathouse. The story was covered-up for several decades until it surfaced in Bush’s first run for governor of Texas. He laughed at the allegations, writing the torture off as little more than "a cigarette burn." From Andover to Abu Ghraib.

In his teens, this man child was shoved into a distant boarding school. It must have been a relief for him. The squirrely adolescent with the pointy ears did just enough to get by. At Andover they called him "Bushtail." Ambition wasn’t his thing. And he didn’t have the athletic talent or thespian skills to do much more than play the role of class goof. So he went on to an undistinguished academic career, highlighted only by his ebullient performances as a cheerleader and a reputation for selling fake IDs. Even in his youth he was adept at forgery.

George the Younger snuck into Yale on a legacy admission, a courtesy to his father and grandfather. He was a remedial student at best, awarded a bevy of Cs, the lowest score possible for the legacy cohort. Repositories like Andover and Yale know what to do with the dim children of the elite. George nestled in his niche. No demands were made of him. He spent much his time acquainting himself with a menu of designer inebrients. He was arrested twice. Once for petty theft. Once for public drunkenness. No one cared.

When Vietnam loomed, Lil’ George fled to New Haven for Houston and the safe harbor of the Texas Air National Guard, then jokingly known as Air Canada–a domestic safe-haven for the combat-averse children of the political elite. It was a deftly executed dodge. His father pulled some strings. Escape hatches opened. The scions of the ruling class, even the half-wits, weren’t meant to be eviscerated in the rice paddies of the Mekong–that’s why they freed the slaves.

But soon George grew bored of the weekend warrior routine. And who among us wouldn’t? He slunk off to Alabama, and promptly went AWOL for a year and a half. Nobody seemed to miss him. He wasn’t a crucial cog in anyone’s machine. George? George Bush??

How did the president-in-training fritter away those idle days? Supposedly he was lending his expertise to the congressional campaign of Winton "Red" Blount. But he apparently soon went AWOL from this assignment as well. Other campaign staffers recall young George ambling into the campaign office in the late afternoon, propping his cowboy booted heals on a desk and recounting his nocturnal revels in the bars, strip joints and waterbeds of Montgomery. The other staffers took to calling him the "Texas Soufflé.". As one recalled, "Bush was all puffed up and full of hot air."

Precisely, how did he wile away those humid nights on the Gulf Coast? According to the intrepid Larry Flynt, he spent part of his time impregnating his girlfriend and, like a true southern gentleman, then escorting her to an abortion clinic. Checkbook birth control, the tried and true method of the ruling classes. A year later, according to Bush biographer J.H. Hatfield, George W. got popped in Texas on cocaine possession charges. The old man intervened once again; George diverted for six months of community service a Project PULL in a black area of Houston and the incident was scrubbed from the police blotter and court records. Today, Bush denies all knowledge of those squalid indiscretions. Just two more lost weekends in George’s blurry book of days.

Speaking of cocaine, Bush, by many accounts, had more than a passing familiarity with the powder. Several acquaintances from his days at Yale tell us that Bush not only snorted cocaine, but sold it. Not by the spoonful, but by the ounce bag, a quantity that would land any black or Latino dealer in the pen for at least a decade. Young Bushtail had become the Snow Bird of New Haven.

Even the Bush family, so smugly self-conscious of its public image, didn’t seem to care much. Jr wasn’t the star child. They just wanted him alive and out of jail. (The habitual drunk driving was already a nagging problem. On a December night in 1973, George came up from Houston to visit his family in DC. He took his younger brother Marvin out drinking in the bars of Georgetown. Returning home after midnight, Bush, drunk at the wheel, careened down the road, toppling garbage cans. When he pulled into the driveway, he was confronted by his father. Young Bush threatened to pummel his old man, mano-a-mano. Jeb intervened before young George could be humilated by his father. A couple of years later, the drunk driving would later land him in the drunk tank of a Maine jail-his fourth arrest.) No need to plump up his resumé with medals or valedictory speeches. Anyway back then, the inside money was riding on Neil, who they said had a head for figures, or perhaps young Jeb, whose gregarious looks hid a real mean streak. (Neil, of course, came to ruin in the looting of the Silvarado Savings and Loan (though he deftly avoided jail time), while Jeb proved his utility in Florida and amplified his presidential ambitions.)

By all accounts, the family elders saw George as a pathetic case, as goofy as a black lab. They got him out of the National Guard eight months early (or 20 months, if you insist on counting the Lost Year) and sent him off to Harvard Business School. He didn’t have the grades to merit admission, but bloodlines are so much more important than GPA when it comes to prowling the halls at the Ivy League. The original affirmative action, immune from any judicial meddling. In Cambridge, he strutted around in his flight jacket and chewed tobacco in class. The sound of Bushtail spitting the sour juice into a cup punctuated many a lecture on the surplus value theory. At Harvard, one colleague quipped that Bush majored in advanced party planning and the arcana of money laundering. George met every expectation.

Then came the dark years. Booze, drugs, cavorting and bankruptcy in dreary west Texas. There he also met Laura Welch, the steamy librarian who had slain her own ex-boyfriend, by speeding through a stop sign and plowing broadside into his car with a lethal fury. (Rep. Bill Janklow got 100 days in the pen for a similar crime; Laura wasn’t even charged.) They mated, married, raised fun-loving twins. In 1978, George decided to run for congress. His opponent cast him as carpetbagger with an Ivy League education. It worked. And it didn’t help his chances much that Bush apparently was drunk much of time. After one drunken stump speech, Laura gave him a tongue lashing on the ride home. Bush got so irate that he drove the car through the garage door. He lost big.

Eventually, Laura got George to quit the booze–though the librarian never got him to read. It wasn’t a moral thing for her. Laura still imbibes herself, even around her husband. She smokes, too. Refreshingly, so do the Bush Twins, who have both been popped for underage drinking.

George was Laura’s ticket out of the dusty doldrums of west Texas. She sobered him up and rode him hard all the way to Dallas, Austin and beyond. "Oh, that Welch girl," recalled a retired librarian in Midland. "She got around." Wink, wink.

If the son of a millionaire political powerbroker can’t make it in Midland, Texas, he can’t make it anywhere. George was set up in his own oil company in the heart of the Permian Basin. His two starter companies, Bush Exploration and Arbusto, promptly went bust, hemorraghing millions of dollars. His father’s cronies in a group called Spectrum 7 picked up the pieces. It flatlined too. A new group of savoirs in the form of Harken Oil swooped in. Ditto. Yet in the end, George walked away from the wreckage of Harkin Oil with a few million in his pocket. One of the investors in Harken was George Soros, who explained the bail out of Bush in frank terms. "We were buying political influence. That was it. Bush wasn’t much of a businessman."

Among the retinue of rescuers in his hours of crisis was a Saudi construction conglomerate, headed by Mohammad bin Laden, sire of Osama. The ties that blind.

Flush with unearned cash, George and Laura hightailed it to Arlington, the Dallas suburb, soon to be the new home of the Texas Rangers, perennial also rans in the American League. Bush served as front man for a flotilla of investors, backed by the Bass brothers and other oil and real estate luminaries, who bought the Rangers and then bullied the city of Arlington into building a posh new stadium for the team with $200 million in public money, raised through a tax hike, for which Bush, the apostle of tax-cuts for the rich, sedulously lobbied. Here’s a lesson in the art of political larceny. The super-rich always get their way. When taxes are raised, public money is sluiced upward to the politically connected. When taxes are cut, the money ends up in the same accounts. As William Burrough’s hero Jack Black (the hobo writer, not the rotund actor) prophesied, you can’t win.

The Rangers deal was never about building a competitive baseball team for the people of Dallas/Ft. Worth. No. The Bush group seduced the city into building a stadium with nearly all the proceeds going straight into their pockets. It was a high level grifter’s game, right out of a novel by Jim Thompson, the grand master of Texas noir. Bush played his bit part as affable con man ably enough. Even though he only plunked down $600,000 of his own cash, he walked away from the deal with $14.7 million-a staggering swindle that made Hillary Clintons’s windfalls in the cattle future’s market look like chump change.

As team president, Bush printed up baseball cards with his photo on them in Ranger attire, endulging his life-long fetish for dress-up fantasies. He would hand out the Bush cards during home game. Invariably, the cards would be found littering the floors of the latrines, soaked in beer and piss.

Tomorrow: Mark His Words.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and, with Alexander Cockburn, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.