The Right Nation: Why America Is Different. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

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9780141015361: The Right Nation: Why America Is Different. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

The Right Nation is the definitive portrait of the America that few outsiders understand: the America that votes for George Bush, that supports the death penalty and gun rights, that believes in minimal government and long prison sentences, that pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. America, argue John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, award winning journalists at The Economist, has always been a conservative country; but over the past 50 years it has built up a radical conservative movement unlike any other country. The authors tell the story of how these radicals took over the Republican Party, and they deconstruct the Bush White House, examining the many influences from neo-conservatism to sun belt entrepreneurialism. This quest takes the authors from young churchgoers in Colorado Springs to gay gun clubs in Massachusetts to black supporters of school vouchers in Milwaukee. And they drive to the heart of a question that is relevant to us all: why does America seem so different?

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About the Author:

John Micklethwait is the US editor of The Economist and Adrian Wooldridge writes its Lexington column. They are the authors of A Future Perfect, The Witch Doctors and The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of English politics in the age of George III, once remarked that "English history, and especially English parliamentary history, is made by families rather than individuals." The same could be said of American political history, especially in the age of George I and George II. There is no better introduction to the radical transformation of Republicanism in the past generation-from patrician to populist, from Northeastern to Southwestern, from pragmatic to ideological-than the radical transformation of Republicanism's current leading family, the Bushes.

Grandfather Prescott

The Bushes began political life as classic establishment Republicans: WASPs who summered in Kennebunkport, educated their children at boarding schools and the Ivy League and claimed family ties to the British royal family (Queen Elizabeth II is the thirteenth cousin of the first President Bush). George W.'s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel P. Bush, was a steel and railroad executive who became the first president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a founding member of the United States Chamber of Commerce. His maternal great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was even grander. The cofounder of W. A. Harriman, Wall Street's oldest private investment bank, Walker's stature was summed up by his twin Manhattan addresses: his office at One Wall Street and his home at One Sutton Place. There was certainly muck beneath this brass: both Walker and Bush had their share of Wall Street shenanigans and cozy government deals, but in the age of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan such things were expected.

The first family member to hold high political office was George W.'s grandfather, Prescott Bush. Prescott was the very image of a patrician: immensely tall, a gifted athlete and a stickler for proper behavior. Exactly the sort of chap you might expect to find in the marbled corridors of the Senate. At Yale, he excelled at golf, tennis and baseball, sang with the All-Time Whiffenpoof Quartet and joined the college's most exclusive secret society, the Skull and Bones. He married Walker's daughter, Dorothy in 1921, and five years later joined W. A. Harriman, which in the next decade merged into Brown Brothers Harriman.

Prescott belonged firmly to the progressive wing of the GOP: liberal on domestic policies and internationalist on foreign affairs. He even sent his son George to Andover rather than his own school, St. George's, because he thought it was more modern. His liberalism cost him his first bid for a Senate seat in 1950. During the election campaign a radio broadcaster described him as "the president of the birth-control league." This was a particularly incendiary accusation in Connecticut, which was then one of two states in the country that outlawed the sale of condoms. It also contained a grain of truth: Prescott was a member of Planned Parenthood and a friend of Estelle Griswold, the woman whose legal challenge to the state's ban on contraception later persuaded the Supreme Court to enshrine the right of sexual privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and thus laid the foundation for Roe v. Wade. Anti-Bush leaflets appeared on every pew in every Catholic church in the state and Prescott was narrowly defeated.

Prescott eventually made it to the Senate in a special election in 1952 caused by the death of the sitting senator, and stood true to his brand of moderate Republicanism for two terms. He cosponsored the bill that created the Peace Corps and strongly supported civil rights, a higher minimum wage and larger immigration quotas. "Bush Says Tax Burden May Have to Be Bigger," reads one delightful newspaper headline from his Senate years. Prescott beseeched his fellow senators to "have the courage to raise the required revenues by approving whatever levels of taxation may be necessary" to pay the nation's bills for defense, science and education. Shortly after ill health forced Prescott to retire in 1962, he received an honorary law degree from his alma mater, Yale, alongside the young President Kennedy The citation read: "You have served your country well and personified the best in both political parties." For Prescott, partisanship was a dirty word.

The best linksman on the Hill, he frequently played golf with Eisenhower. A firm believer that "manners makyth man," he once took Joseph McCarthy to one side and lectured him for more than an hour on his boorish behavior. His hostility to the radical Right was as much aesthetic as intellectual. When McCarthy came to Connecticut to address a Republican meeting, Prescott recoiled at the rowdy crowd: "I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting I ever attended." At home he was such a stickler for standards that friends called him the "Ten Commandments Man."

He insisted that his four sons and many grandsons wear jackets and ties at dinner, even at their summer home in Kennebunkport, and that none of them leave the house on Sunday. Relaxation was of a bracing kind-either hunting or playing sports with alarming enthusiasm. This was to prove a permanent trait, but much else was to change.

George H. W. and the move to Texas

Prescott's son, George Herbert Walker Bush, could easily have followed him into his world of East Coast privilege. He was educated at Andover and Yale, where he outstripped even his father, proving that he possessed a superabundance of character, athleticism and leadership. He married the eligible Barbara Pierce and was showered with offers of jobs on Wall Street when he graduated. A lifetime of lunches in the Partners' Room of Brown Brothers Harriman, with its deep maroon carpeting and dark wood paneling, was his for the asking.

Yet the young George H. W. was made of sterner stuff. He had joined the navy straight out of school, and had been shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and rescued by an American submarine, making him perhaps the country's youngest war hero. He wanted to make his career on the new American frontier. The day after he graduated from Yale in 1948 George climbed into his red Studebaker and drove to Odessa, West Texas, to take a job with Dresser Industries, which supplied parts for the state's booming oil industry.

Bush was not exactly turning his back on his powerful family. Prescott Bush sat on the board of Dresser Industries, and warmly recommended his son for a job. Prescott had even given George his new car. All the same, Odessa was a godforsaken town-a scattering of oil jacks and tin-roofed warehouses in the middle of the vast West Texan wilderness. In gracious New Haven George had lived next door to the president of Yale University; in Odessa he and Barbara lived in a shotgun house next door to two prostitutes (a mother-daughter team, no less). But, ugly as it might be, the town was booming. Odessa and its sister city, Midland, sat on top of the largest concentration of oil ever found in the continental United States. The wildcatters and roughnecks who arrived there every day were willing to endure anything-the tornadoes and sandstorms, the distance from civilization, the endless tedium, living in tent cities and chicken coops-in order to make themselves rich.

The Bushes soon moved from Odessa to Midland, a white-collar town twenty miles down the highway. They were not the only patrician family to seek their fortune in Midland. The town soon boasted Ivy League clubs and posh cocktail parties, and the hyperactive Bushes inevitably became pillars of the local establishment. But for all that, Midland was still an entrepreneurial frontier town. Its population tripled during the 1950s. Yalies and roughnecks worked side by side to carve a living out of the desert. George W. remembers an idyllic existence playing on unpaved streets. By the time the Bushes left for Houston in 1959, George H. W. had made his fortune-and was ready to turn to politics.

At the time, Republicanism was a minority creed in Texas. This, after all, was the state of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, a Democratic stronghold since the Civil War and a place where Republicans were Yankee pirates. "I will never vote for the electors of a party which sent the carpetbagger and the scalawag to the prostrate South with saber and sword to crush the white civilization to the earth," Rayburn, the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once explained. At the turn of the century, O. Henry, then a Texas newspaperman, wrote that "We have only two or three laws, such as against murdering witnesses and being caught stealing horses, and voting the Republican ticket." Up until the late 1950s, the only real politics in Texas revolved around Democratic primaries.

Yet if Texas was Democratic, it was also deeply conservative. The state is littered with monuments to the Confederate cause, such as a huge statue of Jefferson Davis in the grounds of the University of Texas's Austin campus and another edifice outside the State Capitol unapologetically lauding "those who died for states rights under the Constitution." Michael Lind, a Texas-born author, labels Texas a Herrenvolk, or master-race democracy, where, as he puts it, "the ethnic majority controls the government and uses it to repress ethnic, racial and religious minorities." During the brief period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, some blacks actually held office in the legislature and there was even a Republican speaker. Once the federal troops left in 1876, white Democrats "reclaimed" the state, setting up a minimalist constitution (the legislature meets only once every two years) and repressing blacks. Waco was a breeding ground for the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century.

There were other things to remind George H. W. that he was no longer in Connecticut. Texans were suspicious of Yankee banks and manufacturing. As one historian, T. R. Fehrenbach, puts it, "the majority of Texans tended to admire or envy a family that owned 100,000 acres more than one...

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Micklethwait, John (Author)/ Wooldridge, Adrian (Author)
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