The Fall of the House of Bush

There's something a little perverse about the subtitle of Craig Unger's new book, The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future. Nearly everything in it has been extensively, exhaustively told before -- indeed, it's surprising how little new information or analysis it contains. It has the feel of a hurried clip job, poorly edited and rushed into print, perhaps out of fear that the window of relevance was closing. It would be the perfect book to give to a thoughtful, intelligent reader who has been completely oblivious to American politics for the last seven years.

This is terribly disappointing, because in the past Unger, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has proven an excellent reporter. The author of the important 2004 book House of Bush, House of Saud, about the relationship between the president's family and the decadent rulers of the barbarous Saudi kingdom, he would seem like an ideal guide to the tangle of messianic delusions and Machiavellian scheming that has shaped America's foreign policy during the Bush regime. The Fall of the House of Bush attempts to show how the rise of the religious right and the rise of the neoconservatives worked in synergy to push the United States into its mad war in Iraq. It's an incredibly rich subject: the simple question of whether Bush is a genuine religious zealot, a cynic manipulating the faithful, or some strange combination of the two cries out for exploration. But Unger treats his terrain superficially. For the most part, he recapitulates events others have already written about rather than probing them for new meaning or uncovering the unknown.

The most interesting parts of Unger's book deal with the odd, potent alliance between born-against Christians and Israeli hardliners. Reaching back through history, he explains the evolution of premillenial dispensationalism, the end-times theology that dominates the American evangelical world. According to dispensationalist doctrine, the return of the Jews to the biblical state of Israel -- which includes the occupied territories -- will precede the second coming of Christ, making the annexation of Palestinian land a precondition of earthly paradise. So-called Christian Zionists have thus been among the fiercest champions of Israeli irredentism. And, Unger writes, because the Christian Zionists are politically useful, Jewish hawks have mostly been content to ignore the narrative of Christian triumph implicit in these "millennial dreams." (The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier has aptly called this ecumenical bargain a "grim comedy of mutual condescension.")

Those outside the evangelical subculture -- which, as Unger shows, has come to dominate the Republican Party -- often underestimate the popularity of such apocalyptic beliefs. With conservative evangelicals playing a recently amplified role in the government and the military, it's worth scrutinizing the impact of dispensationalist theology on America's Middle East policy. But Unger doesn't do that. He simply explains the belief system (itself a central subject of several excellent books, including The End of Days by the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg) and explains that Bush is an evangelical. He doesn't delve into reports about increasing proselytizing in the military or examine the way right-wing churches used end-times imagery to build support for the war in Iraq.

As the book goes on, the early focus on the Christian right gives way to a detailed account of the rise of the neoconservatives and their relentless drive for war in Iraq, a war they imagined would transform the Middle East to America and Israel's advantage. Unger offers an interesting inquiry into the connection of Michael Ledeen, one of the most fanatical of the neocons, to the forged documents the administration used to argue that Iraq sought uranium from Niger. Aside from that, though, Unger is just rehashing a story already told in George Packer's The Assassin's Gate; David Corn and Michael Isikoff's Hubris: The Inside Story Of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War; James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet; among many others.

Unger is unabashed about relying on others' reporting; the book is dense with quotes and footnotes. One error, though, made me suspicious of how closely he read all this material. About a third of the way through The Fall of The House of Bush, he attributes a quote to the late televangelist D. James Kennedy ("It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish.") that actually comes from one of Kennedy's former employees, George Grant. Curious about Unger's source, I followed the footnote and was surprised to find it pointing to my own book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The quote in my book clearly comes from Grant; one would have to be skimming pretty quickly to miss that.

That's a very minor error, one any author could make and few would notice. But there are others. "In deference to the Christian Right, morning-after contraceptive sales were banned, even after having been approved by the Food and Drug Administration," Unger writes. That's not precisely true -- it was only over-the-counter sales that were banned, a small but significant difference. Such mistakes aren't enough to undermine Unger's credibility, but they do add to the sense that the book was hastily written and edited.

His editor also should have caught numerous clunky repetitions. At the end of one page, he writes, "And in July 1996, just after taking office, newly elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on his way to the United States to speak before a joint session of Congress. Just as important, he would meet with Richard Perle and other principals of the neoconservative movement." Then, at the beginning of the next page: "On July 8, 1996, about six weeks after his election as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to see Richard Perle, one of several neoconservative analysts who had mapped out a new strategy for him in a policy paper entitled 'A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.' " There's enough of this sort of thing to seriously slow down the story, which is an especial problem in a book like this. If you're going to recount a tale already told by others, you at least need to do it with more style.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She was formerly a senior writer at Salon.com, and her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York, Glamour, The New York Observer, The Guardian (U.K.), and many other publications. Her next book, about the global battle over reproductive rights, will be published by Penguin Press in 2009.

April 21: " 'Pull' includes 'invitations to tea' at which one hears smiling reminders that a better life is available to people who stop talking about massacres..."

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