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Two Pampered Children of Wealth
Skull vs. Bones

by Elizabeth Schulte
October 22, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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The man who occupies the White House next January will be among the richest 1 percent of Americans, the pampered child of a wealthy family. He’ll have lifelong connections to the political and corporate world. He’ll be a graduate of exclusive Yale University, and proud member of the even more exclusive Skull and Bones, a bizarre secret society at Yale. Though he talks about bipartisanship, he’s a veteran fixture of a two-party system that upholds the political status quo.

We don’t know whether George W. Bush or John Kerry will win on November 2--or if, for that matter, the election will be too close to call again and won’t be decided until weeks later. But we know all this about the next occupant of the White House because these things are true of both Bush and Kerry.

Jeffrey St. Clair is coeditor with Alexander Cockburn of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, and the author of numerous books, including the essay collection Dime’s Worth of Difference with Cockburn, and Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me. His recent articles for the CounterPunch Web site have revealed the sordid history of both major candidates. Here, St. Clair talks to Socialist Worker’s Elizabeth Schulte about the election between Skull and Bones.

Elizabeth Schulte: The media is always saying that the source of George Bush’s popularity is that he’s the kind of guy that people want to hang out with--that he’s “just a regular guy.” Is that true?

Jeffrey St. Clair: Bush isn't a “regular guy.” Come on, he’s from one of the ruling elite families in the country.

His mother’s family goes back to President Franklin Pierce--one of the most despicable presidents, a racist who wanted to see a coup d’etat against Abraham Lincoln. On the other side, you’ve got his father--a former president, head of the CIA, a United Nations (UN) ambassador--and his grandfather, a former senator, a Wall Street lawyer-banker who was trading with Nazis.

The Yale connection isn’t just the grandfather and father. If you read Kitty Kelley’s book, they go back to 1843. When they talk about old money, this is old money.

Bush was the ne’er-do-well son, even more than Neil. Here’s a kid who was blowing up frogs with firecrackers. They stick him in Andover, the prep school that his father was a star at--and George hangs a Confederate flag in his bedroom and engages in the illicit trade of alcohol and fake IDs.

Justin Frank’s book Bush on the Couch is very instructive. Frank shrinks him, literally as well as figuratively. He focuses on the relationship with Barbara Bush, who is this horrid Gorgon-like creature. When you hear stories about how she brought up her children--heavy into corporal punishment, verbal abuse and neglect. So it’s not surprising that he turns to sadistic activities.

Later, when he becomes head of his fraternity at Yale, the Dekes, he invents the new hazing ritual, which is branding the initiates on the tailbone. They heat up a wire clothes hanger until it’s red hot, and they brand them.

Abu Ghraib springs right out of the Bush imagination. It’s no stretch. In the first debate, the question turns to his daughters, and he said that he wished that he could keep them on a leash. Maybe the instructions weren’t coming from Rumsfeld. So maybe they were George’s e-mails right to Lynndie England--get the leash out, start branding people.

He’s an elite, but he’s kind of the black prince--the demented sadistic king. His business career is a failure, from beginning to end, and he’s always been bailed out because of his father’s political and financial connections. He wrecks his businesses, but makes out with millions of dollars.

It’s one thing to be unstable and be working class or middle class--then you’re eventually going to have to pay the consequences. Bush has always been an exception, and with the American aristocracy, that’s the way it is. Whether it’s his National Guard tenure or any other thing, he’s always been an exception. He’s always had this force field around him that protects him from all the damage that he does.

What about the Bush family’s oil connections?

Bush's father wanted to make his millions in the oil industry and never really did, except by bankrupting companies.

Texas’ heyday had sort of passed by the time the Bushes really got into it, but it’s what he needed to do, because they weren’t going to be conservative Nixon Republicans and get elected in Connecticut. So they took the Nixon Southern strategy to heart literally, and relocated to Texas and cast their lot with the oil industry.

They’ve got deep connections, but the multinational oil companies are where the real connections are--not the Texas oil patch, even though that’s the persona that Bush likes to put on. Their connections are with Exxon, Chevron--multinational companies who needed the political protection that George Bush Sr. provided them at the CIA, the UN, as vice president and president.

George Jr. rode in the slipstream of that. He enjoyed all the perks, financial and political. It was an oil industry executive, for example, who pulled the strings that enabled him to get into the Texas Air National Guard. It was oil money that was behind the bailout of Harken, Spectrum drilling and every one of his other failed ventures.

In the town hall presidential debate, Bush said that he was what you'd call “a good steward of the land.” What did you make of that?

This was one of those moments where you thought it was a gotcha moment for Kerry. Here it was--Bush had stepped right on the landmine.

On no issue is the Bush administration more vulnerable--at least ideologically--than the environment. There’s been a kind of refreshing honesty about their approach--which is that we’re going to wreck it as fast as we can. Up until this moment, they had been fairly straightforward about the fact that they despised the environment.

Here was the great opening for Kerry, where he could finally prove that there was a dime’s worth of difference--that they didn’t need to do any rhetorical contortions. What did he talk about? He talked about welfare reform, a balanced budget, cops on the streets. He couldn’t go in for the kill.

Bush has been repudiated by his own EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] director, who he had to fire. The ombudsman at the EPA and the director of air quality at the EPA have all resigned in protest. There’s been a war on whistleblowers in the Department of Agriculture, which controls the forest service, the meat inspection regime. Across the board, it’s a bloody record. It’s stunning to me that Kerry couldn’t bring himself to really take advantage of that.

In your recent book, you explain that John Kerry has oil connections of his own.

Politics in this country is so shrink-wrapped. So on oil, there is one issue that everyone agrees they’re going to fight on, and it’s ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]. Environmentalists don’t want to drill in ANWR, and the Republican do. This has been playing out since 1982.

Every year, they have a fake fight, because the oil companies really don’t want to get into ANWR all that much. The environmentalists don’t really push that hard for getting it turned into wilderness, because they all benefit from this. The environmentalists and the Democrats can raise a heck of a lot of money from liberals by saying that the Republicans want to drill in ANWR. The oil industry loves the fact that the environmentalists are totally obsessed with ANWR--and they can drill everywhere else, with very little opposition. That’s exactly what happened during Bill Clinton’s time.

After he sealed the nomination, Kerry himself had this famous meeting with James Hoffa of the Teamsters. They emerge from this meeting, and Hoffa recounts for the press that Kerry has said that he’s not going to open ANWR to drilling, but he’s going to drill everywhere else like nowhere before. A couple months later, Kerry speaks before the American Gas Association and reiterated that.

He wants to place more emphasis on natural gas than the Bush administration and the oil guys. He pledges more dependence on domestic sources--that’s drilling along the Rocky Mountain front, that’s coal bed methane production in Montana and Wyoming. That’s new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore in Alaska...offshore of ANWR.

Kerry’s also into “clean coal” technology. What does that mean? The “clean coal” is the coal that they’re getting out through mountaintop removal in West Virginia. It’s destroying the state. They’re decapitating mountains, burying rivers all through West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. That’s Kerry’s energy plan.

Kerry can't give a speech without talking about his distinguished war in Vietnam. How “distinguished” is that record?

Kerry is a war criminal. It’s clear in his diaries and letters, and it’s clear in his biography, written by Douglas Brinkley.

He volunteered for the Swift Boat assignment. It was a dangerous assignment--Swift Boats had a 60 percent casualty rate. You were going to end up seeing action. That’s what Kerry wanted. He had fetishized John F. Kennedy--he wanted his PT 109 experience because it would boost his political resume.

Not like Al Gore. Gore understood that he had to go to Vietnam, but he didn’t want to go kill people. So he went as an “army journalist,” sat around Kamran Bay, smoked dope and played basketball. That was Al’s tour of duty in Vietnam.

Kerry could have done the same thing. There’s no way that the admirals of the Navy wanted to have this scion of the rich and the son of a top diplomat blown away in the Mekong Delta. But he demanded it.

So what were the Swift Boats doing in Vietnam? Most of the time, they were ferrying up Phoenix program assassins. The Phoenix program was the CIA’s assassination and kidnapping program that ended up killing at least 40,000 South Vietnamese. Every day, Kerry would get in his Swift Boat, and he would ferry these CIA agents. Sometimes, they had Nung tribesmen with them who were paid by the kill.

In each of those incidents where he won his medals, the evidence is clear that war crimes were committed. There’s one particularly gruesome one where the CIA agent and the Nung tribesman go into a village where they think there were Vietcong. But the only people left in the village were women and old men.

They grab an old man, and they force him to lead the way down this trail as a “human landmine detector.” They go to another village where they think he can identify Vietcong. They get to the other village, and no one is there. So instead of taking this guy back, they slit his throat, gut him, pull out his intestines and attach a note to the body, saying, “This is what’s going to happen to you.”

There were 24 kills attributed to Kerry. How many of those were Vietcong is unclear, but it’s unlikely that very many of them were. They were in a free-fire zone--they could shoot with impunity anyone they wanted.

When they weren’t doing the Phoenix operation, they were supposed to be searching sampans--these little fishing boats that the Vietnamese used--for weapons and uniforms coming down from North Vietnam. In the four months that he was there--out there almost every day harassing fishermen--they never found one item of contraband. Not a gun, uniforms, nothing. So 24 kills, and no contraband.

In one incident, they went up in one of these little canals, and they began opening fire on a village. They killed an old man walking his water buffalo back to the village.

Then there’s the Silver Star incident. They were seeing fire from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), and Kerry immediately turns the Swift Boat, attacks the position and rams the boat up onto the bank, with its machine guns blazing. Supposedly, this Vietcong youth rises up out of a foxhole and points an RPG at the Swift Boat--at which point, he’s shot by the Swift Boat’s 50-caliber machine gun, which is capable of knocking down trees.

According to Kerry’s version of events, after being shot, the guy gets up and runs off down the trail, carrying his RPG--at which point Kerry jumps up and chases him. According to the machine-gunners’ version of events, Kerry shoots the guy, blows his legs off, and the guy is bleeding to death in his foxhole. Kerry jumps out of the boat with his M16 and shoots the guy in the head. That version makes much more sense in a lot of ways.

That’s a clear war crime--it’s a coup de gras. And instead of it being a war crime, it turns into a Silver Star, which Kerry writes himself up for.

He’s serving in one of the most noxious, illegitimate operations in an illegitimate war. His actions there are daily war crimes, and he uses it. Here is where I think the Swift Boat veterans have a point--his purpose was to get his kills, his medals and get out. And that’s what he did.

Does he redeem himself by becoming a leader of the antiwar movement? Only to a certain point.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) had their Winter Soldier hearings in Michigan. It was where the vets were going to confess to their own war crimes, and the war crimes they had witnessed. They’re very dramatic--much more moving than Kerry’s performance before the Senate. One after another, they did--except for John Kerry, who refused to admit that he committed war crimes, knowing it would tarnish his image as a politician.

Then he is invited alone to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Sen. William Fulbright. Alone--usually you have five or six people giving their testimonies. Why? Because he had become a media-created celebrity, and he was a liberal who was tied in--he’d known the Kennedy family since his youth. So he was tied into the liberal establishment.

Another factor was that he attempted to suppress criticism of the Democrats by his own colleagues in the VVAW. There was huge demonstration the week of his testimony, and a co-director had gone to speak at a Common Cause rally and criticized the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate for signing on to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution--and, in particular, went after Sen. Fulbright. Kerry publicly denounced him for doing so.

After he had his moment in the spotlight, Kerry turned around, denounced the entire VVAW for becoming too radical--for straying into other social and economic issues, such as the civil rights movement and economic justice movement. Basically, he took off his army jacket, cut his hair, put on a “JFK” monogrammed Oxford shirt and tie, and went to run for Congress.

So his record in Vietnam is one of atrocities, and his record as an antiwar activist is one of moderation.

The escalating disaster in Iraq is clear for the world to see, and everyone knows that the Bush administration lied to go to war on Iraq. So why is the presidential race between Bush and Kerry so close?

What are the differences between the two? All signs are that maybe the Bush administration is ready to pull out. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld was quoted last week saying that he thought that they could start pulling troops out by January. And Kerry is saying that we’re in there for four years, that we’re going to win this, that we’re willing to flatten Falluja.

This is sort of typical of him. He’s going to manage this war more competently. How’s he going to do it? Well, we need 40,000 more troops. Where’s he going to get them? I have no idea. They’re going to take the Iraqi police recruits. They can’t train them in Iraq, they know that, so what is their plan? They’re going to take them and train them in Jordan? In the Philippines? California? Are they going to take them to the School of Americas and train them?

There’s no difference between the two of them on Iraq. Here he is a veteran--which Kerry promotes ceaselessly--and he can’t even speak to the anguish of these poor guys in the National Guard and Army reserves who are suffering under stop-loss orders. Thirty- and 40-year-olds who are being sent over to Iraq as cannon fodder. He has nothing to say to them.

What do we hear again and again--I’m going to go out and kill the terrorists. Kill, kill, kill. Kerry’s upping the ante.

If you’re against empire, what do you expect out of this election? You have Bush, who is undermining the empire daily from within, destroying the international alliances that have served as a kind of force field protecting the American empire. The U.S. can no longer stand behind its proxy warriors. It’s had to operate unilaterally under Bush.

I think that we are beginning to see the true face of American imperialism with much more clarity. And we’re beginning to see not only the fracturing of alliances that helped propel the American imperial ambition, we’re beginning to see new alliances form in order to retard it.

I don’t know that Kerry is this confident, but let’s take him at his word. His goal is to rebuild these alliances and essentially secure the footing of the American imperial project. As leftists, you’ve got to be opposed to that fundamentally.

No matter how far to the right Kerry has run, much of the left has fallen in line behind him because they say that anybody is better than Bush. What has been the impact of this?

It's a kind of political suicide. What kind of political strategy is it not to demand anything of your candidate when they need your help to get elected? Do you think they’re going to listen to you after they’re elected? The time to demand commitments from them is when they need your help to get elected, and they gave that up from the very beginning.

Kerry started out as a DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] Democrat, and now he’s just been allowed to go as far to the right as he wants.

They talk about the November 3 coalition. We’ll all come together, and we’ll fight Kerry--we’ll once again begin fighting the war. It’s not that simple. Social movements take years to build up, and there was a lot of momentum a year and a half ago, with the antiwar movement, the economic justice movement, the environmental movement. The momentum these had a year and a half ago has been deflated by the Anybody but Bush virus.

The war is going worse now than it has ever gone. More Iraqis and American troops are dying every day now than they did at the beginning of the war, and the antiwar movement is nowhere to be seen. It’s despicable, it’s amoral, and it’s stupid. And you cannot rebuild it magically on November 3. It’s a delusion.

Elizabeth Schulte is a correspondent for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (  

Other Articles by Elizabeth Schulte

* The Hidden Housing Crisis
* What You Should Know About The John-John Team
* The B Team Gets Ready: Why Kerry and the Democrats Promote US Military Power
* John Kerry Tries to Out-Bush Bush
* Why Does Kerry Sound like Bush?
* Birth of a New Movement for Civil Rights
* The Many Faces of John Kerry: Pro-War, Anti-War, Insider, Outsider, Liberal, Conservative