Cronies

The author describes how the Lone Star State's powerful crony network, centered around the energy industry, has come dominate national politics, making Texas "America's superstate."

| Wed Jul. 21, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

George W. Bush may have graduated from Yale, but the president is adamant that he is 100 percent pure Texas. Journalist Robert Bryce concurs. In his recent book, Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate, Bryce argues that the Lone Star State's powerful crony network, centered around the energy industry, has come dominate national politics, making Texas "America's superstate." The results, Bryce says, have not been so super for the rest of us. Boundaries between business and government have been blurred as never before, threatening the democratic process at home, and deforming policy abroad, as witness the Bush administration's disastrous Middle East policy. Cronies traces how Texas energy companies and law firms have propelled politicians from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush to power and how the candidates rewarded their backing once in office.

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With a Texan president, a Texan House Majority Leader, and the state's booming population boosting its already significant electoral clout, Texas clearly is not to be messed with. In this interview with MotherJones.com, Bryce, who is also the author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, discusses the influence of the Texas crony network on American politics, and the rise of its quintessential member, George W. Bush.

MotherJones.com: In what ways is Texas America’s superstate?

Robert Bryce: In many ways. If you just look at recent American political history, it’s easy to see. Two of the last three presidents, three of the last eight, have been Texans. Look at the House Majority Leader today Tom DeLay. Look at his predecessor Dick Armey. Texas has 12 percent of the electoral college votes needed to win the White House. All of these things combined with the fact that California and New York are no longer the powerful states that they were even a few years ago are part of this rise of Texas.

MJ.com: And how did that come about?

RB: It’s been a decades-long process, but the roots lie in the concentration of the energy business in Texas, which has allowed Texas politicians to get the ideological and particularly the financial backing to be viable candidates on the national stage.

MJ.com: How is Texas cronyism different from, say Californian, or other state cronyisms?

RB: Texan cronyism is perhaps more virulent. In Texas, you have the concentration of cronies in a very small network of people whose names and who keep changing chairs, but not authority. For instance, James Baker III. This man has been at the forefront of American politics for the last 30 years, whether in the Ford administration, the Reagan administration, the first Bush administration, or in this one. That Cronyism involves not only Baker, but his law firm Baker Botts, which perhaps more than any other law firm in America has profited from its close ties to George W. Bush’s administration. What makes the Texas crony network different is that it is small and virtually everyone of these high-profile cronies are involved in some way or another with the energy business.

MJ.com: What's Baker's, and Baker Botts', relationship with Bush?

RB: When you look back at the history of the Bushes rise in politics, you will see that every time the Bush family gets into some kind of a jam -- whether it is in business issues or in politics -- either Baker or Baker Botts steps in to help. When George Bush I ran for the U.S. Senate in 1964, James A. Baker III was one of his key advisors. Before that, when Bush was in business, in the oil-drilling business with Zapata, his lawyers came from Baker Botts. When you look at Bush and his involvement with the Nixon campaign, James Baker was a key fundraiser for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in Texas in 1972. When you look then at Bush’s race for the presidency in 1980, James A. Baker III was his campaign manager. Again in ‘88 when Bush runs for the White House. Again in ’92, when Bush’s campaign to beat Bill Clinton was faltering, Baker came in again. Then you look at the Florida recount in 2000, who comes to the rescue when George W. Bush needs help? Its James Baker and Baker Botts. I mean there is no other political alliance among a set of lawyers and a particular family that has defined American politics more completely over the past two decades than the Bush-Baker alliance.

MJ.com: You compare Bush's 2000 presidential run with the 1948 Senate race of another Texan, Lyndon Johnson. What are the parallels?

RB: Both those races were defined ultimately -- and the winners were decided ultimately -- by the ability of the winners -- Johnson in ’48 and George W. Bush in 2000 -- to bring to bear lawyers, airplanes, and money. In 1948, Johnson was beating Coke Stevenson in the U.S. Senate race by 87 votes; the race was going into a recount. Johnson was able to get his lawyers – Alvin Wirtz and Charles Frances – from the oil business. He got the airplanes that he needed from the oil business. He got the money that he needed during the recount from the oil business. And those things were key in allowing him to beat Stevenson and then to go on and take a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In Florida, it’s almost an exact repeat. One of the first things that happens after the polls close and it’s clear that there is going to be a recount, the very first call that is made by Don Evans when they realize that they are in for a bit of a fight is to James A. Baker III. Well, who does Baker work for? You look at Baker Botts client list and it is: Exxon Mobil, Occidental, ConocoPhillips, and now, Halliburton. So, Bush, like Johnson, gets his lawyers from the energy business. Where do the airplanes come from during the recount? Well, they come from Enron, they come from Halliburton, they come from Occidental. Where does the money come from during the recount? Again, it is from the high-profile energy barons from Texas – largely. Bush gets a huge amount of money from people like Ken Lay, even from members from Halliburton’s Board of Directors. I mean the similarities between those two races to me are striking.

MJ.com: What role do you think the energy industry played in the decision to invade Iraq?

RB: Although the Bush administration claims otherwise, it is clear that throughout the planning for the war that energy and the oil business in Iraq were a key part of their entire war-planning effort. … What is the very first target of the U.S. military when they begin the invasion of Iraq on March 20th? It is the Mina Al-Bakr oil terminal in the Persian Gulf. Why? Because, well, the American military understood very clearly that if they were going to control Iraq, they had to control Iraq’s oil. And without capturing Mina al-Bakr, they would not control Iraq’s oil. Therefore, that was their first target. As was Khor al-Amaya, the other oil terminal in the Persian Gulf. So,the Bush administration can say all they want about spreading democracy and about weapons of mass destruction, and so on,the fact is that we did not invade Iraq because they export broccoli. One of the major reasons we invaded Iraq was because it contains the world’s second-largest deposit of oil.

To me, it goes back to what I think is George W. Bush’s biggest failing as president, and that is his refusal to deal with a long-term energy policy for the United States. Now, perhaps he thinks that by invading Iraq, that is an energy policy. I think that Bush -- as a Texan and as an oilman -- has a unique opportunity in American history, at this point, to focus on and to really push for a new energy policy in America that is comprehensive, that focuses on efficiency, conservation, renewable energy, clean coal, and -- I think, the one that’s obvious -- we need to drill in the Artic National Wild Life Refuge. In that regard, I am with the conservatives; I think we need to develop domestic resources. But he hasn’t done any of that. Instead, he’s ignored it all and has, I think, what is the typically Texan oilman point of view, which is: we can produce ourselves out of this predicament and all the indication are is that, in fact, we can not. We’re at an inflection point in world history; the ability of the globe to produce oil has reached its peak; we’ve begun our downhill slide. And Bush’s biggest failing is the fact that he hasn’t done anything to address that.

MJ.com: You write that the Vietnam War inaugurated the “mass privatization” of the military. How does the war in Iraq compare?

RB: Vietnam does mark a really important dividing line in American military politics because it is the first time that the Pentagon relies on a private contractor to do construction and military-related work in a theatre of war. And of course that work was done by Brown & Root, which was part of Halliburton. So Vietnam marks this dividing line in terms of how the Pentagon viewed its own needs for engineering and construction. Before that, during World War II, during Korea, and previous wars, the Army and the Pentagon would do its own construction whenever it was in an area where it was waging war. In Vietnam, that style is thrown out of the window. So we see what happens in Vietnam then where Brown & Root becomes even further intertwined with the U.S. military. And that intertwining than continues for the next several decades until what we see now in Iraq is a situation where Halliburton is really indistinguishable -- and the goals of Halliburton -- are really indistinguishable from the goals of the U.S. military. What is frightening about that, I think, is that it is really the rise of the military-petroleum complex where Halliburton, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, the oil industry – all of their interests are combined into one indistinguishable mass. And I think that’s dangerous when it comes to American democracy because how do we know whose side they’re fighting for? How do find out, for instance, under the Freedom of Information Act what is exactly going on? It is not clear at all, and I think that’s very worrisome.

MJ.com: But Halliburton says Iraq hasn't been very lucrative for the company.

RB: They’re absolutely right, it has not been tremendously profitable for them. And in fact, Dick Cheney’s tenure at Halliburton has been nothing short of disastrous for the company. Every deal that Cheney did when he was the boss of Halliburton has turned out to be ruinous. His tenure there cost the company billions of dollars and by pushing them into military contracting, he did them no favor. That said, the critical point with Halliburton is not necessarily the profit issue, it is rather the merging and the blurring of the line between business and government. What Halliburton’s role in Iraq shows -- and the ultimate corruption of the issue involving Halliburton -- is that the military interests, the oil and energy interests, the governmental interests, and the strategic interests, have all merged into one thing. And Halliburton is the entity that is enforcing all of those points. So it is this blurring and merging of business and government is where the danger lies.

MJ.com: Do voters really care about cronyism?

RB: Cronyism is already the key issue. Look at all the focus that has been put on Dick Cheney and his ties with Halliburton, and even the more recent disclosures of e-mails tying Cheney’s office to the awarding of the contracts. I think that the American electorate is concerned about this and I think that they are becoming very much more attuned and realizing that the level of cronyism within this Bush administration has no parallel in recent American political history.