In a banner year for documentaries, Bush Family Fortunes is the most important. No American reporter has uncovered more big stories than Greg Palast, but his work mainly appears on the BBC and never seems to make its way into the corporate-owned media in the U.S. Bush Family Fortunes allows Americans to see the news they’ve been missing.
Palast starts his study of Bush-style politics and economics by looking at George Bush Jr.’s Vietnam-era military service. Bill Burkett, now at the heart of the controversy over the recent 60 Minutes report, appears in the film but Palast was unable to find the source of the document that later got CBS into trouble and therefore he declined to use it. The film demonstrates just what a sideshow the flap over the document is. A former fighter pilot remarks that he does not know of any other case in which someone won assignment to the Air Guard without at least three and a half years of active duty in the Air Force, let alone without basic pilot training, as in Bush’s case. Only a political shock-and-awe campaign by his father could have allowed Bush Jr. to overcome that obstacle and the low score (25 out of 100) that he received on his flight test. Palast might also have added that (as Eric Boehlert has pointed out ) Bush’s discharge papers indicate that the last time he showed up for duty was April 1972, the same month in which both active-duty and Guard units began implementing a Pentagon directive on mandatory drug testing.
The strongest segment in the movie is the account of Governor Jeb Bush’s suppression of the African-American and Democratic vote in Florida during the 2000 election—still the most under-reported story of recent years. In the months prior to the November vote, Jeb’s election officers ordered 94,000 voters removed from Florida’s electoral roll on the grounds that they were felons. A majority of those on the list were black and the vast majority were Democrats (race and party affiliation are recorded in Florida voters’ registration files), but only five percent were felons. The highlight of the film is a clip of Clayton Roberts, Florida’s director of elections, who responds to Palast’s question about the list by removing his microphone and scurrying back to his office with as much dignity as he can muster. (The response of Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state, was not much better.) No less dramatic, but much more human, is Palast’s interview with Willie Steen, an African-American voter who tells of his anger and humiliation at being turned away at the polls in 2000. Jeb Bush’s list had Steen down as a match for a felon named William O’Steen.
More than any other documentary, Bush Family Fortunes shows how George Jr.’s life of regal privilege has convinced him that he can get away with anything. In footage shot right after the Enron scandal broke, the president tries to distance himself from his good friend and #1 backer, Enron-CEO “Kenny Boy” Lay. Though he flew around in the Enron jet during the 2000 campaign, Bush admits only that he once had a “general discussion” with “Mr. Lay” and twenty other business leaders. “I have not met with him personally,” he adds. Of the many possible ways to counter Bush’s attempt to run away from Enron, Palast chose the funniest: some amusingly sycophantic tributes to the president from two Enron lobbyists who raised $100,000 for his campaign and some excerpts from a video made for the retirement party of an Enron executive, which show Bush Sr. and Jr. offering warm testimonials.
Other fully subscribed members of the Bush inner circle include the Saudi royal family, which explains why Bill Clinton’s sorry policy toward Saudi funding of terror became even sorrier under Bush II. Ron Motley, a lawyer who is investigating U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia on behalf of the families of 9/11 victims, explains that Clinton let the Saudis slide until after the al-Qaida bombings of American embassies in Africa in 1998. In 1999, the president sent a delegation to warn members of the House of Saud to stop funding “religious charities” that were actually terrorist front groups. Motley tells Palast that he has been unable to discover any evidence that Bush followed up on that start and adds that, in the early summer of 2001, the administration “shut down” FBI agents investigating al-Qaida’s sources of funding. Motley’s findings correspond with Palast’s published reports citing FBI agents who said that Clinton placed “constraints” on investigations of the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals, but that Bush went farther and told agents to “back off.”
Bush Family Fortunes likewise leaves little doubt that the war in Iraq is about oil, and the Iraq segment in particular showcases Palast’s ability to get people on all sides of an issue to speak frankly. Especially interesting is the discussion with lobbyist Grover Norquist, who once equated inheritance taxes with the Holocaust, and who was Bush’s point man for drafting the economic provisions of the Iraqi constitution. Norquist explains why the administration postponed Iraqi elections in order to implement its own economic program for the country (including a takeover of Iraqi oil resources by U.S. companies), and his words could serve as a motto for the Bush dynasty. “Some things pre-date and are bigger than and are more important than the state being chosen by an election.”