Wednesday 15 September 2004

Don't mess with the Bushes

David Talbot talks to Kitty Kelley, whose scathing portrait of the Bush family has fired up the Republican camp

After weeks of bracing by the Bush White House, the category 5 storm has hit: Hurricane Kitty. Bestselling author Kitty Kelley's withering portrait of the Bush dynasty, The Family, is landing in bookstores on Tuesday - more than 720,000 copies of it. And the White House is already on high alert. "This book is fiction and deserves to be treated as such," snarled Republican spokeswoman Christine Iverson, as the RNC fired off an anti-Kelley talking-points memo to friendly media assets.

The media blowback against Kelley, author of controversial biographies of Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, has already begun. On the Monday morning Today Show, host Matt Lauer showed how tough an interviewer he can be when not questioning presidents and other potentates, pressing Kelley on who she's going to vote for in November ("Who're you voting for?" Kelley shot back) and the timing of the book's publication, weeks before the November election ("Why not? It's relevant," countered the author, who's been working on the book for four years).

The hottest dispute sparked by the book involves the allegation that George W Bush, who claimed to be clean and sober at the time, snorted cocaine with one of his brothers at the Camp David presidential retreat when his father was president. One of Kelley's sources - and the only one on the record - was Sharon Bush, the deeply aggrieved ex-wife of W's younger brother Neil. She is now in strong denial mode, even though her own publicist, who was present at a lunch where she told Kelley the story, confirms the accuracy of Kelley's account. Nonetheless, Lauer produced the Bush divorcee after his interview with Kelley to repeat her denials.

While the Camp David coke party is getting the headlines, Kelley's book is filled with many other tawdry stories about the Bush dynasty. Here is a family that looks "like The Donna Reed Show, and then you see it's The Sopranos", Kelley tells Salon.

As Kelley tells it, the dynasty had respectable origins - in the form of family patriarch Prescott Bush, the distinguished, moderate Republican senator from Connecticut - but rapidly slid into cynical opportunism, skulduggery, and a mean-spirited sense of entitlement. The first President Bush is presented as a weak yes man, driven not by political vision but a savage preppy spirit of competition instilled in him by his whirlwind of a mother. But it is his wife, Barbara (whom the ex-wife of White House counsel C Boyden Gray calls "bull-dyke tough"), and their eldest son, George, who are the true pieces of work in Kelley's book, a mother and son team brimming with such spite and ambition they would give the ruthless duo in The Manchurian Candidate the shivers.

In one of the creepier passages of the book, a family gathering from hell at Kennebunkport, Maine, Barbara is shown mercilessly baiting her dry-drunk son, then governor of Texas, as a teetotalling 'Chosen One', while he keeps pleading to skip the cocktails and put on the feed bag, and his elderly father "drools over [TV newswoman] Paula Zahn's legs".

One of the major themes in Kelley's book is the family's weakness for liquor and drugs. Alcoholism, she writes, runs deeply in the family and among its victims, according to one Bush family friend, was Prescott, a "major-league alcoholic", who was in the habit of checking himself into his men's club and country club to go on benders. And Kelley writes that George W Bush is not the only one in the first family who enjoyed illegal substances. While a student at Southern Methodist University in the 1960s, first lady Laura Bush was known "as a go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana".

But, as one of W's Yalie frat brothers tells Kelley, it's not the substance abuse in Bush's past that's disturbing, it's the "lack of substance ... Georgie, as we called him, had absolutely no intellectual curiosity about anything. He wasn't interested in ideas or in books or causes. He didn't travel; he didn't read the newspapers; he didn't watch the news; he didn't even go to the movies. How anyone got out of Yale without developing some interest in the world besides booze and sports stuns me." New Yorker writer Brendan Gill recalls roaming the Kennebunkport compound one night while staying there looking for a book to read - the only title he could find was The Fart Book.

According to Kelley, the Bushes aggressively maintain their all-American family image by scrubbing government files of embarrassing facts, stonewalling journalists, and terrorising critics. "Some people felt that George's past did not seep out and embarrass him and his family," she writes of the White House's current Bush, "because he was protected by a coterie of former CIA men with an allegiance to his father." An Austin, Texas political consultant named Peck Young told Kelley that when a woman claiming to have been a call girl from Midland showed up in Austin with "intimate knowledge" of W during his oil wildcatting days, she was approached by what she described as "intelligence types" and left town abruptly. According to Young, the men "made her realise that it was better to turn tricks in Midland than to stop breathing".

George HW Bush and wife Barbara dismissed Bill Clinton as a pathetic hillbilly when he challenged the incumbent in 1992. But, Kelley writes, Clinton was one of the few Bush opponents who knew how to back them down. As colourful stories from Clinton's sexual past in Arkansas began to surface during the campaign, a Clinton aide began digging into the senior Bush's own robust adultery. This included, writes Kelley, two long affairs.

The Clinton aide told Kelley: "I took my list of Bush women to his campaign operatives. I said I knew we were vulnerable on women, but I wanted to make damn sure they knew they were vulnerable too." After the eruption over Clinton's mistress Gennifer Flowers died down, sexual infidelity did in fact become a moot issue in the campaign.

While Kelley is being savagely attacked as a tabloid sleaze queen, her book is more heavily researched and documented than Bush advocates allege. On occasion, she relies on sources that are less than reliable - inserting the story Hustler publisher Larry Flynt tried to put in media play about a girlfriend's abortion that W allegedly paid for before it was legal. Kelley says she decided to put the story in her book after interviewing the two investigators Flynt had hired to track down the story. But despite her flaws, Kelley has vigorously pursued leads about the powerful American dynasty - from Bush senior's shady CIA past to W's missing National Guard records - that the rest of the media should have.

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