Illustration by Peter Bennett
Being every bit as low-minded as the next media whore, I raced through Kitty Kelley’s The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty in search of the nasty factoids that Kelley always serves up like so many canapés. Who wouldn’t love the idea that, back in college, Laura Bush was “the go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana”? It explains that gaga smile.
Like the aging Madonna (currently pursuing kabbalistic truth in Israel, accompanied, it seems, by less evolved bodyguards), Kelley is a master at shaping pop iconography. Only this assisted-blond dynamo doesn’t reinvent her own image: She works on the famous and powerful. Once Kelley has finished exposing some celebrity’s feet of mud, you never see him or her in the same way again. What she can’t change is the way mainstream media see her. They blame her salaciously readable biographies for helping fix the template of our tabloid era.
These days, going after a populist rabble-rouser like Kelley — how dare such a vulgarian impinge on sacred journalistic turf! — is how the media elite proves itself high-minded, nonpartisan, and unsullied by the incessant coverage of Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson. That’s why it’s plunged itself into an orgy of hypocrisy over her latest book, milking the very lurid material it pretends to find appalling. Predictably, Michiko Kakutani, the O-Ren Ishii of book reviewers, cut The Family to ribbons in The New York Times. Yet lest we think the Gray Lady somehow clueless or snobby, the paper just as predictably took care to run a long “Home & Garden” piece about Kelley’s Georgetown sanctuary by Bush-coddling-reporter-turned-restaurant-critic Frank Bruni. Her books sell like hotcakes, after all.
For several days, the diminutive author was seemingly everywhere — up at dawn talking to Matt Lauer on Today, sharing afternoon delight with Chris Matthews on Hardball, then spending a NewsNight with Aaron Brown. A normal person who tuned in to these interviews might have expected to learn all sorts of fascinating details about the powerful clan that has produced two of our last three presidents and, if all goes according to plan, will inaugurate a third in 2008 (although I suspect that smooth, pretty-boy Jeb can’t handle body shots any better than Oscar de la Hoya). But rather than ask about our first family, all these big-name interviewers behaved as if The Family wasn’t about the Bushes but actually about Kitty Kelley. Just as reasonable questions about George W. Bush’s National Guard service have been swallowed up by bickering over typefaces and superscripts (nice work, Gunga Dan), so Kelley spent her airtime being grilled about her use of rumors and unnamed sources. You would think the president wasn’t claiming the election was about “character.”
While the Kelley interviews all covered roughly the same territory, each offered its own special whiff of self-aggrandizement and corruption. Looking as if he’d just escaped from some gulag for the formerly handsome, Matt Lauer went after Kelley — for three straight days — armed with talking points he’d gotten from the White House’s Dan Bartlett. The prosecution took a different tack at MSNBC. Winston Churchill once said that the Germans are always at your throat or at your feet. Perhaps taking this as a compliment, the great Churchillian Chris Matthews spent the first half-hour of last Wednesday’s Hardball all but throttling Kelley, quoting passages from her book and asking her to defend them with ashen-faced grimness. Then, having proved his hard-balled integrity, he spent the rest of the hour kowtowing to Seymour Hersh, a great investigative reporter who also uses unnamed sources — and on subjects far more important than doing coke at Camp David. Matthews showed so much more respect for Hersh, you had to wonder why he opened the show with Kitty. Actually, you didn’t.
Lauer and Matthews appeared untroubled about attacking Kelley’s book while exploiting it to boost their ratings. Not so CNN’s Aaron Brown, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale of television news. Brown clearly realizes that 24-hour cable news has become a trough for sleaze, yet his agonized conscience never stops him from shoveling in more slop, albeit with a heavy sigh. While he treated Kelley more courteously than either Matthews or Lauer did — if Aaron has any vanity, it’s that he’s a mensch — he also refused to address what she was saying about Bush family values. Instead, he ruefully stitched a scarlet G on her chest for dealing in gossip — you know, the kind of rumor, innuendo and speculation that runs on CNN every day of the week as “news.”
Happily, Kelley is no Hester Prynne, and she faced her prosecutors with remarkable sang-froid, confident that she was telling undeniable truths about the Bushes that the supposedly respectable press is unwilling or afraid to reveal. A scandalmonger of the old school, she even vaunted all the lawyers who okayed her work. The more she talked, the more she resembled a successful society madam explaining the facts of life to a puritanical young D.A. who wants to save society by closing the local whorehouse. You may think I’m low, Kelley’s whole manner said, but it’s amazing how many of your colleagues use my services. Perhaps you’ve done so yourself. There are valuable truths about human nature to be learned within the walls of a brothel.
Just so. To be sure, not all the things one learns from the Kelley oeuvre could be called edifying. Her books appeal to schadenfreude and a resentment of celebrity that grows ever stronger in a surreal culture where even Luke Wilson is deemed worthy of a half-hour on Biography. I can’t honestly say that I’m a better person for reading His Way, Kelley’s great unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, but it wasn’t unilluminating to discover that, when romantic Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t falling for women, he was apt to be bashing them with telephones. Such is the visceral poetry of tabloid America.
You get the same pop kick from The Family, which flaunts the gutbucket prose of unconscious pulp (“The Bushes went into retirement like Salvation Army bell ringers, eager to rake in as much money as fast as they possibly could”) and tells scads of unflattering stories, old and new, about nearly a century of Bushwah. How Barbara (who’s variously compared to Ma Barker and a “bull dyke”) was so insecure about her frumpiness that she once railed at Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin for wearing a short skirt, snapping that it looked “awful, awful, awful.” (Martin replied that she was just showing off her good legs.) Or how Dubya, when asked what he talked about with his father, shocked the reporter by answering, “Pussy.” One wonders whether this was before or after his daily Bible study.
Skewering The Family, Kakutani (who has all the pop-culture instincts of, well, a Bush) dumped on Kelley for ignoring serious political issues. Which is like faulting Eminem for not being Yo-Yo Ma. It is Kelley’s function in American culture to give popular expression to the dark, personal dramas of well-known people whose private lives are routinely airbrushed into bright fantasies that bear no resemblance to human life. Kelley’s book not only delivers the dirt you’ll rarely if ever get in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, let alone on Fox News, but it reminds you that personal dirt is the rich soil of day-to-day political life — whether it’s Barbara hating the Reagans for treating her and George like servants, Dubya bursting into obscene rages at reporters during his father’s presidential campaigns (which helps explain his manner during press conferences) or Bush I underestimating Bill Clinton in part because he thought the Arkansas governor too low-class to be a real competitor.
Just as Fahrenheit 9/11 presented a counternarrative to the official version of George W. Bush’s presidency, so Kelley’s book tells a tale that most Americans have never heard. It’s the story of a well-born New England family that affects good-natured charm but has a sense of entitlement so vast it had to relocate to Texas to fit it all in. Reading The Family, you grasp that the Bushes, rather like the Kennedys before them, are tribal, class-obsessed, fanatical about loyalty and utterly ruthless. They’ll do whatever it takes to win — smear John McCain and John Kerry, question Michael Dukakis’ patriotism, even oppose the Civil Rights Act (Bush I was running for office in the South at
Is everything in The Family literally true? Beats me. But it comes closer to reality than George W. Bush’s deadeningly bogus A Charge To Keep: My Journey to the White House. In fact, if I had to choose between Kitty Kelley’s version of the Bushes and, say, Tom Brokaw’s, I’d put more trust in the little blond lady to tell me the truth without fear or favor. Oscar Wilde famously said that we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. It’s Kelley’s fate, and perhaps her disreputable virtue, that when she tells us about the stars, she never lets us forget the many things going on in the gutter.
John Powers’ Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America is available in bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at www.sorewinners.com.