Matt Lauer's opening one-on-one with Kitty Kelley on the "Today" show this week was an example of a new genre of TV journalism: the interview as Hells Angels initiation ceremony. After being smacked around, stomped on and having her leathers urinated on from a great height by Lauer, Kelley was then welcomed back for two consecutive mornings to plug her new doorstopper, "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty."
The head of NBC News, Neal Shapiro, had gamely resisted pressure from the White House to drop Kelley from the show. But once she was booked, it behooved the host not to look -- the new curse word -- partisan. "Who'd you vote for in 2000? . . . Whom might you vote for in 2004? . . . Tell me something, who are you going to vote for?" Lauer grilled Kelley as we waited impatiently for the "garbage" the White House is so steamed up about.
Lauer's carpet-bombing actually achieved a considerable feat. He made kooky Kelley come across as a poised pro. She fought off his attempt to impugn her journalistic creds with a smiling, stony, honeyed defense of her sources. "Look what they tried to do to Richard Clarke. Look what they did to Paul O'Neill. Look what they did to Ambassador Joe Wilson. If they don't like the message, beat up on the messenger."
Lauer's follow-up punch in the next segment ended up lending credence to Kelley's portrait of the intimidating nature of the Bush dynasty's influence. Sharon Bush, discarded wife of W's younger brother Neil, was wheeled out to deny Kelley's claim that she had confirmed the book's sensational charge of Bush 43 doing coke with his brother Marvin at Camp David during Bush 41's presidency. But she looked and sounded so rattled, all you could think about was how much flak she must be getting from The Family for her indiscretion. You almost wanted to bundle her into the trunk of a car and drive her to a safe house.
I happen to know that Sharon fibbed frantically when she told Lauer that, yes, she had once been planning to write a book herself, but it was a "self-help" book. Two years ago, I was invited to the apartment of a social grande dame to meet Sharon and offer her publishing advice about a tell-all she wanted to write about her life in the bosom of the Bush family. Sharon was accompanied by her then-PR rep, Lou Colasuonno, who has since flipped sides and confirmed Kelley's claim that Sharon endorsed the coke story.
The former Mrs. Neil Bush was a sad, lost soul that afternoon, dissolving into hanky-soaking tears as she talked for two hours about the lousy deal the presidential family had offered in her acrimonious divorce from W's womanizing kid brother. It wasn't a pretty story. She told how her appeals for help to Bar and Poppy had fallen on deaf ears. In despair, she said, she even pleaded her case to the Rev. Billy Graham, whom she asked to make a call to Bush 41 on her behalf. But, according to Sharon, Graham was too sick to do it. Ultimately, it seems, she lost her nerve about her memoir but was dumb enough to have a four-hour lunch with Kitty Kelley.
Now Sharon has the worst of all worlds: no big fat book advance of her own and all the wrath of the Bush family and its many retainers.
In the 13 years since Kelley's notorious Nancy Reagan exposé, journalism has had a nervous breakdown almost as messy as Sharon Bush's divorce. In the era of wild accusations and blind-sourced mudslinging blogs, Kelley's lawyer vettings and her old-fashioned trawl through 988 interviews make her seem quaintly conscientious. Things have gotten so bad, we'll probably end up feting her as the Mary McCarthy of sleaze.
The 600 pages of her newest bioporn may get more traction among the public than the snob press would allow. Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times dismisses Kelley for having "little to say about national security, the Florida election standoff or the Bush family's ties to the Saudis." Fine, but if you want a discussion of the great issues, go plow your way through Kevin Phillips or Paul Krugman. The great issues are not the Kitty Kelley brand. Kelley belongs to the old guard of gossip queens who traffic in the upstairs-downstairs leftovers of life with the toffs.
Anyway, most of us know that much of life on and off the world stage is driven by the accidental trivia of vanity, rivalry and buried grudges. Two months after the hagiographical orgy of the Reagan funeral there is something richly enjoyable about being reminded how cordially the Bushes and the Reagans detested each other. In the real world, social snubs cut deeper than policy disputes -- and Kelley gives you the dagger in the heart of Bar when Nancy Reagan excluded the Bushes from the glittering state dinner for the Prince and Princess of Wales. Or when Reagan, instead of the stem-winding endorsement the Bushes expected at a Washington dinner for the Gipper in 1988, gave a tepid show of support and swept from the ballroom with a kingly wave to the crowd.
Yeah, it's rehash. But the replay of Bush 41's meltdown on the air when Dan Rather roughed him up about arms-for-hostages in 1988 is pretty delicious. It will certainly give fodder to the paranoid fantasy that the iffy National Guard documents CBS aired might have been planted by the Bush campaign as a payback to Dan (cf "Saddam Hussein Tried to Kill My Dad").
"Well, I had my say, Dan," Kelley quotes an enraged GHWB snapping as he tears off his earpiece after the stormy interview. "That guy makes Lesley Stahl look like a pussy. The worst time I've had in 20 years of public life. But it's going to help me. Because that bastard didn't lay a glove on me."
Old gossip of course, but I have to confess I wasn't missing an in-depth analysis of Iran-contra while I was reading it.
© 2004, Tina Brown