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Media View Kitty Kelley's Bush Book With Caution

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page C01

It is the book that some Republicans have been worrying about for weeks, filled with lurid allegations by a celebrity biographer whose controversial reputation has only boosted her sales.

Kitty Kelley's volume on the Bush family won't be published until next week, but the White House communications director yesterday dismissed the book as "garbage" and a Republican National Committee spokeswoman said journalists should treat it as "fiction." With the author booked for numerous television interviews -- including three straight mornings on NBC's "Today," starting Monday -- "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty" is certain to generate media attention in the heat of a presidential campaign.

In her new biography, Kitty Kelley alleges President Bush used drugs. One of her sources for that claim is his ex-sister-in-law, Sharon Bush, pictured with her daughter Lauren. (Kathy Willens -- AP)

Peter Gethers, vice president of Random House and Kelley's editor, said the publisher's chief counsel and Kelley's own lawyer went over the book "with a fine-toothed comb."

"It was as extensive a legal read as a publisher could give," Gethers said. "Some things didn't make it, and we're 100 percent confident of the things that made it in. We erred on the side of caution because we knew how hard she was going to be hit."

Gethers confirmed the accuracy of a report in London's the Mail on Sunday, which said the book contains, among other things, allegations of past drug use by President Bush. One of the sources quoted on that subject is Bush's former sister-in-law, Sharon Bush, who had a bitter divorce from the president's brother Neil.

Gethers said Sharon Bush provided "confirmation" to the author but was not the initial source of the allegations. "Just because an ex-wife says it doesn't mean it's not true," he said.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush repeatedly declined to address questions about possible past drug use, saying only that he had made "mistakes" when he was "young and irresponsible." He said he had not used illegal drugs since 1974 but refused to say whether he had tried them earlier. "Enough is enough when it comes to trying to dig up people's backgrounds in politics," Bush said in 1999.

During the same period, St. Martin's Press withdrew a book that alleged Bush had been arrested on cocaine charges in 1972 after learning that the author had spent time in prison in a car-bombing case. The publisher's editor in chief later resigned.

The Mail story has triggered a wave of radio and Internet chatter about Kelley's book, from the online Drudge Report to Howard Stern's radio show. Random House's Doubleday unit has ordered an initial printing of 750,000, and Kelley is scheduled to be interviewed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and radio host Don Imus, among others.

Fox News Vice President Bill Shine said his star host, Bill O'Reilly, would likely interview Kelley but that "right now we're going to wait and see what's in the book."

ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said the book "obviously would be subjected to serious scrutiny" before the network reported the allegations, "and if we had the author on we would ask her very probing questions." CBS has not booked Kelley. She is tentatively scheduled to appear on CNN's "American Morning" and "NewsNight With Aaron Brown."

NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust described Kelley's scheduled sit-down with Matt Lauer as "a very competitive interview that all the morning shows were after. And as we do with all of our interview subjects, we'll review the material beforehand and ask all the appropriate questions."

The book did not pass muster at Newsweek, however. Editor Mark Whitaker said his magazine was given an advance copy for a possible story "and we passed. We weren't comfortable with a lot of the reporting. We will write about it if it becomes a phenomenon and looks like it will have some impact on the campaign debate, not to further publicize the reporting in it."

Whitaker said he learned late yesterday that one of his reporters, without his approval, had signed a confidentiality agreement for the advance look at the book. The agreement, he said, would have barred Newsweek from pursuing the allegations without Doubleday's permission. "The publisher was trying to constrain us in any independent reporting we could do on the book, and that's not a condition I or our lawyers would ever agree to," Whitaker said.

Doubleday publicity director David Drake confirmed that the document said "the magazine would agree not to contact any third party to verify information contained in the book without our prior agreement," but said that Newsweek never made such a request. The magazine signaled its intention to go ahead with a piece for Monday, Drake said, and "we have yet to hear from anyone at Newsweek that the magazine reversed its decision. One can't help but speculate that the magazine is bowing to pressure from the White House," although Drake acknowledged he had no evidence of that.

Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly said he had not gotten an advance look at the book but "you obviously would have to fact-check the hell out of it." Excerpting a book "by Kitty Kelley is a problematic proposition," he said. Doubleday says it never offered first serial rights to keep the book's contents from leaking out.

A call to Kelley's Washington home was returned by her publicist, Marina Ein, who said she was unavailable yesterday.

Kelley has written extensively researched, gossip-filled books on the British royal family -- which are packed with disputed details about their sexual practices -- Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But none generated a bigger furor than her 1991 biography of Nancy Reagan.

The New York Times, which obtained an advance copy, gave the book front-page display, saying it "could forever shatter" the Reagan myth through "allegations of scandalous sexual behavior" by the "woman who ruled the White House with a Gucci-clad fist." Max Frankel, then the paper's editor, said later that the story had been a mistake, and detractors accused the Times and other news outlets of retailing unconfirmed allegations.

RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson cited that book in saying: "This is the same author who falsely maligned the late president Ronald Reagan as a date rapist who paid for a girlfriend's abortion and wrongly cast Nancy Reagan as an adulterer who had an affair with Frank Sinatra. The media blasted her on the Reagan book and ridiculed her over her book on the royal family as unsubstantiated gossip and rumor."

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said yesterday: "Kitty Kelley's allegations make Michael Moore look like a factual documentarian. We're not going to let this garbage she's historically known for spreading go unanswered." He said it would "violate journalistic standards" for news executives to "put this type of trash in their newspapers and on their airwaves." White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan added that the drug allegations were "discredited, dismissed and disavowed years ago."

Gethers said Kelley used more unnamed sources in the book than she generally does, but that this doesn't diminish its credibility.

"We either know who the sources are or are extremely confident from what Kitty said that they're genuine," he said. "People are very afraid to go on the record for this book. Kitty is a fearless reporter; even her detractors would acknowledge that. But she's tackling a sitting president of the United States and ex-president of the United States." Potential sources, he said, "are afraid that these people can literally ruin their lives, and ruin them socially in Washington."

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