The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
By Kitty Kelley. Doubleday. 705 pp. $29.95
In July 1991, George Herbert Walker Bush wrote in his diary, "The President of Paramount . . . called in to say that Kitty Kelley wants to write a book either about the Bushes or the Royals and he turned it down." Bush expressed relief. "I can't see her ever writing anything nice."
How prescient of our 41st chief executive to anticipate anxiously The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.
Kelley, the indefatigable author of exposes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities, is dauntingly ambitious in the scope of her latest venture. She begins her saga early in the 20th century with descriptions of Samuel Prescott Bush, an Ohio steel magnate, and George Herbert Walker, a Missouri speculator and railroad tycoon, and then proceeds to the marriage of their children, Yale alumnus Prescott Bush and Dorothy Walker, a graduate of Miss Porter's School in Connecticut. The book ends 600 pages later, with the grandson of this union, President George Walker Bush, theatrically landing on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare an end to major combat operations in the 2003 Iraq war.
In tone, its intervening pages are for the most part accusatory, presenting as fact, or by speculation and innuendo, shady financial dealings, duplicity, manipulation, hypocrisy, political wire-pulling, outright lies, and several generations of substance abuse.
More than 100 books have already been published about the Bushes. This latest, begun in 2000 and released fortuitously -- or not, if you're a Bush supporter -- seven weeks before the 2004 election, shows signs of haste in writing and editing. Cliches abound, such as "killed with kindness" and "damning with faint praise." So do strained metaphors: "Nancy barely saw the velvet glove before the steel fist clobbered her," and "she now hid hornets in every bouquet she tossed." My favorite is about a lawsuit of George H.W. Bush's that "rocketed" to the Supreme Court before falling "back in his lap like a bowl of rich cream." Chapter 20 begins with an abandoned pun, "To heir is human, even more so in the Bush family."
Some interviews are dated as late as this March, reducing to five months (from an ideal minimum of nine) the time available for checking a big book's accuracy and style. This lack shows especially in repetitiveness. Or is Kelley merely hoping that reiteration will give the weight of scandal to what may only be human weakness, or a simple desire to make money?
The four sons and surviving daughter of George H.W. Bush have their derelictions and peccadilloes catalogued twice or thrice over. Until the eldest, George W., sobers up at age 40, Kelley trumpets ad nauseam his drinking and drug excesses. His borrowing from his father's friends to finance his business aspirations is similarly dwelt on. We are told a couple of times that he made $15 million on an initial investment of $500,000 when the Texas Rangers were sold. Was this venality, or just good luck? Either way, there is little new here, except the assertion (now denied) by Sharon Bush, a former sister-in-law, that George W. "did coke" at Camp David during his father's presidency. Most readers will already know that George H.W.'s third son, the dyslexic Neil, was involved in a savings-and-loan debacle and bailed out by monied friends. This is mentioned at least four times.
Kelley finds other Bushes guilty by association or condemned by third-hand hearsay. She states that the current president's younger brother, Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida, had financial dealings with Medicare and HUD bilkers in Miami. Did he know they were on the take? Laura Welch, the future first lady, is introduced as a marijuana-smoking student at Southern Methodist University, and 218 pages later, degenerates into "a go-to girl for dime bags." A friend of "many" of Laura's classmates says unequivocally, "She sold dope." Although this informant is named in the text, he now says that he spoke "off the record" and has been quoted "out of context."
An infuriating pseudo-scholarship pervades Kelley's dynastic story. Dozens of books, articles, interviews and "records" are massed as back matter -- 33 pages in all -- along with five pages of bibliography. Yet, because no important fact or quote is numbered in the text or keyworded in the notes, even the most diligent searcher will have trouble tracking sources.
All this being said, Kelley's account of the rise and rise of the Bush family is both inspirational and cautionary. She convincingly shows that good looks, energy, athleticism, ambition, felicitous marriages and social networking can compensate for intellectual ordinariness. George H.W. used to boast about not reading books, and George W. is not often seen at the Washington Opera. Indeed, the family's cultural shortcomings may have sped its public advancement. As Clare Boothe Luce once said, after a few weeks in Congress, "Politics is the refuge of second-class minds."
A common sense of destiny does not, apparently, make the Bushes careful on the climb. According to Kelley, they are risk-takers in finance, sex and illicit- drug use. George H.W., for instance, lived from 1955 to 1966 in Texas houses with racially restrictive covenants, contrary to state law, at a time when his father was in Congress fighting for civil rights.
Kelley takes as proof of adultery the fact that George H.W. stayed on the same hotel floor as his assistant when they traveled. Short of someone in the bed -- or under it -- coming forward, was this arrangement really so compromising? Some years ago, the respected reporter Jack Germond said he had dug into l'affaire Bush and found no evidence whatever of impropriety. Nevertheless, in The Family, gossip is treated as truth.
The author has also discovered no proof of infidelity in the current president's marriage, but surmises, "If there were extramarital affairs, George would have been discreet." Why, without confirmation, even raise the subject? His purported 1972 arrest in Texas for cocaine possession is aired here too, though certifying documents are not. Kelley speculates that some community service he did at the time was to compensate for expunging the police record.
The Bush she most admires -- or at least is lenient toward -- is Prescott, who was a senator from Connecticut between 1952 and 1963. Although he had his failings, including binge drinking, his legislative record was progressive and not self-serving. He voted for a bill deregulating the gas industry even though he knew it would hamper his son's business. He supported black emancipation as early as 1956, and continued to do so even when his son George H.W. tried to follow him to the Senate, running on an anti-civil rights bill platform in 1964. Prescott Bush also opposed the Red-smear methods of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and voted for his censure.
By contrast, chilling evidence of the arrogance of power appears in Kelley's "Author's Note." She writes that Barbara Bush -- incensed by a revelation in Kelley's earlier Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography that Mrs. Reagan had gossiped about George's "girlfriend" -- ordered the director of the Museum of American History to remove that book and Kelley's Jackie Oh! from the Smithsonian First Ladies exhibit. "The former President put his family and friends on notice," Kelley writes, "and the George Bush Presidential Library [a National Archives branch run with taxpayer funds] stopped responding to the simplest reference requests." One of the Walkers, undeterred by family restraint, is quoted as saying that the Bushes have "got a lot to hide."
Which may have something to do with George W.'s Executive Order #13233 of Nov. 2001, blocking the release of Oval Office documents without the permission of the current White House and of the former president concerned (or his executors). This does not stop some Bushes from complaining about abuse of the First Amendment. As the columnist Marianne Means wrote to a resentful Barbara Bush, "I understand your frustration about inaccuracies that appear in the media. We in the press feel the same way about politicians who try to rewrite recorded history for their own purposes."
Kelley quotes some particularly damaging criticisms of the elder Mrs. Bush. "She's got a mouth on her that can maim and destroy," says a former aide. "Have you ever seen an asp smile?" Another assistant, congratulated on working for someone so seemingly nice, replied, "Yes, and I have all the claw marks to prove it."
More devastating still is an account of Barbara Bush's visit to Yad Vashem, the somber Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. "She was a total bitch," says the wife of the then U.S. consul general. "Really nasty, and all because she had dressed inappropriately [in] a blue flowered cotton housedress and open-toed sandals. . . . She barked at me when I showed up in a black suit, pearls, and heels. . . . She screamed at her staff and demanded to know why they had not told her how to dress."
Although Kitty Kelley has the reputation, as does The National Enquirer, of trash-mongering -- and profiting handsomely from it -- both can also be seen as moralists. They "out" our leaders and celebrities with the zeal of evangelists because they want them to be better. And they want us to see these people as they really are, so that in our outrage we will demand reform or repentance. Yet most of us persist in seeing public figures through the rose-colored glass of their own image control. As Machiavelli put it, "The great majority of mankind is satisfied with appearances as though they were realities." *
Sylvia Jukes Morris is the author of "Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady" and "Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce." She is now writing a second volume on Luce.