Don't mess with the Bushes
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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
Tuesday September 14, 2004
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
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
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.
Salon spoke with Kelley on Monday afternoon at the midtown New York
offices of Doubleday, her book publisher.
[Salon:] The Bush forces are coming after you very strongly. And now
the media is too.
[Kitty Kelley:] Yes, they are, this is what they do, this is how they
operate. It's interesting, from talking with the media today, the
European media is much less intimidated than the American press. The
Americans are all saying, "well, why should we listen to you. Look at
the books you've written." Well, excuse me, those books have stood
up, I stand behind everything in those books, they've stood the test
of time. And this book will too. So I see how this media spin is
working, and I'm not surprised. You'd think the media would look at
my book and follow up on it - all right, she says here they
instituted drug testing in the National Guard at such and such time,
let's call up and find out if that's true. But don't beat me up just
because I've come to you with almost a thousand sources. You know,
I've gone through four sets of lawyers, because I'm dealing with a
[S:] You've gone through this before, of course, when Frank Sinatra
tried to block publication of your unauthorised biography of him. How
would you compare the heat you felt from Sinatra and his crowd and
what you're going through now?
[KK:] It's worse now, because there's more at stake. With Sinatra,
you just worried about getting the bejabbers beat out of you. But
with the Bushes, they work on all sorts of levels to destroy the
messenger so the message can't come through. But the message is the
message. The stuff I've done is solid. Did I get everything? No. And
you know something, we better hurry and try to get all the
information we can get - because this president is trying to lock it
all up through executive order, which means you won't be able to get
presidential history, because the files and everything will be locked
[S:] You write that the Bushes are particularly good at cleansing
anything in government files that will besmirch the family
reputation. How does that work?
[KK:] Well, you see it on all sorts of levels, from the trivial on
up. For instance, I got a copy of the Bush family tree from the Bush
presidential library. And at first we just thought a couple things
were left off, but it was a number of things. Mentally retarded
children from one branch of the family erased. Too many divorces in
one family - that doesn't fit with the family-values image, so some
ex-wives simply disappear. You could say that's just an oversight or
mistake here and there. But when you see a pattern as I've seen over
the past years of files redacted, too many mysterious fires that
destroy records, state department files simply missing, gone,
National Guard files.
[S:]You also allege that the Bushes have tried to block people from
talking with you and put pressure on your publisher.
[KK:] Yes, imagine the former president of the United States calling
your publisher. I wrote George Herbert Walker Bush requesting an
interview. He always responds to letters; he's famous for it. He even
responded to Bob Woodward for a book. But he didn't respond to mine -
he had an assistant phone the publisher of Doubleday, Steve Rubin.
Imagine that pressure. All of a sudden, your publisher is told that
not only does the former president of the United States not want this
book to be written, he's not going to talk, he's not going to verify
anything. Most publishers would have caved at that point. And I think
Bush thought it would work.
[S:] Let's talk about Sharon Bush - she is your only on-the-record
source for the Camp David cocaine story. But she's now gone public
denying she ever told it to you. Why would she do that?
[KK:] I don't know; my guess is she's scared. She talked about
everything with me that day, mostly about the breakup of her
marriage, and how the Bushes don't have family values. And she said
to me that the affair that Neil had that broke up her marriage was
aided and abetted by his parents, Barbara and George.
She was crying and crying and she said, "they let him have an affair.
And I called up Barbara and threw myself on her mercy and said
please, please tell him to come back home." And I said: "How can his
mother tell him to come back to his wife?" And she said, "you don't
understand - they'll do anything she tells them." But she said her
mother-in-law wouldn't do that, she was cold as ice. And she
cried, "you'd think Barbara would have been more sympathetic to me,
considering all the infidelities she's had to put up with."
Now over that lunch Sharon and Lou told me that she was in the midst
of an alimony battle, she was angry that she was only being paid
$1,000 (£557) a month alimony. And they told me they thought that if
they leaked the fact she was having lunch with Kitty Kelley to the
press, the Bushes hate you so much, that will scare them. And it
might be leverage for her in her divorce. And Lou said: "Well, this
lunch might find its way into the New York Observer." And in fact it
came out in the Observer the next week.
[S:] So Sharon Bush was using you to put some heat on the family to
get a better divorce deal?
[KK:] Yes. And I understand that. And she did get a better deal. Her
alimony went up to $2,500 (£1,400). So that told me something else
about the Bushes and how they operate. So she got a better alimony
deal out of it. But then she goes on The Today Show Monday morning to
say you're wrong. That takes nerve, to go on network TV to challenge
a bestselling author.
[S:] Why would she have done that?
[KK:] Her kids. Her kids are in touch with her grandparents and they
go, "mom, how could you, how could you?" I think it was pressure from
her kids, coming down hard from her grandparents. Absolutely. She has
three kids - one who's still a minor, Ashley, one, Pierce, who just
started Georgetown University and wants to be a politician, and then
she's got the model, Lauren. And I think kids are the first casualty,
and they didn't ask for this and just want it all to go away. They
probably love their family and are just appalled at what their mother
did. And Sharon was probably at a very vulnerable time, and is not
quite as vulnerable now. But she got on nationwide television and
denied what she said, and I have a witness.
[S:] Why didn't you tape it?
[KK:] It was in a restaurant, I never tape in them. It's loud and
clattery. Also I knew it would probably be a sensitive interview. I
don't tape every interview, but I have a lot on tape.
[S:] In another explosive part of your book, you tell the story of a
Midland prostitute peddling embarrassing stories about George W Bush
who's suddenly run out of Austin by some threatening "intelligence
types". You name one source for that story. Do you have others?
[KK:] One on record, and two unnamed sources.
[S:] Why didn't you name them?
[KK:] I don't remember why in that case.
[S:] With a charge like that, it seems like you'd want more than one
named source. I'd also want to know if the source you named, this
political consultant in Austin named Peck Young, had an axe to grind,
if he was a Bush hater. What made you give that story credit?
[KK:] Because he was impeccable, that source, I feel very comfortable
[S:] And you believe the Bushes are capable of doing something like
that - of threatening a woman who is shooting her mouth off like
that? You think the family really operates that way?
[KK:] I know the family operates that way. I wish you could see the
stuff that's on the cutting room floor, that got left out of the
book. There are other people who will tell you stories like that, but
they won't go on the record. And you can't blame them. And I don't
know how to convince them, that it's history, that it's important.
Because I can't in good conscience tell them that. But I do feel
comfortable with that story. I'm surprised by the number of people
who did go on the record.
[S:] Another inflammatory passage in the book is about the girlfriend
whose abortion George W Bush allegedly paid for as a young man. There
again it seems like you go with one source, and it's somebody many
people don't find credible - Larry Flynt.
[KK:] Not just him - I relied on his two detectives.
[S:] So you went and interviewed them as well?
[S:] Again, I'm trying to figure out your methodology and why your
enemies come after you and say: "She relies on shaky sources or
she'll lump a variety of sources together, no matter how they vary in
[KK:] Yes, I've read that one too.
[S:] So how do you respond to that - say on this one in particular,
this abortion story?
[KK:] Well, I took the public record a little further and went to the
investigators and asked for their stuff, and got their stuff. I have
the woman's name, address and phone number ...
[S:] Did you make an effort to reach her?
[KK:] Of course.
[S:] And she wouldn't talk?
[S:] But you found the two investigators credible after talking to
[KK:] Yeah, I did.
[S:] So your method is to leave it to the reader to make up their
[KK:] Right. And to tell you how far I went.
[S:] That falls short of the standards of the New York Times, say, or
the Washington Post. Why do you feel it's legitimate to fall short of
[KK:] I don't think that falls short of the standards of the New York
Times or the Washington Post in every single instance. I think that
especially the Washington Post has pushed things in the past, far
beyond where I would go.
[S:] What's an example of that?
[KK:] Janet Cooke.
[S:] Well, that was exposed as a work of fiction!
[KK:] Jayson Blair ...
[S:] But the Times and the Post were both humiliated by those
[KK:] And I would be too if you find something in my books that
didn't stand the test of time. I honestly would.
[S:]So you wouldn't have put a story like that in unless you'd done
enough work on your own to satisfy yourself that there was something
there, that it would hold up?
[S:] What do you think W will do if he loses in November? Will he
happily go back to baseball?
[KK:] No. You know something that I have found out from this family
after four years - he doesn't plan to lose. They know how to win - no
[S:] What does that mean?
[KK:] That means these people can put the Sopranos to shame.
[S:] Does that mean vote stealing?
[KK:] That's a bit overt. But nothing will stand in the way of these
people winning. Nothing. You start out looking at the Bush family
like it's The Donna Reed Show and then you see it's The Sopranos.
David Talbot is Salon's founder and editor in chief