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Progressive Review


by Sally Denton

Six weeks before the election, bestselling author and investigative journalist Kitty Kelley had suddenly become the media equivalent of a third candidate in the presidential race. With the long-awaited September 14 publication of her investigative history of the Bush dynasty, and with unprecedented attacks on her personal credibility by the mainstream media as well as from a horrified White House, Kelley seemed to dominate the news cycle at a critical moment in the campaign-more than George W. Bush, John Kerry, Osama bin Laden, WMDs and the war in Iraq put together. For the Republicans, of course, the carefully orchestrated "shooting of the messenger," which began a full week before the book appeared, was an almost desperate effort to deflect attention from what stood to be the most devastating exposé yet for a beleaguered administration.

Kelley's all but unrivaled gifts for uncovering long-hidden secrets and getting the "ungettable" story-vividly illustrated by her vindicated bestselling biographies of Jacqueline Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, and the British Royal Family-were trained now on a sitting president, his father, and the personal and business lives of arguably America's most powerful political family. But beyond the predictable partisan howls and venom, the same personalized ad hominem assaults on Kelley from her media colleagues display an even deeper, ultimately more significant issue-the abhorrence of truth-telling, and of truth-tellers (especially women), in a political culture hostage to a self-inflicted silence. With unintended irony, Kelley's book exposes not only a dynasty but also a crisis of integrity and competence in the mainstream media.

On September 13, Kelley's publicity tour kicked off with what will go down in history as one of the most blatantly hostile interviews NBC's Today Show Host, Matt Lauer, has ever conducted. Patronizing and condescending, Lauer asked Kelley virtually nothing about the substantial reporting of the 705-page biography-focusing only on the episode related in the book about Bush's alleged cocaine use-preferring instead to use the valuable air time to challenge Kelley's credibility. In a stunning lapse of etiquette, Lauer questioned her repeatedly about which candidate she intended to vote for in the upcoming election, clearly intending to "expose" her as a Democrat and her book therefore a partisan smear. It was hard to imagine that Katie Couric would ever ask the same question of Sy Hersh, whom she happened to interview in the previous segment about his latest book on the prison scandal. Lauer's boss, NBC News president Neal Shapiro, days before received a call from a White House representative urging him to cancel the interview with Kelley. Ranked #1 on the day it was released, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty was denounced by the Republican Party in a memorandum distributed to radio talk show hosts as "New Kelley Book, Same Old Kelley Slime."

Lauer was symbolic, if hardly alone, of a reflexive culture that holds a woman journalist to a different standard than her male colleagues. If a woman writes something controversial it must be "gossip." A male reporter may be accused of being "poorly sourced," but never of "fabricating." If her name is Kitty, she can't be taken seriously. If she also happens to be blonde, all the more reason. A "liberal" to boot and her destiny is sealed. Never mind that she is one of the only investigative reporters among her peers who has never been successfully sued for libel, has never been forced to retract a written statement, and is one of the few in her professional milieu known for never "single sourcing," for hiring her own staff of fact-checkers and her own legal team to vet her documentation. Her thorough research, attention to detail, and ability to get sources to reveal information are legendary. She has taken on subjects with the sharpest legal knives, and though her books have made her a millionaire several times over, she continues to do her work with a plodding meticulousness, sequestering herself from friends and family as she pursues the stories other reporters miss or ignore. Such work does not come without risk and sacrifice, and Kelley has chosen to endure those time and again. She might have invested the royalties from her number-one bestselling biographies and lived off the interest. But instead she continues to bring the unwanted truths to an apparently ravenous audience.

The language of dismissal carries a sexist prejudice totally lacking in subtlety. In the pre-emptive media salvos-from the Washington Post to The New York Times and Newsweek-she has been slapped with the label of an airhead. Tagging her with the derogatory gender-laden nomenclature, one week's worth of stories were staggering in the terminology rarely if ever used to portray serious male authors: Catty. Scandalous. Kitty litter. Salacious. Innuendo. Tabloid journalism. Lurid. Unsubstantiated gossip. Scorned woman. Kitty's dish. Kitty smells a rat. Scandalista. Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty. "Don't mess with Miss Kitty." wrote Lloyd Grove of The Daily News. "You might get scratched…meow." Perhaps the term used most frequently to dismiss Kelley is "celebrity biographer." As if First Ladies, the Royal Family, and a mobbed-up entertainer with exceedingly close ties to an American president are not fit subjects for "serious" biography. Or as if Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt - those subjects of serious biographers - were not celebrities in their time.

All of this serves, of course, to deflect from the larger issues raised in Kelley's book, issues perhaps too frightening to contemplate: That we may have a politically, morally, and ethically deficient chief executive. ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that if they decided to interview Kelley they would ask her "very probing questions." (As "probing" as those hard-hitting interviews they conduct with administration officials on issues vital to the country, one might ask?) Newsweek chose not to excerpt the book because anything written by Kelley is "problematic," and Larry King, who has interviewed Kelley numerous times in the past, decided this was one subject too hot to handle.

The real story, of course, is not about Kitty Kelley but about what she has written. Pulling out every known device, the mainstream media is addressing everything but the substance of the book. In this time-honored technique of disinformation, millions of people might be turned off, deprived of valuable information they need in the electoral process. Instead of focusing on the "credibility" of Kitty Kelley, this should be the occasion for an examination of whether the Bush family represents a serious miscarriage of American democracy.

Investigative reporting is but one way to give a voice to the truths we all carry within us-the truths about what a civilized society and actual democracy should look like. Kitty Kelley comes from a long tradition of courageous women taking on the system, a tradition once venerable and now relegated to the fringe. There was Ida Tarbell, who, in a 19-part magazine series in 1902, rocked John D. Rockefeller's oil empire. The new century found Rockefeller facing his most formidable rival ever-not another businessman, but a 45-year old woman determined to prove that Standard Oil and Rockefeller were rife with corruption and unethical business practices. Nellie Bly, considered by many to be the best investigative reporter in America, focused her attention on women's rights issues and was the inventor of undercover investigative reporting. She committed herself to a woman's lunatic asylum in New York to report on the appalling conditions and posed as a sweatshop worker in Philadelphia to expose the cruelty and dire conditions of women workers. When her stories got too uncomfortable for her male superiors she was switched to the fashion beat. And let's not forget Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose writing created such a controversy that when she met President Lincoln in 1862 he said: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!" They are all unified by a central conviction to explore truths about America, regardless of how disturbing or embarrassing or uncomfortable they may be.

But even the gender issue is secondary to the larger issue of the mainstream media's dismissal of unwanted truths in this political culture. The irony here is that Kelley is more of an embarrassment to the media than to the Bush family. Everyone who writes in and about Washington carries the baggage of old personal and professional rivalries, and Kelley has her share of internecine enemies from a thirty-year career: those who wished they had gotten the stories she's gotten and written the books she has written, and those about whom she has written. Washington is brimming with reporters and authors who have built their careers on orchestrated leaks from interested parties with political motives, most of whom are unwilling to go on the record. Kelley is one of those rare Washington creatures who is nobody's mouthpiece, and as such she is a reproach to the many journalists who rely upon government hand-outs. As a result, she is feared and despised, and the full force of the petty venom that permeates the trade has been showered on her in recent weeks. As Sam Smith, publisher and editor of the Progressive Review, has written, "few things get the conventional media more riled up than one of its own who doesn't play by the rules, such as the requirement demanding sycophancy towards whatever sociopaths currently lead the country and, coincidentally, provide the propaganda that the media passes on as news."

Michiko Kakutani seems to make some valid points in her New York Times review in which she says the book addresses the personal to the exclusion of the public record. The Family "is seeded with some spicy allegations about drugs and sex, but has little to say about national security, the Florida election standoff or the Bush family's ties with the Saudis," Kakutani writes. "…Far more attention is lavished on the contentious relationship between Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, say, than on George W. Bush's collegial relationship with the neoconservatives and religious right." But that in a subtle way misses the point. In modern America, whether you like it or not, the personal is the political. Is it invalid to judge the integrity, the military record, the personal recklessness, the business practices, and formation of ideology in evaluating a sitting president?

One of the biggest stories at the heart of the Iraq War is George W. Bush's "collegial" relationship with the neoconservatives-how he got in their grip flows directly out of his personal background. Before 9/11 Bush was a drifting mannequin, and on that day, as the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 starkly shows, he was a deer in the headlights. Suddenly, he was transformed into a president who took us to war in an irrelevant country based on unsubstantiated and corrupt intelligence that has now cost a thousand American lives. How did this happen? The answer lies in Bush's relationship with his closest advisers: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz. To understand how he became in thrall to these advisers one must first delve into his personal character and background. So in the end, the personal, of which Kelley writes, is related to national security, the Florida election standoff, and the family relationship to the Saudis.

Kakutani raises an important point. There is a valid public debate here which journalism has not embraced about whether there is a separation between the personal and political. If the Bushes are hypocritical in their private lives, how credible are any of their public pronouncements or public imagery? It is perfectly legitimate to ask an author about sources. But Kelley has been subjected to a double standard. On the one hand she is dismissed because what she is saying is important, as evidenced by Lauer, while on the other she is dismissed because what she is saying is not important, as Kakutani sees it. The truth is that the mainstream media has given this administration a free ride, up to and including swallowing whole unsubstantiated allegations and outright lies as a pretext for war. There is no more serious misrepresentation in politics and life than to send kids out to die for a lie.

Kitty Kelley is not killing anyone. She is not mobilizing any troops. Yet she is being called to account for words she has written beyond the standards of which we hold the highest official in the land. The same journalists who have given this administration a free pass on a tyrant's worst offenses-stealing an election and taking a country into war under false pretenses-are grilling Kitty Kelley about the methodology and motives of a literary endeavor.

The Family is indeed a family quarrel, but it's a quarrel inside the family of American journalism. What are the implications if the Bushes are even half of what Kelley portrays? Kakutami is right that Kelley's book begs further reporting. Every managing editor in every newsroom in America should be saying to their reporters: Show me where she's wrong, and if she's right, go get the story. As John Steinbeck wrote, "it is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies."

Some of Kelley's findings might be challenged or modified by future historians, for The Family is but the first draft history. But one thing is clear. They have not been refuted by her contemporaries.


Page 252: George H.W. Bush comes to the rescue when his sons run afoul of Andover honor codes. Jeb violates the school's alcohol ban, but he's allowed to finish his degree after his father intervenes. Years later, Kelley writes, school officials catch W.'s younger brother Marvin with drugs, but dad talks them out of expulsion and secures for his son an "honorary transfer" to another school.

Page 253: At Andover, George W. Bush writes a morose essay about his sister's death. Searching for a synonym for "tears," he consults a thesaurus and writes, "And the lacerates ran down my cheeks." A teacher labels the paper "disgraceful."

Page 261-68: A frat brother says Bush "wasn't an ass man." Another friend concurs: "Poor Georgie. He couldn't even relate to women unless he was loaded. … There were just too many stories of him turning up dead drunk on dates."

Page 309: At Harvard Business School, which W. attends from 1973 to 1975, a professor screens The Grapes of Wrath. Bush asks him, "Why are you going to show us that Commie movie?" W.'s take on the film: "Look. People are poor because they are lazy."

Page 266: George W. and cocaine. One anonymous Yalie claims he sold coke to Bush; another classmate says he and Bush snorted the drug together. Sharon Bush, W.'s ex-sister-in-law, tells Kelley that Bush has used cocaine at Camp David "not once, but many times." (Sharon has since denied telling Kelley this.)

Page 304: While working on a 1972 Alabama Senate campaign, Bush, witnesses say, "liked to sneak out back for a joint of marijuana or into the bathroom for a line of cocaine."

Page 575: A friend says Laura Bush was the "go-to girl for dime bags" at Southern Methodist University.

Page 252: George W. hangs a Confederate flag in his dorm room at Andover.

Page 268: W. on Yale's decision to admit women: "That's when Yale really started going downhill."

Page 598: George W. to McCain during the nasty 2000 South Carolina primary: "John, we've got to start running a better campaign." McCain: "Don't give me that shit. And take your hands off me."