CAT THAT ROARED
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 Amazon.com 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.
BITS FROM KELLEY'S BOOK
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
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
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
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."