Americans have always enjoyed speculating about the dirty dealings of their political figures. Bill Clinton wasn’t the first public official to be sacked by a sex scandal; Alexander Hamilton holds that honor. In 1792, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury was nearly blackmailed from office by friends of his rival, Thomas Jefferson.
And yet, during each election cycle the American public flagellates itself over new lows reached. Such talk has already begun with the much-ballyhooed release of The Family, Kitty Kelley’s new book about the Bushes. Newsweek magazine sniffed that Kelley’s research did not meet its standards. Then the president’s ex-sister-in-law Sharon Bush appeared on the Today show disavowing the book’s most sensational claim, which is that George W. Bush and his brothers snorted cocaine at Camp David while their father was president. Kelley’s publishers have shot back that Sharon Bush told this story to Kelley in the presence of a third party.
Let the food fight begin.
Salacious claims aside, what’s surprising about The Family is how little of it is actually news. In tracing the rise of America’s reigning political family, Kelley tells a familiar tale of an obsessively competitive and secretive family that has, with each subsequent generation, moved further to the right when it has suited its members’ political needs.
It is an interesting evolution, even if Kelley is not the first to point it out. Nearly half the book details the rise to power of Prescott S. Bush, the current president’s grandfather, a star athlete at St. George’s School and Yale University who married above his station, made his money on Wall Street and from 1952 to 1963 served as a Connecticut senator. Unlike John F. Kennedy, Prescott Bush stood up to McCarthy; he also supported women’s rights. Kelley even reminds readers that this Bush was a supporter of Planned Parenthood, a fact used against him in his first run for elected office.
Some writers, such as Rochelle and Peter Schweizer, authors of The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, argue that the shift to the right is part of the Bush clan’s tradition of intergenerational mano a mano contests. It seems likely, as Kelley claims here, that it has also been about political expediency. In his first run for office, George H. W. Bush courted the vote of Houston’s John Birch Society, campaigning against civil rights and equal housing—causes his father supported. He lost. In his next campaign, Bush reversed his position and won.
If the expediency charge doesn’t always stick, the charge that the Bushes have been not entirely truthful about their privilege does have legs. Prescott’s rise in the finance world, as Kelley points out, began when his father-in-law tapped him, at 31, for an important job at his investment firm. Prescott’s rise continued thanks to the patronage of former Yale classmates—some of whom were members, as was he, of the ultra-secretive Skull & Bones society.
Kelley says this same pattern of old-boy-network glad-handing explains the success of George H.W. Bush, too. The day his son entered class at Yale, Prescott—then a member of the Yale Corporation—arranged for George to lunch with the university’s president, hardly par for the course for incoming freshmen. When Bush went out on his own to the Texas oil fields, it was with several hundred thousand dollars from his uncle, Herbie Walker, not to mention money from his father and several of his father’s clients. And when he entered politics, Bush called upon his father’s good friend, President Eisenhower, for an endorsement.
Nepotism in politics is about as startling as incense at the Vatican, but what really seems to irk Kelley is how much the public has bought the idea that Bushes are regular folks. In response, she includes salacious details meant, it seems, to dirty up the Bush family’s squeaky-clean image. She depicts Prescott as a binge-drinker and domineering father. Kelley repeats a New York attorney’s story that George H. W. Bush kept an Italian girlfriend named Rosemarie in New York, and she repeats the rumor that as president he had a mistress in Washington.
By contrast to his father, whom Kelley views as dangerously untruthful and mean-spirited, Kelley underestimates George W. Bush in a fashion reminiscent of press coverage during the 2000 race; many of the quotes she attributes to people who knew him at Andover or Yale are of the “I can’t believe this guy is president” genre. She repeats allegations that W. used cocaine while at Yale (backed up by two unnamed sources, one of whom told his story to the writer Erica Jong). She even dredges up the yarn—attributed to pornographer Larry Flynt—that George W. Bush pressured a girlfriend to have an abortion in the ’70s.
Many of these claims are recycled, and Kelley actually undercuts her case by including them. Instead of policy analysis, we wind up with curious (and curiously humanizing) stories about how the future 41st president of the United States peed out the window of his mother-in-law’s house because his trips to the bathroom woke her up.
None of these details make the Bush clan sound as ominous as Kelley clearly thinks they are. In fact, the only thing that does so is her description of how many “destroyed” records she came across in the research process. Instead, the Bushes emerge from this book looking a lot like a regular family: slightly dysfunctional and embarrassed by things that are, well, embarrassing. These are not revelations. In fact, Kelley has done the Bushes a favor by distracting readers from the family value that has been so essential to their success. “I like to win,” the first President Bush told an AP reporter long ago. “Like to succeed. I feel goaded on by competition.” Kelley ought to remember that if she is taken to court.