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There's nothing up her sleeve, in fact

BOOK REVIEW

The Family The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty Kitty Kelley Doubleday: 706 pp., $29.95

September 21, 2004|Sally Bedell Smith | Special to The Times

In the classic film "She Done Him Wrong," a dapper young Gilbert Roland encounters Mae West for the first time. "I've heard a lot about you," he says. "Yeah," she shoots back, "but you can't prove it."

Neither, it seems, can Kitty Kelley.

From the beginning of "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty," Kelley strains at the leash and bares her teeth. Indeed, she makes her most incendiary charge before the first chapter, quick work even for an attack biography. Toward the end of her 10-page author's note, she quotes Sharon Bush, the bitter ex-wife of President Bush's brother Neil, saying that George W. Bush and his brother Marvin "did coke at Camp David when their father was President, and not just once either." For good measure, Kelley repeats the cocaine allegation several hundred pages later, this time slightly amplified ("not once, but many times") and again 200 pages beyond that. She also asserts that President Bush used cocaine as an undergraduate at Yale and when he served in the Texas National Guard.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Kitty Kelley -- In some copies of the Tuesday Calendar section, a review of "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty" said author Kitty Kelley wrote that President Bush gave up "tobacco, alcohol and drugs, at the age of forty" -- five years before he went to Camp David when his father was president. Bush turned 40 2 1/2 years before his father became president and two years after he himself became a born-again Christian.

If true, these are serious charges. But are they true? Based on the sources Kelley cites, it is impossible to know. Sharon Bush has since publicly denied making the allegation to Kelley, saying she never saw her former brothers-in-law engage in such activities. The author undermines the charge, perhaps inadvertently, when she states elsewhere that President Bush's conversion to born-again Christianity in April 1984 "led George to give up tobacco, alcohol, and drugs at the age of forty" -- three years before he went to Camp David when his father was president. Kelley's other sources are an unnamed Yale classmate, who supposedly told his tale to the writer Erica Jong; an unnamed Yale graduate student; "those who worked with George" on a political campaign in 1972; and retired 1st Lt. Robert A. Rogers, who served 11 years in the National Guard and has written about its procedures. Rogers speculates to Kelley that Bush may have ducked a physical examination during his military service in 1972 to avoid substance abuse detection. But Kelley has admitted that Rogers never met Bush and has no direct knowledge of Bush's activities in the National Guard.

To understand a Kelley book, it is necessary to crack the code of her technique. She is not so much a biographer as an illusionist who, for just long enough to get newspaper headlines, makes her audience believe she is actually sawing a body in two. Her cocaine allegations show the method she uses throughout the book -- relying on anonymous sources backed up with marginal sources who have names but no firsthand information about the allegations they are "confirming." Whatever their motives, many have scores that want settling. "I'll bet George W. went to Hazelden, too," remarks Democratic activist and former Los Angeles Times columnist Marylouise Oates after discussing a Bush cousin's admission to the drug treatment center. What the reader isn't told is that Oates' husband is Robert Shrum, the architect of the presidential campaigns of Democrats Al Gore and John F. Kerry.

Midway through the book, Kelley accuses First Lady Laura Bush of smoking marijuana while a student at Southern Methodist University. This too is a typical device. Kelley makes the explosive assertion almost as an aside, with no evidence to back it up (citing only the recollections of "some SMU students"), lulling the reader into acceptance. Two hundred pages later, she sidles into the same allegation in a different venue, the vacation island of Tortola, where she contends that "the Bushes used to attend and enjoy heavy pot-smoking parties"-- no sources given. In the next breath, Kelley quotes Robert Nash, a public relations executive, saying that Laura Bush "not only smoked dope, but she sold dope" at SMU. Once again, Kelley is trafficking in hearsay, because she identifies Nash not as a friend or acquaintance of the first lady but only "an Austin friend of many in Laura's SMU class."

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