Kitty Kelley's "explosive" nearly 700-page tome on the Bushes, The Family, has been barely out on the streets for a day, but the early news reactions have already made it plain: The sprawling biography simply doesn't matter. The predominant media take on this book is likely to go something like this: In Bush tome, unreliable menopausal scandalmonger again misses mark; world waits out irritating media buzz.
But that doesn't mean the book isn't worth a read – far from it.
Kelley's book is – unintentionally I think – a surprisingly tender portrait of a small, loyal group of vicious undead fiends, persevering against all odds in a world of the callous, uncomprehending living. Kelley does what no other writer to date has really done for the Bushes: she actually makes you admire them for their remarkable ability to remain consistently cold, calculating, predatory and unscrupulous in generation after generation after generation.
In one of the great laugh lines of this or any other biography, Kelley sums up the Bush charm by quoting (third-hand, mind you – there's that damn credibility thing again!) none other than Richard Nixon:
The writer Gore Vidal recalled a conversation with his friend Murray Kempton shortly after one of the journalist's periodic lunches with Murray Kempton. Kempton had mentioned George Bush [Sr.], and according to Vidal, Nixon had responded: "Total light-weight. Nothing there – sort of person you appoint to things – but now that Barbara, she's something else again! She's really vindictive!" Vidal characterized the comment as "the highest Nixonian compliment."But then Richard Nixon hadn't met W.
Kelley's book covers some six generations of Bushes in some detail, focusing primarily on the Big Three: Prescott, George H.W., and George W. It is less an intergenerational saga than a breathtaking tale of genealogical one-upmanship in which each successive Bush child strives to indelibly stamp the family name on some previously unconquered region of human iniquity. Each successive Bush is Worst of All in his own way.
The title of Meanest Old Bugger goes to George W.'s great-great grandfather, David Davis Walker, who once wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Republic that said:
I consider [Negroes] more of a menace ... than all other evils combined ... For humanity's sake, I am in favor of putting to death all children who come into the world hopeless invalids or badly deformed ... I am in favor of a whipping-post law ... for wife-beaters and all other petty offenders on whom jail sentences are imposed.In squirming out of combat duty, it turns out W. was merely following a long family tradition, first initiated by D.D. Walker, who Kelley claims got out of the Civil War by paying someone to take his place in the Union army.
But D.D. Walker hardly represents the pinnacle of the family's achievement. His son, George Herbert (Bert) Walker, had his father declared insane late in life to prevent him from giving away too much family money. Bert would later gain some renown during Poppy Bush's tenure in the White House as the family's great investor in Nazi businesses. And until W. came along, Bert Walker was the family's most exalted Maker of Suspiciously Successful Stock Deals. He was also best in the family at buying things (companies, tournaments, land, towns) and naming them after himself.
Most importantly, Bert also began the proud family tradition of Bush/Walker men who were driven to extraordinary accomplishments by their unconcealed contempt for their fathers, who in turn hated their sons.
Then there was Prescott Bush, W.'s grandfather, who took part in the failed theft of Geronimo's skull (he and his creepy Yale friends stole the skull of a ten year-old Apache boy instead) and denounced playwright Edward Albee on the Senate floor without ever reading his work. Prescott appears in the book as the family's great Cringing Ass-Licker; much of the middle chapters are concerned with his tireless efforts to flatter (in succession) Eisenhower, Nixon, Rockefeller and Nixon again.
Prescott, however, was a relative political moderate who supported civil rights and limited forms of socialized medicine and aid to the poor. He is also a vitally important character in understanding our current president as the fruit of the Bush family tree. Prescott represents the moment in the family's evolution before the Genteel Yale Snobs of the Bush family fully merged with the Mean Unscrupulous Moneymaking Bastards of the Walker family.
It is only with Prescott's son, George Herbert Walker Bush, that the two strands of the genetic lineage come together in perfect alignment, hence paving the way for the creation of W.
People who are accustomed to viewing Bush I as the moderate in the family will be shocked at reading Kelley's book. The "bombshell revelations" in the book are likely to be the numerous extramarital affairs Kelly hangs on the neck of Bush I, using language that makes it seem almost inevitable that reporters will now find these mistresses that somehow escaped public detection for all these years. The most obvious lead Kelley offers appears to be an unnamed New York lawyer who claims he was engaged by an Italian woman he calls "Rosemarie," who considered suing Bush I after he broke a promise to leave Barbara for her. I will be shocked if the lawyer and the mistress are not identified by some British tabloid by the end of the baseball season.
But the more damning details about Bush I are the things that he said on the record during his first Senate run – statements that we somehow never heard about when he was running for president. His accomplishments include calling Martin Luther King a "militant," being a member of three all-white clubs in Houston (GHWB: "I always believe people should associate with their friends in things like that"), and deriding the concept of medical care for the aged as "medical air for the caged." It was as useless as putting air-conditioning in a ship hold for caged zoo animals.
And as chairman of the RNC during the Nixon years, Bush I attacked Watergate investigator Carmine Bellino by falsely charging him with wiretapping Nixon in 1960 while working for John F. Kennedy – previewing similar tactics that both he and his son would use as president.
Bush I's fierce campaign to the top of the political totem pole allowed the next generation of Bushes to make their dastardly mark on the world in an atmosphere of relative leisure. This round of Bush children – with names like "Neilsie" and "Georgie" – marked a radical departure from the Bush family tradition. The previous Bush patriarchs, for all their moral flaws, had been men of indomitable will, superior culture, and remarkable ingenuity. With George W., they began an evolutionary march backwards, back toward a more perfect and streamlined ancestor, the Horseshoe Crab Bush, the Coelocanth Bush.
In the book, W. appears as the evolutionary essence of a long and nasty family lineage, boiled down and stripped of civilizing ballast. While popular culture derides Bush II as a bumbling buffoon who has been lucky since birth, in The Family he appears almost beautiful: a pure vision of human ugliness, born to rule an ugly world that deserves him.
The W. sections of the book contain many of the same allegations that have already shadowed his political career: drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, his use of connections to evade military service. The Air National Guard sections includes some new reporting that may move the story forward. Kelley traces Bush's acceptance into the guard, where there was a waiting list 100,000 people long, back through the ranks of the Texas reserves to a phone call from Bush I. But for the most part, these hot-button angles are not documented sufficiently to really hurt Bush.
It is notable that in Kelley's numerous bites at the coke-story apple, she always talks in generalities about drug and alcohol use in the Bush family, as if to convict W. by implication ("We all got hit... Our family suffered terribly," says Bush cousin John.). There is an unmistakable desire to hint at controversy that pervades Kelley's writing, and it shines through particularly in her "revelations" about W.
While this is certainly a flaw in the book, it doesn't detract from the priceless details about the young W. that she does get right. For example: his job as a "pillow-toter" for Republican Senate candidate Edward Gurney, who had a war wound that needed the aid of something soft and portable. Time and again in the book, you witness the future president joyously non-performing in non-jobs in the company of horrified colleagues forced to listen to him ramble on and on about what a great life he has and how he always gets away with everything.
Here's a description of W. when working on the campaign of congressional candidate "Red" Blount in Birmingham (the same time period as when he was supposed to be in the Guard in Texas):
Those who worked with George... recall that he liked to drink beer and Jim Beam whiskey, and to eat fistfuls of peanuts, and Executive burgers, at the Cloverdale grill in Birmingham... [he] tended to show up late every day at work, "around noon," come into the office, prop his cowboy boots on a desk and start bragging about how much he had drunk the night before.W.'s most distinctive quality in the book is his completely unapologetic attitude about being a child of privilege. He brags to new acquaintances in a political campaign of how his father's name got him out of drunk driving arrests. He tells a Harvard professor openly that he got into the Business School through his dad, happily adding that he got out of Vietnam the same way, as well. Throughout the whole book, W. is mostly bragging or getting drunk, or bragging about getting drunk. It is indeed a great life.
W. does appear more wayward than mean, however, until he gets to Harvard Business School in 1975. That is when he really comes into his own. In one class, he buttonholes a professor for showing "The Grapes of Wrath": "Why are you going show us that commie movie?" Later in that same class, during a discussion on the Great Depression, W. – the same man who has spent his entire life to date boozing and shoving fistfuls of peanuts in his mouth – says: "Look. People are poor because they are lazy." The class freaks out at him, but he holds firm – just as he's holding firm now.
What few people realize about George W. Bush is that it takes balls to be him – it takes balls to go to room full of intellectuals in Cambridge, sit in class without a clue, blast the poor, and call John Steinbeck a commie. The same kind of balls it took to invade Iraq and get the nation into an open-ended war when the whole world told him over and again that it was a terrible idea. His unwavering belief in the righteousness of his idiotic life of privilege is so impressive that you almost come away believing he might be right. The rest of us have doubts; Georgie is always sure, even when he is toting pillows.
As a book, The Family will merely affirm the worst suspicions of both those who hate George Bush and those who hate the Evil New York Liberal Media. But a few people who aren't too fond of the president might just change their minds. If you are the kind of person who roots for the monster in horror movies, expect to come away from The Family as a devoted Bush fan.