Kitty Galore

How dare such a vulgarian impinge on sacred journalistic turf!

Being every bit as low-minded as the next media whore, I raced through Kitty Kelley's The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty in search of the nasty factoids that Kelley always serves up like so many canapés. Who wouldn't love the idea that, back in college, Laura Bush was "the go-to girl for dime bags of marijuana"? It explains that gaga smile.

Like the aging Madonna (currently pursuing kabbalistic truth in Israel, accompanied, it seems, by less evolved bodyguards), Kelley is a master at shaping pop iconography. Only this assisted-blonde dynamo doesn't reinvent her own image: She works on the famous and powerful. Once Kelley has finished exposing some celebrity's feet of mud, you never see him or her in the same way again. What she can't change is the way mainstream media see her. They blame her salaciously readable biographies for helping fix the template of our tabloid era.

Kelley, no Hester Prynne
photo: Doubleday Books
Kelley, no Hester Prynne

These days, going after a populist rabble-rouser like Kelley—how dare such a vulgarian impinge on sacred journalistic turf!—is how the media elite proves itself high-minded, nonpartisan, and unsullied by the incessant coverage of Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson. That's why it's plunged itself into an orgy of hypocrisy over her latest book, milking the very lurid material it pretends to find appalling. Predictably, Michiko Kakutani, the O-Ren Ishii of book reviewers, cut The Family to ribbons in The New York Times. Yet lest we think the Gray Lady somehow clueless or snobby, the paper just as predictably took care to run a long Home & Garden piece about Kelley's Georgetown sanctuary by Bush-coddling reporter turned restaurant critic Frank Bruni. Her books sell like hotcakes, after all.

For several days, the diminutive author was seemingly everywhere—up at dawn talking to Matt Lauer on Today, sharing afternoon delight with Chris Matthews on Hardball, then spending a NewsNight with Aaron Brown. A normal person who tuned in to these interviews might have expected to learn all sorts of fascinating details about the powerful clan that has produced two of our last three presidents and, if all goes according to plan, will inaugurate a third in 2008 (although I suspect that smooth pretty boy Jeb can't handle body shots any better than Oscar de la Hoya). But rather than ask about our first family, all these big-name interviewers behaved as if The Family wasn't about the Bushes but actually about Kitty Kelley. Just as reasonable questions about George W. Bush's National Guard service have been swallowed up by bickering over typefaces and superscripts (nice work, Gunga Dan), so Kelley spent her airtime being grilled about her use of rumors and unnamed sources. You would think the president wasn't claiming the election was about "character."

While the Kelley interviews all covered roughly the same territory, each offered its own special whiff of self-aggrandizement and corruption. Looking as if he'd just escaped from some gulag for the formerly handsome, Matt Lauer went after Kelley—for three straight days—armed with talking points he'd gotten from the White House's Dan Bartlett. The prosecution took a different tack at MSNBC. Winston Churchill once said that the Germans are always at your throat or at your feet. Perhaps taking this as a compliment, the great Churchillian Chris Matthews spent the first half-hour of last Wednesday's Hardball all but throttling Kelley, quoting passages from her book and asking her to defend them with ashen-faced grimness. Then, having proved his hard-balled integrity, he spent the rest of the hour kowtowing to Seymour Hersh, a great investigative reporter who also uses unnamed sources—and on subjects far more important than doing coke at Camp David. Matthews showed so much more respect for Hersh, you had to wonder why he opened the show with Kitty. Actually, you didn't.

Lauer and Matthews appeared untroubled about attacking Kelley's book while exploiting it to boost their ratings. Not so CNN's Aaron Brown, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale of television news. Brown clearly realizes that 24-hour cable news has become a trough for sleaze, yet his agonized conscience never stops him from shoveling in more slop, albeit with a heavy sigh. While he treated Kelley more courteously than either Matthews or Lauer did—if Aaron has any vanity, it's that he's a mensch—he also refused to address what she was saying about Bush family values. Instead, he ruefully stitched a scarlet G on her chest for dealing in gossip—you know, the kind of rumor, innuendo, and speculation that runs on CNN every day of the week as "news."

Happily, Kelley is no Hester Prynne, and she faced her prosecutors with remarkable sangfroid, confident that she was telling undeniable truths about the Bushes that the supposedly respectable press is unwilling or afraid to reveal. A scandalmonger of the old school, she even vaunted all the lawyers who OK'd her work. The more she talked, the more she resembled a successful society madam explaining the facts of life to a puritanical young D.A. who wants to save society by closing the local whorehouse. You may think I'm low, Kelley's whole manner said, but it's amazing how many of your colleagues use my services. Perhaps you've done so yourself. There are valuable truths about human nature to be learned within the walls of a brothel.

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