By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
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By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
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Just so. To be sure, not all the things one learns from the Kelley oeuvre could be called edifying. Her books appeal to schadenfreude and a resentment of celebrity that grows ever stronger in a surreal culture where even Luke Wilson is deemed worthy of a half-hour on Biography. I can't honestly say that I'm a better person for reading His Way, Kelley's great unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, but it wasn't unilluminating to discover that, when romantic Ol' Blue Eyes wasn't falling for women, he was apt to be bashing them with telephones. Such is the visceral poetry of tabloid America.
You get the same pop kick from The Family, which flaunts the gutbucket prose of unconscious pulp ("The Bushes went into retirement like Salvation Army bell ringers, eager to rake in as much money as fast as they possibly could") and tells scads of unflattering stories, old and new, about nearly a century of Bushwah. How Barbara (who's variously compared to Ma Barker and a "bull dyke") was so insecure about her frumpiness that she once railed at Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin for wearing a short skirt, snapping that it looked "awful, awful, awful." (Martin replied that she was just showing off her good legs.) Or how Dubya, when asked what he talked about with his father, shocked the reporter by answering, "Pussy." One wonders whether this was before or after his daily Bible study.
Skewering The Family, Kakutani (who has all the pop culture instincts of, well, a Bush) dumped on Kelley for ignoring serious political issues. Which is like faulting Eminem for not being Yo-Yo Ma. It is Kelley's function in American culture to give popular expression to the dark, personal dramas of well-known people whose private lives are routinely airbrushed into bright fantasies that bear no resemblance to human life. Kelley's book not only delivers the dirt you'll rarely if ever get in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly, let alone on Fox News, it reminds you that personal dirt is the rich soil of day-to-day political lifewhether it's Barbara hating the Reagans for treating her and George like servants, Dubya bursting into obscene rages at reporters during his father's presidential campaigns (which helps explain his manner during press conferences), or Bush I underestimating Bill Clinton in part because he thought the Arkansas governor too low-class to be a real competitor.
Just as Fahrenheit 9/11 presented a counternarrative to the official version of George W. Bush's presidency, so Kelley's book tells a tale that most Americans have never heard. It's the story of a well-born New England family that affects good-natured charm but has a sense of entitlement so vast it had to relocate to Texas to fit it all in. Reading The Family, you grasp that the Bushes, rather like the Kennedys before them, are tribal, class-obsessed, fanatical about loyalty and utterly ruthless. They'll do whatever it takes to winsmear John McCain and John Kerry, question Michael Dukakis's patriotism, even oppose the Civil Rights Act (Bush I was running for office in the South at the time).
Is everything in The Family literally true? Beats me. But it comes closer to reality than George W. Bush's deadeningly bogus A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House. In fact, if I had to choose between Kitty Kelley's version of the Bushes and, say, Tom Brokaw's, I'd put more trust in the little blonde lady to tell me the truth without fear or favor. Oscar Wilde famously said that we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. It's Kelley's fate, and perhaps her disreputable virtue, that when she tells us about the stars, she never lets us forget the many things going on in the gutter.
John Powers's Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America is available in bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at sorewinners.com.