The Family: the Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
by Kitty Kelley
For as long as these United States survive into the future, the name of Bush will stand out in its history. They have produced two Governors, a US Representative, a Senator, an ambassador to China, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Director of Central Intelligence, thousands of variously interconnected business deals around the world and into space, and of course two Presidents (so far). A record to be proud of.
They are best-known through Prescott Bush, his son George H.W. and his sons George W. and Jeb, but there are actually dozens of people in the immediate strategic circle that the family has cultivated over the course of 100 years. They are born and bred for leadership and power, and don’t really bother pretending to be common folk. They are moderate Republicans who’ve won their offices by appealing to radicals of one side, then becoming totemic villains for the other side. Bill Clinton had similar traits.
Their cocky attitude pisses off a lot of people. One of them is Kitty Kelley, who took to the streets in the midst of a divisive Presidential campaign to sell her new book about the Bushes. It is essential reading for anyone who loves or hates these people, but it is not likely to change many minds either way. Neutral readers will not remain so.
The Bushes are pretty well-known and widely-documented. Probably the most infamous Bush book is Fortunate Son by J.H. Hatfield, a Texas reporter who released his book midway through the 2000 campaign. It contained several controversial items and was pulled from shelves long enough for the offending segments to be excised and re-released with new material after the election was over. J.H. Hatfield was found dead in the bathtub of a Texas motel in the summer of 2001. His name does not appear anywhere in this book, even though the central notion that ostensibly got his book pulled–that 43 used cocaine before he was President–is codified in The Family and joked about all over the country. That would beg the question of what “line” Hatfield really crossed, if any.
This book is short on statistics, but its physical dimensions almost make the point by themselves. The author’s note alone runs nine pages, the text itself is 634 pages grouped in 26 untitled chapters and is followed by 34 pages of notes. She even includes a “Bush/Walker/Pierce/Robinson Family Tree.” It’s more rigorous than anything else commercially available, and helps to organize more information than most people would ever want to bother with.
Kelley tries and mostly succeeds in balancing the needs of her readers. This book is short on inference; it avoids trying to contextualize her subjects’ behavior, which is a good idea because their deepest motivations will probably never, ever be revealed to the public, conspiracy theories aside. The author proves able to maintain her own voice while moving along from 1908 to 2004 at a fat-burning cardio pace.
She benefits from the subject matter. Kelley’s best known for writing books about luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, Jackie O and Frank Sinatra, which gives her some experience with quirky personalities. Writing about the British monarchs better suits her to navigate not only the Bushes’ genealogy but their business associations, which simply defy description. Kelley’s explication of these associations is vague, breezy and unsatisfying. But it’s hard to blame her for failing to do the impossible. It’s like Rod Tidwell said “Show me the money!”–but she can’t.
Kelley has spoken of how the title references certain organized crime structures, making specific reference to The Sopranos. If you extend the metaphor to its fullest, then Tony Soprano would be George H.W. Bush, aka “Poppy” or “41”: driven, ruthless, contemplative, with a strong support staff–Paulie (James A. Baker III), the super-macho enforcer who came up with Tony; Silvio (Colin Powell), younger, with intellectual leanings and a strong Q rating. Carmella would be Barbara Bush: cosmopolitan outside, old-school matriarch inside.
No, seriously, the Bushes scare the heck out of people, and rightfully so. Kelley was smart to have seen the profits to be had from the application of her talents to these people, whose family name may be the most effective slur of this century. She succeeds only at humanizing them, which may be a disappointment for many readers who see in them something fundamentally wrong about human nature.
The central thesis advanced by Kelley is that the Bushes have been primarily motivated by profit and power concerns ever since Prescott was a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman, a key part of the old Wall Street culture that dominated pre-WWII America. Poppy, in particular, is depicted as driven for success from his first days out of the Navy, which took him deep into the Texas oil business and a network of connections that would work to his benefit for the rest of his life. All four of his sons have become millionaires and then some–not only by tapping the vast connections of their family, but also by applying the methods of their immediate ancestors to modern situations.
Kelley gets outright bitchy when dealing with the Bush women, whose persistent failure to publicly contradict their husbands strikes her as a sign of weakness; this charge was often leveled at Laura Bush in a failed attempt to generate a schism between women of Republican inclination in 2004. Of Barbara, in particular, Kelley is especially cruel by making sure to reference her looks, weight fluctuations, reproductive issues, and her jealousy of Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton.
Of course Barbara Bush can give as good as she gets, and that is part of her appeal. As First Lady, drawing contrasts (and continuities) between herself and her predecessor was part of the job, and her efforts may have reflected that Mrs. Reagan was not fond of the Bushes–nor, allegedly, was her husband: “Why can’t I pick someone I like?” he asked “plaintively” in 1980. But Barbara’s dry and inflexible sense of humor is treated like the proof of a diseased soul, as when she quoting “a military man”: “Barbara is like an M-40 sniper rifle . . . She can make a clean kill from a thousand yards away . . . She’s got a mouth on her that can maim and destroy . . . scrape her tongue for venom and you could create an antidote for ricin . . . when she delivers the life-taking blow, she does it with a thin-lipped smile . . .” Sounds like a strong woman.
The last two chapters of the book, which document the political career of George W. Bush, drag badly. There are a number of possible explanations. Maybe Kelley was exhausted after five years of research, writing and editing (including 937 interviews), or maybe considerations were made for size and timing; if Bush had lost, the market for The Family would all but evaporate. Of course, there was no chance that he would lose, and the author, of all people, should have known that and labored for a stronger finish.
Ultimately, the star of this book–and the broader story itself–is Poppy Bush. The book reads great until he realizes his ambition, becomes the 41st President and declares “a new world order” in that magical year of 1991. The ’90s are a boring blur: Enter Bill Clinton. Exit Bush to the private sector, and enter his two oldest sons from either side of the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly this, the story of how W beat Ann Richards and Jeb almost beat Lawton Chiles in 1994 (before trouncing Buddy MacKay in 1998) is a story she has no taste for, and it remains for the next generation to discover.
Kitty Kelley may have hoped to see W defeated in 2004, but his victory will be good for her bottom line, as her book may be more relevant in regard to the second term. She ends with a quote from Winston Churchill, who was made relevant again by Bush’s namedropping after 9/11. She leads into it with her closing observation, which may prove to be the story of Bush policy from here on out: “The bullyboy who played pig ball at Andover had learned to reward his friends and punish his enemies. If you cannot win on merit, you win on might and muscle, but you win–at any price.”
If this book was intended to be the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial back and ended the Bush dynasty, it can be regarded so far as a clear failure. But there is still a substantial achievement to be had, because The Family is the best book yet written about the most dominant family in America today–maybe the only family that can keep this country together long enough to fix it. Whether the reader is an apostle or an apostate of Compassionate Conservatism, you will enjoy this book.
Doubleday Books: www.randomhouse.com/doubleday