Mushy documentation mars Bush family book

September 19, 2004|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,FOR THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, by Kitty Kelley. Doubleday. 705 pages. $29.95.

For a professional biographer like myself, reviewing Kitty Kelley's books has been a mixture of pleasure and pain.

Her biography of the "Bush dynasty," book number six, is no exception.

The pleasure found in her biographies of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and the British royal family comes from multiple sources: interesting subjects, wide-ranging research, an energetic writing style and huge sales, which allow publishers to pay authors like me whose books sell many fewer copies. The pain comes from one source: The overall questionable veracity of Kelley's books, with the exception of the Sinatra biography. The doubts reflect poorly on all authors and publishers whose only currency is credibility.

Despite all the hype surrounding The Family, the book contains little original about George Herbert Walker Bush or his son W. After all, every sitting president is to some extent a sitting duck for muckraking biographers; coming late to the hunt, Kelley has unavoidably been beaten to the juicy tidbits and the serious policy decisions.

When it comes to the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, business partners, mentors, alleged paramours and others associated with the two presidents, Kelley's book will probably contain new information for lots of readers, especially those who have paid no attention to the Bush and Walker family trees.

Trying to determine what is original to Kelley's book is impossible for most anecdotes because of the irresponsibly rendered endnotes. They are confusing as often as they are helpful.

In The Family, chapter by chapter, Kelley lists documents she examined, books and articles she read, interviews she conducted.

Kelley almost never, however, matches her sources to specific pages. On page 48, Kelley opens a discussion about the alleged alcoholism of Prescott Sheldon Bush, father of the 41st president, grandfather of the 43rd president. Kelley says Prescott's wife, Dorothy Walker Bush, took to "denying reality" about the drunkenness. "She told her children that their father was simply `not feeling well,' and that was that."

The chapter containing that information lists 10 books, 18 articles, six sets of documents and 11 interviews. But Kelley never indicates what she used from the books and articles, or how she knows the information gathered by her predecessors is accurate. She does not tie allegations of drunkenness and denial to any specific document or interview. So how does Kelley know what Dorothy said to her children while allegedly denying reality? As for probably the most highly publicized revelation in the book, it appears first on page 266, then on page 580. Here is the wording from page 266: "George's sister-in-law Sharon Bush alleged that W. had snorted cocaine with one of his brothers at Camp David during the time their father was president of the United States. `Not once,' she said, `but many times.'" From page 580: "As Sharon Bush's claims show, [George W.] could have been subject to jail time himself had he been caught `doing coke' with his brother Marvin and a friend at Camp David during his father's presidency."

The only reference to Sharon in the endnotes for the two chapters mentions interviews April 1, 2003, and May 13, 2004. During those interviews, did Kelley learn whether Sharon was present at Camp David? If so, did she use cocaine, too? If not present, who is her source? Readers are left in the dark. (Sharon also has denied saying this in news reports.) Such anomalies bedevil what could have been a superb biography throughout, rather than merely sporadically.

Steve Weinberg is a biographer and author of Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters Are Changing the Craft of Biography.

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