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Bushes survive a clawing by Kitty.

Byline: By Richard Kirkman

Richard Kirkman on how the Bush family was given the Kitty Kelley treatment.

The Kennedys may be America's most feted and charismatic political dynasty.

The Bushes, by contrast, are uncharismatic, unsexy and unloved.

They are, however, already more successful. And they aren't finished yet.

Prescott Bush was a respected Connecticut senator in the mid-20th Century. His second son, George, outdid him, compiling a portfolio of senior government posts culminating in the presidency from 1989 to 1993. His eldest son, George, is threatening to outdo Pop and Grandpop by securing the premier achievement of American political life, a two-term presidency.

Meanwhile, the president's brother, Florida governor Jeb Bush, awaits his own run at the White House, probably in 2008. Truly a case of waiting ages for a Bush and then three coming along at once.

What's their secret, these Bushes? Is it wealth? Prestige? Connections?

Muck-raking biographer Kitty Kelley thinks all three have combined to construct a rose-strewn path to the top along which successive Bushes have skipped lightly to their destiny.

What Kelley rules out, right from the start, is that the Bushes could possibly have done anything to deserve their success.

Prescott Bush gets off relatively lightly as a worthy legislator overly fond of the bottle and of his own importance (his grandchildren had to call him Senator, apparently). The current president is dismissed as an arrogant boor of clunking stupidity. No arguments there.

Far worse treatment is handed to the first George Bush, the man whose career forms the centrepiece of the book.

There's no denying that Bush was a somewhat watery president, with nothing of the natural ease of either his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, or his successor, Bill Clinton. His two main achievements were to kick Iraq out of Kuwait and to raise taxes, paving the way for the prosperity of the 1990s.

Neither did him any good. The tax rise was lambasted by his own party and was, in any case, a badly broken promise ("Read my lips. No new taxes," he famously said during the 1988 presidential campaign).

The invasion of Iraq would be criticised because Bush stopped short of toppling Saddam Hussein. It was assumed that removing Saddam would solve all of Iraq's problems. As we now know, it hasn't.

Whether he was a weak president or not, George Bush must have possessed something to play a major role in national politics for 27 years.

Not according to Kelley. Her Bush is a carbon copy of Jim Hacker, the silly, pompous and opportunistic occupant of Number 10 in Yes, Prime Minister. Maybe there is something in this, for Bush, like the fictional Hacker, had hidden reserves of ruthlessness and low cunning to help him achieve his high ambitions.

But the effect is cartoonish and wrong. Bush was never strong on policy, but he was hard-working, loyal and personable, qualities that helped conceal the driving, desperate ambition that took him all the way to the White House.

It is this ambition that Kelley underestimates. She prefers to keep referring to the Bush family's "golden cords", by which she means the ties of wealth and privilege that the family possessed. Yet many other families had their hands on "golden cords" ( and yet got nowhere near the White House. Kelley simply cannot explain the key moment in Bush's life. That was in 1970 when the young Congressman had been devastated by his defeat in a race for a Texas senate seat, but was rescued from looming obscurity by President Nixon, who installed him as ambassador to the United Nations.

That kept Bush in the public eye, setting him up for a series of high-profile jobs and paving the way for a run at the presidency in 1980. He lost then, but did secure the vice-presidency, the last stepping stone to the White House following the election eight years later.

Kelley throws everything she can at Bush and his wife Barbara (a "pearl-wearing mugger") and enough of it sticks to permanently revise their reputations downwards. It looks like Bush had a lengthy extra-marital affair, and perhaps more than one. But the evidence is patchy and the research sloppy and in the end, who is to know? Case not proved. The same goes for claims of drug use levelled at George W. Bush.

This is a book of questionable claims and blithe inconsistencies. The sources are eccentrically chosen. For example, Kelley spends several paragraphs describing how the Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau satirised the Bushes. What's the point?

I suppose that when publishers pay Kitty Kelley to write a book, they expect this. Previous works on Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and the Royal Family attracted enormous controversy.

In her foreword, Kelley bemoans the fact the Bushes and their friends largely clammed up on her. Perhaps they too expected a book like this.

In the end the mix of fact, gossip, conjecture, claim and opinion ( with nothing to separate each from the other ( becomes rather hard work. It's like wading through something very nasty ( kitty litter, perhaps. It will bruise the Bushes, but they will survive.

After all, they lead the Kennedys 7-2 in completed years at the White House. And counting.

* The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty by Kitty Kelley (Bantam Press, pounds 20)
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 12, 2004
Words:881
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