Without exception, the contemporary figures I’ve chosen to chronicle have been reluctant and uncooperative, and in each instance I have encountered resistance as I tried to go behind the public image to the other side of the myth. As unauthorized biographies, my books have been controversial and drawn fire, even litigation on occasion, but I have never lost a lawsuit. Before publication, each book is vetted by several sets of lawyers; facts and sources are checked and rechecked and sources documented.
Still, through no fault of my own, I became a darling of the American Bar Association. In 1984, before I had written a word of his biography, Frank Sinatra sued. He claimed that only he or someone he authorized could write about his life. After a year, he dropped the suit, and my book was published in 1986. After my biography of Nancy Reagan was published in 1991, Sinatra’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin, brought suit, because he had been named as a source and objected to being thanked for his help, which he had in fact provided. He went to court and lost; he appealed, and pursued his case up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before losing again. In 1997, my book on the British royal family was published in twenty-two foreign languages, but was deemed too explosive to be published in English in the United Kingdom.
With every book I’ve written, I’ve encountered a certain amount of hesitancy on the part of potential sources, because they are understandably reluctant to talk about powerful people, either for fear of retribution or for fear of being socially ostracized. The amount of trepidation I encountered in writing this book was unprecedented, but perhaps that’s what comes from writing about a sitting President whose family has a long reach. Many sources were reluctant to tell their stories on the record, and much as I dislike using unnamed sources, in some cases I had no choice. Many people who know the Bushesfriends, former employees, classmates, business associates, and even a few family members were skittish about speaking for attribution. I heard an endless stream of excuses and apologies, some comical, others disconcerting: “You don’t know that family...If they think I’ve talked to you, they’ll never speak to me again.” “This town is too small to rile the Bushes.” “I want to live to see my grand-children.” One man said, “You can’t use my name. They’ll come after me. The Bushes are thugs.”
“Thugs? Surely, you’re kidding,” I said.
“Look what they did in Florida during the 2000 recount,” he answered, and then detailed the “Brooks Brothers Riot” of Republican activists who helped stop the voting in Miami by storming the canvassing board. To prove his point, the man sent records showing that many of the rioters in pin-striped suits had been paid by the Bush recount committee.
The saddest example of the fear the Bushes instill involves a family whose Jewish son was subjected to a prank by George W. Bush when both boys attended Andover. Even forty years later the family was afraid to revisit the incident and be identified. The school did not take disciplinary action. By then, George Herbert Walker Bush was a revered campus legend. The elder Bush joined the Andover board of trustees in 1963 and served until 1979, which protected his younger sons from expulsion when they both broke school rules. Jeb Bush was caught drinking and Marvin Bush was doing drugs, but unlike other students in similar situations, the Bushes were not even suspended.
In writing contemporary biography, I’ve become accustomed to reluctant subjects who do not want their lives depicted without being able to control the content, but the Bushes—public figures for over fifty years—have been, by far, the most reluctant. The family is obsessed with secrecy, and their potential for retaliation is great. Consequently, some people were afraid to go on the record for fear of losing their jobs, getting hit with an IRS audit, or worse. And it was fear not just of President Bush (43) but also of his father, who did all he could to close every door I opened.
On November 6, 2002, I wrote to the former President as a matter of courtesy. I said I was under contract to do a historical retrospective of his family and would appreciate an interview and the opportunity to verify certain facts. Renowned for a lifetime of writing letters, George H.W. ignored mine. Instead, he directed his aide Jean Becker to call Stephen Rubin, the publisher at Doubleday. She did that on November 11, 2002: “President Bush has asked me to say that he and his family are not going to cooperate with this book because the author wrote a book about Nancy Reagan that made Mrs. Reagan unhappy.”
The President’s excuse was, to put it mildly, disingenuous. For Bush 41 the only unhappy part of that book concerned the former First Lady’s anecdote about him and his “girlfriend.” Barbara Bush was so angry about Mrs. Reagan’s revelation that she instructed Roger Kennedy, then director of the National Museum of American History, to remove a display featuring my books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan from the First Ladies exhibit in the Smithsonian. Mr. Kennedy genuflected to Mrs. Bush and the display was removed.
Three months after publication of the Reagan book, George Herbert Walker Bush was President of the United States. He, too, expressed his displeasure with me in his diary, which he published in All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. Bush’s entry for July 25, 1991:
Have you ever had one of those days when it just isn’t too good... Just one of those days when you want to say forget it. Oh, yes, the President of Paramount that owns one of the big book companies called in to say that Kitty Kelley wants to write a book either about the Bushes or the Royals and he turned it down. That’s nice—a book by Kitty Kelley with everything else I’ve got on my mind...I can’t see her ever writing anything nice.
For the record, I never proposed writing a book about the Bushes until after the Supreme Court decision of 2000, when they became an American political dynasty, one of only two families in history to put a father and a son in the White House. Suddenly, by fiat, they had become interesting.
After four years researching this book and interviewing nearly one thousand people, I now understand why the former President would not cooperate: there are many family secrets he wants to protect. From the very beginning, he threw up every possible barrier. His prep school, Andover, refused to provide any Bush-related photographs for this book, although numerous other authors have had no difficulty in securing photo rights from the school. The former President put his family and friends on notice, and the George Bush Presidential Library stopped responding to the simplest reference requests.
When I wrote to the former President’s cousin George Herbert (“Bert”) Walker III in St. Louis, Mr. Walker called me immediately. “It will be such a pleasure to meet you,” he said on November 4, 2002, “and to talk to you about the family. I’ll show you the house where Aunt Dotty grew up and met Uncle Pres Bush... I’ll be here every day of your stay, so call me as soon as you get to St. Louis.”
I made my plane reservations, but by the next day Mr. Walker had obviously been told not to cooperate. His secretary called me: “I’m so sorry, but Mr. Walker has been unexpectedly called out of town and will not be available during your visit.” I flew to St. Louis anyway and spent several days doing research in that lovely city. I even stopped by Stifel, Nicolaus and Company, where George H. Walker III sits as the chairman of the board. Not surprisingly, he was in town when I arrived but “in a meeting all day.” A few months later President Bush—George W.—appointed Walker, his second cousin, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary.
Bert’s brother, Ray Walker, joked to me at the time, “Bert had to fill out all kinds of papers, including records on all his children and his siblings and who they’ve made political contributions to. I was just about to donate to Ramsey Clark’s Internet campaign to ‘Impeach the President’ but...I held back...for Bert’s sake.”
A trained psychiatrist, Ray Walker acknowledged the family’s mania for secrecy. “They’ve got a lot to hide,” he said during an interview on May 28, 2003. “Secrets they don’t even know...When I was in analysis, it took me a full year just to get from my grandparents to anywhere close to myself.”
Early in his administration, President George W. Bush moved to make sure that the family’s personal, financial, and political secrets, particularly his and his father’s, remained sealed forever. After placing his records as Governor of Texas in his father’s presidential library, Bush signed an executive order on November 1, 2001, that blocks the release of all presidential documents. Until then, the National Archives had controlled the fate of White House documents, which automatically became public after twelve years. Under Bush’s new rules, presidents now have the right to prevent the public from ever viewing their papers, even after they have died. Unless there is a successful court challenge to Bush’s executive order, he will be able to bury the secrets of his father’s direct involvement in the Iran-contra scandal as well as his own complicity in waging war on Iraq.
In the past, the Bush family has managed to protect itself from intense scrutiny by providing limited access to a select few journalists. Now that the family has become a political dynasty, the risks of exposure are far greater, and the former President is more vigilant than ever. Even with the most trusted writers he can be querulous. He directed his aide Jean Becker to reprimand the conservative writers Peter and Rochelle Schweizer after their authorized and highly favorable book, The Bushes, was published in April 2004:
I am writing you this note at the request of President Bush, No. 41. He has completed reading your book... he is very disappointed... Unfortunately, your book is filled with factual errors, innuendo, and mistaken conclusions drawn from hearsay...
For example, you put out in a press release, and I quote, “George H.W. Bush was opposed to his son’s plan to attack Iraq”... The truth is, from the very first day, President Bush, No. 41 unequivocally supported the President on the war in Iraq. He had absolutely no reservations of any kind.
As with many of Bush’s responses to criticism, this one turned out to be false. In the book that George Herbert Walker Bush and Brent Scowcroft wrote, A World Transformed, they detailed the “incalculable human and political costs” of occupying Iraq. Further, in April 2003, after his son had taken the country to war against Iraq, the former President agonized with his friend Scowcroft. Partners in the Scowcroft Group recalled both men bemoaning the son’s actions, saying that George W. Bush “was undoing a lifetime of work.”
While I wrote this book, there were obstacles other than people’s reluctance to talk and Bush family resistance. When I began digging for information, I ran into an extraordinary number of lost records, misplaced files, and registers that had been mysteriously destroyed by fire over the years. Documents such as bankruptcy records are inexplicably missing from federal court files; other Bush business records that should be in the public domain have disappeared. Of the fourteen requests I filed under the Freedom of Information Act, most were initially denied. Not every government agency was recalcitrant, but most stalled their responses. A Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department for a death notification of a Bush relative was denied. I requested clarification of State Department policy, citing the instructions on its Web site. The document was finally released with no explanation of the original denial. In one case I had to hire a lawyer to appeal a denial by the FBI. Here’s how the process worked.
On September 18, 2001, I filed a FOIA request for information on James Smith Bush (1901?|78), the black-sheep uncle of George Herbert Walker Bush. The FBI said there were no files. I appealed, knowing that James had undergone FBI clearance for his appointment to the Export-Import Bank in 1959 and for his reappointment in 1961. Four months later, on January 14, 2002, the Justice Department lawyers referred my request back to the FBI, which then managed to find the records they initially claimed not to have. Six months later, on July 24, 2002, I was informed that the files had to be processed and sent to the FBI’s Office of Public and Congressional Affairs for a “high visibility memo” to be prepared. This was explained as an administrative procedure by which public figures—President Bush (41) and President Bush (43)—were warned about the release of material. Six more months passed as the FBI returned none of my phone calls requesting information. Finally, on February 19, 2003, I hired a lawyer to appeal the delay. After receiving the lawyer’s letter, the FBI released the information. By then, it had taken me two years, seventeen letters, forty-two phone calls, and one lawyer to shake loose information on a man who had been dead for twenty-five years. The Bush family has been able to hold tight to its secrets because they have been aided in many cases by Bush-appointed bureaucrats.
Not every piece of information was as hard fought, but the example illustrates the resistance I encountered in trying to fit together various pieces of the family puzzle. The Bushes are so invested in protecting their public image that they have airbrushed their family tree. Any unpleasant fact that detracts from the family’s wholesome appeal or reflects negatively on their values has been deleted. Historians cannot rely on the Bush-Walker family records released by the George Bush Presidential Library. There are simply too many errors and omissions, some of which appear to be intentional. The official family tree provided by the Bush archivists does not include the two mentally retarded daughters of John M. Walker, and lists only two of James Smith Bush’s wives, not all four of them; one of Ray Walker’s two wives is omitted, and George Herbert Walker III is listed with only two, instead of three, wives. These might seem like trivial details until you realize that in the Bush family, divorce, particularly more than one, is considered anathema.
Sharon Bush, the ex-wife of Neil Bush, brought this home when she asked if I would have lunch with her in New York City. We agreed to meet on April 1, 2003, at a quiet restaurant. When I arrived, the Chelsea Bistro on West Twenty-third Street was empty. Minutes later Sharon scampered in, a tiny blonde in a big mink coat and high-heeled mules. She hugged her fur coat.
“My mother-in-law hates for me to wear this. She says it will make people think we’re rich.”
“God forbid,” I said, laughing.
Sharon was accompanied by Lou Colasuonno, a partner in Westhill Partners. A former journalist, this expert publicist was determined to help a client in distress. Sharon said that the Bush family had disowned her and few lawyers in Houston would handle her divorce. She was threatening to go public with the family secrets. Over a long lunch that afternoon and on the telephone later and again the next day, Sharon poured out her anguish about “being forced” to divorce the third son of George and Barbara Bush. Sharon later acknowledged that she had married the runt of the litter.
“Neil informed me by e-mail that he was leaving me,” she said. “By e-mail! After twenty-three years of marriage and three children! He’s been having an affair with a woman who worked for Bar... The Bushes knew about the affair before I did. They even entertained the woman in their home...They encouraged their own son’s adultery... What kind of family values is that?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “I’ve tried everything to keep my marriage together. I’ve begged Bar to tell Neil to come back home to us. I’ve broken down in front of her. ‘Can’t you tell him to come back to us. Please. We need him. We’re a family. Please help me.’ Bar has been ice-cold. She said, ‘I’m sorry, Sharon. There is nothing I can do. This is between you and Neilsie.’ That’s what she and George call him. Neilsie. He would come back to us if she told him to. He’d do whatever she wanted. Bar runs the show. She’s much stronger than my father-in-law. Much. He’s really a very weak guy...But Bar won’t help me... ”
You’d think after all the infidelity she’s had to put up with in her own marriage she’d be more sympathetic to me, but she isn’t... She hates me because I let my daughter Lauren be a model. Bar was furious at me. She did not think that was right. She said it didn’t look good. It was too glitzy—too glamorous—for the image of the family values that the Bushes were supposed to represent.”
Sharon unfolded a sordid tale of the men in the Bush family and the unfortunate women who married them: her husband’s use of prostitutes during his trips to Asia, his sexually transmitted disease, the extramarital affairs of Jeb Bush, and the drug use of her other brothers-in-law, including the President of the United States. She said about George W.: “He and Marvin did coke at Camp David when their father was President and not just once, either. This is a family of alcoholism, drug addiction, and even schizophrenia.”
She returned again and again to the role of her rich and powerful in-laws, who, she felt, were forcing her to beg for her life. “I know you think the Bushes are such a good family, that they believe in God and all his teachings... I used to believe that about them, too, but I now know that they don’t practice what they preach... They’re letting Neil cut me off with only a thousand dollars a month in alimony. They’re making me sell my house. I have no way to support myself. I gave up working [as a school-teacher] when I married Neil  because Bush wives aren’t supposed to work...They’re supposed to raise children and do volunteer work and I did that... I’ve raised three children and contributed to every community I’ve lived in with Neil. That’s been my whole life... I’ve worked for charity all the years of my marriage... Now what do I do? When I asked him how I was supposed to live on a thousand dollars a month, Neil said, ‘Just get remarried.’ But, Kitty, I just can’t sell my body for money.”
Sharon sobbed as she talked about having to move out of her home. “My father-in-law wants me to leave Houston... He said I’d be happier somewhere else, but if I insist on staying, he’ll buy me a smaller place so I can get my last child, Ashley, through high school, then I have to sell the house and give him all the money.”
The thought of living a pinched life of grocery-store coupons brought on more tears. Life as a Bush daughter-in-law had cosseted Sharon with summers in Kennebunkport and cruises through the Greek islands on the yacht of a Bush family friend. In New York City, she stayed in the penthouse of famed Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens. She socialized with Veronica Hearst. She had Billy Graham on speed dial.
When their divorce was final and Neil Bush remarried in March 2004, Sharon had managed to save her house and increase her alimony to twenty-five hundred dollars a month, but she lost the social status of being the former President’s daughter-in-law. She will probably become one of the invisible wives on the family tree, no longer even a footnote to history. She has learned the hard way that there is not much room for a divorcé in the Bush family dynasty.
I, too, learned a lesson writing about this family. Some days I felt like Alice in Wonderland because what I uncovered seemed unreal and did not square with established perceptions. I began second-guessing myself, asking, “How can this be true?” I watched people cringe with fear and others fall under the spell of the family’s power and wealth and influence. Then I remembered the line spoken by the actor Melvyn Douglas in the movie Hud about the mesmerizing power of a public image: “Little by little the country changes just by looking at the men we admire.”
The country has changed quite a bit since I began writing this book and will continue to change as a result of both Bush presidencies. I hope that the research put forth in these pages will lead you to the essential truths that motivate, explain, and define the family as the American political dynasty responsible for these changes.