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How to read Kitty Kelley: carefully

Who is Kitty Kelley and why are they saying all those terrible things about her?

Described as a muckraking, gossipy and/or controversial journalist, Kelley is back on the bestseller list with her latest bombshell: an expose of the Bush family dynasty, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.

Like Kelley's other explosive biographies of Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and the British royal family, The Family has received saturation media coverage _ both on television (how many authors get interviews on the Today show three days in a row?) and in print. The New York Times' review was not published on Page 1A, as was Maureen Dowd's review of Kelley's biography of Nancy Reagan in 1991, but a review of The Family by lead Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani was placed on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section.

The coverage primarily has focused on Kelley's inclusion of several shocking allegations against George W. Bush which only are supported by hearsay and/or unnamed sources. Time and again, the interviewers and reviewers have expressed outrage at this suspect methodology (although they don't seem nearly as upset when the use of unnamed sources is employed, as it is regularly, by Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward and others).

Yet, in almost every case, after scorching Kelley for repeating what they scoff at as mere rumors and innuendoes, these keepers of journalism's ethical flame repeat every one of those supposedly unsubstantiated attacks themselves, thereby, of course, abetting in their dissemination.

It reminds me of late night television host Conan O'Brien's spoof about the hypocrisy that reigned in the coverage of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance: Let's see that tape again so we can all be shocked once more. Now let's play it in slow motion, so we can really be shocked.

From the interviews and reviews of My Family, you would think that Kitty Kelley never provides a single source in the entire 700-plus pages of The Family. Many of the more juicy attacks on George (and Laura) Bush (and I refuse to repeat them here) do not stand the strict test of named sourcing. But not everyone Kelley interviewed _ and they number nearly 1,000 _ refused to go on the record.

Kelley, for example, interviewed dozens of Bush's classmates at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School who together paint a rather dismal picture of the president's intellectual curiosity. "He was remarkably inarticulate," said Steve Areit, a Harvard classmate who is a good example of the many quotes Kelley includes. "God, so inarticulate it was frightening." Many also comment on Bush's sense of privilege. His macroeconomics professor at Harvard, Yoshi Tsurumi, told Kelley when he showed the class The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck's book about the Great Depression, Bush commented, "Look. People are poor because they are lazy."

Tsurumi gave Bush a "low pass," judging him to be in the bottom 10 percent of a class of 100. When he asked Bush how he got into Harvard in the first place, the future president told his professor, "I had lots of help." When Tsurumi asked him about his military service, Bush told him he had been in the Texas Air National Guard and was lucky he didn't have to go to Vietnam. "My dad fixed it so that I got into the Guard," Tsurumi said Bush told him. "I got an early discharge to come here."

Kelley also got several people to talk on record about Bush's days as a Texas oil man. Ina Schell, described as a "wealthy art patron from Sarasota," complained to Kelly, for example, about how Bush used the connections of his Uncle Johnny to convince investors to pour money into Arbusto, an oil company run by Bush that went bust. "My husband and I were two of the investors that got taken for a ride," Snell explains to Kelley. "We invested because Eugene, my late husband, went to Yale with Johnny Bush. We lost our money and not happily. . . . Eugene almost sued Johnny over it. . . . Johnny was a little too casual about the loss. The Bushes are . . . well . . . real hustlers is about the nicest way to put it."

Kelley's book does not focus only on George W. Bush, however. Her purpose in writing it was not to assess the 43rd president's job in office. Rather, as she says in her introduction, she wanted to take a look at the legacy _ the myth _ of the Bush family in toto. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to Prescott Bush, the patriarch of the Bush dynasty. Kelley hoped to present an overall picture of a family who has counted among its members a U.S. senator, two governors of major states, a vice president of the United States and two presidents.

What she encountered was a family bent on keeping family secrets secret to an unprecedented extent. "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 50 years _ have been, by far, the most reluctant. The family is obsessed with secrecy, and their potential for retaliation is great."

Even the simplest verification of facts was blocked, she explained. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request on James Smith Bush, the first President Bush's uncle, for example, it took Kelley "two years, 17 letters, 42 phone calls and one lawyer to shake loose information on a man who had been dead for 25 years." She 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 that should be in the public domain have disappeared."

These obstacles _ and the reluctance of people to come forward on the record _ are the reasons Kelley gives for why she resorts to so many unnamed sources. "I dislike using unnamed sources," she says, but "I had no choice."

Readers, however, do have a choice. They can place more value on commentary that is attributed than on blind quotes. The argument that at times the use of unnamed sources and hearsay is necessary in order to bring down the bad guys is too much like the rationale used by governments that ask us to trust that the only people they will deprive of their civil rights are "terrorists."

We should demand to know just who is saying those terrible things about someone and why. If a source is named, we should weigh for ourselves if he or she is credible _ and demand that the press disclose whether the source has an ax to grind. Were the documents aired by Dan Rather that impugn the president's National Guard service given to CBS by someone connected to the Kerry campaign? Are the Swift Boat veterans who question John Kerry's war service connected to the Bush campaign? Motives matter.

As President Ronald Reagan once wisely said, "Trust but verify."