Note: This was written as an open letter to Matt Lauer following his two highly partisan interviews on NBC's Today Show with Kitty Kelley, author of the expose of the Bush dynasty titled The Family. The interviews were aired on September 13 and 14, 2004. This response was written on September 14 and submitted to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buzzflash, Truthout,, the Democratic Underground, and the Mahablog.
September 14, 2004
To Matt Lauer and the producers of the Lauer-Kitty Kelley interview:
I confess, I did not expect to see you morph into Sean Hannity during your interview with Kitty Kelley. Instead of conducting an even-handed interview with balanced questioning, you attacked her on every point you brought up without even attempting a balanced interview. Worse, you attacked her over points that have long been proven by sources other than Kelley's, and pretended that none of these points have ever had any validity.
In other words, you carried out a hatchet job that could have been scripted by Karl Rove. Are you proud of your journalistic objectivity? I expect this from the Fox News and EIB crowd, but I would like to think that NBC, the Today Show, and you would try to hew to a higher standard. I guess I was wrong.
While I don't expect you to conduct a love-fest interview with Kelley, I do expect you to grant her the same courtesy and objectivity that I've seen you grant other authors with similarly controversial writings. You failed to do so.
Instead of continuing with general chastisements, let's go to the tape and look at some specific instances. In all of the following examples, I'm referring to the streaming video of the two interviews from September 13 and 14 that you conducted with Kelley on the Today Show, and the interview with Sharon Bush, all currently available from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5989684/.
At the beginning of the first interview, Kelley was complimentary of you and of the NBC brass for resisting the pressure from the White House to keep her off of the show. Instead of confirming (or denying) that such pressure was brought to bear on NBC, you justified the White House's position on the book by calling it "extremely, extremely unflattering...99% negative." Since I have not yet had the chance to read the book, I can't speak to that characterization, but I can speak to the fact that you refused to hear Kelley's refutation that the book was "99% realistic." Throughout the interviews, you continually give the strong impression that the book is a package of lies and fabrications, starting from your first exchange with Kelley. You refuse to accept, or even acknowledge, the fact that many, many other books and writings about the Bush family reflect Kelley's characterization of the "Hallmark image" of the Bushes.
You had no business asking Kelley who she voted for in 2000. First and foremost, a person's vote is secret and his/her right to keep that information secret is guaranteed by the Constitution. Kelley rightly refused to answer the question, and instead answered your implication that she is a Democrat/Kerry supporter by acknowledging that she is from staunchly Republican roots, she has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, and that her last political donation was to a Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchinson. That establishes her as something other than a dyed-in-the-wool, partisan Democrat. Yet you continued to hammer away at her 2000 and her upcoming 2004 Presidential vote. Only when she turned the question around and asked about your own vote, which, based on your tone, gives the same kind of implication that you are a partisan Republican supporter, did you go on to another topic.
Your question as to the timing of the book's release was valid; her response that the book will not throw the election one way or another was equally valid. (Note that when her book on the Kennedy family was released, in 1978, Ted Kennedy was indeed in office as Senator of Massachusetts, contrary to your tossed-off statement that no Kennedy was in office at the time.)
Kelley was rightly outraged by your implication that her standards for making allegations (or "accusations," in your words) were any lower than any other journalist. She is very clear about how she has sourced her information, and points out quite clearly and repeatedly that her book has been vetted by four different sets of lawyers. You trample right over that set of observations, and use the words of Bush's own supporters to attack Kelley's credibility. In this case, the only credibility that suffers is your own. And your use of the Time magazine criticism of Kelley's book on the Reagans is misleading. Who at Time wrote that review? What credibility do they have? You fail to cite your source, instead using the generic, and speciously authoritative, citation of Time itself.
You spend a lot of time on the allegation that George W. Bush snorted cocaine with his brother (presumably Neil) at Camp David during the first Bush presidency. This is a valid line of questioning, and the fact that Sharon Bush has repudiated her claim that supports the allegation makes it even more so. However, there are serious problems in your line of questioning. Most seriously, you never grant Kelley the benefit of the doubt that you consistently bequeath on Sharon Bush. Either Kelley is lying about what Sharon Bush told her, in which case so are the witnesses who heard the conversation and have affirmed the validity of Kelley's story, or Sharon Bush, without witnesses of her own, is lying. At this point, Kelley deserves no more and no less an assumption of plausibility than Sharon Bush. Instead, you hammer Kelley relentlessly and grant Sharon Bush a complete sense of plausibility. You decide for your viewers that Kelley, and her witnesses, must be wrong and Sharon Bush must be right. Why? It smacks of extreme partisanship and Bush-defending on your part. (And for the record, you were right to be incredulous that Kelley did not tape the Sharon Bush interview, restaurant setting or not. However, that does not justify your position on the credibility of Kelley's allegation.)
The point is that, if this is true, then Bush's story about never doing drugs since 1974 (the point in time that he would have had to stop using drugs if his statements during the 2000 debates were true) is a lie. This makes a tremendous dent in Bush's credibility over his supposed cessation of using alcohol and cuts to the heart of his credibility in general. You never address this. You also fail to address the story that, during the four-hour lunch between Sharon Bush and Kelley, that Sharon Bush was, in Kelley's words, "hysterical." Later, you also trample over the implied death threat that her ex-husband Neil Bush gave when he told her that if she didn't shut her mouth, she would find herself "in a dark alley." If this is true, then the brother of the president and the son of the ex-president threatened his ex-wife with death if she didn't keep her allegations about his family to herself. This, even more so than the allegations of cocaine use, is extraordinary, and speaks volumes not only about Neil Bush and his toxic relationship with his ex-wife, but about the power and ruthlessness of the Bush family itself. Yet you trample over this as well and refuse to even acknowledge it. Sharon Bush says this death threat was left on her answering machine. Does she have the tape? Did you ask about it? You did not, either of Kelley or of Sharon Bush herself.
Why do you seem to accept Dan Bartlett's statement that Kelley's book is nothing but a tissue of lies? Bartlett is not only the man who led the "tidy-up team" that cleaned up Bush's service records in 1994, an allegation you must be aware that has been made by more people than Bill Burkett, but Bartlett is now the spokesman for the Bush administration. He is by definition as partisan a spokesman as you can find, yet you present his statements as gospel, unimpeachable. You refuse to acknowledge Kelley's correct statements that Bartlett and the Bush administration has attempted to besmirch the reputations of others critical of the Bush administration, including Richard Clarke, Joe Wilson, and Paul O'Neill. Instead, you hastily terminate the interview.
You follow the first Kelley interview with an interview with Sharon Bush, who denies she ever said anything about Bush's cocaine use. Fine and well, but she almost immediately insinuates that Kelley and her publicist Lou Callisano (sp?) have some kind of "relationship." You let the insinuation pass. Is Sharon Bush implying that Kelley and Callisano are financial partners? Lovers? Does Callisano has some kind of personal reason for supporting Kelley's allegation? You fail to explore this; instead, you let Sharon Bush make the insinuation, with all it implies, and move right along, with only one quick reference later on that Sharon Bush uses to imply that Kelley and Callisano are using the story to sell books, with no refutation from Kelley or anyone else. Basically, the entire Sharon Bush interview is there to refute Kelley's allegation. You fail to take the same hard-nosed tactics with Sharon Bush that you did with Kelley. For one, if she is in such financial straits due to her divorce from Neil Bush, how can she afford such a "fabulous lawyer" as she mentions in her contemplation of legal action against Kelley? Why would two other witnesses aside from Callisano say that Kelley's account of the story she heard from Sharon Bush is true? And your last question, about her relationship with George W. Bush, is purely fluff, merely an opportunity for her to praise Bush, which she does. And why don't you follow up on Kelley's allegation that Neil Bush made a death threat against his ex-wife, one that apparently exists on an answering machine tape? Instead, you give her a final opportunity to refute Kelley and close the interview. Instead of the near-inquisition you subjected Kelley to, you were almost gentle with Sharon Bush, and very, very easy with your questioning.
Not so with your second interview with Kelley. You open the September 14 interview with Kelley with a scathing rebuttal from the White House, presumably from Bartlett or Scott McClellan. Instead of acknowledging that the White House can be expected to slam Kelley's credibility, and acknowledge the previous point that Bush spokespeople have made similar attacks on Clarke, Wilson, and O'Neill, you let the quote from the White House stand on its own, as if it were again unimpeachable. That's a slant worthy of Rush Limbaugh, but beneath decent journalistic standards.
Once again, you focus again on the allegations of Bush's cocaine use at Camp David, and you chose to broadcast a snippet of Sharon Bush's interview where she denies ever saying anything of the sort. That's valid, but again, you present Sharon Bush as reliable and attack Kelley and her three witnesses to the exchange as unbelievable. Then, inexcusably, you fail to follow up on Kelley's side of the story; after presenting Sharon Bush's denial, you immediately move on.
Now you go after Kelley's section regarding Bush's failure to serve his term in the Texas Air National Guard. You must be aware of the tremendous amount of documentation that has been provided on Bush's failure to serve out his term, and the reason behind his sudden "transfer" to the Alabama Guard base where he failed to show up for duty. Yet, a less informed viewer would infer from your interview that Kelley's story is virtually groundless, based on the allegations of a single disgruntled former Guardsman, Bill Burkett. You trample all over Kelley's documentation that Bush used family connections to get into the Guard, which has been independently verified by the former lieutenant governor of Texas. You hammer home the point that Kelley has no positive proof that Bush used cocaine while a Guardsman, but fail to point out that Bush refused to take his physical soon after the Guard began drug-testing its people. You also fail to address the fact that Bush has failed to release his complete service records that would prove what he did and didn't do as a Guardsman. The story that Kelley uses, related by Bill Burkett, has been verified by others besides Burkett, but you refuse to acknowledge that, except for a flying reference to Dennis Adams. Instead, you once again use a statement from Dan Bartlett to refute Kelley's claim. Bartlett is the least believable source anyone can use to refute either Burkett or Kelley; if the claims are true, then Bartlett is not only guilty of defending the man he works for and supports, but he is guilty of altering and destroying public records for political purposes. Yet you fail to even mention this, and once again present Bartlett as a reliable counter to Kelley, Burkett, and the many others who have documented the "scrubbing" of Bush's records. You also fail to mention the extraordinary lengths Bush has gone to to hide his records as a private citizen and as governor of Texas from public scrutiny. Your citation of the February 2004 Houston Chronicle story questioning Burkett's credibility fails to mention that Burkett feels he was denied medical benefits directly as a result of his going public with his allegations that he saw Bartlett and others scrub Bush's records. This gives a far different picture of Burkett than you paint; instead of a guy with a grievance who is attacking the Texas National Guard for being denied medical treatment, Burkett is rather a man victimized by the Bush political machine. You fail to address this whatsoever.
And I find it completely ridiculous that you attach Burkett's name to the allegations that records proving Bush's failure to fulfill his service were forged. Those allegations were disproven almost from the outset, and the people making those allegations have been proven to be Bush partisans. If you're going to bring that up, you need to tell the entire story instead of using a flying reference to tar Kelley and Burkett without revealing to your viewers that the questioning of those documents was fraudulent, and instigated by people sympathetic to the Bush campaign. Instead, you just say, "Let me move on."
Your next attack is even more outrageous. You imply that Kelley's claim that the first Bush used forged satellite photos to prod the Saudis into asking for US military protection from Iraq, and thusly giving impetus to the 1991 invasion of Iraq by the US, is groundless. This has long been proven to be the fact, and has even been admitted to be true by such officials as Colin Powell. It is extensively documented in books by, among others, Bob Woodward and Kevin Phillips. It is a matter of public record, as Kelley tells you, that those photos were indeed doctored. Yet you pretend that Kelley's claim is unsupported and untrue. Your refutation? Adel Al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs advisor to Prince Bandar of the Saudi royal family. Again, like the Bartlett citation, you use a statement from someone with every motive to deny the claim, and you fail to mention the intimate connection between Bandar and the Bush family. You even state flatly that there were CIA satellite photos showing an Iraqi troop buildup on the Saudi border. Those photos never existed. This is long since documented. Why do you use an outright lie to challenge Kelley's veracity? Kelley makes a similarly valid claim about the Bush promise to send 100,000 troops to Saudi Arabia when, in fact, he would send over 200,000. Again, this is a matter of public record and al-Jubeir is making an absolutely false statement to contradict Kelley's claim. You promote the Saudi lies as truth and paint Kelley's claim, supported by extensive documentation, as a lie. But once again, you switch topics.
Instead, you make a general attack, saying that Kelley's book is uniformly negative and ask plaintively, why isn't there some positive information about the Bushes in her book. Matt, why is she under any compulsion to give a positive picture about the Bushes? You act as if it is some kind of crime for Kelley not to paint a pretty "Hallmark" picture of the Bushes. Maybe that's the book you would like to read, but Kelley is under no obligation to write that book. She has the right to write a book exposing the negatives of the Bush family if she chooses. You have the right to challenge the information in the book, but you have the responsibility to challenge her information with facts of your own, not simply with refutations from Bush officials and Saudi officials with deep political, business, and personal ties to the Bush family. Your apparent astonishment that anyone would challenge a family with "three generations of public service" is amazing in its ingenousness and its supposed naivete. In reality, you are challenging Kelley's right to even examine the family's seamy underside. The "nice things that need to be said about them" have been said in a plethora of other books. Kelley is under no obligation to repeat them. In fact, she has an obligation to tell the story she uncovered, warts and all.
I will be fascinated to see the third and final installment of the Kelley interview. I would appreciate it if you would try, as your third and final shot, to introduce some of the evidence that supports Kelley's allegations. Instead of indulging in partisan Bush favoritism, try being truly "fair and balanced."