KITTY CORNERED. Approaching Kitty Kelley's accusations about the Bush family with tweezers and rubber gloves isn't a bad idea. Still, I was struck by the way that Matt Lauer hit her with almost nothing but Republican talking points on the Today show this morning - although Lauer also deserves credit for doing some legitimate damage.
Nor does NBC seem particularly happy to have made a three-day commitment to Kelley and her new book, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. If you go to the Today show home page right now, you'll see absolutely no mention of it, although it seems that just about every other story they're doing today gets a plug. CBS hangover? Perhaps.
Among other things, Kelley has written that George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David, when his father was president; that he may have helped arrange an abortion for a girlfriend; and that his future wife, Laura Welch, both smoked and sold pot when she was a student at Southern Methodist University.
Lauer started ripping into Kelley's credibility in the show's introduction, right after 7 a.m. Then, in a short package before his interview, he called her "the author in the center of the firestorm ... a phenomenon, but her credibility has often been called into question." He did add: "Every libel lawsuit filed against Kelley has been dismissed."
Kelley commended Lauer for having her on despite the "great pressure" she knew that Republican forces had exerted to prevent her from appearing on national television. Lauer responded that her book is "an extremely, extremely unflattering look at the Bush family." Kelley: "I think it's realistic."
Lauer's next tack was to press Kelley on whom she plans to vote for this November, as if that has any relevance. Kelley refused to answer except to say that the last politician to whom she gave money was Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas. She then asked Lauer whom he planned to vote for, a question that he ignored.
Lauer: Why put your book out, just before the election? (Note: just in case there's any doubt, the lack of quotation marks means I don't have this word for word. I'll vouch for the gist of it, though.)
Kelley: Why not?
Lauer then noted that in all of her previous books - on the royal family, on the Reagans, on Frank Sinatra, and the like - the subjects were not in public office at the time of publication. He asked whether her standards "need to rise" when writing about a sitting president and his family.
At that, Kelley grew indignant. "My standards are my standards," she replied, saying she is always careful to follow the rules of libel and of invasion of privacy. Lauer came back by reading part of a Time-magazine review of one of her previous books, ripping her for relying on "third-hand gossip."
Lauer next asked Kelley about the coke-at-Camp David matter. Kelley made what struck me as an extraordinary statement: "George W. Bush has never denied using, buying, or selling cocaine." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Bush has ever denied being abducted by aliens, either.
In any event, Lauer did trip her up. She initially said she had two sources. Lauer asked if Sharon Bush, the former wife of Neil Bush, was one of those sources. No, she replied; Sharon Bush's only purpose was to confirm the story.
Lauer: So you had two sources other than Sharon Bush?
Kelley: No, I had one confidential source plus Sharon Bush.
Hmmm ... not too good, given that Sharon Bush has vehemently denied telling Kelley any such thing. (In fact, Lauer had Bush on later in the morning, and she issued her denials again.)
Kelley: "I never said that she saw it, Matt, but she did confirm it over lunch."
Lauer: You tape-record interviews all the time. Why didn't you record this one?
Kelley: It was over lunch, and it was too difficult. But I did call her back, and other people at my publishing house heard her say it. "What better than witnesses?" Then: "I feel sorry for Sharon Bush.... We knew the next day that Sharon was going to be frightened over this." Kelley also compared herself to Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill, and Joseph Wilson, all Bush critics who've been run through the wringer for speaking out.
So what did we learn? Not much, although I think we did learn something about how thin the coke story is. It sounds to me like Kelley has one unnamed source for this remarkable accusation. I happen to think that Kelley is telling the truth about what Sharon Bush said to her. I also happen to think that the reason Sharon Bush denies it so vehemently now is that she realizes she was in no position to confirm it in the first place. How would she even know?
Lauer noted that The Family is already #2 at Amazon.com. No doubt it will sell well, but I can't see this having any impact on the presidential campaign. For one thing, I think the media are thoroughly cowed after CBS took its best shot on the National Guard story last week and blew it. For another, with sourcing like Kelley's, you just don't know whether to believe her tales or not.
NOT SO BAD FOR KERRY? Electoral-Vote.com, which keeps a running tally of the state-by-state polls, has Kerry leading Bush by a margin of 269 to 233. Bush was ahead in the immediate aftermath of the Republican National Convention. The latest Newsweek poll has Bush up by six - a significant drop from the 11-point lead he had last week. (Media Log caveat: who knows what any of this means?)
For what it's worth, on the Today show this morning, Tim Russert said that both campaigns believe that Bush currently has a five- to six-point lead.