On the 20th July last year, 43 year old James H. Hatfield, journalist and author of 'Fortunate Son', a biography of George W. Bush, was found dead in his hotel room in Springdale, Arkansas, the victim of apparent suicide. Hatfield's story is tied to the book he wrote and, through it to the career of the President. Hatfield, a writer with a somewhat chequered past, wrote a biography of George W Bush, while Dubya was still Governor of Texas. Amongst a host of bald and shocking facts about him it contained the allegation that in 1972 Bush senior had arranged for a Texas judge to have his son's conviction for possession of cocaine expunged from the records, in return for which Junior performed works of public service. This last was already documented; the fact that he worked for a while in the early seventies in an outreach centre for teenagers in one of Dallas' poorest districts has often been touted by republican publicists eager to round off some of their leader's corners. Needless to say, it stands out like a sore thumb.
The cocaine charge is the most sensational allegation contained in Hatfield's book, but it's hardly the most disturbing. From engineering the seizure of other people's property under eminent domain laws for use by his Texas Rangers baseball team, to the millions he made in dubious insider stock swaps, to his peripheral connections to the BCCI scandal, Fortunate Son is a catalogue of sins. It is a portrait of a man who routinely uses political connections to further his business interests, and likewise uses his business connections to further his political career; to quote one of Jenny Holzer's truisms, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise".
That Bush was corrupt before his political career is similarly no surprise. After all, this is the man who took control of the world's biggest democracy in a bloodless putsch, and despite his sabre rattling and the popularity boost he's received courtesy of the War on Terrorism, the stink surrounding the demise of Enron is still the biggest news in town. Next to all that, Hatfield's allegations of a youthful drug misdemeanour seem like very small beer.
To preserve their anonymity, Hatfield left his sources for the drug story unattributed. It was an omission that was to cost him a great deal. After the story of Dubya's partying past broke on news website www.salon.com (it is important to note that Hatfield was not the first to make the allegation), his editors at St. Martins Press insisted that he include it in his book. The book was effectively already written and ready for the press at this point. According to Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media Studies at New York University, they instructed him to "put the story in a special afterword for maximum effect, pushing him to make the prose more lurid". After publication, amid a media firestorm and threats of possible lawsuits from the Bush campaign, St. Martin's press pressured Hatfield to reveal the identity of his confidential sources. He refused.
Next, the Dallas Morning News happened to suddenly receive confidential information on Hatfield's criminal past. Hatfield denied the allegations, claiming that they had confused him with another person of the same name. He returned home to Arkansas, to find camera crews camped out outside his home. The truth soon surfaced. Hatfield had been convicted in 1988 of paying a hit-man $5,000 to murder his former boss with a car bomb, and subsequently served five years in a penitentiary. The intended victim had escaped unharmed. Hatfield had been guilty of the crime; he had paid for it with five years of his life, and had since successfully reinvented himself as an author. But the contents of his book were now all but forgotten, as inquiries into Bush's drug history were diverted into stories about Hatfield's life. Less than a week after publication 70,000 copies of Fortunate Son were withdrawn and destroyed, despite the fact that the book was at #8 on Amazon's Top 100 within 72 hours of its publication and #30 on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction list. St. Martins Press promised to turn it into "furnace fodder".
Let's leave aside the fact that burning books is anathema to any democracy; this was a grotesque over-reaction. Bush's predecessor Clinton was shown no such favour when it came to allegations in the press about him. In Blinded by the Right - The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative published in March this year, David Brock, one of the hounds that ran his administration to ground, explicitly admits that there was a right wing press conspiracy to discredit Clinton long before the former President's philandering came to light. According to former Newsweek Journalist Robert Parry, "We've seen books written about Clinton that I think are essentially made up". Parry goes further, "If you're going to start burning every book that has in it some disputed allegation, we're going to burn every book in every library. I find that troubling. I find it even more troubling that the press has shown no concern about a book burning."
Importantly, the rumours of Bush's past cocaine are almost certainly not unfounded. In an April 1998 interview with Houston Public News reporter Toby Rogers, former President George Bush's Chief of Staff Michael C. Dannenhauer admitted that Bush "was out of control since college. There was cocaine use, lots of women, but the drinking was the worst". According to Dannenhauer, Bush's use of cocaine started "sometime before 1977". He also claimed former President Bush had told him that his son had experienced a few "lost weekends in Mexico". Bush Junior, no stranger to the taste of his own feet, seems to have corroborated these claims, blurting out at a press conference that he hadn't taken drugs "since 1974".
The question is, to what extent does Hatfield's own criminal past discredit Fortunate Son? Certainly Hatfield was flawed, but the hard facts the book contained should have stood on their own two feet. For a while it looked like they wouldn't, but in early 2001 salvation came in the shape of Sander Hicks, Chief Editor of Soft Skull, a New York alternative and left wing publishing house.
They produced a run of 45,000 copies, and this time, with Hicks as a mouthpiece, Hatfield did not spare the anonymity of his sources. "I know that Sander Hicks, my publisher, has stated in interviews and in the introduction to the new, updated second edition of Fortunate Son that (Karl) Rove was one of my sources, but I cannot personally deny or confirm." And so we get to the alleged villain of the piece. Karl Rove,
ex-Nixonite and Bush camp spin-doctor described by Hatfield himself as "the ultimate dirty trickster". Also implicated was Clay Johnson, advisor and long-time friend to Bush. Hicks' and Hatfield's version goes like this: when Bush made his hasty admission and the media seemed ready to pounce, Rove realised he needed to find a way to remove discussion of Bush's drug past from the national debate so thoroughly that even Bush himself couldn't bring it up again. Right around August 1999, when Bush made that press conference blunder, J. H. Hatfield's biography Fortunate Son was in its final stages with St. Martin's Press.
According to Hatfield, during the writing of Fortunate Son he had contacted Rove and Johnson and interviewed them at length. Hatfield mistakenly assumed that Johnson and Rove weren't aware of his 1988 conviction for solicitation of capital murder. Rove and Johnson realised that, in Hatfield, they had found their solution to Bush's drug problem. A flawed author.
Despite the resurrection of his book, Hatfield's economic circumstances were approaching critical. He had a family to support, his daughter born the very month Fortunate Son had initially been published, and work was becoming impossible for him to find. His depression and paranoia were spiralling out of control. He had, he claimed, received death threats levelled at him and his family from prominent and important right wingers. He ended his life In July 2001; a month after the new edition hit the bookshelves. Predictable conspiracy theories were doing the rounds on the Internet within a few days of death: this from a commentary by Dan Brown in the American Politics Journal, "After all, for a CIA-trained attack squad well-versed in pulling off assassinations. How hard is it to whack somebody staying in a rinky-dink hotel in Buttfuck, Arkansas and make it look like suicide?"
Tempting though that kind of connection is, the hand that ended James Hatfield's life was almost certainly his own. However, ultimate blame for his death lies elsewhere, on Capitol Hill and in the hands of the editors and publishers who blackballed and discredited him. He has a monument though; despite Hatfield's suicide, despite the efforts made to discredit him, the skeletons he dragged out refuse to return to their closet. Fortunate Son was re-published in the UK this February (£10.99, Vision Paperbacks); it's also the subject of a new documentary, "Horns and Halos," produced by husband and wife team Suki Hawley and Mike Galinsky. Currently doing the International Film Festival circuit to considerable acclaim, their film chronicles the history of Fortunate Son and the tragic toll it took on the author. The title refers to Hatfield's avowed belief that a biographer should present both the good and bad sides of a subject without favour. He himself participated in the making of it; his presence adds a special significance to what is effectively his own obituary. According to Hawley, "Towards the end of the film, we did a really intense interview with him, where it becomes obvious that he is unravelling. We shot that a month before he died."
I contacted David Cogswell, left-wing media analyst, journalist, author and close friend of James Hatfield's. I asked him which parties he feels are most culpable for James' death, the right wing manipulators or the media who 'rolled over' for the politicians and took his career from him. "That's a very hard question. It's very hard to separate the two. It's also very hard to assign guilt. Jim was certainly not without guilt himself, in his earlier life, and he made many mistakes along the way that contributed to what happened to him, but nothing he did and nothing else justifies what happened to him, and nothing justifies the behaviour of the parties you mention."
I asked Cogswell if he thought James had realised the vehemence that his book would be met with by the establishment. "No. He had no idea. He said it himself and he proved it in his behaviour. He was clearly taken by surprise when the press turned against him and when his criminal record was unearthed and used to discredit the work he did on the biography. He said he would have never tried to write the book if he had realised how it would have played out. And I think it utterly destroyed him.
When he wrote the book, he had every reason to believe it would be judged by its content. Since he was doing work that practically no one else was doing at the time, looking into things and reporting things that certainly no other biographer was doing and none of the mainstream press was getting into, things that were urgently important as Bush was being lifted effortlessly into the presidency, he could reasonably expect that he was moving forward into a successful writing career, and doing his patriotic duty at the same time. He deserved to be highly respected and rewarded for what he did. I think he was naive enough to believe what most Americans like to believe about America, that democracy still means something here, that the truth will get a hearing, that evil when exposed will be brought down."
See more about the documentary Horns and Halos at
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