Behind the Bushes
Fortunate Son by J.H. Hatfield
Reviewed by David Cogswell
By David Cogswell
A felony conviction can certainly pose a credibility problem. When it became publicly known that J.H. Hatfield, the author of the biography of George W. Bush Fortunate Son, had been convicted of complicity in an attempted murder, the book itself and not its subject became the event. It was recalled by its publisher, St. Martin's Press, and turned into "furnace fodder," according to the publisher's public statements.
Most press coverage of the book focused on the author's allegation that Bush had been convicted of cocaine possession in 1972, had served a term of public service in atonement and had then had his record expunged as a favor to the Bush family. This was presumably the most potentially scandalous part of the book, the point reporters seized upon to show the extreme dimensions of the book. When the criminal history of the author became public, the allegations were widely dismissed along with the rest of the book.
Though an embarrassed press viewed it as an anticlimax to a shut case, "Fortunate Son" was republished January 1 as a paperback by a "punk" publisher Soft Skull Press, a Lower East Side venture begun in 1992 by 28-year-old Sander Hicks. The publisher said he believed in the credibility of the book, that the author had the documentation to prove his case in a libel court. He said he was willing to take the chance that the Bush clan would never take the chance of allowing the inquiry that would be set off by a libel trial. The new edition of book was published January 1, 2000, a few months after its first publication. As of May, no libel case has been filed. It is hard to believe the Bush family would not use any legal means to stop these damaging allegations that could endanger the presidential aspirations of its chosen successor to the throne, if it could. It therefore lends some credence to the assertion of the publisher. He, in fact, is the one who is putting his money, his company and his reputation on the line. It is unlikely the fledgling company could survive a judgment against it in a libel case.
Punk indeed! To openly confront one of the most powerful political families in recent American history -- one whose patriarch is former president, vice president, director of the CIA, head of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, Kissinger protege and ambassador to Beijing during Nixon's secret war on Cambodia -- is either extremely brave, or painfully naive.
In the absence of legal action following the re-publication of the book, the silence is deafening. If only the single, damaging cocaine allegation were unprovable, it is reasonable to assume that appropriate legal action would be taken. George W. Bush was asked about the book in an interview by Brill's Content. He called the book "outrageous." But he did not say the allegations were false. He spoke instead of the "fraudulent nature" of author, and said there is "no recourse." Whether or not Dubya knows it, surely his handlers, surely the canny Karl Rove knows that if the material is slanderous, there is a simple recourse. In slander cases, the burden of proof is on the defendant. If he cannot prove his charges, Bush wins. Bush has asserted that all the men executed in Texas under his watch had "access to the courts," now he would have us believe that he, who has had every privilege of wealth and power, does not.
Considering the stakes -- choosing the man who will occupy the most powerful office in the world -- it seems worth looking at the book to see if it stands or falls on the merit of its arguments and its documentation. Hatfield is not applying for the job of president, but George W. Bush is. Hatfield would not be the first person convicted of a crime who wrote a valuable book. Readers are certainly able to bring the tools of critical thinking to these arguments, just as they should to any argument by any politician who has not been convicted of a crime. The public issue is not who Hatfield is, but who George W. Bush is.
The new edition has a new forward in which the author confesses his own crime up front, in colorful detail, and it is not pretty. It is, however, undeniable after a couple of paragraphs that the clarity of his prose is gripping. This impression is borne out as the main body of the story unfolds. Hatfield is a powerful writer. The story is compelling, coherent and bolstered by a mountain of documentation.
After reading press reports, one of the most surprising things about the book is that it is not merely a smear. The book paints a rounded portrait, the Bushes emerge as people, not monsters. Its bias is clearly anti-Bush, but the case is well-constructed. It goes into detail about the SEC investigation of W's alleged insider trading, the Bush family's involvement in the Savings & Loan and BCCIA scandals, W's job as hatchet-man for his father's presidential campaigns and a great many other worthy scandals.
The second publication has two other additions, one is a 54-page index of source notes that was dropped from the original publication by St. Martin's in order to get the book to press before its competition. The notes provide a roadmap for any research into the information in the book.
The new edition also has an introduction by Toby Rogers, a Quill Award-winning journalist, and author and editor Nick Mamatas. In it, they document additional embarrassments, such as the fact that W's grandfather Prescott Bush and great-grandfather George Herbert Walker were directors of Union Banking Corporation, which was seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1942 for its contribution to Nazi war efforts, including raising $50 million for the Nazi rearmament effort by selling Nazi war bonds. The cocaine controversy is only a minor part of the story. The introduction begins with an informed review of the history of the institution of freedom of the press. It quotes a statement of Milton that was the foundation of his argument against censorship: "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter."
Any student of history knows that crime is a relative term in the world of politics. Convicted felon though he is, J.H. Hatfield has performed a service that is vital in a democracy. He has written an informative history of a man who would be president. Call it atonement.
A version of this review was originally published in The American Book Review