Busting Bush's Biographer

Busting Bush's Biographer

Busting Bush's Biographer

Politics and policy.
Oct. 19 1999 1:18 PM

Busting Bush's Biographer

Fortunate Son:George W. Bush and the Making of an American President

By J.H. Hatfield

St. Martin's Press, $25.95

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The newest Bush biographer, J.H. Hatfield, claims to have the goods on the Republican front-runner's druggie past. The Texas-based free-lance journalist alleges that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, but that his daddy got a friendly state judge to expunge the record in exchange for W.'s performing community service in a Houston mentoring program called PULL. The author writes that he discovered this scandal only after his book was in galleys, which is why the accusation is tacked on as an afterword to what is otherwise a shoddy clip job with no fresh news.

Should we believe this story? I don't think so. The author, who has written for various B-list Texas publications and previously published a biography of the Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart, has no actual evidence to support his charge. And while essentially asking us to trust him, he provides a multitude of reasons for thinking he should not be trusted. (Editor's note: On Thursday, St. Martin's Press announced it was "suspending" publication of Fortunate Son because of questions about the afterword's accuracy and the author's criminal record. Click here for more.)

For starters, Hatfield lacks all the kinds of details that might make it possible to check the story. Among other things, he is missing the name of the judge who supposedly let Bush off, the name of the arresting officer, the police station, the date and circumstances of the arrest. What he claims to have are three sources. Naturally, they're all anonymous (making this a good example of the kind of story that wouldn't meet the evidentiary standards of the cheesiest newspaper but that presents no problem for a "reputable" book publisher). When I reached Hatfield at his publisher's office, he told me that these sources are all old friends who have contemporaneous, independent knowledge of the alleged arrest, but that none would provide specifics for fear of being identified by Bush. Here's how he describes them in the book:

1. A "Yale classmate" and "family friend" who "partied with the future Texas governor and presidential candidate in the late sixties and early seventies in Houston."

2. A "longtime Bush friend and unofficial political adviser who had known the presidential candidate for several years."

3. A "high-ranking adviser to Bush who had known the presidential candidate for several years." Hatfield says this source agreed to confirm information in the book and spent three days bass fishing with him in Eufaula, Okla.

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Hatfield writes that he contacted these sources after reading a story in Salon in August reporting on an e-mail rumor. Salon amplified its own unsubstantiated gossip by reporting on Hatfield's unsupported charges with another uncritical story this week. But what Hatfield claims these "sources" told him is implausible. Why would three Bush supporters want to supply a hostile reporter with information that would destroy their friend's candidacy? More significant, when I questioned Hatfield about his sources, he acknowledged that some of what he says about them in the book isn't true.

For example: Hatfield recounts calling Source No. 3 to ask him to confirm the story he has from the first two. His "Eufaula Connection" calls him back half an hour later. Here's what Hatfield writes about what Eufaula told him:

"I can't and won't give you any names, but I can confirm that W.'s Dallas attorney remains the repository of any evidence of the expunged record. From what I've been told, the attorney is the one who advised him to get a new driver's license in 1995 when a survey of his public records uncovered a stale but nevertheless incriminating trail for an overly eager reporter to follow," he said, pausing occasionally to spit tobacco juice into the ever-present Styrofoam cup.

Spitting tobacco juice into the Styrofoam cup is a nice detail. But how, I asked Hatfield, could he see his source doing this in what he described as a telephone conversation? Hatfield made a spitting noise into the phone, and said that he knew the source chewed tobacco because he had spent time with him. But then he added: "I might have put that in to protect him. He doesn't chew tobacco--I had to help him out a bit." This is quite an admission. Nowhere in the book does Hatfield warn the reader that he has altered details or created composite characters to protect his sources. His admission about Source No. 3 raises the question of what else in his book is fictional.

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Or what, if anything, in the book isn't fictional. Anyone with a nose for cooked quotes should be able to detect the distinct odor of journalistic jambalaya coming from Hatfield's book. All three of his arrest-story "sources" speak in a stilted, too-perfectly-advancing-the-story-line way, telling the author more or less the same thing, and congratulating him on his genius in ferreting out this facts. Here are some of their quotes.

Source 1: "I was wondering when someone was going to get around to uncovering the truth," he replied, surprisingly unruffled by my direct approach. ... "There's only a handful of us that know the truth."

Source 2: "Take this any way it sounds, but do you think George would take time out from speeding around town in his TR-6 convertible sports car, bedding down just about every single woman--and few married ones--and partying like there's no tomorrow to go work full-time as a mentor to a bunch of streetwise black kids? Get real, man, this is a white-bread boy from the other side of town we're talking about. ... The judge, a good ol' Texas boy and a friend of George's politically influential daddy, purged the record. It happened a lot in Texas years ago and George damn sure wasn't the first rich kid who got caught with a little snow and because of his family's connections had his record taken care of by the judge."

Source 3: "Be careful and watch your back every step of the way," he warned, speaking almost in a whisper. "Without sounding paranoid, I think I would be amiss if I didn't remind you that George Bush's old man was once director of the CIA. Shit, man, they named the building after the guy not too long ago. Besides, W.'s raised almost a staggering sixty million dollars for his White House run in a matter of only a few months and his corporate sponsors and GOP fat cats aren't going to roll over and play dead when you expose the truth about their investment. ... You know what makes me sick about all this shit? It's the hypocrisy. Cocaine use is illegal, but as governor of Texas, he's toughened penalties for people convicted of selling or possessing less than a gram of coke (a crime previously punished by probation). Ok'd the housing of sixteen-year-olds in adult correctional facilities and slashed funding for inmate substance abuse-programs. Texas currently spends over one point four-five million dollars per day keeping drug offenders behind bars and another twenty-eight thousand dollars a day incarcerating young people on drug offenses," he said angrily.

You can't prove that someone made up quotes from an anonymous source, just as you can't prove you never got arrested and had the record expunged. But these passages sound about as authentic as a three-dollar bill. The anachronistic colloquial expressions ("bedding down," "a little snow," "shit, man"), the insertion of gratuitous detail ("his TR-6 convertible sports car," "one point four-five million dollars"), and the utterly non-conversational tone ("raised almost a staggering sixty million dollars") all make me suspicious. Another tip-off is that Hatfield doesn't discuss his three high-level, inside-the-enemy-camp sources in the body of the book, which was already in galleys when the author made his "discovery."

The story reminds me, in fact, of another great episode in left-wing wishful thinking involving the Bush family--the October Surprise. That scandal, you may remember, featured the elder Bush secretly flying not to Houston but to Paris in October 1980 to cut a deal with the Iranian mullahs so that the American hostages would not be released before Election Day--thus, according to the theory, ensuring Ronald Reagan's victory over Jimmy Carter. Like that story, this one comes replete with a cloak-and-dagger fantasy in which the truth-seeking journalist (in this case the author of the X-Files Encyclopedia) faces danger from shadowy conspirators for attempting to expose the truth.

What the two fantasies have in common is that neither can be either confirmed or proved definitively false. Reporters can't double-check Hatfield's work, because he offers nothing but anonymous sources. And while Bush can deny Hatfield's accusations, as he already has (calling them "totally ridiculous" and "not true"), he can't prove that something never happened 27 years ago.

In fact, we should credit the Bush campaign's denial. Why? Because if Bush was arrested in 1972, any number of people would have to know about it--one or more police officers, prosecutors, a judge, lawyers, friends, and so on. There's no way Bush could be sure that someone with actual evidence wouldn't come forward. And while he might survive an admission of guilt about something stupid he did 27 years ago, he would be far less likely to get away with a cover-up in the midst of a campaign. In other words, if the story had any truth to it, Bush would be fatally compounding his problem by pulling a Clinton.

Bush really is on an accelerated schedule. He already has his Gary Aldrich.