September 21, 2004
Getting the Truth Out of the Media is a Painful Affair, by the Co-Director of a Documentary About the Saga of "Fortunate Son," the Biography of George W. Bush that the Bush Family Had Deep-Sixed When It Was Originally PublishedA BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Michael Galinsky (co-director Horns and Halos)
A Documentary Covering the Saga of Fortunate Son, by the Late Jim Hatfield Media hurts when it's true. It’s painful to read articles that deal with difficult issues, like Paul Krugman’s work for the NY Times.
And it hurts when the media ignores the truth, which is far too often.
What hurts even more is to read the articles that say nothing, report on nothing, and in so doing deflect attention from those that do. Right now all of the press about Kitty Kelly’s Bush family portrait focuses on an unimportant story about cocaine abuse furthering the idea that the cocaine story is questionable. This creates the impression that the whole book is questionable, leading many in the media to discount it. As such they are afraid to be associated with it. If they are going to be associated with it, they feel that they have to attack it on some level in order to create separation between themselves and the book. A similar thing happened back in 1999.
My partner Suki Hawley and I started making the film “Horns and Halos” after reading a two paragraph article in the recesses of the Times Herald Tribune in Oct 1999 which stated that a “discredited biography” of the potential presidential candidate, GW Bush, had been pulled from the shelves. It was called "Fortunate Son" and written by the late Jim Hatfield.
What struck us about the article was the lack of information about what was in the book. Why it had been discredited? Was it full of fabricated tales? The story floated in the paper sending off waves of unanswered questions. A couple of weeks later we hadn’t forgotten that article when we found out that an underground publisher would be re-publishing the book. We talked to Sander Hicks, director of the book’s new publisher, Soft Skull Press, about making a film about his efforts to get the book out. Two days later we were shooting. We set out to discover what had happened and what would happen as the book moved back into the world.
Just before the book was released, rumors began to circulate that it had some salacious details about Bush’s substance abuse issues. "Fortunate Son" was the first biography of Bush, the Texas Governor who had only recently declared himself a candidate for President. At this time Bush’s drug use was a hot topic and the other Republican contenders, including Orrin Hatch, were using it against him. St Martin’s Press, the original publisher who deep-sixed the book, did a great deal of press outreach circulating the story that Hatfield had found three sources to corroborate a story about GW Bush being arrested for cocaine possession in 1972. The story further stated that his father, then the US ambassador to the UN, had interceded to have the incident expunged from his record.
However, just as Fortunate Son was released, the Dallas Morning News ran a story detailing James Hatfield’s past conviction for solicitation of capital murder. Hatfield denied the story despite the fact that it was true. After initially defending the book, St. Martins press pulled it from the shelves claiming all copies would be destroyed because they no longer felt they could trust Hatfield. The Bush campaign used this opportunity to suppress any discussion of Bush’s drug use and the issue disappeared from the media.
When Soft Skull was ready to re-release the book in Feb 2000, just as the primary campaign was heating up, 60 Minutes ran a very negative story on the book. At the same time Soft Skull was slammed with a lawsuit due to a new forward in which Hatfield discussed his past. The lawsuit stemmed from Hatfield’s claim that his former boss had put him up to the attempted murder of his co-worker. The lawsuit caused Soft Skull’s distributor, Consortium, to halt distribution of the book.
The 60 minutes piece focused more on the issue of fact-checking in publishing than it did on Fortunate Son itself. However, the overall effect of the piece was to cast an even greater shadow on the book.
The book and author were so tainted by the scandal that Soft Skull Press has had incredible difficulty ever getting the book taken seriously by mainstream journalists. Despite the problems with the book, and there were several, it discussed a great number of issues that were deeply relevant to the discussion about Bush’s fitness for the office of the President. While the book is certainly not a one-sided attack on Bush it does detail his failings as a businessperson, student, national guardsman, and candidate. While some of the issues in the book were touched on during the campaign they didn’t become a substantive part of the national discussion.
Five years later the pattern is repeating itself with Kitty Kelly’s book. Weeks before it was released a story leaked that the book contains allegations of cocaine abuse. The source for this story, Bush’s former sister in law, Sharon Bush, has now denied having said it. Despite the fact Sharon Bush’s own publicist confirms that the discussion took place as described by Kitty Kelly, the book and the author are being attacked viciously. While I haven’t read the book yet, I have read several interviews with the author as well as a number of reviews and I have seen the string of personal attacks on her character. The actual substance of her book is always a side note. Even if her book isn’t pulled from the shelves, the damage has been done. The press has focused almost exclusively on this less than important story and lost sight of the substance of her book. As she said to David Talbot of Salon, “Nothing will stand in the way of these people winning. Nothing. You start out looking at the Bush family like it's 'The Donna Reed Show' and then you see it's 'The Sopranos.'" Our documentary soon to be released on DVD, "Horns and Halos," captures the unlikely connection of three men - an ex-con turned celebrity biographer, a janitor cum underground publisher, and U.S. President George W. Bush - whose paths to power and popularity become tangled in a controversial book.
In October 1999, an article appeared in the New York Times indicating that publisher St. Martins Press had recalled Fortunate Son, the first published biography of George W. Bush, when it was revealed that the author, J.H. Hatfield, served five years in prison for solicitation of capital murder. At the time of its recall, the book was a bestseller, no doubt due to the book's allegations that Bush had been arrested for cocaine possession in 1972.
Several weeks later, small underground imprint Soft Skull Press, led by the self-styled “punk of publishing” Sander Hicks, announced that it would re-publish the book. They began operating out of a makeshift office in the basement of the building where he divides his time as the super.
Set against the backdrop of the fierce 2000 presidential campaign, Horns and Halos follows Hatfield and Hicks as they battle lawyers, media and mounting debt to get Fortunate Son back on shelves, after St. Martin's Press dropped it under White House Pressure. After facing a lawsuit, a thrashing on 60 Minutes and bankruptcy, Soft Skull attempts to make one last splash at the Book Expo of America, Hatfield reluctantly revealed his primary source for the book’s cocaine allegations, and the fallout became explosive.
Discrediting the messenger is a standard Karl Rove technique to discredit the message. It has worked for him over and over again in keeping the truth hidden about Bush, even though it is plain view.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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