Knee Deep in Eufaula

In which we consider the return of author J.H. Hatfield, who scooped the world about George W. Bush and cocaine. Sort of.


As I was walking on the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish that he would go away!

No, not John McCain. James Howard Hatfield is back. Hatfield, the author of Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, raised a momentary ruckus in the Bush presidential campaign last October, when the first edition of his book alleged that young George W. Bush had once been arrested in Harris County for possession of cocaine, only to have the record expunged by a friendly Houston judge at the behest of George’s father, then-Congressman Bush. Hatfield’s allegations went down in flames — at first metaphorically, when the Bush campaign and reporters pointed out inconsistencies in Hatfield’s tale; and then literally, when revelations about Hatfield’s own criminal past (including a conviction for solicitation of capital murder) prompted his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, to recall the book and turn it, in their words, into “furnace fodder.”

But late in January, under the heading “The Book They Burned is Back!”, Fortunate Son was reissued in paperback by Soft Skull Press of New York, with a new Foreword by Hatfield acknowledging at length his criminal history and describing in some detail the furor over the book. Moreover, the new edition contains more startling allegations likely to grab a day’s headlines. According to the introduction by Toby Rogers and Nick Mamatas, in 1998 Michael Dannenhauer, then chief of staff to former President Bush, told Rogers that in the seventies George W. Bush had been “out of control since college. There was cocaine use, lots of women, but the drinking was the worst.” Rogers adds that Dannenhauer said he was told by the former President that during George W.’s wild youth, there were some “lost weekends” in Mexico.

As evidence, Rogers offers his own recollections and a couple of bad photographs (one poorly reproduced in the book, the other available at the Soft Skull website, of him and Dannenhauer together outside a Houston restaurant. At the time in 1998, Rogers told the Observer, he was “working on a book on Bush,” and nominally reporting for Houston’s Public News (a small alternative weekly that has since been purchased and closed by the New Times chain). Rogers persuaded Dannenhauer to have lunch with him, he says, by relying on his father’s connections to Republican politics (Joseph Rogers was a financial supporter of both Reagan and Bush), and convincing the chief of staff that although he was working for a liberal publication, he in fact wanted to put to rest some troubling rumors about the Bushes.

Unfortunately, even if Rogers’ brief report of their conversation is accurate, and Michael Dannenhauer did let slip some Georgie-the-wild-boy tales he would later regret, they simply add to the list of rumors and speculations that persist about the Governor’s youth. For Dannenhauer (who began working as an intern for Vice President Bush in the mid-eighties) is in his early thirties — far too young to have any first-hand knowledge of the early seventies period when Dubya was allegedly sowing or snorting his wild oats. In that the report echoes the widespread tales that few Bush family intimates thought young George would ever amount to much — and perhaps still have little respect for him — Rogers’ story is suggestive, but little more than that. Rogers and Mamatas pad out their introduction with tendentious charges of wildly varying merit against the Bush family record — generic corruption, collaboration with Nazis and anti-Semites, cozying up to the Moonies, and guilt by association with neo-Confederate racists — but their small, very rough-edged nugget of new information is the Dannenhauer story.

Not surprisingly, Dannenhauer — who recently left the Bush staff to accept the job of deputy director of the Bush Library Foundation in College Station — denies Rogers’ story. He told a reporter that although he remembers little of their conversation, Rogers’ version is “a total lie.” Dannenhauer did not return several calls from the Observer asking for comment, but Gian-Carlo Peressutti, press spokesman for former President Bush, reiterated Dannenhauer’s published denials, describing the quotations attributed by Rogers to Dannenhauer as “unbelievably ridiculous and false.” Peressutti further insisted that despite the apparently awkward timing, Dannenhauer’s departure from the Bush staff is completely unrelated to the report by Rogers or the re-issued Hatfield book. “Michael decided to take the library job a couple of months ago. The timing looks bad now because of the book, but the two events are completely unrelated.”

Rogers, who has been trying to find a home for his scoop for several months, now complains forlornly that “A public statement by a person with power is assumed to be true, while a statement made by a journalist has a much higher standard of proof to meet before it is accepted.” Unfortunately, the credibility and supposed importance of his own report relies entirely on the youthful Dannenhauer’s putative status as “a person with power” — and not just a rising young pol dishing old insider gossip with someone he believed to be a fellow young Republican.

The book’s new allegations first surfaced in the January 23 London Times, the Wall Street Journal is said to be investigating the story, and reportedly 60 Minutes will soon air a story about the controversy — including an “exclusive” interview with J.H. Hatfield. As of early February, and despite Soft Skull’s energetic thrumming, the U.S. press has ignored the second coming of Fortunate Son, including the Dannenhauer tidbit. But whatever the credibility of Hatfield’s and Rogers’ stories, they appear to be moving books: Soft Skull is reporting advance sales in excess of 25,000 books, and announced plans to ship 45,000.

Soft Skull Press — self-described as a “punk publisher,” the “C.I.A. of anti-imperialism” — is promoting the re-issued book as a triumph of truth over censorship: “Soft Skull reprints Fortunate Son to allow the voters to judge for themselves. We hope to prove that democracy can still exist regardless of the preferences of the privileged.” Hatfield’s new foreword portrays himself as a reformed felon and self-made author who has been unfairly maligned by the mainstream press and abandoned by his disloyal publisher, St. Martin’s. The Rogers and Mamatas introduction (Rogers is a freelance journalist; Mamatas is an editor at Soft Skull) to the new edition goes even further, melodramatically comparing the recall of Hatfield’s tome to the suppression of the independent press in seventeenth-century England under Cromwell. “Milton said it best,” they write. “‘Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put the worse, in a free and open encounter.'”

Unfortunately, Hatfield is no Milton. All this impressive rhetoric aside, what will those desperate readers get for their $16.50? A very mixed bag. Hatfield is also the author of celebrity bios of actors Patrick Stewart and Ewan McGregor, and Fortunate Son, although longer than the average movie biography, is what is known in the freelance trade as a “clip job”: an exhaustive, roughly chronological digest of the published journalism on the book’s subject. (The morgue reporter’s search-cut-and-paste task is made infinitely easier these days by computers.) The body of the book (as originally published and re-printed here in toto) is an inelegant, breathless, and insightless re-hash of what has already been reported about George W. Bush — extremely heavy with quotations lifted directly (usually without attribution) from previously published sources.

Hatfield’s defenders have made much of his fifty-plus appended pages of “Source Notes,” in which he lists apparently every book or article which even mentions George W. Bush. But that’s it, a list: no citations, no attributions, no page references — in other words, the illusion of acknowledgement serving to disguise the fact that virtually every substantive word of Fortunate Son has been taken outright from some other writer’s work. Those notes are supplemented by a list of supposed interviews, including such helpful notations as “confidential interviews with Bush campaign aides, close friends of Barbara Bush, and family members provided collaborating [sic] details of the private telephone conversation between Geroge [sic] W. and his parents after being elected governor.” That’s George, by the way, not his parents, who was elected governor in 1994. The occasion produced such immortal dialogue (in Hatfield’s bloodless reconstruction of his “confidential” sources) as the following:

“It was a tough race, but we admire you for the way you kept the campaign focus on a positive, forward-looking message,” the senior Bush said. “You fought the good fight and stayed on the issues and made your mother and me very, very proud….

“[Your mother’s] pretty crushed about Jeb losing,” his father said, sounding apologetic. “She knows he’ll take it hard.”

“He would have been a great governor,” George W. remarked, “but you of all people, dad, know such is life in the political world. You can’t go into politics fearing failure.”

One can certainly understand why Hatfield’s purported insiders, after providing such riveting, intimate, and revelatory material, might wish to remain anonymous.

Setting aside the methodical disrespect to his fellow journalists, one might see Hatfield’s book as a minor public service, sort of a Reader’s Digest version of the Bush biography. But Hatfield’s methods are more disturbing for other reasons. As Pamela Colloff acidly demonstrated in a December Texas Monthly piece on the book (“Bio Hazard”), for his section on the Bushes’ years in Midland Hatfield lifts precise phrasing as well as facts, unattributed, from Colloff’s previous reporting. In ordinary parlance, that’s called plagiarism. Moreover, among the people Hatfield does cite by name as supposed interview subjects, Colloff followed up with seventeen individual sources: not one had in fact been interviewed by Hatfield. “All expressed astonishment,” writes Colloff, “that they were named as interview subjects in a book they did not learn of until its publication.”

In anticipation of his nationwide debut on 60 Minutes, Hatfield is currently declining all interviews, but his new publisher at Soft Skull, Sander Hicks, dismissed Colloff’s charges as “pretty weak.” He described the apparent plagiarisms — word-for-word repetition — as simply coincidental re-statement of the same facts. As for the unconfirmed sources, Hicks said, “Hatfield talked to a lot of sources that were high inside the Bush camp, a lot of people who could not corroborate that they talked to Hatfield, especially after what happened to Hatfield in public. Also, a lot of times when Hatfield talked to those sources, he was using a pseudonym.” Why Hatfield would need a pseudonym to interview Midland folks who over the past year have welcomed reporters trooping through their living rooms by the gross, remains a mystery. In the new edition Hatfield does respond to Colloff’s charges, after a fashion. He includes Colloff — along with St. Martin’s and Pete Slover of the Dallas Morning News (who broke the story of Hatfield’s criminal record) — on an enemies list the author credits for making Fortunate Son a bestseller.

And Hatfield repeats, of course, the feverish revelations of the Afterword, in which Hatfield claims three confidential and forever-to-be-unnamed sources — a “former Yale classmate … who also partied with [Bush] in Houston,” “a longtime Bush friend and unofficial political adviser,” and “a high-ranking adviser to Bush who had known the presidential candidate for several years” — privately confirmed Hatfield’s speculation that George W.’s 1972 service in a Houston anti-poverty program (Project PULL) was a court-ordered quid pro quo in return for expunging the record of a drug bust. As Hatfield tells it in his pop-gothic, soap-opera prose (replete with brooding references to The Godfather), his three highly-placed Bush intimates would be persuaded by Hatfield’s intrepid reportorial bluffing that he had the goods on Dubya: “With each of them I would have to claim that I had numerous sources who were confirming the allegations ‘on the record,’ but I would be willing to give my confidential sources an opportunity to put a positive spin on the potentially damaging revelations before the book was published. Basically, I would tell them I was holding a royal flush, when in reality I would be sitting at the table with nothing at all.”

Hatfield’s poor outfoxed sources are indeed helpless before such a brilliant stratagem, and they can only shrug grimly and confirm (in dialogue equally as turgid as that “quoted” by Hatfield between Dubya and Poppy) the author’s ingenious theory. One source (dubbed “The Eufaula Connection” because he earlier insisted on meeting Hatfield on a lake in Arkansas) pauses long enough to ask, “You’re not on one of those goddam cordless phones, are you?” When he calls back thirty minutes later, this supposedly current Bush political adviser proceeds to give Hatfield a lecture on the hypocrisy and stupidity of his own candidate, who should have known better than to discuss drug use with reporters. Then he warns Hatfield darkly to “watch his back,” reminding the author about Poppy Bush’s tenure at the C.I.A. (where apparently they’ve forgotten how to tap ordinary telephones). Like his icy-veined bluffing, Hatfield’s reportorial eyesight is extraordinary: he can see his telephone interlocutor “pausing occasionally to spit tobacco juice into the ever-present Styrofoam cup.” (We’re in Texas, git it?)

This is astoundingly silly, preposterous stuff, of the sort only a truly credulous or greedy publisher could fall for. Hatfield is certainly not the first dog to go barking up the Dubya-in-Houston tree. Reporters have been speculating about that period (which includes Dubya’s cosmetic Air National Guard service as well) for years, and worrying relentlessly at the anomaly of the feckless young George volunteering for public service in the Third Ward. The official (and plausible) story remains that the heretofore aimless George needed some volunteer work on his political r?sum?, and was persuaded by his Dad to hang out with the former pro football players and Republican sycophants in Project PULL. But the persistent rumor of community-service-as-alternative-punishment (which Hatfield says, nonsensically, “no one else has figured out”) is also plausible. In some form, it may well be true. But the version of the story concocted in Fortunate Son reads like extremely poor fiction, which is what it apparently is. If Hatfield indeed managed — by means of a few heavy-breathing phone calls to highly-placed Friends of Bush, to triply confirm a story that has no public sources — then he’s the greatest reporter since Cassandra.

But he certainly won’t meet the same fate. What appears to have happened is that St. Martin’s, wanting a quickie bio to ride the early Bush wave, hired a fast and efficient journeyman who delivered a retread book on time (specifically and cynically calculated to derail the release of Bill Minutaglio’s thoroughly reported First Son), touched with the hard-selling, pseudo-populist cynicism that is stock in trade for the tabloids (where Soft Skull is now attempting to serialize the book). But the rehashed book wasn’t scandalous enough — indeed, like its subject, it’s boring — and it failed to deliver the goods on cocaine at the very moment when Campaign Dubya was treading thin snow. Pressed by his editors, Hatfield gave them what they clearly wanted, although he refused to reveal his uncorroborated “sources” even to them or their lawyers, a highly irregular situation. That wilful ignorance was both cynical and foolish of the publishers, but as long as they had his golden egg, they weren’t about to kill their goose — until the true story of Hatfield’s prison record (which, like Bush on his past, he stupidly tried to deny) exploded his credibility. When the whole story inevitably came tumbling out, St.
Martin’s’ chief executive editor resigned.

Sander Hicks, his counterpart at Soft Skull, says Hatfield has now told him the identity of the three sources, first extracting the promise that he must “carry the secret to his grave.” “He shared with me those actual sources,” Hicks told the Observer. “I’m the only editor he’s done that with. He feels that I’m not in the same league with St. Martin’s, obviously. He feels I’m a different kind of publisher. And I’m flattered.” If it’s not entirely mercenary, Hicks’ ingenuousness is touching. He may be the only New Yorker who’s never before fallen for a con.

In the end, the most interesting reading in the new Fortunate Son is Hatfield’s foreword, in which he defends his book against his critics — with multiple variations on Even a Liar Can Tell the Truth Sometimes — and recounts in some detail the circumstances of his criminal record. Although the tale is more than a little self-exculpating (and he fails to mention a couple of earlier arrests reported by Colloff), even in his version it’s not a pretty picture. As a manager and then an executive with the Dallas-based Credit Finance Corporation, which supervised HUD properties throughout Texas, he and his associates embezzled large amounts of money intended for maintenance and repair of public housing (i.e., those places the residents just can’t seem to keep up like white folks). According to Hatfield, one of his partners (in business and in crime) was being blackmailed by a third, a former lover. Hatfield was persuaded to “get one of the niggers that works for us in South Dallas” to kill the blackmailer. The subcontract went awry, when the car-bomb missed its target, and the plot soon unraveled.

For that and other misdeeds Hatfield, who says he was threatened with forty-five years, spent a little over five years (late 1988 to 1994) in state and federal prison, and he remains bitter: “With the passing of time, I watched child molesters, murderers, and drug dealers go home on parole due to their overcrowding conditions.” He seems not yet to have realized he missed being a murderer only through incompetence, and that on the scale of crimes against the public, stealing from the poor is truly low down on the list — certainly within hailing distance of drug dealers and child molesters.

Should you buy Hatfield’s book, you may learn a few things about George W. Bush you didn’t know, although there isn’t one — quite literally — you couldn’t find out elsewhere, reported more competently and honorably. And when one considers the books published, for example, in the last few years just by Regnery, the house press of monied and unscrupulous Reaction, Fortunate Son seems like small, stale beer indeed. Recall the execrable Unlimited Access of Gary Aldrich; the relentless slanders against the deceased and defenseless Vincent Foster; the broadcast right-wing conviction that every real and imagined crime committed in D.C. or Arkansas for the last thirty years has Bill Clinton’s name on it. That is the defense offered by Toby Rogers, who admits to being a little embarrassed by his association with J.H. Hatfield. But, Rogers adds, “Soft Skull paid me a lot of money to do the introduction, with a really great sales contract.”

“There’s a hundred million crank Clinton books that are out there,” said Rogers, “and they’re all full of shit. They’re all sitting out there — why does this distributed book get crucified like this? Nobody cares about a book-burning. They really did crucify Hatfield. As screwy as he was, I think he got a bad rap.”

Maybe so. But when you’re already up to your knees in bullshit, it’s never a good argument for more of the same.