Car Bombs And Character Assassins
By Arianna Huffington
October 21, 1999
Over the course of just 96 hours, St. Martin's Press, the respectable mainstream publisher of J.H. Hatfield's slash-and-burn book on George W. Bush, "Fortunate Son," went from hailing this flagship title of their winter lineup as "a balanced, engrossing portrait" to suddenly withdrawing it. And good riddance to it. But the far-reaching implications of this ugly book, and how it came to be published and debated all over the media, are chilling for our politics.
In "Fortunate Son," Hatfield -- heretofore best-known as the author of an undistinguished biography of "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart -- alleges that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, taken to Harris County jail, and used his father's political pull to have the record expunged. "Within hours, dad was there," is how Hatfield flatly states it.
And what hard evidence does the author offer as proof of his combustible claims?
None. Zero. Zilch.
Not the time, date, or location of the arrest. Not the name of the cop who made the bust, nor the judge who supposedly let young Bush off. In short, not a single fact that can be verified. Instead, Hatfield relies on three anonymous sources -- a "Yale classmate," a "longtime Bush friend," and a "high-ranking advisor to Bush" -- who, he professes, have contemporaneous, independent knowledge of the purported arrest.
Hatfield asserted that the judge who helped clear Bush's record was "a fellow Republican." When this claim was challenged on the grounds that there were no Republican district judges handling criminal cases in Bush's home county at the time, Hatfield replied: "Maybe it was a Democratic judge. Maybe he switched parties later." And maybe he never existed -- until Hatfield created him.
He has also conceded to fictionalizing details about one of his three sources to protect his identity and "help him out a bit." And even his own editor admits that the allegation is based entirely on hearsay.
"I know (Hatfield's key source) hasn't given Jim anything in a formal document or physical piece of proof or evidence," said St. Martin's Press' Barry Neville. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that before working on Hatfield's book, Neville edited two books on the "X-Files" -- which is also rife with conspiracies, cover-ups, and a "truth" that is supposedly "out there."
But none of these red flags stopped St. Martin's from publishing and touting the book, newspapers from reporting the story, pundits from analyzing the political fallout, or the White House press secretary from keeping the arrest rumor in play by saying that if it was true, "it is for the American public" to decide if Bush is fit for office.
No doubt this slow-drip character assassination would have dragged on for days if the Dallas Morning News had not broken the story Thursday morning that Hatfield was actually the one with the criminal past -- a felon on parole, convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his employer with a car bomb in 1987. He served five years of a 15-year prison sentence and was released in 1993.
At first, Hatfield brazenly denied the story: "It's not me, and we're supposed to be pursuing the governor of Texas." Really? I thought we were supposed to be producing "a balanced, engrossing portrait" of the governor.
By Thursday afternoon, after a frantic morning of lawyer-filled meetings, St. Martin's Press issued a press release: "At 9:00 am this morning, we suspended publication of Mr. Hatfield's book. We have stopped all sales, promotion, and other publishing activities, and are not filling orders we have already received."
However, this is not the time to cheer their decision, but to question what prompted it. It was not any shame or misgivings for having published a malicious fabrication that could have destroyed a presidential candidacy without meeting even the most rudimentary standards of proof but the tangential fact that the author is a felon.
The message this sends is outrageous: political reporters no longer need the classic "who, what, when, where, why and how" if they can offer up a scintillating "wow!" "This kind of nasty, groundless attack is the reason that many good people are unwilling to enter politics," said President George Bush. Indeed it is, and it's got to stop.
We must make false speech costly speech. Think of it as an economic intifada. We need to not only refuse to buy these kinds of books, but also boycott any other titles put out by their publishers. We should also send a message to the TV shows that use such sordid stories to boost their ratings by reaching for the remote. And I suggest the O.J. treatment -- shunned in public, refused service at restaurants, asked to leave country clubs -- for the character assassins who plant these literary car bombs.The alternative is rendering the already fetid air of our political life completely unbreathable, and having our best and our brightest abandon the idea of public service forever.
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
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