The controversial afterword to Fortunate Son, James Hatfield’s biography of George W. Bush, begins with an apt quote from Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.” It was advice that the book’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, should have heeded. Hatfield was an odd fit for the job of Bush biographer; he was best known not for his reporting skills but for his mass-market paperbacks on The X-Files and Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What St. Martin’s didn’t know was that he was also an ex-con who had served time in three states for a variety of crimes. Nevertheless, St. Martin’s published and promoted his book, in which three unnamed sources claimed that Bush was arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession and that family connections got him off the hook. Hatfield, who declined to be interviewed for this article, stood by his reporting when the truthfulness of the drug allegations in the afterword came under fire this fall. But the closer one looks at the entirety of Fortunate Son, the more it proves to be a house of cards.
The biography’s flaws are evident in its first chapter, in which I came across a passage that I had written myself. Minor alterations had been made to a piece I had written for Texas Monthly in June 1999 called “The Son Rises,” but its origins were unmistakable. Of the elder George Bush, I had written, in part, “he spent what spare time he had on the weekends coaching George W.’s Little League team, the Cubs.” Hatfield wrote, “he spent what little spare time he had on the weekends coaching Junior’s Little League team, the Cubs.” Another strikingly similar sentence followed, and then—where I had quoted from an interview I had conducted with Joe O’Neill, a friend of the governor’s—Hatfield reproduced the quote verbatim, though he misspelled O’Neill’s name. Next, I had continued, “George W. seized on his father’s passion early on . . . Baseball was a way the son proved himself to his father . . .” Hatfield wrote, “George W., seizing on his father’s passion at early age, used baseball as a way to prove himself to his father.” Hatfield’s next sentence also matched mine almost word for word.
Though my story is listed in Hatfield’s bibliography, an exhaustive 55-page compendium of articles on the governor and his family, the passage appears without a footnote or an attribution. This is common practice throughout Fortunate Son; the book is littered with unattributed quotes from newspapers and magazines, a technique that allowed Hatfield to give readers the impression that he had conducted extensive research. Had Hatfield actually interviewed people for Fortunate Son, I began to wonder, or had he simply done an artful clip job? In a letter to his hometown paper, Arkansas’ Bentonville County Daily Record, Hatfield maintained that he had been a diligent biographer, having spent more than a year “interviewing hundreds of George W. Bush’s friends, college classmates, business associates, political colleagues, employees, acquaintances.” However, of the seventeen people I contacted whom Hatfield listed as sources, not one recalled ever having been interviewed by him. All expressed astonishment—“I’m in what?” was the common refrain—that they were named as interview subjects in a book they did not learn of until its publication.
“Well, I was speaking and he was listening—through a radio,” quipped conservative talk show host Mark Davis, of the Dallas radio station WBAP-AM, whom Hatfield claimed to have talked to. “I hardly think that constitutes an interview.” Johnny Hackney, the proprietor of Johnny’s Barbecue in Midland, seemed similarly perplexed. “I never heard of the guy until last week,” he exclaimed. “If he’s telling lies about me, give him hell!” Some of Hatfield’s alleged sources were impossible to track down, most notably Karla Faye Tucker, though Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson Glen Castlebury stated that there was no record of Hatfield having ever contacted his office to arrange an interview. In fact, the only person I reached who had actually talked to Hatfield was a soft-spoken woman named Diane King, the archivist for the Midland Reporter-Telegram who is repeatedly cited in the notes to Fortunate Son. “I photocopied some articles for Mr. Hatfield, but we didn’t do an interview,” recalled King with a laugh. “I’m a Democrat and just about the last person in Midland you’d talk to about Mr. Bush.”
Hatfield’s failure to interview even the most accessible of Bush sources casts doubt on his claims of having conducted “confidential interviews” with the famously tight-lipped Bush clan, unnamed Harken Energy Corporation executives, and the governor’s aides. But Fortunate Son’s weaknesses are most evident in its much-criticized afterword, an unintentionally hilarious rip-off of All the President’s Men in which Hatfield, “acting on what can only be described as a reporter’s hunch,” cracks the case regarding Bush’s alleged cover-up of a 1972 cocaine arrest—for which there is no corroborating evidence—with three phone calls. “‘I was wondering when someone was going to get around to uncovering the truth,’” one unnamed source confides to Hatfield. “‘Just keep digging. But keep looking over your shoulder.’” Hatfield’s worst suspicions about Bush are confirmed by a shadowy figure nicknamed the Eufaula Connection, who reveals the governor’s deepest, darkest secret once he has determined that Hatfield is not speaking on a cordless phone.
The inspiration for Fortunate Son’s explosive allegations seems to reside less in a dislike for the presidential front-runner than in the longstanding desire of the 41-year-old Hatfield, a self-described “publicity hound,” to become a well-known writer. “I’ve always wanted to be an author,” he told Amazon.com in an interview about his 1996 book, Patrick Stewart: The Unauthorized Biography. When he was twelve, he asked his parents to give him an electric typewriter for Christmas; at sixteen he approached horror novelist Ruby Jean Jensen with a manuscript. “I thought I was the next Isaac Asimov . . . back then,” he told Amazon.com. Hatfield’s ambitions went unfulfilled: When he lived in Dallas in the eighties, he penned a self-published James Bond thriller, The Killing Zone, but told co-workers he had won a contest to begin writing 007 novels where Ian Fleming had left off. By the mid-nineties, however, he met with some success, writing several X-Files trivia books and unauthorized biographies for Fortunate Son editor Barry Neville.
“If he had played by the rules, he could have made something of himself,” observes Dallas attorney Norman “Happy” Nelson, Jr., who represents the woman Hatfield once paid a hit man to kill. “But he has a dark side.” When Hatfield was a teenager, he was arrested in Arkansas for writing bad checks, and in 1978 he was convicted of burglary, for which he served seven months of a five-year sentence. In Texas he pleaded guilty to a charge of solicitation of capital murder in 1988; he served only five years in prison because the pipe bomb, intended for Hatfield’s former supervisor, malfunctioned. In 1992 he pleaded guilty to embezzling $34,000 in federal housing funds and spent time at a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. Hatfield, however, insists that he is the wrong man. “If I’ve got a secret past, I’m damn sure not going to be going all over the country plastering myself all over the newspapers or TV, attacking the man who may be the next president of the United States,” he told the Dallas Morning News in October, denying that he was the same James Hatfield. “It’s not me.”
Of course the irony was almost too delicious to be true: The biographer who had accused Bush of trying to conceal a criminal record was, in fact, trying to hide a criminal record of his own. Now Hatfield is on the defensive, accusing the Bush campaign of launching a “smear campaign” against him and making him the unfair target of a “character assassination.” But Pete Slover, the Morning News reporter who broke the story about Hatfield’s past, hardly seems the logical reporter for the Bush camp to have confided in; Slover has written several highly critical articles about the governor during the course of the presidential campaign and is by no means a Bush apologist. “This story was not leaked to me,” Slover explains. “Hatfield had made some pretty strong allegations in his book that I could not corroborate. For starters, he claimed that a Republican district judge had expunged Bush’s record, but there were no Republican district judges in Harris County in 1972. I did the same sort of background check on Hatfield that I do on anyone who enters the public debate.”
St. Martin’s Press recalled the book on October 21 amid questions about Hatfield’s credibility and the elder George Bush’s threat of a lawsuit, but the story may not be over yet: According to Hatfield’s agent, Richard Curtis, several publishers are interested in obtaining the rights to the biography and possibly reprinting it themselves. In the meantime, the recall of Fortunate Son has piqued the interest of those who smell a cover-up—among them, the author himself. In his letter to the Daily Record, Hatfield suggests that larger forces are at work, citing the fact that Bush’s father “happens to have been the former director of the CIA.” But the notion that the Bush biography was quashed by the powers that be because it spoke dangerous truths about the presidential front-runner is far more reminiscent of Hatfield’s beloved conspiracy-obsessed television series, The X-Files, than it is based in reality. The truth is out there, but it’s not in Fortunate Son.