November 17, 1999
A Bush Family Book Burning
No one should defend sloppy journalism. Nor should a writer lie to an editor about relevant personal details that reasonably might bear on the credibility of an investigative project. The business of informing the public puts a high value on trust, fairness and care with details.
But the media's applause for the decision by St. Martin's Press to recall and burn a critical biography of Texas Gov. George W. Bush is more troubling than any flaws in J.H. Hatfield's Fortunate Son and the author's dissembling about his own criminal record.
The chief factual error supposedly was Hatfield's citing three anonymous sources who claim that police arrested Bush on cocaine possession in 1972 and that a friendly judge expunged the record as a favor to Bush's father.
Gov. Bush denied the story as did former President George Bush, who called the book "a fraud and ugly" and made rumblings about a lawsuit.
Hatfield's credibility suffered another blow when the Dallas Morning News reported that a James H. Hatfield -- whose identification seemed to match the authors -- had been convicted of trying to kill two of his bosses at a Dallas real estate firm in 1987.
With that, St. Martin's announced that it was pulling the book and planning to incinerate the 70,000 copies. "They're heat, furnace fodder," declared Sally Richardson, president of St. Martin's trade division. [NYT, Oct. 23, 1999]
The national press corps hailed the decision to recall the book, while still castigating Hatfield and St. Martin's (for publishing the book in the first place). Some conservatives were gleeful, hoping that the controversy would end the pesky questions about Bush's past cocaine abuse.
An editorial in the right-wing Washington Times joked that Hatfield "surely thought he would set the world on fire. He just didn't figure that it was his book that would be the kindling." The newspaper, financed by theocrat Sun Myung Moon, added: "One hopes the finality of the furnace puts an end to the story." [WT, Oct. 28, 1999]
But what was lacking in this intensive press coverage was virtually any concern about the disturbing image of a book being denounced by well-connected politicians -- the father and son Bushes -- and then being burned.
Through more than two centuries of rough-and-tumble American politics, there might be no precedent for this sort of book burning. Yet, the news media focused only on the miscreant, Hatfield, and his careless publishers.
The incineration had the smell of totalitarianism to it, but it was the high-brow sort where one person of privilege calls another person of privilege, the call that makes things happen.
Bush bullying is not limited to Hatfields book, either. The $60 million Bush campaign went to extraordinary lengths to shut down critical Web sites that might draw readers with addresses using the Bush name.
The campaign angrily protested gwbush.com, a site that parodies georgewbush.com, the official site. In that context, Gov. Bush declared, there ought to be limits to freedom.
The Bush campaign also bought up Web addresses that might be used by anti-Bush groups: bushsucks.com, bushbites.com, bushblows.com. If you type one in, you go to the official site, georgewbush.com, where there is a handsome photo of Gov. Bush.
To protest this clumsy attempt at discouraging criticism, one group created a site called, bushsuckz.com. The site says it is a response to Bushs political paranoia, but more importantly, a statement about our hard-won right to free speech.
Like his father, Gov. Bush appears to have a fondness for political and social hierarchy, a proper order to the world where certain people set the rules and other people follow them.
On Nov. 3, in what sounded like a declaration from former President Bushs New World Order, Gov. Bush praised Pakistans army for ousting the elected president. The coup brought stability to the country and I think thats good news for the subcontinent, Bush said in a TV interview.
When upstarts challenge the proper order, they can expect to be put down, ruthlessly if necessary. Gov. Bushs father saw nothing wrong with hanging black convict Willie Horton around Michael Dukakiss neck in 1988.
Then, in 1992, President Bush was the driving force behind a silver bullet strategy to dig up dirt about Bill Clinton as a young man, according to records from the National Archives. In one document, Bush described himself as indignant that his staff had not discovered more. [See iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1999.]
Because of the Bush establishment ties, theres also the question of whether the news media gives the family favored treatment. Despite Gov. Bush's odd denials about cocaine use -- giving various time limits -- news outlets still report that the Bush-cocaine rumors are unsubstantiated.
Yet, if there were no truth to the rumors -- many coming from Republicans who have known him for years -- Bush obviously would have denied the charges flatly, as he has done with questions about marital infidelity.
When a similar shoe was on Bill Clinton's foot, the press took the opposite stance, refusing to accept evasive answers to personal questions no matter how intimate or trivial.
As for Fortunate Son, author Hatfield may deserve criticism for relying too casually on three unnamed sources and for having a checkered past. But a much greater threat to American democracy comes from this giddy dance around a pile of burning books.
Journalists should show care in their work and do their best to avoid mistakes. But it is far more dangerous to the nation if the news media accepts the solution favored by The Washington Times for stories not to the liking of its powerful allies, what it calls "the finality of the furnace."