“Fortunate Son”: Better and worse than you might expect

The writer who penned the controversial new Bush bio digs some dirt but depicts a likable George W.

Topics: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton,

As much as Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s staff would like to paint J. H. Hatfield’s “Fortunate Son” as a partisan attempt to destroy the GOP front-runner, the book doesn’t read like one. Hatfield has written a biography which, if it weren’t for its very explosive afterword, would be considered a competent quick-release survey of the Republican front-runner’s tumultuous life.

The biography, which was supposed to debut next January, was hastened out the door three months early by its publisher St. Martin’s on account of startling allegations: that Bush was arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession and had his record expunged with the help of family connections.

Hatfield draws from a broad, bipartisan range of sources: Yalies, old friends from the oil business and associates from his old baseball team the Texas Rangers, Bush admirers and Bush detractors. He digs up some familiar stories and a few new ones, voiced by people close to Bush or to his family. Tom Seligson, a friend from Bush’s alma mater, Yale, says, “If he didn’t use marijuana at that point, then he wasn’t alive.” But while Hatfield depicts the purple haze of the era, he doesn’t find a smoking spliff.

The freelance Texas journalist, who has written a biography of “Star Trek” actor Patrick Stewart, also describes Bush’s first engagement to his sweetheart Cathryn Lee Wolfman, who, though Episcopalian, had a Jewish stepfather. “Given her name and her stepfather’s prominence in the garment industry, the Bush family pressured their son to call off the wedding because the prospective bride had a Jewish background,” a friend of the Bushes told Hatfield.

With the use of many, many clips from other sources and some financial documents from the SEC, Hatfield takes a long look into Bush’s murky business life, but again, doesn’t quite deliver scandal. Yet a glance at the footnotes might cause a reader trepidation. While most biographies will link individual facts and revelations to a specific source, Hatfield often does not.

His “footnotes” are just a long, run-together list of written materials and sources he interviewed. Sometimes he names his sources in the text, other times he refrains. So without the footnotes, you have to go on faith that you’re not just getting a clip job — and that he talked to real, live sources who confirmed what he reports. The other casualty of the book’s harried gestation is the index: There is none.

But the book’s strongest selling point — the afterword — is also its weakest section. It will no doubt bring heavy criticism. Hatfield relies on three unnamed sources to nail down his disturbing allegations about Bush’s supposed cocaine arrest. But Hatfield seems prepared, at least subconsciously: After completing his biography he sent his boxes of research to his attorney’s office.

Thomas Dunne, publisher of the book’s eponymous St. Martin’s imprint, says St. Martin’s lawyers read the manuscript. But he was not sure if Hatfield revealed his anonymous sources to his editor at the press.

Still, the book doesn’t seem to have any strong political agenda. “I’m a Democrat and I’m not likely to vote for Bush. But I have to say that after reading this book, I admire him a great deal more than I did before,” says Dunne.

“I used to regard Bush as a lightweight, as a daddy’s boy. But after reading the book, it’s clear to me that Bush has a lot more going for him, that he has a Clintonian knack for connecting with people,” he added

Dunne drew fire in 1996 after it was discovered that his imprint had commissioned “Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich,” written by the controversial World War II historian David Irving, widely reviled as a Holocaust-minimizing revisionist. After receiving death threats and order cancellations, St. Martin’s spiked the book.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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