Is Hatfield the real McCoy?

Under attack, the author of a new George W. Bush bio lies low while its editor takes the hard questions -- and stands by the drug-arrest allegation.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In some ways St. Martin's Press editor Barry Neville seems well matched with his author on the publishing house's controversial new biography, "Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President." Like writer J.H. Hatfield, who jumped into the media spotlight this week with allegations that Bush used family connections to expunge a 1972 cocaine arrest, Neville has to this point mostly produced pop culture titles. Both have "X-Files" books on their resume, for instance.

But Hatfield and Neville seem as bewildered as Mulder and Scully as they face a backlash from the Bush campaign, and parts of the media, denouncing the book's anonymously sourced allegations.

"This guy should have stuck with writing science fiction," said Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. (Hatfield has written a biography of "Star Trek's" Patrick Stewart along with his "X-Files" work.) "He's obviously trying to sell books with something absolutely untrue."

Former President George Bush struck back, too, calling the Hatfield effort "a vicious lie" and "a nasty groundless attack," adding "I am proud that George is willing and strong enough to take the heat even in the face of this kind of mindless garbage."

On Tuesday Slate's Jacob Weisberg eviscerated the biography. "Should we believe this story? I don't think so," Weisberg writes. "Anyone with a nose for cooked quotes should be able to detect the distinct odor of journalistic jambalaya coming from Hatfield's book."

Weisberg's most damaging allegation is that Hatfield described one source as spitting tobacco juice into a Styrofoam cup during their interview, which took place over the phone, but later acknowledged he made that detail up to give cover to his source. "I might have put that in to protect him," Hatfield reportedly told Weisberg. "He doesn't chew tobacco -- I had to help him out a bit."

After being widely available to the media on Monday, Hatfield clammed up on Tuesday, not returning repeated phone calls to Salon News.

So the task of defending the book fell squarely on editor Barry Neville's shoulders. What makes that job
difficult is that Hatfield used three unnamed sources to confirm his allegations about Bush -- and Neville
only knows the identity of one of them. But the editor, who has worked at St. Martin's for over a year, is
nonetheless confident about its pedigree.

"The source is impeccably placed, privy to a lot of personal information, and has occupied this position for
decades," Neville said in an interview Tuesday.

Ideally, Hatfield would have disclosed Neville a full list of his sources, but the editor says, "I believe Jim,
and we stand behind him." Neville said. "If we had named the one source, I know the reception would have
been different."

But in the event that the Bush camp mounts a serious challenge to Hatfield's credibility, would the sources
come forward and identify themselves? "I don't get the sense that they'll come forward, but it hasn't
gotten to that point yet. Their lives with the Bushes are so involved. It would be cataclysmic. That's my
personal take on this."

Corroborating evidence, too, could make Neville's task easier -- a photo, an arrest record, any kind of
court document proving Bush was arrested and volunteered at Project PULL as part of a community
service deal. But no such evidence exists, Neville says.

"I know [the key source] hasn't given Jim anything in a formal document or physical piece of proof or
evidence," says Neville.

In terms of journalistic ethics, St. Martin's may take a lot of flak for publishing "Fortunate Son." But
legally, its situation is less shaky, depending on the proximity of the source to the Bush family or the
arrest. According to David S. Korzenik, an attorney who teaches media law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School
of Law at Yeshiva University, the quality of the sources is more important that their quantity.

"Some people tend to follow a two-source rule -- that they want is two sources. What that means, however,
remains unclear at times. What's really more important in these things is always the pedigree of the source
and the basis of the source's knowledge," says Korzenik, who was Spy magazine's legal counsel during its
muck-flinging heyday. "So someone with extraordinary firsthand knowledge would be worth ten sources
with indirect pieces of knowledge."

Neville admits to being overwhelmed by the controversy. "I'm a little taken aback at the opprobrium we're
getting," Neville said. "I wouldn't say that political books are my specialty," he conceded. Neville, who as an
associate editor at his previous job edited two "X-Files" books and "The Tick: Mighty Blue Justice"
among other titles. Before working on the Hatfield book, Neville said that he edited a book for Thomas
Dunne, "Glass Houses," an examination of the foibles of congressional figures such as Henry Hyde.

But former colleagues say Neville is a hard-working, professional editor.

"He's very smart," said Tom Coogan, a Berkeley Books executive editor who worked with Neville during his
employment there. "Personally, he's very low key. He seems so low key and then he comes up with these
ideas that are so outrageous, or book proposals that make you think, 'Wow, where did a quiet guy come up
with an idea like that?' He's very talented and has a big career ahead of him." Coogan said Neville was
meticulous about factual details in books he edited for Berkeley.

Another Berkeley colleague had similar sentiments. "He was well-liked, but had a better opportunity at St.
Martin's. There was nothing mysterious about his departure. He left on favorable terms."

"I really hope that the presence of the story will inspire the press to look into it and the story will break," said Neville.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

MORE FROM Craig Offman

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

MORE FROM Daryl Lindsey

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Drugs George W. Bush