Bush biographer commits suicide

J.H. Hatfield, author of the controversial book "Fortunate Son," is found dead in an Arkansas hotel room.

Published July 20, 2001 7:13PM (EDT)

J.H. Hatfield, the man who penned a controversial biography of George W. Bush and was later humiliated after revelations about his criminal past became public, was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room in Springdale, Ark, Friday afternoon. He was 43.

Hatfield appeared on the national radar after his book, "Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President," appeared in 1999, and alleged that a confidential source told him Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, but had his record expunged through his father's political connections.

Some news outlets, including Salon, reported on the allegation. But soon after, details about Hatfield's past came out, including a report by the Dallas Morning News that he was convicted for hiring a hit man in a failed attempt to kill his employer with a car bomb in 1987. Hatfield denied he was the same James Hatfied with the Dallas criminal record, but later recanted.

The firestorm around Hatfield led his publisher, St. Martin's Press, to pull the book from shelves. It was later reprinted by Soft Skull Press.

According to the Associated Press, a hotel housekeeper found Hatfield's body after he apparently overdosed on two kinds of prescription drugs.

Police don't suspect foul play in the death. But in the online community where he found a home after "Fortunate Son," the reactions to Hatfield's reported suicide were unsurprisingly suspicious. Take this from Democrats.com: "Police labeled the death a suicide, but we'll be watching this story VERY carefully."

The conspiracy theorists were out in force on the Democratic Underground, where speculation was that Hatfield's death was some kind of "payback." One poster writes: "I heard Hatfield was working on a second book, who knows what might have been in there. While it would be nice if we could prove it, I don't expect to. After all, [Bush's father] was head of the CIA."

Even the folks at the Free Republic were skeptical. "Are we seeing the beginning of another 'Dead Body List'? I thought that garbage flowed out with the incoming tide," writes one poster.

But others in the thread were more rooted in cold, hard fact. "And so begins the Parade of Conspiracy Nutballs."

Conspiracy nutballs aside, Hatfield's friends are mourning the author's death. "Right now, my thoughts are for his widow, Nancy, and his daughter, Haley," Online Journal editor Bev Conover said. "My deepest condolences to them. Jim will be greatly missed.

After his media roller-coaster ride, Hatfield kept a low profile, penning an occasional column for Online Journal, a liberal Web site. He once wrote a piece accusing Bush advisor Karl Rove of hatching a Machiavellian plot to use Hatfield's checkered past to dismiss the cocaine allegations about Bush. Soft Skull Press, against Hatfield's stated wishes, claimed Rove himself was Hatfield's key source for the cocaine allegation.

In an e-mail interview, Mark Crispin Miller, author of "The Bush Dyslexicon" who wrote the forward to the Soft Skull edition of "Fortunate Son," said, " Now that Jim Hatfield is gone, those journalists who were so quick to side against him should now take another look at all he had to say about the man who has been made our president."

Conover said she was "devastated" after hearing the news of Hatfield's death. "I got to know Jim fairly well over the past few years. I knew him to be a gentle and sensitive man whose life, career and family were ruined because he told the truth about George W. Bush," Conover said Friday.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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