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The Burning of Fortunate Son

by Mark Crispin Miller
Forward to the Second Edition

to Albion Monitor for a FREE copy of Fortunate Son
 + How The Cocaine Scandal Helped Bush
 + Why Bush Won the Presidency
 + George W. Bush, The Fortunate Son
 + Bush And The Right Wing Media Machine
If there's any future for American democracy, the trashing of Fortunate Son and its author will eventually stand out as an important early episode in the history of the Bush reaction.

It happened all too fast back in the fall of 1999, and then people pretty much forgot about it (which is the way things generally happen in the culture of TV). However, in the history textbooks of tomorrow, the fate of Hatfield and his valuable biography will get the close attention it deserves, for what it says about America -- our politics and culture -- at the end of the millennium.

But right now, let's stop thinking about tomorrow, and take a good hard look at what it meant when Hatfield was hung out to dry, and Fortunate Son sent off for burning.

First of all, the episode should have told us quite a lot about the Bushes' spooky way of doing business. We must not forget, especially not now, that the House of Bush has long been closely linked to the most anti-democratic movements of the last century -- movements not just hierarchical and secretive (like Skull & Bones at Yale), but actively engaged in trying to subvert democracy. The President's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a managing partner of the great and dubious investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman, and made a fortune doing business with the Nazis, from 1934 right through the fall of 1942, when U.S. troops were fighting in North Africa.

Then there was Prescott's ever-loyal son, George Herbert Walker Bush, who made his bones as a devoted younger member of the Texas oil cartel, and then went on to join the GOP. He was a dedicated Nixon man by 1968, sticking with Tricky Dick to the bitter end, and then served briefly -- and protectively -- as Gerald Ford's director of the CIA, when the Agency, post-Watergate, was reeling from the many revelations of its sordid actions all around the world. So indulgent was Director Bush towards the Company -- a permissive attitude that he maintained as President -- that the CIA's headquarters is today named after him. From there Bush soon proceeded to sign on as Ronald Reagan's understudy (getting mired up to his eyeballs in Iran-contra), and then to build some heavy-duty bridges to the Christian right, to get their help in capturing the Oval Office.

For a democratic leader, this is, let's face it, not the most attractive resume. From the start -- but especially from the Eisenhower years -- the CIA specialized in thwarting the political desires of foreign populations, through propaganda, terrorism, censorship and careful slanders that would "neutralize" key leaders of the opposition. In such work the CIA was helped along immeasurably by countless Nazi and pro-Nazi emigres, who were quietly recruited, after World War II, to help "us" fight the Soviets. This grand absorption of bad apples that would affect not just U.S. intelligence, but our domestic politics, as Christopher Simpson made clear in his classic study Blowback.

Starting in the Fifties, the GOP likewise cultivated all that fascist talent, who knew a thing or two about the art of winning hearts and minds by using the appeal of anticommunism. That link briefly made the papers back in the summer of 1988, when it came out that the Coalition of American Nationalities, an "ethnic outreach" arm of the Bush/Quayle campaign, was dominated by a range of infamous pro-Nazi emigres, including Laszlo Pasztor (a convicted Nazi collaborator, who had worked for Hungary's Arrow Cross regime), Florian Goldau, (who had recruited shock troops for Rumania's Iron Guard), and Holocaust denier Jerome Brentar, among other stand-up guys.

The Bush/Quayle team was quick to dump those agents named (and soon quietly took a few of them back in). That swift purge notwithstanding, the scandal shed a bit of light on how the Bush team worked. George Bush Sr. never got the hang of democratic practice -- as Iran-contra made all too clear, and as his own term in office reconfirmed, from the kidnapping of Manuel Noriega to the propaganda coup of Operation Desert Storm, and then the indefensible appointment of the undistinguished ultra-rightist Clarence Thomas to the nation's highest court. Every one of Bush's most remarkable achievements was a victory for propaganda, censorship and slander, and only for the sake of the defense contractors, U.S. oil cartel, and other subgroups of the privileged few.

And this brings us to George W. Bush. Poppy's eldest son was never CIA material. On the other hand, he makes up in vindictiveness what he has lacked in formal training, and has the crucial instincts for a dirty fight -- as Hatfield, alone among biographers, has taken pains to show. It was W. who, working closely with Lee Atwater, urged his Dad to counter-blast Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, when the anchor tried to get that unindicted co-conspirator to come clean on Iran-contra. It was also W. who got the elder Bush to do the Willie Horton thing -- and W. who engineered the smear that sidelined Jimmy Swaggart, whose loud support for presidential aspirant Pat Robertson was interfering with the Bush family's program. (See pp. 80-1.) W. was not, and is not, the hapless imbecile derided by the late-night wits and cable clowns. He is, of course, completely ignorant, often incoherent and, on abstract matters, perfectly illogical. But he is also very, very shrewd -- a highly gifted "political campaign terrorist," as his comrade Mary Matalin has noted with affection.

In his own bid for the White House, and in the daily propaganda drive that his cabal has been conducting since he was inaugurated, Bush has been abetted by some veteran dirty tricksters, such as the old ex-Nixonite Karl Rove, the true believer Karen Hughes, the rabid Matalin, and others. These are people who, like Nixon, have no qualms about whatever action it might take to win -- which is, in their wild eyes, the only thing that matters. Thus they did not hesitate to kill this book when it came out in 1999, which they accomplished by discrediting the author. The ad hominem approach was, throughout the Cold War, standard practice for the CIA (and for the KGB), just as it was standard practice for the Bush/Quayle operation in its drive to take the White House: Jimmy Swaggart's fate foretold Jim Hatfield's.

Such a step was necessary to maintain the all-important fiction that George W. Bush is not a lazy and immoral child of privilege, not an utter hypocrite who sticks it to the poor for doing things that he did without penalty. To launder Bush's past, the campaign had to dirty Hatfield -- not because the charges in that afterword were false: on the contrary. Just like the CIA in (say) Chile and Ecuador, and like the Nazis (and the Stalinists) before the Agency was born, Bush/Cheney shot down an inconvenient truth by slandering the reporter, treating him as the transgressor, so that the real perp could get off scot-free.

Slips of a dyslexia tounge
With some irony, the truth of Hatfield's charge has been all but confirmed by Bush himself, who, like his father, often gives the game away by saying just a bit too much. In a long interview with Brill's Content in September, 2000, the Governor was asked by the reporter, Seth Mnookin, if he didn't think that there should be some legal "recourse" for those candidates who are smeared as Bush, presumably, was smeared in Fortunate Son.

Bush replied as follows (emphasis added):

Well, I don't know that, I don't know that question. You know, I would hope there would -- to save -- to protect the innocent, but the problem is I'm a public figure, and the question is, where do you draw the line?

I think there ought to be some -- I think the press corps ought to self-police, and I think there ought to be -- in order to enhance the integrity of the press corps, it seems like to me that when they catch, when they catch these fraudulent acts, these scurrilous attacks, they ought to rise up in indignation, and I don't know if that -- you know, I think that maybe might have occurred when they started condemning this guy for writing the story. [Emphasis mine.]

What is most significant here is Bush's final phrase: the press attacked Hatfield for "writing the story" -- not for "making that stuff up," or "telling those lies," or whatever other phrase he would have used if he were innocent of Hatfield's charges. (Similarly: "That woman who knew I had dyslexia -- I never interviewed her," Bush said dyslexically about Gail Sheehy, who did interview the candidate for her profile in Vanity Fair -- and, note well, who, Bush admitted, did not "claim" or "say" but knew I had dyslexia.") What Bush began to say is also as revealing as what he finally said: "to save -- to protect the innocent." An innocent party has no need of being "saved" from a destructive allegation. It is the true report that you're in need of being saved from -- whereas "the innocent" might need to be protected from a smear.

Throughout the controversy, Bush himself never actually came out and said that Hatfield's charge per se was false, but just that it was "scurrilous," and that the author was himself "a convicted felon," as if that alone proved anything. It was -- typically -- a deft way to dodge the whole messy question of whether Hatfield's charge was true. Although transparent in his stammerings and "misstatements," Bush was sharp enough to kill the story, and go on (with lots of help) to steal the presidency from the Democrats.


Still more interesting than Bush's recent verbal slips is his long public silence on the subject of his stint at Project P.U.L.L. in inner-city Houston. (see pp. 47, 309-10) Such an altruistic episode-a period of youthful service to the poor-would seem to offer any politician, especially a "compassionate conservative," material for endless public reminiscences: e.g., "When I was working with those fine young men in inner-city Houston," etc. But Bush, whether running for the Austin Statehouse or the White House, seldom mentioned Project P.U.L.L. If, as the official story has it, he briefly worked at that non-profit just because his father thought it might be good for him, such reticence seems odd. If, on the other hand, he had to work there as a form of punishment, his failure to exploit the episode is fully understandable.

The Hatfield episode would be historically important if it pointed only to the tricky methods of Bush/Cheney and the GOP. The overt installation of an unelected President -- let's call it the Rehnquist Putsch -- is no mean feat; and the campaign's sharp handling of the Hatfield threat anticipated their achievement down in Florida. First of all, they managed to impugn the standard process of a manual vote recount, and so buy time to let the Supreme Court (long since corrupted by the Reagan/Bush regime) subvert democracy.

The propagandists then worked hard to change the subject after Florida: by playing up the President-select's "bipartisan" intentions and fictitious "charm," by making earnest noises about the great need (now) for electoral reform, and by turning up the heat on the departed Clinton, for his dubious pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich and for hauling gifts out of the White House. As if exonerating a rich con-man, whose wife gave money to the Democrats, were a greater sin than clearing all the principals in Iran-contra (as George Bush did -- on Christmas Eve of 1992 -- to save himself from prosecution). As if taking a dinette set were a greater sin than stealing an election. It is also likely that the smearing of the Rev. Jesse Jackson was a Karl Rove operation, the news of Jackson's love child coming just in time to shut him up, since he was certainly the most outspoken champion of a post-inaugural reckoning in Florida.

Truth is dangerous
The fact that Pres. Bush was not elected President is the truth most dangerous to his regime, and so his team behaves accordingly: dealing with reminders of it just as ruthlessly as they once dealt with Hatfield, whose story threatened the Republican campaign with (what might have been) an equally destructive truth.

And yet, as hard and canny as they are, this Bush and his operatives could not have done the job they did -- both on Hatfield's book and on the national electorate -- if they were not abetted all the way by the editors and producers, anchors, pundits and reporters of the so-called "liberal media." As the Brookings Institution demonstrated in a study published soon after Election Day, the coverage of the race was overwhelmingly pro-Bush.

Al Gore's whole campaign was handled only as a faulty exercise in style, with much sarcastic commentary on his clothes and sighs and make-up, while Bush's patent inexperience, his abysmal record down in Texas (including his disastrous impact on the environment), his dubious military history, his several crooked business deals and his tight links to the Christian ultra-right were all ignored -- as, for that matter, were his severe stylistic lapses, which included a strong tendency to zone out right on camera, and (of course) an inability to speak his native language. In short, the media -- for various reasons of its own -- was complicit in the Rehnquist Putsch; and that complicity was evident in their all-but-unanimous participation in the GOP attack on Fortunate Son.

As Bush himself told Brill's Content, the mainstream press responded to the book's important charges by doing the job that he thinks they should always do (at least when dealing with his own affairs): i.e., "self-police." Without even bothering to look into it, the members of the Fourth Estate piled on, as if they were not unaffiliated journalists but Karl Rove's deputies. The media's participation started with Pete Slover of the Dallas Morning News, who broke the story of Hatfield's criminal past -- a distracting (and irrelevant) fact that had to come to Slover from a source inside the Bush campaign (unless Slover was a fiercely zealous advocate for the Republicans).

From there, the media reaction was, at best, mere sheepish acquiescence, as all accepted, at face value, the candidate's indignant self-defense. Soon St. Martins, quickly knuckling under to whatever pressure was exerted on them, pulled the book -- promising to turn it into "furnace fodder" -- and dumped the author, leaving him with nothing but humiliation. Even such First Amendment champions as Nat Hentoff shrugged off that unprecedented act of corporate censorship. Burning, God help us, is not how we deal with problematic books here in the U.S.A; and yet the stalwarts of the media were unimpressed, and simply let it go.

Fortunate Son
The Hatfield episode, then, tells us something not only about the power and influence of one rich right-wing family, but about the cynicism that pervades the culture of TV, particularly toward the top. Hatfield's treatment by St. Martins was exemplary of how the media corporations all too often treat their hardest-working people. It was Hatfield's editors who had insisted that he play up the cocaine bust in the first place -- instructing him to put the story in a special Afterword for maximum effect, pushing him to make the prose more lurid, (and inserting over-heated touches of their own), and refusing to allow him a few extra days to go down to Texas for some on-the-record confirmation.

But when the shit hit the fan, those editors all ran for cover, cutting Hatfield loose and promising to turn the book to cinders. The episode recalled the very similar treatment meted out by CNN to Producers April Oliver and Jack Smith for their the CNN report "Valley of Death." The network caved into Defense Department and other government pressure and pulled their controversial documentary on Operation Tailwind -- a secret U.S. military mission in Vietnam to track down and gas American deserters fighting on the other side. Like St. Martins, CNN hyped the shocker heavily beforehand, and then -- also like St. Martins -- killed the product, and swiftly axed its authors: Oliver and Smith were fired for having made the documentary. They were let go to placate those (Henry Kissinger among them) who roared in outrage at the very thought of such a show. Whether the documentary was sound or spurious, the hasty burial of the offending work and the dismissal of its authors, bespeak a grave new turn in the corporate practice of the culture industries.

No longer is the journalist automatically protected by the company -- as, for example, CBS producer George Crile was when the network was sued over his documentary on Gen. William Westmoreland's body counts in Vietnam. (Crile was suspended for ethical lapses, but not fired.) Now that the news media are wholly owned by multinational corporations, whose managers have everything to gain from catering to the government (and vice versa), it is a very risky business to go after those in power.

And so Fortunate Son is a most important book -- and not just for its many revelations. (Readers should pay special heed to Hatfield's prescient outline of the Bush plan to secure the presidency: see p. 303.) The book is just as edifying for the painful history of its publication as it is for all that it reveals to us about our unelected President. It is a volume to keep close at hand throughout these next four years, whatever happens next, and whatever they may tell us on TV.

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University. His books include Boxed In: The Culture of TV (1988) and Seeing Through Movies (1990). He is the author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder, published by W.W. Norton in 2001

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Albion Monitor June 29, 2001 (

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