The following piece was written for the French translation of J.H. Hatfield's Fortunate Son: The Making of an American President, published June 2003 by Editions Timeli in Geneva, Switzerland. (See www.timeli.ch.)
The Death of Jim Hatfield
May 15, 2003
This morning I looked at my file of police documents about Jim Hatfield's death, including the arrest and search warrants for the credit card fraud case against him, and copies of the notes and some other things that were found with him in room 312 at Days Inn in Springdale, Arkansas, where the housekeeper found him dead July 18, 2001.
Hatfield was the biographer of G.W. Bush whose book Fortunate Son: The Making of An American President was big news twice in one week in October 1999 before it was withdrawn and burned by its publisher St. Martin's press.
The book was a media sensation first because of its allegation that Bush had been arrested for cocaine in 1972, but had had it expunged from his record by a judge as a favor to his father. The book shot to the New York Times bestsellers list, and then the second bomb dropped. It was reported by the Dallas Morning News that Hatfield himself had served prison time in Texas for attempted murder and embezzlement of federal funds.
It's a long, painful story often told, but in brief: After St. Martin's pulled the book, a New York punk rocker/publisher named Sander Hicks set out to publish the book under his publishing imprint Soft Skull Press. The publisher turned it around quickly and by January 2000 Soft Skull was ready with its paperback version of Fortunate Son. It was then that I first reached out to Sander Hicks and Jim Hatfield.
To me Hatfield's book was a beacon of hope that some of the sleazy truth about the Bush family would leak into the mainstream press before the Bush mob could seize control of the country again. I had read enough beyond the mainstream American media to know that the Bushes were nothing like the respectable middle-American family they were portrayed to be. I saw them at best as racketeers, and at worst as the contemporary incarnation of the fascist threat. But the corporate mass media cartel was suppressing all the ugly aspects of the family history and just passing along a phony PR image.
I contacted Soft Skull about getting a copy of the book to review for American Book Review, and to express my support of their courageous attempt to? publish the truth about the Bushes.
When I got my copy of the book and started to read it, I was surprised at how much it humanized the Bushes. After all the hype about the book, which focused exclusively on the cocaine charge, I was expecting a merciless attack. Although the book was unrestrained about reporting the sleazy activities of the Bush family, and didn't take the typical deferential tone toward them, it didn't demonize them. It was not hateful or mean spirited. The biggest surprise for me was that while reading the book for the first time in my life I felt compassion for George W. Bush.
Mainstream reporting left out all the warts in an attempt to package the image of a mythical leader, but it never evoked a real person. The official George W. Bush was a cartoon superhero. Because Hatfield didn't balk at portraying the unseemly side, he made the subjects real. So when he described George W. as a child whose sister died and who felt he had to take care of his grieving mother, I felt for him. I realized that in my fear and loathing of the Bush threat, I had also seen only a cartoon character. But in my case it was a villain.
To the Heights and Back
Hatfield's journey from convicted felon to the New York Times Bestsellers list was a great triumph. After serving his prison sentence, Hatfield overcome incredible odds and rebuilt his life. He moved back to his home in Arkansas, met a woman, married her and they had a baby girl. He began to build a writing career, starting with biographies of actors Patrick Stewart and Ewan McGregor.
When he pitched his idea for a biography of George W. Bush, St. Martin's first took it as a quickie paperback to be rushed out in time to be on the drugstore racks during the campaign season. They gave him eight months to write it. But he excelled beyond what they expected and it began to look like more than just a compilation of the available clippings about Bush. He took it to the next level with original sources and some very astute analysis. When reports about Bush's alleged 1972 cocaine bust surfaced on Salon.com, St. Martin's pushed Hatfield to include something about it in his book, and they elevated it from a paperback to a hardcover.
Hatfield said he went to three Bush friends and associates and told them there were others willing to go on the record with confirmation of the drug bust. They all then admitted that the allegations were true. He put the information in a quick afterword to be attached to the book, which was already in galley form, getting its final proofreadings in preparation for publishing.
When his criminal record was exposed and he lied about it, everything came crashing down. The book was destroyed. He was publicly disgraced. His in-laws discovered his past and began to fear for the life of their daughter.
When Soft Skull picked up the book, he was given a miracle reprieve. But the troubles were not over yet. Not by a long shot.
For the Soft Skull paperback edition Hatfield wrote a foreword that was a beautiful piece of confessional writing in itself and provided a taste of the kind of writing he might have done if he had lived. He told his side of the story, confessed the crime he had denied when the press first asked him about it. He bared his soul to the world, at the same time unleashed the natural music of his southern voice.
He told how he had worked for a housing company in Texas that received government subsidies. The handling of the money became increasingly corrupt. Two of the partners, Hatfield's bosses, started having an extramarital affair. One blackmailed the other and the other responded by trying to hire someone to kill her. Jim was getting caught up in a bad scene so he gave his 30-day notice of resignation. But before he left, he said, he passed $5,000 to a cable TV repairman on a contract to put a car bomb in the intended victim's car. Hatfield wrote that the repairman "wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer and ... I honestly believed and hoped he would just take [the] money and run."
But instead the bomb was planted. It went off. No one was hurt. But Jim was convicted of attempted murder and spent five years in prison. Neither the person he passed the money to or the person he passed it for did any prison time.
In his foreword, Jim confessed his dark, secret past to the world, but unfortunately he was too frank. When he described the crime that had put him behind bars and later came back to destroy his blossoming writing career, he named names. And they sued him.
Because the book was not properly vetted by lawyers, its opponents had a legal means to stop it, to tie up the publisher in court. Distributors were afraid to take it on because they were receiving legal threats too. The book was effectively killed for the election season of 2000, when it might have made a difference in an election that was supposedly decided by 525 votes.
The Bush camp with its long tentacles was of course aware of the book and was monitoring it closely. According to Hatfield, someone from the Bush camp had contacted him and he accepted an invitation to meet to see if he was "on the right track." When he met the caller in person, he said it turned out to be Karl Rove himself, Bush's chief strategist.
After the drug allegations became public, Hatfield said he received death threats from one of the Bush allies who had confirmed the allegations. The threats named Hatfield's wife and two-month-old daughter and said, "If you value their lives, you'd better back off from this edition."
The pressure was always on. Jim was on parole, so the slightest violation of his parole -- even leaving the state without permission -- could put him back in jail, a possibility that terrified him.
When my review was published I got an e-mail from Hatfield thanking me, and it initiated an intense correspondence that became a daily part of my life during the last year of his life.
It was a kind of relationship that could only have happened in the age of the Internet. We exchanged messages several times a day most days. If we went a day or two without an e-mail between us, it was a rare thing.
Hatfield was happy to know me because I was one of the few who had written a supportive review about him, and because I was effusive in my respect and appreciation for him and what he had done. From that beginning a friendship grew that was based on an underlying affinity, a passion for writing and a desire to expose the hypocrisy of the Bushes and the political establishment in general.
He was by nature more a literary artist than a journalist. Conventional journalists instinctively disliked and distrusted him. He was not one of them. He did not play by their rules. And when they caught him breaking the rules, they turned on him like sharks that smell blood.
But considering the stakes -- how desperately important it was to get the truth out about the Bushes -- and the fact that this was one of the few men who was willing to do it, I didn't care about the journalists' conventions. I deeply appreciated his courage to tell the truth, when the same journalists who turned so viciously against him were too chickenshit to tell the truth when it came to the crimes of the powerful. He told the truth, with guts and passion. He even had a big enough heart to extend compassion to the Bushes, which was more than I could do.
I understood well the affinity between the artist and the criminal minds. Hatfield was a man at the edge, always pushing the limits. I could only imagine how fiery he had been before his five-year prison term beat him down.
I was not one to be churlish about his criminal record. I took him for what he was. I felt he had the capacity to write quality literature that would make his previous work pale in comparison. When he expressed to me his frustration over not being able to get any more contracts to write biographies, I urged him to write about his own life. His life history was fascinating, and he was a born storyteller.
"You're an artist," I told him. "It's a different standard than politics. Having a prison record doesn't preclude you from writing literature. Many great writers did prison time. Write about your life. I would love to read about it, and I'm sure other people would too."
In the political world he was a fish out of water, and it finally killed him. He had an artist's soul. More than anything he just wanted to be a writer. He was a natural, and he had the potential to write some fine work. Having lived in Texas, and having acute political intuition, he tuned into the Bush phenomenon long before most of America even knew there was a George W. Bush. He seized on the idea of doing a biography of Bush in time for the 2000 election season. His timing was brilliant. He had no competition. He was practically the only reporter in the mainstream that was going beyond Bush's PR image.
He had an artist's passion for telling truths that the more polite, respectable writers refrained from telling. Though he had a shady side, he had a frank, unpretentious quality, the authenticity of a person who had been to the depths. I found him much more honest than George W. Bush.
During our e-mail exchanges in early 2001 Jim told me he found out his computer was bugged. He said he found out when he took it to be repaired. The technician who worked on it told him someone had installed a device that enabled that person to monitor the e-mails.
I asked him, "Does that mean someone had to actually gain access to your computer to put that device on it?" Jim said that it did indeed mean that someone had to gain physical access to his computer. It made my skin crawl. Jim kept his computer in an office he had set up in a shed in the backyard of his house. Someone had to have gotten in there.
The technician put an alarm on the computer that was supposed to go off whenever the monitoring device was engaged. Jim said the alarm used to go off every time he had e-mail exchanges with certain people who were politically involved, people like me and Mark Crispin Miller.
Partly to shake off the tension of feeling like we were under surveillance, I used to joke openly about it in the e-mail and even write vicious insults to whoever might be monitoring it. This was a matter that was to be significant later.
Fortunate Son, Third Try
After Bush's installation as president was an accomplished fact, Soft Skull? managed to settle the slander lawsuit and Sander and Jim tried one more time to bring the book out. For the third edition Jim wanted me to write a postscript for the book. I was so honored to be allowed to be a part of the book I told him he was one of the best friends I had ever had. The book was scheduled to debut at the Book Expo America in Chicago June 1, 2001.
I met Jim and Sander in at the show in Chicago and we spent a couple of days together with some other Soft Skull people and the filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, who were shooting the film "Horns and Haloes" about Jim and Sander.
The BEA was the premier book publishing event of the year, with all the major publishers present. It was a frenetic, exciting time. Jim signed hundreds of books. Jim and Sander talked up the book to booksellers and media. We attended an awards ceremony where Jim won an award for Fortunate Son. We had a signing and discussion at Quimby's Bookstore, and attended a publisher's party or two. But the most significant event was the press conference Sander planned to debut the book.
Sander 's plan was to reveal Hatfield's sources for the cocaine allegations as part of the release of the book. It was his theory that Bush strategists knew about Hatfield's criminal record. They knew they could discredit him, so they set him up to blow the cocaine allegations out of the realm of mainstream journalism. The theory was more than plausible. It almost had an inevitability about it, knowing how the Bushes operate. Karl Rove, Bush's main brain, his chief strategist, actually worked for Richard Nixon, so he learned his game from the godfather of dirty tricks.
Whether it was really planned by the Bush camp or not, Hatfield's case did have the effect of giving Bush an inoculation against the drug allegations, and the looming specter of his dark past being revealed. After Hatfield was publicly skewered, no one ever went near the cocaine charges again. It was killed. Hatfield was a sacrificial lamb.
The reporters who showed up at the press conference ranged from disdainful to hostile. There didn't seem to be one sympathetic one. They all approached the situation from more or less the presupposition that Bush was essentially beyond reproach and that Hatfield was just a criminal pulling a scam.
Sander made the revelation of the sources with Jim out of the room, because Hatfield was standing by his commitment to never reveal his sources. In fact, Sander only revealed two of the three, both political operatives. Sander's logic was that the sources had played dirty and it was no longer necessary to honor the pledge of secrecy.
When Jim saw that he confronted a hostile audience, his edginess came out. He became defensive and the dialogue became antagonistic.
When the conference broke up, the reporters mingled and I could tell the coverage would not be good. Their hostility, and the let-down of the press conference left me feeling depleted. I dreaded the thought that the White House would get calls for confirmation or denial of Sander's claim. Now Soft Skull had openly affronted the White House -- Karl Rove the evil genius himself. Sander seemed elated at the idea of "shaking up the White House." I found the prospect terrifying.
Jim and I went to find a place where we could drink a beer. Jim bought us two each and we sat at a little wooden table. As crushed as I felt, I could barely begin to fathom what he must have been going through. Now on top of writing the defiant book about the Bushes, he had effectively double-crossed Karl Rove by naming him as a source. Even though it was Sander who made the revelation, in effect Jim had made the sources public. It was Jim's promise to maintain anonymity. Now the promise was broken. Or if you take the position of Jim's opponents and say it was just a fabrication, it was still just as much of an affront to Rove and Bush.
Where do you hide from the Bush administration? He had little in terms of a support system. Even at his job working for WalMart, he was under threat of being pushed out because of the controversy over the book. "Let's not have any more headlines, okay Jim?" his employer had told him.
As we drank our beers together I realized these may be the last few moments of safety before the White House would hear that this punk writer had accused close Bush allies of betraying family secrets. The thought of it made me want to leap out of my own skin. What was there to protect this man? I asked myself. And me too. I was aiding and abetting his cause. It was my cause too. They could crush us like bugs.
Jim was at that moment a beaten man. He had been through so much already and now he was bracing for another round. He spoke in vague terms about all the nightmares that were waiting for him back in Arkansas when our little weekend fling was over. He seemed devoid of hope. I knew he had to be afraid of what was coming next, but he seemed more resigned than panicked.
Sitting dejectedly across the table from me, he was the most vulnerable person I had ever seen. His balding head looked as fragile as an eggshell. His human form, his organic construction seemed so delicate. He was a mere mortal who had taken on the task of a superman, to single-handedly take on the power of the White House, the most ruthless political gangsters in the world.
He reached across the table and put his hand on my arm and said in his Arkansas drawl, "Remember when you said I was one of the best friends you ever had? Well, the feeling is mutual, buddy."
I knew that I would have to stand behind him, no matter what happened, but what could I do if the White House-CIA crowd decided to make an example of Jim? He looked at me and a plea flashed across his face, cutting through the stoic recognition of the inexorability of his fate. I felt that I was looking into the eyes of a condemned man.
The reports from the press conference ranged from dismissive to savage, except the alternative online publication Buzzflash.com. It was the only one who still felt like George W.'s lies were a more important issue than Hatfield's criminal past.
Jim seemed genuinely surprised at the virulence of the reaction from the Bush camp to what he saw as a fair biography. He said he suspected there was something in the book besides the cocaine conviction that "made them crazy," and made them go to such lengths to suppress it. "I don't know what it is about this book, but they sure don't want it out there," he said in his melodic drawl.
That phrase has often come back to me as the extreme events of the Bush years have unfolded. As time went on, that statement seemed to gain veracity and weight, and I often wonder what it was all together that concerned them so.
It may have been the bin Laden connection. The book reports that James Bath, the American representative of Osama bin Laden's brother Salem had invested $50,000 in baby Bush's oil company Arbusto. In light of the events that transpired since Jim's death, I suspect that may have been part of the book they most wanted suppressed. When any of us, including Hatfield read that part before Sept. 11, 2001, it had a very different meaning from what it has now.
Jim thought there may be other things that would emerge when two elements were put together in a different way than they had been before. That was essentially what had happened with the story of the cocaine bust. In a sense it had been between the lines, if one could have been able to perceive it.
Before the information about the 1972 drug bust surfaced, Jim said he couldn't make any sense of the period in George Junior's life when he had worked in an inner-city youth program. Why would the young, rich, hedonistic playboy suddenly stop his pursuit of pleasure and go to work in a youth center? Then when Salon printed the story about the cocaine in 1972 that was expunged from his record on the condition that he perform some community service, it suddenly made sense.
Jim suspected there were other such scandals hidden between the lines of the book. The Bush family history is so packed with crime, sleazy dealings, covert acts and assassinations, there are surely a multitude of unseemly acts hidden just under the surface of any record of the events of their lives.
Those scandals must stick out like sore thumbs to those who knew about them and knew how the disparate elements fit together. Only those who knew how to put two and two together could have figured it out. That was Jim's theory then. He didn't know what that thing was, but he figured there must be something. He died before he could figure it out. Which brings me back to the strange circumstances of his death.
The Final Mysteries
After the conference I went back home and Jim planned to stay in Chicago a few days where his wife was going to join him. The trip to Chicago had broken the rhythm of our e-mail correspondence and it didn't resume immediately because Jim stayed in Chicago.
We later resumed e-mail communications, though not as frequent as before. We had a couple of phone conversations in which he seemed to be alluding to problems, but not really talking about them. Then one day I got an e-mail from his wife saying that he had had a breakdown and gone into rehab for alcoholism. He tried to drink himself to death, she said. But he was doing much better, though he would not able to e-mail from the hospital. I reassured myself that he was recovering and waited for a time when he would be back home and we would resume our communications. We slipped out of touch for the first time since we had first made contact.
Then one morning I got an e-mail that was, like many I received, an article in a newspaper. But this one said, "Author of Bush biography commits suicide." It took a long instant to figure out what I was reading. It was so surreal to approach the death of a friend from that cold point of view of a news story. I felt like I was choking on my own heart. I couldn't believe it. It was that merciless finality of death. There would be no more chances to help Jim.
A number of his friends exchanged e-mails that weekend, and as we grieved together online, we also shared disturbing suspicions of foul play. After the first article announcing his death, there were other articles saying that he had been arrested the day before his death on a credit card fraud charge.
The articles said he was charged on July 17 with "financial identity fraud," for trying to get a credit card in someone else's name. Police had confiscated his computer and given him 24 hours to tidy up his affairs then turn himself in. Instead of turning himself in, he rented a hotel room, took two kinds of prescription drugs, drank a fifth of Gin and died.
Because he believed his computer was monitored I was extremely suspicious of claims that Jim had committed a credit card fraud using that computer, as was reported in the papers when his death was reported.
I couldn't believe that he would conduct a credit card scam using the computer he had told me was definitely bugged. It didn't jibe with things I knew about him. There was too much of a risk of getting caught. He was so afraid of getting busted for violating the terms of his parole. If he were caught even for the most minimal violation of his parole, he would have been sent back to prison. He only had 18 months left on parole. He loved his wife and baby girl Haley, who was not yet two years old.
He was scared to death that his parole board would revoke his parole and send him back to Texas to prison, where he thought he would be killed. They could make it look like a prison fight, thereby they could discredit him and eliminate him at the same time.
In the aftermath of his death, one of his friends had said he had told her of his fear that he would be framed on a bogus charge, sent to prison and killed. He had said he would never give them that satisfaction. He wouldn't let them take him alive.
Later I got hold of the police documents to try to answer some of these questions for myself. Some questions were answered. Many things remain a mystery.
The collection of documents leaves little doubt that he killed himself. His wife verified that the notes are in his handwriting. The documents about the credit card charge, on the other hand, establish only the bare minimum of a circumstantial case against him. They don't rule out doubts. The case relies mostly on the accusations of his former partner and fellow prison inmate George Burt. The documents mention Jim's embezzlement conviction, but make no mention of the fact that Burt was also an inmate when he and Jim met.
The detective contacted one P.J. Lenzi at MBNA who is said to have called George Burt to check up on the application. The report says Lenzi was suspicious about the application, but doesn't give any reason for the suspicion. It's an important omission if you are trying to rule out the possibility of a frame up.
Looking at the pile of documents I experienced my own personal docu-drama. The strange, stunted language of the police reports and the medieval language of the legal documents submerges you instantly into a strange, dark, archaic world. The arrest warrant begins, "Comes now Detective Don Batchelder of the Bentonville Police Department and under oath doth state: ..."
The police report of the property that was confiscated from Jim's office doesn't show anything that ties him unmistakably to the crime. They took a page from an address book showing Burt's address and phone number, which is no surprise since they were partners on a couple of book projects. There's a tax return for Omega Publishing, Jim's company and the name used to apply for the credit card. That doesn't establish that Jim and not Burt applied for the card. There are remnants of a letter that apparently received a GetSmart Visa card. It probably is the alleged card, but there is room for "reasonable doubt." It doesn't strictly rule out an attempt to frame him. When you are dealing with the Bush-CIA-Texas mob, it's hard to rule out anything entirely.
There is no mention of anything found in the computer that was confiscated, though it was the first item mentioned in the application for a search warrant. In any case, I was only looking at some documents, not the presentation of the case itself, which probably would have filled in the blanks. There won't be a court case now, of course, and Jim will rest, whether in peace or not, who knows? Perhaps he did try to pull off the hopeless crime, though it's hard to feature it.
It was eerie indeed looking at the documents that surrounded his death. They take you right into that Days Inn with him, with the housekeeper who went into the room that morning and found him on the bed.
He had checked in at 11:30 the night before and had been friendly and joking, according to the lady who checked him in. He was "pleasant and smiling" and "made conversation and had no visible signs of distress," she said.
The housekeeper saw the "do not disturb sign" for too long. She tried knocking, calling. She tried the key, the deadbolt was on. She got a master key for the deadbolt, and found the inside latch was still in place. She called for the general manager and an area supervisor and went back in. They saw Jim's body, already cold and stiff, in a tee shirt and boxer shorts. They called the police. There was a quart of Gorgon's Gin and a quart of Tropicana "fruit juice" purchased that night. The receipt for them was there on the table by the bed.
The room was "chilly, dark and neat," according to the woman who found him. She had brought the general manager when she found that the deadbolt and the safety latch were on the door.
Under his arm he had a photograph of himself with his wife and holding his baby daughter. You can tell he and his wife are beaming, especially his wife. But strangely, the Xerox is high contrast and the faces have all been lost in black shadows, turned into darkness. The expressions can still be discerned from the highlighted cheeks and temples. The radiance somehow shines through the low definition images.
Next to him was also a Fisher-Price toy slate on which he had scrawled "I LOVE MY FAMILY" followed by a squiggly line. God knows at what stage of the game he wrote that, and what he was thinking and feeling at the time. There is a Xerox of the slate, with a stylus connected by a cord. And there was an elaborate series of notes he left. There were two in separate envelopes for his wife, marked "this one first" and "second". There were a couple of other notes friends and friends of his wife. One thanked a the couple that introduced him to his wife.
One letter to his wife was a four-page explanation of why he was doing what he was doing, a deeply emotional cry of desperate love to her. It's mind-blowing and heart-ripping at the same time. It's just so damn hard to grasp the fact that he was writing his last letter to his wife just as he was ending his own life. It's nearly as hard for me to understand as it is to understand the suicide bombings of the World Trade Center.
Then there are other notes, almost afterthoughts. He directs her about where to have his funeral, whom to have officiating and whom to have as pall bearers. He tells her about which credit cards she will need to deal with. The ones in his name, they can't get her for, he says. He tells her she will be better off without him. He would rather his daughter have no one than a father she is afraid of or ashamed of. He tells her he is complex and deceitful, but "no matter what anyone tells you, I was a good man who got caught up in bad circumstances."
"You'll be okay, my love. I wanted to grow old with you and walk my daughter down the aisle, but it's not going to happen....
"Just know, my love, that I tried to be the best father for 21 months and I love you dearly. But there is no other way. Now you can finally raise your head in this town and blame it all on me... Go on, marry a guy with some bucks and raise my daughter with love and security -- financial... as long as he is good to my Haley.
"Well the tears are blurring my vision. I must go; take my pills and exit.
"I'm not going to complain or whine. I brought all this on myself. It's been all downhill since Oct. '99 and this day was my destiny...."
It's so crazy and heartbreaking to think of him writing those tender words and then committing his last act, to destroy himself. He must have lay there for a while awake before the drugs overcame him. Maybe that was when he wrote on the slate. How strange to make such an exit.
And yet, his alternative, going back to prison, disgracing his family but not being able to free them of the burden of his life. It was a terrible juncture to come to. But there is something courageous and resolute in his acting the way he did.
For me, there is a deep personal loss, the loss of a friendship I thought would go on and on. There is the loss to the world of the good writing he could have produced. I was angry at him too, for taking himself away so irrevocably. And there will always be the questions laden with guilt over whether I did all I could have to help him hang in there so he could stay around to see the fruits of what he did. To see his book have an impact on the world, to produce the other books that were in him, and to see his baby girl grow up. As it is, we are left with a legendary figure, a tragic character who rose up out of the depths, only to be dashed back down again by the fates.