If I had the good fortune to be born to a wealthy family, was charming, good-looking, unpretentious, and unafraid of exploiting my families’ extensive business and political connections, I might run for president too.
That’s what George W Bush did. Along the way he partied his way through a number of intensely Ivy League schools, allegedly got arrested for cocaine possession, lost a lot of other people’s money while making a few million for himself, helped out on Pappy’s presidential campaigns (where he excelled at the crucial role of campaign hatchet man), and managed to get himself elected Governor of Texas. Twice. J.H. Hatfield’s biography Fortunate Son, chronicles W’s life thus far and does so in depressing detail.
There is an almost numbing repetition to the ebb and flow of W’s public life and the patterns are revealed rather early in Hatfield’s painstakingly researched book. W makes this crappy business decision, or treats this person poorly, or institutes this policy to screw this group of people, or has beneficial business relationships with this group of near-criminals, and he walks away from it all either wealthier or more politically influential. Fortune is repeatedly kind to W; not simply because of his family name and money, but because the right to lay claim to them opens up doors of influence and exemption that would be otherwise shut to those of equal charm and wiliness.
Perhaps he’s lucky or perhaps he’s brilliant but W was able to make millions for himself personally as he skillfully steered the companies he managed to the edge of a steep financial abyss. The pattern was always the same: some business man rich enough and shrewd enough to recognize the political benefits of bailing out a company chaired by the sitting President’s son bought out the company and gave W a nice little settlement package – and usually a salaried position – in the new and improved company. It happened three times in the mid- and late eighties and by the early 1990s Bush was wealthy enough to complete plan b of the family tradition: (a) make a few million, then (b), run for office.
But he put his political aspirations on hold temporarily (although not really, as we’ll see) to step into the one career he truly enjoyed: his stint as a managing partner of the Rangers baseball team. He loves baseball and his heart was in his work. He worked his heiny off to get a team of investors together to build a new stadium (albeit largely at public expense). Hatfield gives a reader the sense of how potent W’s charisma must be. People like him for a reason. He’s confident, charming, easy going, and fun to be around. He believed 100% in what he was doing and in the world of rich, baseball-loving, Texas white men, Bush was a smooth and skillful negotiator. The stadium got built – with much acclaim and to-doing. He also used his high profile position of management spokesman to go through the motions of launching a run for governor of Texas all the while denying he intended to run for governor of Texas. (W’s penchant for publicly declaring one thing and privately – hell, sometimes publicly – doing the exact opposite is a trusty political maneuver, one the current Bush administration still relies on.)
Shortly after this, W proceeded to unseat the wildly popular Governor of Texas, Ann Richards. This occurred in part because Ms. Richard’s was perhaps too witty and sassy for her own good during the campaign, and in part because W’s handlers severely limited his unscripted exposure to the media. The chapters that detail W’s time as governor of Texas give a sick sense of déjà vu. The pre-September 11 policies of the Bush White House are just leftovers served on a national scale. He’d done it all before in Texas. It was there he learned how to call himself a centrist and a compassionate conservative while never failing to ultimately stake out a position firmly on the right and one far less than compassionate.
What is most alarming about the book is that W doesn’t appear to have any idea what it is to be a public servant. He ran for governor twice and managed to finagle the Presidency as well, but one never quite gets the feeling that he’s doing it for the public good. He does it because he can. Because he has the money and family connections and the tenacity and political shrewdness to see it through. In the end, political power and influence is just a handy thing to have when it comes time to help one’s friends.
St. Martin’s Pressoriginally published Fortunate Son in 1999. The book was in its final proofing stages when a story about W’s 1973 cocaine arrest broke in Salon.com. St. Martin’s urged Hatfield to research and write up the cocaine story and they included it as an Afterward. Hatfield cited three sources who claimed that yes, indeed, W was arrested for possession in 1973, but a judge friend of his Daddy’s expunged it from JR’s record in exchange for three months of community service. (An event that allowed W during his presidential campaign to respond authoritatively to relentless press questions about drug use, “I have not used drugs since 1974.”) Problem was, none of these sources would say so on the record and there wasn’t time for Hatfield to dig up someone who would. St. Martin’s moved ahead as scheduled and the book was published with high expectations of best-sellerdom. Then reports that Hatfield was a convicted felon surfaced in a Dallas newspaper and the national press fixated on this factoid to the exclusion of all else. The general conclusion drawn was that a convicted felon wrote the book so the arrest story, of course, must be an unsubstantiated rumor. Sloppy logic of the classic media-frenzy kind, true, but the pressure from the media (with the Bush 2000 Campaign eagerly aiding and abetting) was sufficient to suck the spine from St. Martin’s.
Initially St. Martin’s defended the book. They said it was fact-checked (twice!) and all Hatfield’s sources were corroborated by other sources. Then, less than a week after it was published, St. Martin’s pulled all copies from bookstores and announced their promise to burn them. (You read that right: A major American publisher cheerfully promising to burn books.) Shortly after, in what is perhaps an indication that St. Martin’s isn’t truly a fascist organization, but rather, a capitalist one, the recalled copies were remaindered so as to recoup some losses. -Sara Isett (Soft Skull Press, 98 Suffolk St. #3A, New York, NY 10002)