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Publish or Perish: Idealistic publisher Sander Hicks (left) and author J.H. Hatfield took on the Bush and got burned.


Documentary 'Horns and Halos' shows that George W. Bush was a fortunate son and hapless author J.H. Hatfield was anything but

By Richard von Busack

THE PROBLEM with paranoia is that it never does the job nearly well enough. Horns and Halos, a documentary about a controversial book, its hapless author and its publisher, is enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone in the ink trade. You want your child to go to med school, and she says she wants to be a writer?--this is the film to take her to see.

The subject is a quick biography of George W. Bush, titled Fortunate Son. The book was intended to be a "clip job"--a work digesting newspaper clippings and rushed out in 1998 when it looked like Junior Bush was on the rise as a Republican candidate. The author, J.H. Hatfield, had previously assembled quickie unauthorized bios on Ewan McGregor and Patrick Stewart. What made this book different was the use of stories that Hatfield encountered providing evidence that George W. Bush had been arrested for cocaine and that his father had acted to have the arrest expunged from the police record.

So far, St. Martin's Press was happy. Then came the news, unearthed by Dallas Morning News reporter Pete Slover, that author Hatfield had served time for "solicitation of capital murder." This fact diminished Hatfield's credibility, according to St. Martin's, and they withdrew the book. At this point, Sander Hicks enters the picture. He was the head of Soft Skull Press, a part-time building superintendent and the lead singer in a punk-rock band called White Collar Crime.

Previously, Hicks had put out books from the Kinko's where he worked; now the budding publisher proposed to buy back Hatfield's book and put it out under his own imprimatur as an off-set edition.

Seeing this young, idealistic publisher, seeing his embrace of the title of "left-of-center, punk-rock flibbertigibbet," seeing, in short, his optimism, enthusiasm and sincerity is exactly like seeing a wandering teenager in a Friday the 13th movie. You think, oh brother, are you gonna get it.

Hicks and Hatfield are like escapees handcuffed to one another, as the law and its dogs bay around them. Directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley follow the looming trouble. On this coast, it's hard to imagine the actual controversy. Would Bush have done coke in 1972? Was there anyone who didn't?

The writer and the publisher try to stress this rumor as a character issue: "The cocaine stuff is just a metaphor," publisher Hicks insists, drawing a bridge of logical assumptions that's about as sturdy as a bridge in an Indiana Jones movie. They're claiming that a man who lies in small things would lie in big things. Unfortunately, that's the same gun that was turned upon Hatfield, a convicted felon who lied about his past.

It's hard to figure why the two directors didn't lay out exactly the circumstances of Hatfield's arrest and conviction. The author says that he's paid his debt to society, and surprisingly, the filmmakers leave it right there. Moreover, when Hatfield tells his side of the crime, in a newly written foreword for the second edition, he ends up sued for libel.

It's not just the pressure of the Bush machine that was enough to marginalize the book. Even Hicks' claim that all the biographies about Bush except Fortunate Sun soft-pedaled Bush is an exaggeration: what about Molly Ivins' book, Shrub?

In fact, the press was very helpful in its way. Hatfield went on 60 Minutes where, as reporter Slover notes, "You either have a black hat or a white hat." Hatfield wore a Jack Palance Stetson on the CBS TV show, but he got a sympathetic hearing on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now.

Media professor Mark Crispin Miller also rallies for Fortunate Son. But in the long run, Hatfield's own weaknesses and troubles keep Fortunate Son from being anything more than an underground sensation. Both the author and the punk-rock publisher have trouble keeping their ducks in a row, and this is how they get slammed by the law and the market.

As a cautionary tale, Horns and Halos is continually fascinating. It's a lean documentary with a nasty shock in the end. And by shock I don't mean the election of George W. Bush. The film takes in the inaugural, scanning the protests along the parade route in home-video footage and noting the piles of discarded protest signs in the drizzle.

Bush himself is last seen on a TV screen, with the camera zooming in his mouth--his smile going last, like the Cheshire cat. Bush's rise, greased by a media that liked his folksy style better than Gore's chilliness, wasn't about to be stopped by a mysterious coke arrest. It didn't stop him anymore than the more substantial matters: the SEC investigation for insider trading, his spotty military record or his viciousness in the Karla Faye Tucker case.

Since then, Bush has more serious problems anyway, being the president who cried wolf and suffering from "Deficit Attention Disorder," as The Onion sniped. Horns and Halos is less an exposé of Bush's own misdeeds and more a reminder that the free press isn't always free even if you own one.

Horns and Halos (Unrated; 90 min.), a documentary by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, opens Friday at the Towne Theatre in San Jose.

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From the August 28-September 3, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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