No One Attacks Him with Impunity

Gabriel Shapiro

Long ago, in a time before the United States or the Bush dynasty, Plato said, “They deem him their worst enemy who tells the truth.” The “they” he is referring to is undefined, but perhaps it is the same “they” we refer to now, a collection of the powerful few perceived to be in control, including (but not limited to) the government. When in 1999 the unauthorized biography of President George W. Bush titled “Fortunate Son” was released, author J.H. Hatfield became the enemy. Now, after the election, after the fact, after Hatfield’s apparent suicide in July 2001, a film attempts to show the very human drama behind the act of telling. “Horns and Halos” is the story not so much of the content of the book, but of the struggle to make it available.

In the film, which has won numerous accolades and awards, co-directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky trace the strange path of “Fortunate Son.” They begin at the beginning, when Hatfield, biographer of such impressive subjects as “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Patrick Stewart, was originally approached to write a biography of then-Texas Gov. Bush, a Republican Party presidential candidate running against Arizona Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the last presidential primary. One of the claims made in the book becomes the center of short-lived media frenzy. That claim is that Bush had been arrested on charges of cocaine possession and later had his record expunged by a Texas judge as a favor to George Bush senior. This is where the problems for Hatfield and his publisher, St. Martins Press, began. St. Martins took the easy way out of the problem and recalled the book, vowing to burn any unsold copies, but for Hatfield, escaping the fallout from writing “Fortunate Son” would prove fatal.

After being published and recalled by St. Martins Press, the book was picked up by the independent underground publisher Soft Skull Press and plucky punk entrepreneur Sander Hicks. The ensuing roller coaster ride of interviews, accusations, counter-accusations, budget concerns and paranoia make up the body of “Horns and Halos.” The film provides a rare view into several behind-the-scenes worlds: independent publishing, book promotion and the personal trials of people who, by their exercise of their constitutional rights to free speech, are made persona non grata of the establishment.

In the United States, the only check to government power is a free, active and engaged press operating without fear of reprisal. If the press fails, under coercion, duress or co-opting, democracy fails with it. Hatfield’s allegations in the book were disputed less on the basis of their validity than on the basis of the author’s character. Hatfield was roundly attacked by the Bushes based on his criminal record, which, while loosely relevant, is not at issue. Also, it is ironic that the Bush camp would cry foul when Hatfield dug into the past of a public official, when their ammunition to deny Hatfield’s claims came from digging into the past of a private citizen. Why, if there were nothing to hide, if Bush were secure in his record, if the truth would exonerate him, would the truth be suppressed? If, in the United States, we are truly free, information should be available for the people to engage, evaluate and act upon as they see fit. Is it not odd that our current president attempted to prevent that very freedom of information?

“Horns and Halos,” unrated. Directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley. Showing Dec. 6-8 at the U Film Society, (612) 627-4430.

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]