The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

  Publishing Dangers Seen in Bush Book

By Katherine Roth
Associated Press Writer
Friday, Oct. 29, 1999; 1:28 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK –– The recent scandal over the author of a controversial George W. Bush biography wasn't the first involving a writer with a sketchy past.

It may not be the last, either.

"If someone really wants to fool you, they can. You pretty much take at face value that an author is who he says he is," Sally Richardson, president and publisher of St. Martin's Press, said Thursday.

Her firm published – then hastily withdrew – James Howard Hatfield's biography of Bush, "Fortunate Son."

After publication, it was revealed Hatfield had a criminal past. St. Martin's recalled all 70,000 copies of the book and suspended sales, shipment and promotion.

The flap follows similar incidents at other publishing houses.

The German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag two weeks ago withdrew the hardcover version of "Fragments" from bookstores following concerns that author Binjamin Wilkomirski had fabricated his story of living through the Holocaust.

And Atlantic Monthly Press of Grove/Atlantic Inc. last month canceled distribution and destroyed 7,500 copies of the new biography "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones," after author James Mackay was found to have been accused of plagiarism in Scotland.

Hatfield's background included a 1988 conviction for hiring someone to plant a bomb under a co-worker's car.

"Nobody has a process for checking previously published authors to see if they are car bombers," said David Kaye, head of St. Martin's legal division.

"Lawyers do not check authors' backgrounds. They go through the manuscript line by line and check the manuscript," Kaye said. "I'm not sure anyone thinks we have a way to check the 2,000 authors we sign up every year.

"I'm not sure how many car bombers there are who can write this well, but we are looking into all aspects of this."

Richardson and Kaye both said Hatfield's credibility wasn't questioned because he had a reputable agent, wrote several other books and his manuscript passed muster with editors and lawyers.

The book's most controversial material alleges that Bush, now Texas governor and a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, was arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession but only did community service after his father, President Bush, intervened. The author cited anonymous sources.

The younger Bush has called the allegation "science fiction" and "totally ridiculous."

Richardson said Hatfield's book "was edited fine. It went through a legal review fine. He had a lot of sources for lots of the book."

Had Hatfield been honest about his past, the book probably would have gone forward, Richardson said.

"It's the fact that he was lying about (his past) that raised our hackles," she said. "It was the coverup that bothered us."

Hatfield's literary agent, Richard Curtis, said agents typically check an author's publication credits and other materials, but not criminal records.

"There are no morals clauses in any book contract that I know of," said Curtis, former president of the Association of Authors' Representatives. "It's an industry based on trust and 99.999 percent of the time it's a positive experience."

Robert Wallace, the editor in chief of St. Martin's Press who resigned because he did not want to be associated with the Bush biography, said the fundamental check in the editing process should be between the editor and the author.

"I think it's important that editors ... think a little more like journalists when they're looking at an author," said Wallace, who has taken a job as editorial director at Talk magazine. "You have to get a strong sense that there's no conflict of interest and no hidden agenda."

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar