By sunrise on Oct. 26, the losses were already steep for St. Martin’s Press and its Thomas Dunne Books imprint. By then, the house had lost 90,000 books’ worth of sunk costs and a good deal of face after it was revealed a few days earlier that J.H. Hatfield, author of Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President , was a convicted criminal. Mr. Hatfield’s book, in a tacked-on, questionably sourced afterword, alleged that Mr. Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972 and that his father pulled strings to have the offense “expunged” from the record.
During past scandals, St. Martin’s has taken an “it-will-blow-over” attitude. But first thing on the morning of Oct. 26, St. Martin’s editor in chief, Robert B. Wallace, resigned.
Mr. Wallace wasn’t falling on his sword, he was getting out of Dodge. First, he personally informed John Sargent, president of St. Martin’s parent company, Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, and Sally Richardson, president and publisher of St. Martin’s trade division. Then the 48-year-old Mr. Wallace sent out a press release from a copy store fax which read, ” Fortunate Son was acquired, edited and published by Thomas Dunne Books, an autonomous imprint within St. Martin’s Press, over which neither I nor anyone on my staff has oversight or control … As I do not in any way wish to have my name associated with Fortunate Son or future books published by Thomas Dunne Books over which I have no control, I am regretfully compelled to tender my resignation … effective immediately.”
Indeed, Mr. Dunne reports directly to Ms. Richardson, and she did not bring Mr. Wallace into the loop on the Hatfield book. Three years ago, Thomas Dunne Books weathered a similar scandal when it canceled a biography of Joseph Goebbels after it was revealed that the author was a Holocaust revisionist.
After learning about Mr. Hatfield’s past, St. Martin’s recalled 70,000 copies of Fortunate Son (plus 20,000 at the warehouse). Recalls are pretty rare in the industry, and, for a week, the house did damage control as the media coverage mounted. But what has puzzled people in the industry is how St. Martin’s managed to publish such a biography by such an author, and why the book’s serious allegations didn’t raise red flags inside the publishing house. Those questions in some ways boiled down to, “What about Bob?” But Mr. Wallace’s resignation and press release would appear to have given him safe distance from the imbroglio.
Mr. Wallace, who became St. Martin’s editor on April 1, 1997, has solid journalistic roots: He was editor of the Denver Post , executive editor of Rolling Stone , senior editor at Newsweek and a senior producer of ABC’s PrimeTime Live . Not the kind of editor likely to let a possibly libelous cocaine accusation slip into print without some additional effort devoted to tracking down the credibility of author and accusation.
But apparently St. Martin’s didn’t sound any alarms, even given that the Bush cocaine allegations showed up not in the main text, but in the book’s afterword, which was shoehorned in just five weeks before the book was published.
The alarms weren’t far off. After the Dallas Morning News broke the story of Mr. Hatfield’s felonious past on Oct. 21, Ms. Richardson sent out a company wide e-mail which said that the book was signed “based on a strong proposal from a previously published author from a reputable New York agent with whom we’ve done a lot of business.” The e-mail also stated that a “highly credentialed attorney deemed [the book] well-sourced.”
Ms. Richardson wrote that after St. Martin’s received a telephone call from a Dallas reporter on Oct. 20, asking if Mr. Hatfield was convicted of attempted murder in 1988, the book’s publication process was suspended. “The moment we started to hear that there were possible problems, we acted quickly, decisively and honorably,” she wrote. Striking a blithe note, she wrote, “We’ve knowingly published felons in the past, and I’m sure will again (think Peltier and Bunker).” She was referring to Leonard Peltier, who wrote Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance , and Edward Bunker, who wrote Education of a Felon .
But the fallout hasn’t been overly jolly.
Mr. Hatfield came to St. Martin’s in November 1998: A young editor with the Thomas Dunne imprint, Barry Neville, signed Mr. Hatfield to write a biography of George W. Bush for $25,000. Mr. Hatfield’s previous books included The Ultimate Unauthorized X-Cyclopedia: The Definitive Reference Guide to the X-Files and Lost in Space: The Ultimate Trivia Challenge for the Classic TV Series , both published by Kensington Publishing Corporation.
But in St. Martin’s eyes, “This man was presented to us as a columnist, a journalist, a person with reputation in Texas and Arkansas,” said Thomas Dunne.
Mr. Hatfield’s agent is Laura Tucker, then at the literary agency Richard Curtis Associates Inc.; she recently left to join Vigliano Associates L.L.P. Ms. Tucker did not return telephone calls.
Asked why Mr. Hatfield did not publish his latest book with Kensington, editor in chief Paul Dinas declined comment, and said that Mr. Hatfield “is involved in litigation” with the house.
Mr. Hatfield had been under contract to write another biography for St. Martin’s, of an unknown subject, a book that presumably will not be published by the house. The author, who became unreachable a day into his scheduled publicity tour, spoke out from the Drudge Report on Oct. 24, and said he was the victim of a “smear campaign and character assassination efforts” who had been “forced to send my wife and less-than-a-month-old baby girl into hiding.”
While Mr. Dunne told the on-line magazine Salon that the book was fact-checked, in book publishing parlance that may simply mean that spellings and dates were verified. It does not necessarily mean that Mr. Hatfield was asked to back up his allegations with information on where the alleged arrest was made, the name of the arresting officer and so forth. The lawyer who vetted the book for St. Martin’s was Celeste Phillips, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Levine, Sullivan & Koch. Ms. Phillips, a specialist in publishing law, declined to comment. Her colleague Michael D. Sullivan told The Observer , “Our position is that we did a legal review,” he said. “It would not be appropriate to discuss what was done and what wasn’t done. That’s attorney-client privilege.”
Asked if he or anyone at St. Martin’s had asked the author about his background, Mr. Dunne said, “I don’t know if anybody did. I leave that to the lawyers.”
While formal background checks do not usually figure into a publishing house’s acquisition process, “Experienced editors have strong bullshit detectors,” said Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal. “Even though you have your lawyers checking for actionable material, a good nonfiction editor comes to a controversial book with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Asked about his own role, or nonrole, in the book’s publication, Mr. Wallace said, “It’s a Tom Dunne book, and I have no oversight.”
Mr. Dunne said, of Mr. Wallace, “As far I knew, he knew all about [the book]. It was in the catalogue to start with. Bob and I have the best relationship, but he never said a word that I recall, ever, positive or negative on the book. He wasn’t involved with its publication.”
“Bob Wallace was not involved in any way, shape or form,” echoed St. Martin’s publicity director John Murphy.
Hours after Mr. Wallace resigned, Ms. Richardson issued a press release asserting the opposite: “Several weeks prior to the book’s publication, Bob Wallace read the afterword and advised on various aspects of the book’s launch. At no time prior to its release did he object to the afterword or the publication of the book.”
Mr. Dunne said he was the one who decided to push the publication date of Mr. Hatfield’s book up to this October, instead of January 2000. That was done to compete with First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty , by Dallas Morning News reporter Bill Minutaglio, published by the Times Books imprint of Random House Inc., on Oct. 15.
In the wake of St. Martin’s recall of the book, Random House is scrambling to distinguish its book. “We want to make sure there’s no confusion in the mind of readers,” said assistant publicity director Will Weisser.
So, how does a book like Fortunate Son make it into bookstores?
“It has to do with intensifying pressure of the bottom line,” said New York University media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller. “There are structural reasons this is happening. They rushed this book out to compete with the Random House book and to grab headlines. And that’s no way to run a publishing company.”
“Looking at this under a microscope, everyone’s aghast,” said one agent who handles biographies. “On the other hand, the quickie bio is part of New York publishing. If an agent says a guy can make the deadline …”
Three more Bush books are coming soon: Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush , by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, from Random House; W: The Rise, Fall and Rise of the Bush Dynasty , by a former George magazine editor, Elizabeth Mitchell, due from Hyperion Books; and the official tome on the Texas governor, A Charge to Keep , ghost-written by his communications director Karen P. Hughes, due from William Morrow and Company.
As St. Martin’s pulps Mr. Hatfield’s book, the stench is sure to have a reach. “This sort of thing is not good for newspapers, publishers, books,” said Simon & Schuster’s Mr. Rosenthal. “Over many years, I’ve edited Hunter S. Thompson, whose motto has long been, If you call somebody a pigfucker, you damn well better be able to produce the pig.”