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The Un-Making of the President
A documentary film chronicles the sad story of two men destroyed by their attempt to publish an unauthorized biography of George W. Bush

September 10, 2002

Sander Hicks

Sander Hicks shares the lessons he learned as publisher of the controversial Bush biography 'Fortunate Son'video link

Fortunate Son: The Making of a President was published in the fall of 1999, a year before the controversial U.S. election. It was supposed to raise questions, if not scandalize, the Texas governor who yearned to be president. Instead, it ultimately destroyed one man behind the book, and forced a career change for another.

Horns and Halos is a documentary version of the book, presenting not the struggles of a determined underground publisher, as the filmmakers expected at the beginning of shooting, but the pitiful and ultimately tragic descent of an author who has lost his reputation and his career.

In the publishing world, books like Fortunate Son are called "clip jobs." They are quickly assembled biographies that often go straight to paperback. Author James Hatfield decided to add more substance to his clip job, and did some investigations of his own. The results are found in a hastily written afterword, in which he alleged that George W. Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, but a judge, who was a friend of Bush Sr., wiped W's slate clean.

The book hit the stores in October, 1999. But when the publishers found out five days later that Hatfield had spent time in jail for conspiracy to commit murder, they yanked the book.

Enter maverick publisher and part-time punk musician Sander Hicks. He became convinced that the first publishers were too concerned with profits to recognize that the book's story needed to be told. He decides that his Soft Skull Publishers would take on the task of getting the book back into the living rooms of America.

"I was saying at the time: 'This book is worthy of publication. We're in campaign season, the American public needs to know the full story on this spoiled rich kid who never really succeeded at anything he ever did as a businessman, who dodged the draft to Vietnam," Hicks said on his visit to the Toronto International Film Festival.

"All the other Bush biographies are snow jobs, they're air-brushed. They're -- if I may be so bold to say -- they're propaganda For example, they don't deal with stuff like Prescott Bush, Bush's grandfather, working with funding the Nazis on Wall St. until 1942, when they were stopped by the federal government. He raised $50 million that went to Hitler's Third Reich," Hicks alleges.

But critics and conventional news organizations panned Hatfield's journalism as shoddy, accusing him of using sloppy footnotes and source listings. Hicks decided to ignore the criticism and push ahead with the book, perhaps because he wanted so much to expose Bush as a fraud.

The young publisher will now admit that, with the clear vision of hindsight, Hatfield's journalism techniques were probably less than ideal.

"I'm not going to sit here and say Hatfield was angelic or that he was infallible. But I will say that for the most part, the book is factual and nothing in it has ever been proven untrue," Hicks says. "But yes, questions were asked about how he sourced stuff."

With his haste to get the book to press and his ignorance of publishing law, Hicks dug the book and his publishing company deeper into trouble and soon found himself on the wrong end of a defamation lawsuit that ultimately cost him $15,000 US in legal bills. These days, the Hicks chalks it up to experience.

"This was trial by fire, it was an immersion for me. And I learned a lot. At times, I'm sure it was overwhelming," he says before pausing and adding, "The kid was in over his head a little bit."

Hicks will concede that, to a certain extent, both he and Hatfield may have let their egos run away from them. Both were so desperate for success and so broke, that they weren't prepared for the lawsuits, along with the personal and the professional attacks that re-publishing the book brought.

"Hatfield wanted to have a best-selling book. We also wanted a breakthrough book. I was sick of eating out of bean cans. We wanted to be put on the map. We wanted a best-seller, and it's funny: we got a best-seller. But we also got these huge legal bills."

As the legal battles wore on and their distributor refused to move copies of the book, it was Hatfield who eventually paid the cost. The film shows him growing visibly weary of having to defend both his journalistic ethics and his criminal past. As the cameras roll, he becomes more and more depressed with his failure at regaining both his personal and literary integrity. At one point in the film, Hatfield tells the camera he wishes he had "never, ever, ever" written the book.

Hicks eventually left the publishing company he founded, though he won't say precisely why. He now works in underground journalism, writing articles on topics like the Enron scandal for alternative websites. Fortunate Son is still available, but it never became the success that Hicks had hoped for. These days, the once nave publisher remains convinced he entered the project with the right intentions of liberating what he believed to be the truth.

"I definitely was playing to win. I thought we could keep Bush out of the White House. I had these dreams that we could contribute to the education of - or at least influence the choices of the American public, and give them the whole story on Bush. Because the American public isn't dumb -- just badly misinformed."

Wednesday, Sept. 11, 12 PM, Royal Ontario Museum

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