Horns and Halos
Bonfire of the venalities
by Charmie Gholson
Codirected by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, the 2002 documentary Horns and Halos focuses on the struggle of biographer Jim Hatfield and publisher Sander Hicks to republish and market the first unauthorized biography of George W. Bush. A drawling southern ex-con who had been writing fluffy life stories of movie stars, Hatfield thought he'd struck pay dirt with Fortunate Son. The "hard-hitting biography," first published in 1999 by St. Martin's Press, included some juicy details, mostly from undisclosed sources, about illegal dealings of the Bush family. Four days after its release, a Dallas Times reporter outed Hatfield as a felon, and the Bush family pressured St. Martin's to pull the book from stores. Although by then it had skyrocketed to number eight on Amazon's best-seller list, the publisher withdrew it from sale and burned the remaining copies. Hatfield's dreams collapsed, and his allegations about the Bushes disappeared.
Within weeks, Sander Hicks, a manic punk rocker and radical who at the time was president of Side Soft Skull Publishing, picked up the project. Hicks worked out of a cavelike building on New York's Lower East Side, where he was also a superintendent, and with the help of a former St. Martin's editor, the book went to press again in December 1999.
Through interviews with journalists and media critic Mark Crispin Miller, the film presents opposing views of Fortunate Son. Reporters question Hatfield's professionalism, and reviewers ignore the book, while Miller refers to it as a compelling guide to the Bush game plan for winning the presidency and says that it nicely profiles "the great glowering Nixon inside Bush as a dirty fighter." Legal reporter Catherine Crier suggests that Hatfield's sensational claim that Bush was arrested in 1972 for cocaine possession diverted attention from other, more serious charges he raises: illegal business dealings, insider trading, Dubya's draft dodging, and tampering with justice.
In a surreal moment, Hicks shows us George W. Bush's entire military file, obtained under the
Freedom of Information Act. Holding it up to the camera, he points out areas that could be construed as sensitive material and therefore have been blacked out including Bush's answer to the question "Are you willing to volunteer for duty overseas?" At the time, Bush was beating his drum on the campaign trail, insisting he had been willing to serve in Vietnam.
The idealistic Hicks is totally committed to Hatfield. "We're in this together. . . . I'm not gonna sell you down the line," he assures the writer. Together they struggle for over a year to get the book back onto the shelves and into public awareness. The camera follows them while they do media appearances, where Hatfield answers questions about his past and the sources he refuses to name. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to bring the book to mainstream attention, Hicks tells a group of incredulous reporters that Hatfield's sources for the cocaine allegations are senior Bush advisors Karl Rove and Clay Johnson.
With that easily disproved claim, the film takes a stunning and depressing turn. Hatfield himself contributed the phrase "horns and halos." For him, it sums up what makes a good biography the good and the bad. It also describes Hatfield himself, who sees himself as fighting the power of corporate media and of one of the nation's most prominent political families, but who ultimately must combat his own demons as well.
Horns and Halos plays at the Madstone Theaters Friday, June 27, through Thursday, July 3.
[Originally published in July, 2003.]