Klein, of course, is the author of the new book "The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House." Hatfield, now dead and forgotten, wrote a book about George W. Bush, "Fortunate Son," during the 2000 presidential contest.
Klein's book, which debuted in early May, has been mostly ignored by large media organizations (although not by the book-buying public, which has put it at the top of the best-seller list). Hatfield's book, on the other hand, rocked a presidential campaign -- before crashing and burning on its own dishonesty and its author's criminal record.
"Fortunate Son" attracted attention because it reported that Bush, then the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, had been arrested for possessing cocaine when he was 26 years old. Hatfield wrote that Bush's father, the future President George H.W. Bush, used his influence to cover up the incident.
"George W. was arrested for possession of cocaine in 1972, but due to his father's connections, the entire record was expunged by a state judge whom the elder Bush helped get elected," Hatfield quoted a "confidential source" as saying.
George W. Bush denied the story, as did George H.W. Bush.
Still, even though nobody had ever heard of Hatfield, for some reporters the revelation seemed final proof of a rumor that media types had been kicking around -- and sometimes publishing -- since the beginning of Bush's campaign. The New York Times, which had looked for evidence of cocaine before, looked again.
"Reporters for The New York Times, which received an advance copy of Mr. Hatfield's book last week, spent several days looking for evidence that might corroborate his account," wrote Times reporter Frank Bruni, now a liberal columnist for the paper, on Oct. 22, 1999. "But they did not find any, and the newspaper did not publish anything about the claim."
Lots of other news organizations did. When both Bushes denied the story, The Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Post, Los Angeles Times and many others reported Hatfield's revelation.
The New York Times also found a way to pass on the accusation without passing on the accusation; the paper published several articles about the controversy over the book, even if it did not directly quote the book itself. Times readers certainly got the idea.
The party ended when the Dallas Morning News reported Hatfield was "a felon on parole, convicted in Dallas of hiring a hit man for a failed attempt to kill his employer with a car bomb in 1987." The publisher of "Fortunate Son," St. Martin's Press, quickly withdrew the book.
But nobody could withdraw the story. For a while, the tale that Bush had been arrested for cocaine possession -- even though it was told by an unknown author who was also a felon who apparently made the whole thing up -- was the talk of the 2000 presidential race. (Hatfield committed suicide in 2001.)
Fast-forward to today. Klein's book reports that in the spring of 2008, in the middle of the presidential campaign and in the heat of the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermons, a very close friend of Barack Obama's offered Wright a payoff if Wright would remain silent until after the November election.
The source of the story is Jeremiah Wright himself. Wright told it, in his own words, in a nearly three-hour recorded interview with Klein. (The author gave the audio of the entire interview to me, as well as to other reporters who asked.)
Unlike the media storm over "Fortunate Son," the Wright revelation has attracted little comment in the press. The Associated Press and most of those outlets that talked about Bush and cocaine? They've had little or nothing to say about Jeremiah Wright and alleged payoffs.
The New York Times has published just one piece about Klein's book, a scathing review that asserts that Klein -- a former editor of the New York Times Magazine -- is the real "amateur" in the story. Of the Wright revelation, the Times said: "Any biographical subject has bitter ex-friends and associates. And if they feel snubbed enough, they will talk."
The Obama campaign says Klein's book has no credibility. And other critics say Klein's previous books have contained anonymous, sensational and unverified revelations that should make readers skeptical about the Wright story, too. But assume for a moment that Klein has never written a trustworthy word in his life. What to make of what the Rev. Wright said, on the record?
And speaking of anonymous, sensational and unverified revelations, there was a time, not too long ago, when many journalists found them quite newsworthy.
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