FAIR GAME: Barack Obama’s youthful cocaine use is certainly worthy of press scrutiny, but so too are George W. Bush’s non-denials that he ever partook.
If you follow presidential politics, you know that Barack Obama’s past use of illegal drugs is suddenly a topic of great interest. In an article published on Wednesday, January 3, Washington Post staffer Lois Romano reported that Obama — in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: a Story of Race and Inheritance — admitted to using cocaine as a young man. In fact, as Romano noted in her lead, Obama claimed he’d barely escaped a life of chronic drug abuse. “Junkie. Pothead,” Obama wrote. “That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.”
Quite a revelation, coming from a rising Democratic star and prospective 2008 presidential candidate. But the most interesting part of the story didn’t actually involve Obama directly. Toward the middle of her piece, Romano offered some historical context for Obama’s confession. Here’s how she did it:
“Two decades ago, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was forced to withdraw as a nominee for the Supreme Court after reports surfaced that he had used marijuana while he was a law professor. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton thought marijuana use could be enough of a liability in 1992 that he felt compelled to say he had not inhaled. And President Bush has managed to deflect endless gossip about his past by acknowledging that he had an ‘irresponsible’ youth but offering no details.”
What’s really striking here, of course, is the vague and dismissive reference to George W. Bush. You don’t take “endless gossip” seriously; it’s something to dismiss with a roll of the eyes or a contemptuous shrug. What’s more, the subject of this so-called gossip is, in Romano’s account, left to the reader’s imagination. Did people accuse Bush of smoking pot, perhaps? Of using mushrooms? Of tipping cows?
In fact, the question behind the “endless gossip” was whether Bush had ever used cocaine. And there was — and is — real reason to think he had.
In the summer of 1999, long-standing rumors that Bush had used coke in the past were a real drag on his campaign, made all the worse by the flimsy non-denials he issued when pressed on the subject. (Way back in 1994, when Bush was running against Ann Richards for the Texas governorship, the Houston Chronicle asked if he’d ever used illegal drugs. His answer: “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What’s the relevance?”) In July 1999, during an interview with Romano and another Post reporter, Bush was asked why he wouldn’t simply deny using coke. “I’m not going to talk about what I did years ago,” he replied. Early the next month, after then–South Dakota Democratic senator Tom Daschle complained that the press wasn’t investigating Bush’s past aggressively enough, the New York Daily News asked a dozen presidential candidates if they’d ever used cocaine. Bush was the only one who didn’t answer the question.
By mid August 1999, Bush seemed to be losing control of the story. On August 18 — asked by a Dallas Morning News reporter if he’d require appointees in a hypothetical Bush administration to answer standard background-check questions on drug use — Bush offered this bizarre reply: “As I understand it, the current form asks the question, ‘Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?’ and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is ‘no.’ ” One day later, Bush complicated matters still further by saying he could have passed the 15-year-background checks used during his father’s presidency, which, his campaign spokesperson explained, meant he hadn’t used illegal drugs since 1974. “[I] made mistakes and . . . I have learned from my mistakes,” Bush concluded; if people weren’t satisfied, they could “go find somebody else to vote for.”
Taken in aggregate, Bush’s responses were just as unconvincing as Clinton’s infamous I-never-inhaled line. And despite the Bush campaign’s attempts to cast them as part of a principled stand against dirty politics, they weren’t working. The New York Times called on Bush to come clean, noting that he’d already politicized the personal by touting his marital fidelity — unprompted — in 1998. (He’d also spoken openly about his history of alcohol abuse.) Republican moralist Bill Bennett, too, urged Bush to be candid. “Bush has essentially admitted to something,” USA Today noted in an editorial. “But he refuses to say what, creating a political paradox.”