|THE DRUG QUESTION|
August 20, 1999
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TERENCE SMITH: It is the question the media will not stop asking.
DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC: Another day when topic A among reporters is the topic Mr. Bush would like least to discuss: The question of whether the Republican front-runner ever used illegal drugs.
TERENCE SMITH: Since George W. Bush entered the Presidential race in June, he has been quizzed repeatedly about possible illegal drug use, especially cocaine. He quickly developed a stock response.
GEORGE W. BUSH: What I'm going to tell people is that 20-30 years ago I made mistakes.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I've made mistakes, 20 or 30 years ago. But I've learned from my mistakes.
|The question that won't go away|
TERENCE SMITH: There is no evidence that Bush has ever dabbled in drugs, but the Republican front-runner has directly addressed other personal issues. He has acknowledged years of drinking and said that he gave up alcohol at age 40. He has also volunteered that he has been faithful to his wife, Laura, during their 22 years of marriage.
GEORGE W. BUSH: She is the best decision I ever made in my life. She is the mother of our twins. I love her a lot.
TERENCE SMITH: But it's not just the media who are pressing personal issues. Senate democratic leader Tom Daschle complained to reporters earlier this month that Bush is receiving lenient treatment in comparison to previous Presidential candidates. "The media in general seems to be respecting far more his lack of willingness to discuss his past than you have been with others." Basically, he said 'I've made mistakes' and the media seems to accept that."
TERENCE SMITH: The subject reemerged last weekend, just prior to the Iowa straw poll, when Bush was questioned on CNN by Syndicated Columnist Rowland Evans.
ROWLAND EVANS, CNN: The big question for Governor George W. Bush of Texas: Governor, there are and have been rumors, lots of them, of your possible past use of hard drugs. Sir, is it not now in your interest to tell us flatly if these rumors are or are not true?
GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, really, I -- when I first got going in this campaign, I started hearing about these ridiculous rumors. I made my mind up at that point in time not to chase every single rumor that had been floated about me. The game of trying to force me to prove a negative and to chase down unsubstantiated, ugly rumors has got to end. And so therefore, I'm going to end it.
TERENCE SMITH: But instead of quelling the issue, Bush's comments re-ignited it on last Sunday's talk shows.
TIM RUSSERT, NBC: Why doesn't he simply just give a straight answer to drug use?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Should he answer, though, that question whether or not he ever used cocaine?
GEORGE WILL, ABC: Do you think he should he answer that question?
TERENCE SMITH: Fellow Republican candidate Gary Bauer defended the media on the grounds that cocaine use is illegal.
GARY BAUER: I don't see how any of us can say that it's inappropriate for you and your profession to ask us whether we have ever committed a felony. I mean, cocaine use in most places is a felony.
|The media feeding frenzy|
TERENCE SMITH: As the week wore on, Bush had no luck kicking the media's drug dependence. At an Austin press conference Wednesday, he blew up at reporters.
GEORGE W. BUSH: You know what happens. Somebody floats a rumor and that causes you to ask a question. And that's the game in American politics, I refuse to play it. That is a game, and you just fell for the trap and I refuse to play. You need to ask other people who's planting the rumors.
CARL LEUBSDORF, Dallas Morning News: This may peak for a while but it's always possible that someone will come forward with some new information.
TERENCE SMITH: Carl Leubsdorf is the Washington Bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
CARL LEUBSDORF: Part of the problem here is that he helped create the trap -- because as soon as he became selective in answering questions about his private life, talking openly about drinking too much but refusing to answer drug questions, he opened himself up to questions: Why was he being selective? Why -- was he trying to hide something? Why was he refusing to answer certain questions when he answered others?
TERENCE SMITH: And do journalists believe that the questions should be asked in the first place?
CARL LEUBSDORF: Printing rumors is not responsible but asking relevant questions or asking questions and printing the answers and saying 'well, he answered this one, and he didn't answer that one. He's inconsistent.' That's perfectly all right with me.
TERENCE SMITH: But media critics, such as Professor Larry Sabato of
the University of
PROFESSOR LARRY SABATO: The important point here is that no news organization has presented a single piece of proof or evidence that Bush has ever used cocaine. Now, if they have that proof or evidence, they ought to print or air it. Otherwise, they ought to stop asking the question.
TERENCE SMITH: Later in the day Wednesday, Leubsdorf's paper reframed the question, asking if the Texas governor could respond to a query routinely posed by the FBI during background investigations for a federal security clearance. Surprisingly, the candidate broke his self-imposed silence and volunteered a response: "As I understand it, the current form asks the question, did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?" -- he told the Dallas Morning News -- "and I will be glad to answer that. And the answer is no." That response prompted further probing of Bush yesterday in Roanoke, Virginia. This time, he took the issue one step further:
GEORGE W. BUSH: Not only could I have passed the background check -- the standards applied in today's White House, I could have passed the background check of standards applied on the most stringent conditions when my dad was President of the United States, a 15-year period.
TERENCE SMITH: The Bush campaign later clarified that the governor meant that he had been drug-free since 1974, when he was 28 years old. Possibly sensing that he had opened the door too wide to this line of inquiry, the Texas Governor once again tried to shut it down during a second campaign stop yesterday in Ohio.
DAVID BLOOM, MSNBC: You, sir, have said that these are legitimate questions based upon the duration of that background check, so given that, can you tell us whether or not you've used illegal drugs since your 18th birthday and if so, what drugs?
GEORGE W. BUSH: I've told the American people all I'm going to tell them -- is that I made mistakes -- years ago. And I've learned from those mistakes.
TERENCE SMITH: That series of responses provoked a full-fledged media feeding frenzy on television last night.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS: There were more questions today everywhere he went.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC: The question that will not go away: is there illegal drug use in his past?
TERENCE SMITH: Drug use was still a topic on the campaign trail in Akron, Ohio, today when Bush offered some advice for baby boomer parents discussing their past with their children.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I think the baby boomer parents ought to say I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made. And I'd like to share some wisdom with you, and that is: Don't use drugs.
TERENCE SMITH: But the larger questions: Do the voters care? do they consider past drug use disqualifying for a future President? And what are the political consequences for the Republican front-runner? Those remain to be answered.
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