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24 August 1999

Our current howler (part I): Silly season

Synopsis: The burst of excitement about Bush and drugs got the better of sensible Paul Gigot.

Commentary by Rowland Evans, Gov. George W. Bush
Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields, CNN, 8/14/99

Commentary by Karen Hughes
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 8/15/99

Commentary by Karen Hughes
Meet the Press, NBC, 8/15/99

Snow Job: Bush Tries Not to Inhale
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 8/20/99

Here at THE HOWLER, we generally advise against judging public figures on personal conduct. And we think that the Clinton years have shown, on balance, how unwise that approach tends to be. Can you judge how a hopeful will serve in office based on his marital conduct, or his past use of drugs? Doubtful. You can judge how a hopeful will likely serve based on how he has served in the past. But that involves researching a gubernatorial record—which is dull—versus gossiping about drugs, which is extremely exciting. Sorry—we think the press, for the most part, is drawn to drugs because it's another excuse not to cover real news.

But when the Hotline's Howard Mortman called us up, demanding we condemn the press for drug questions, we had to disappoint the tempestuous editor, who is so accustomed to getting his way. That bully-boy stuff seems to work at the Hotline, where Mortman's word has the force of law. But on the sprawling campus of DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, in the rolling foothills of Baltimore County's horse country, we carefully sift and weigh what we hear, no matter its source or its provenance. And while we would not have raised the drug question ourselves, we think there are rational justifications for the press to do so (more tomorrow). On balance, we think this question take us down the wrong road. But to us, drug inquiries don't approach the level of conduct that we describe as a full-scale press "gong show."

But if the press corps is going to raise the question, it should at least go about its task logically. We take it as obvious, by this time, that Governor Bush has acknowledged using drugs. But some in the press are still willing to pretend that Governor Bush is on a moral crusade, trying to clean up the "gotcha" system by refusing to answer drug questions.

The suggestion makes almost no sense. Bush says he won't discuss what he may have done wrong, because it may make young people think it's OK. But he has widely discussed the fact that he drank heavily until he was forty years old. To believe Bush didn't do drugs is to believe the following: on principle, he won't discuss the thing he didn't do, while discussing quite freely the thing that he did. We take it as obvious that this makes no sense. But some in the press pretend otherwise.

Then there's the matter of the governor's approach when he is asked about drugs. When Bush was questioned by Rowland Evans, a standard exchange occurred:

EVANS: The "Big Question" for Gov. George W. Bush, Jr., 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 that the rumors are or are not true?

GOV. BUSH: You know, Rollie, when I first got started on this campaign I started hearing about these ridiculous rumors. I made my mind up at that time not to chase every single rumor that had been floated about me...It's time for some politician to stand up and say, "Enough is enough of this." The game of trying to force me to prove a negative and to chase down unsubstantiated ugly rumors has got to end.

The notion that Bush is being asked to prove he didn't do drugs is part of the campaign's standard lore. Here is Bush spokesperson Karen Hughes, appearing on Fox News Sunday:

HUGHES: He is not going to play the Washington, D.C. game where they try to make you disprove a negative.

The same day, on Meet the Press:

HUGHES: Tim, he's not going to play the Washington, D.C. game of trying to disprove a negative. You know the game...where you're asked if, one rumor gets floated and then another rumor gets floated. And you're constantly chasing rumors.

But, despite the artless questioning of the occasional host, Bush is not being asked to "disprove a rumor." He is being asked to answer a question, one which every presidential candidate has been asked since the 1988 campaign. The 1988 admissions by candidates Gore and Babbitt resulted from The Question. In 1992, Candidate Clinton's famous statement that he didn't inhale resulted from the same process. Every other candidate in the present race has been asked the question which Bush has been asked. No one asked them to prove their case when they said that they didn't use drugs.

But interviewers have reacted to the Bush campaign dodge like gorillas befuddled by flash cubes. We have yet to see an interlocutor make the distinction: the governor is merely being asked to answer a question, not to provide some sort of proof. But then, all sense and logic go out the window when we start pursuing these "personal" questions. Read this surprising passage from Paul Gigot, in which the normally sensible Journal scribe gives his take on what has been happening:

GIGOT (paragraph 1): George W. should have seen this coming.

(2) If you're going to run for president as the anti-Clinton, you should know that the Democrats and their media friends will do whatever it takes to make you look Clintonian.

But what the media have done is ask Gov. Bush the same question they asked Clinton in 1992 (upgraded to include cocaine). They've asked him the same question they've asked Gore and Bradley. And it's hardly Democrats who have driven the question; many conservatives have said Bush should answer the question, and many Democrats have said he should not. The truth is, the governor should have seen the question coming, because the question has been standard for a decade.

But Gigot sees a dread double standard:

GIGOT (8): Republicans are right that there's a double standard here. Marijuana use was fatal to Douglas Ginsberg's Supreme Court nomination but not to Mr. Clinton, who was also never seriously probed about cocaine use...

(9) But this is a fact of modern political life. Republicans can't get away with the same things Democrats can...

It is so depressing to see Gigot write this way that we will skip discussion of the well-known "Ginsburg difference." But the fact is, marijuana use has never been "fatal" to a White House campaign, and would not be for Gov. Bush. The fact is, Bush is trying to "get away with" something that no Democrat hopeful has ever tried; he is trying to "get away with" not answering the question. We would prefer that it not have been asked. But the way to react to the fact that it has is not by churning out nonsense like this, singing tales of persecution and double standards.

How irrational do questions like this tend to make us? Read where Gigot goes next:

GIGOT (10): Which is why Mr. Bush's cocaine non-answer is so puzzling, not as a matter of principle but as simple politics. In one sense it's refreshing to see a politician try to draw a line on personal privacy. But then he has to be consistent about all private matters. Mr. Bush has already been willing to say he never cheated on his wife, so why not say whether he ever broke the drug laws?

One possible answer, of course, is obvious, but it doesn't seem to have crossed Gigot's mind. Gigot does go on to consider the possibility that Bush has actually used drugs in the past. But passages as odd as the one just quoted almost never appear in Gigot's writing.

But that's where it goes when we visit these questions, as the Clinton years have proven. Once we start hashing out personal conduct, there's no saying where the nonsense can end. No, the press has never made a candidate "prove a negative," or reply to specific rumors with no complainant. But during the Clinton years, it got worse than that. A recent example comes next.


Tomorrow: Luscious Gennifer Flowers accuses Clinton of murder and drug use—and of ruining her brilliant career.