26 August 1999
Our current howler (part III): Dope on Daschle
Synopsis: Did Daschle direct the press to trash Bush? As usual, theres no way to tell.
Commentary by David Gregory
CrossTalk, MSNBC, 8/19/99
Daschle urges media to go after Bush
Judy Holland, The Washington Times, 8/5/99
Snow Job: Bush Tries Not to Inhale
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 8/20/99
The Cocaine Question: Riding It Out...
Robert Novak, The Washington Post, 8/19/99
Who said what and why not?
Dan Thomasson, The Washington Times, 8/21/99
Recovered from his week of blubbering on the Kennedys' lawn,
David Gregory had a new assignment. Governor Bush had been asked
by David Bloom if he would discuss drug use back to age eighteen,
as was required of current White House job applicants. Hosting
CrossTalkor NewsChat; or UpFront; we're
not sureGregory got ready to flash the words on the screen that
would show us the hopeful's predicament:
GREGORY: RememberGovernor Bush said that he would pass a current
[White House] security background check. This is what it says
now, Sections 24 and 25
Gregory then flashed the following text on the screen. Calmly,
he read it aloud:
WHITE HOUSE SECURITY CLEARANCE FORM
SECTIONS #24 AND 25
Use of illegal drugs and drug activity/use of alcohol: Do not
limit your responses to these questions to the last seven years.
Instead, your answers must go back to your eighteenth birthday.
List and explain if you have ever abused any legal/prescription
drugs to the point of dependency. In addition, list any treatment
for drug abuse or alcohol abuse.
That was the full text Gregory displayed and read. He then
said, "So the question then is, going back to his eighteenth
birthday, did he use any illegal drugs?"
But of course, that isn't what the text said. The text said
the applicant had to revert to his eighteenth birthday in discussing
treatment for drug abuse (or abuse of legal or prescription
drugs to the point of dependency). Do White House applicants have
to discuss all use of illegal drugs back to age eighteen, or only
use which resulted in treatment? It was impossible to tell from
the text that Gregory flashed. And the next day, a variety of
newspapers presented a variety of explanations of what current
White House rules really said (see postscript).
Welcome to the Washington press corps, where the facts are
almost always in doubt. We still aren't sure if Bloom was right
in his characterization of White House procedures. The point was
just a minor point in the scramble to plumb The Dub on drugs.
But another point is still clouded in doubt, involving Senate
Minority Leader Tom Daschle. And this is a point that should be
resolved, since it will linger in the news for some time.
On August 5, the Washington Times reported that Senator Daschle
"challenged the news media yesterday to check out rumors
of cocaine use by Texas Gov. George W. Bush." The article
didn't say where Daschle had made the remarks, and it gave no
direct quote in which Daschle said that the media should pursue
Bush more aggressively. This was the closest it came:
HOLLAND: "The media in general seem to be respecting far
more his privacy and his lack of willingness to discuss his past
than you might have been with others," Mr. Daschle said.
But the article also quoted Daschle seeming to say that the
media have become too invasive:
HOLLAND: There appears to be "no holds barred" in
the media's pursuit of stories about political candidates, Mr.
"In many cases the media have been too invasive,"
he said. "There comes a time when people who are considering
public life should be held to a higher standard. But you can't
put it so high that it's impossible to achieve that level or propriety."
The Times published a letter from Daschle the next day, in
which Daschle denied that he had challenged the media to push
Bush on drugs. But it has quickly become standard GOP lore that
the recent questioning of Bush was provoked by Daschle. For example,
Paul Gigot made the claim in the column we critiqued on Tuesday:
GIGOT: [Bush] is the character candidate...Democrats know this
too, which is why Tom Daschle goaded the media to probe Mr. Bush's
cocaine use earlier this month. The normally super-cautious Senate
Democratic leader knows that if Mr. Bush can be cut down to Clinton's
moral size, Democrats can run on peace and prosperity and keep
the White House. He also knows many reporters don't mind exposing
someone else's drug use as a way of justifying their own.
The last statementin which Gigot describes Daschle's state
of mind about reporters' states of mindshows the absurdity to
which even sensible writers can be driven when we start discussing
But did the "normally super-cautious Senate Democratic
leader" really say to push Bush? The day before Gigot's column
appeared, Robert Novak mentioned the matter, and his column raised
some doubt about what the "normally prudent Senate Democratic
leader" had actually told the reporters. Citing Judy Holland's
story and Daschle's letter, Novak said that "neither version
is totally accurate." Two days later, syndicated columnist
Dan Thomasson challenged Holland's story more directly:
THOMASSON: [T]he fact is [Daschle's] challenge really didn't
occur...Several of us who had attended the breakfast were surprised
by the stories depicting Mr. Daschle as having thrown down the
gauntlet to go after Mr. Bush on the drug question. His remarks
were actually a small philosophical discourse on how far the press
should go in seeking answers to questions that might have no bearing
on one's qualifications for office.
Thomasson quoted Daschle extensively, ending with this passage:
THOMASSON: Mr. Daschle then was asked whether it is legitimate
to question someone running for the presidency about possible
cocaine usage. He responded it was, but he added that the person
also had a right not to respond.
Asked whether refusal to respond would raise a legitimate question
in the mind of voters, Mr. Daschle said: "I don't think it
necessarily would...I think you have to make a judgment as to how
important that question is in the overall scheme of whether this
person is competent to hold office or not. I frankly don't think
it is a competency question."
That hardly seems a challenge to do anything. In fact, it seems
at times that Mr. Daschle clearly is defending Mr. Bush's right
to not answer questions that he, Mr. Bush, argues are not relevant
to his qualifications to become president. Mr. Daschle obviously
agrees, to some extent.
It is this kind of misinterpretation of remarks that heightens
public distrust of the media.
It seems clear from the columns of Novak and Thomasson that
tapes or transcripts exist from this breakfast. But, if the past
is any guide, there will be little effort to let the public know
exactly what Daschle said. This press corps is careless in nailing
down factsand is almost always ready to go along when exciting
new elements are added to narratives. The idea that Daschle goaded
the press corps makes this story more exciting. If the past is
any guide, there will be little effort to explore the facts, which
might make the story less fun.
We don't know what Tom Daschle said. We don't know what Daschle
thinks reporters think about drugs. But a press corps that can't
nail down the facts on security checks should be kept away from
character probes. In our view, we're better off if they're restricted
to explaining policy matters. Trust usthey'll have their hands
full doing that.
If you don't like current White House rules, just read another
paper: On August 20, the press corps really had a time explaining
those White House regulations. Neither USA Today nor the Wall
Street Journal explicitly stated what current rules are, although
readers may have concluded from their reports that current applicants
must account for seven years. But R.W. Apple, in the New York
Times, said this: "White House spokesman Barry Toiv said
that prospective Clinton Administration employees were asked to
disclose illegal drug use for the last seven years, or since age
18, whichever was less." In the Post, Dan Balz said that
"senior government officials" in the Clinton administration
"must reveal drug use back to age 18." The Chicago Tribune
took David Gregory's approach; it said one thing about the rules,
while quoting text which said something else. We're sure that
some or all of these reports are correct. We're just not sure
Where do stories come from: It looks like the RNC's fantasy-friendly
Jim Nicholson is constructing our narratives again. Here's the
closing passage of Ralph Z. Hallow's article in the Washington
Times on August 20:
HALLOW: National Republican leaders sought to place the blame
"This all started with [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Daschle,
and everybody knows he answers to goon central at the White House..."
said Michael Collins, Republican National Committee spokesman.
Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said on Aug. 4 that the
cocaine question is "a legitimate question."
We couldn't help noticing that Gigot and Novak used almost
identical language in framing the Daschle story (see above). We
can only hope that Nicholsonscript-writer of the farm chores
debacleisn't being allowed to moonlight as a columnist again.