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26 August 1999

Our current howler (part III): Dope on Daschle

Synopsis: Did Daschle direct the press to trash Bush? As usual, there’s 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 CrossTalk—or NewsChat; or UpFront; we're not sure—Gregory got ready to flash the words on the screen that would show us the hopeful's predicament:

GREGORY: Remember—Governor 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:

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. Daschle said.

"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 statement—in which Gigot describes Daschle's state of mind about reporters' states of mind—shows the absurdity to which even sensible writers can be driven when we start discussing personal conduct.

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 facts—and 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 us—they'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 which ones.

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 on Democrats.

"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 Nicholson—script-writer of the farm chores debacle—isn't being allowed to moonlight as a columnist again.