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Caveat lector

27 August 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Back to the basics

Synopsis: Why should we avoid judging hopefuls on drugs? It keeps us from topics that matter.

In denial...and bloodthirsty
Thomas Sowell, The Washington Times, 8/27/99

Answer the Question
William Bennett, The Wall Street Journal, 8/23/99

Are you tired of this topic yet? We'll be the first to admit that we are. Time devoted to Bush-on-drugs is time taken from substantive matters. For example, we show today how the press corps is sliding on the matter of projected budget surpluses (see "Fade to black," 8/27/99). This press corps needs every ounce of its focus and energy to get even basic stories right.

How bad does it get when the press is allowed to probe personal conduct? Read this passage from Thomas Sowell today in the Washington Times:

SOWELL: Behind all this is the notion that there is some parallel between what a young man may or may not have done as a private citizen and what an elected public official used his public office to do, both as governor and as president...There is colossal hypocrisy among those who tried to depict these felonies as merely President Clinton's private life and who now turn around and demand an accounting from a man who was in fact a private citizen during the period they are asking about.

But to whom is Sowell referring? Not surprisingly, he doesn't name any names. In the past ten days, press scrums have been filled with major Democrats saying it doesn't matter if Bush did cocaine. Many conservatives have said just the opposite. And William Bennett was frank enough to say this in the Wall Street Journal:

BENNETT: During the 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton was asked whether he had ever used drugs. He responded to the question with a thoroughly Clinonesque (that is, evasive) answer, and we drew conclusions from it. But at the time, I don't recall anyone claiming the question itself was inappropriate.

There may be more than one double standard around. But exciting stories about thrilling topics invite spinners like Sowell to tell favorite tales. In a press corps whose functioning is as primitive as ours, we're better served when we stick to public issues.

But the drug topic will surely be revisited in the next fifteen months. If it is, here are three spins that need major work:

  1. The double standard. Republicans have argued a double standard exists; they have compared the questions posed to Bush with the alleged failure to pursue Clinton on various charges. And they have argued, as Sowell does, that it's simply wrong to ask questions like this without a specific accusation.

    But as Bennett points out above, Candidate Clinton was asked about drugs in 1992 (repeatedly), just as Candidate Bush has been. In fact, every candidate since 1988 has been asked the illegal drug question. Amazingly, in all the discussion we've watched this past week, we haven't seen anyone make this simple point. Governor Bush has been asked the same sort of questions that have been standard in the last four White House cycles.

    Is there a double standard in the treatment of Bush's answer? We don't know. No one else, except for Bush, has ever refused to answer the question.

  2. No one cares. A CNN poll indicated that 84% of respondents said past use of cocaine wouldn't disqualify Bush. This has been widely taken to mean that the public doesn't care about drugs (see below).

    But in the same poll, 11% said cocaine use would disqualify Bush from the presidency. If Bush acknowledged past cocaine use, and 11% wrote him off on that basis, that would likely have a dispositive effect in a general election.

    By the way, it has been high comedy to watch the press corps try to paraphrase this simple polling question. Just on Monday night alone, we saw pundits say that 84% of respondents said they "don't care" (Sean Hannity), or that 84% said "it doesn't matter" (Norah O'Donnell), or that 84% said they "support Bush" on the matter (John Gibson). None of these formulations are even dimly accurate. Can you see why we would prefer to keep this free-interpreting group out of public figures' private lives?

  3. Nothing will stop the questions. We return to the overwrought Sowell:
    SOWELL: There is no reason to assume that Mr. Bush ever touched cocaine. But that is still no reason for him to deny the charges. Whether he did or did not, shedding a little blood in the water is not going to calm the sharks. Just the opposite. There is no stopping point in issuing denials of things for which nobody has produced a speck of evidence.

    Note Sowell's careful selection of words (he doesn't say there's no reason to "believe" Bush touched cocaine). Indeed, Sowell's basic point here is nothing but spin. There is no indication that, when candidates deny they have ever used drugs, the press corps then asks them more questions. When Gary Bauer denied use of illegal drugs, for example, there were no follow-up questions on any topic—though his answer surely would be revisited if contrary evidence emerged.

At THE HOWLER, we think this week has displayed the problems with judging public figures' private conduct. The press corps is simply overmatched by such exciting topics. This week alone, they have dragged Gennifer Flowers back out center stage, ignoring the absurdity of her recent performances (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/99). They are currently acquiescing in the invention of unexamined spin about Senator Daschle's press breakfast (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/99). In reporting the public's reaction to all this, the pundits can't even paraphrase a simple poll question. This press corps has since shown that it's barely able to report even simple policy matters. When we let them ride shotgun on exciting drug busts, we're in for a long bumpy ride.


Back to the basics: The press corps has its hands full with the basics. See "Fade to black," 8/27/99.