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
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
But the drug topic will surely be revisited in the next fifteen
months. If it is, here are three spins that need major work:
- 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.
- 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
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?
- Nothing will stop the questions. We return to the overwrought
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 topicthough his answer surely would be revisited if contrary
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.