Bush, cocaine, and character

The great lesson of the Clinton presidency, we're told time and time again, is that character counts. A politician's moral fiber inevitably affects the way that person does his or her job. This lesson is often misunderstood when it is applied to William Jefferson Clinton - and now the misunderstanding is stretching into George W. Bush's alleged cocaine use.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike Mr. Clinton and the most serious ones have nothing to do with an intern or a deposition - they have to do with the way he governs. Likewise, with Mr. Bush, there's something in the issue of his alleged drug use that's more serious than whether he did or didn't.

If you judge a politician by extramarital affairs, cronyism or (gasp!) lying, you will find yourself spending a lot of election days at home. The true test of politicians is how they govern, the choices they make on the job that they were elected to do.

On this count, Clinton has had his share of shortcomings as many have pointed out. Throughout his presidency - from gays in the military to welfare reform - Clinton's biggest problem has been his need to do the politically expedient thing, to turn to polls or to "triangulate" to make decisions.

When people talk about "Clinton fatigue," this is what they mean. They are tired of the man with no core who will say or do anything to please. If Clinton fatigue were actually about living a clean life, how could George W., who admits to a wild youth, be ahead of the churchgoing Gary Bauer or war hero John McCain in the polls?

But over the last two weeks, as the allegations about George W. and cocaine use have spread, we have again missed the point. George W., by dancing around the question - addressing it sometimes, avoiding it at others - has made the issue a real one in the 2000 campaign, but not in the way we think.

When the governor decried the game of "gotcha" that journalists play with issues like this, he was completely correct. After a series of non-denials about using the drug, his final answer was that he may or may not have done it, but if he did, it was at least 25 years ago.

Fair enough. Drug experimentation a quarter century ago should not disqualify a person from a job today. And if he rose above his problems to become a presidential contender, all the better.

There is a real question still in play, however - a true Clinton/character question. In 1997, as governor of Texas, George W. authorized judges to give prison time to those possessing less than one gram of cocaine. Already people have jumped on him for the apparent hypocrisy of his actions, perhaps most notably Stuart Taylor in this week's Newsweek. But there is an even bigger issue here, an issue about how George W. governs and makes decisions.

If, needed, Bush has experimented with cocaine and fought through his difficulties, then he is in a unique position to call for changes to drug laws - in fact, he has a moral responsibility to make sure those who have used drugs have the opportunity to get back on their feet with treatment programs. And even if he never used cocaine, one would think an admitted "heavy drinker" who quit in 1986 would have learned similar lessons.

Of course, George W.'s supporters argue that the governor was simply following the nationwide trend of tougher drug laws. Furthermore, they say, advocating for treatment in a hang-'em-high state like Texas is a sure political loser.

It's hard to argue with any of that. The only problem is George W., who has had little to say about issues, has been running a campaign centered on his personal integrity - the no-bull man from Texas who'll look you straight in the eye and give you the truth, no polling needed.

All of this taken together doesn't mean George W. is unfit for office. What it does mean is George W. is A) a mean-spirited hypocrite or B) (gasp!) another politician who makes decisions based on political expediency. I'm guessing it's B. Four more years!

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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