When drug-czar nominee John Walters goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, his greatest adversary may end up being himself.
Long a cutting-edge conservative voice for "get tough" drug policies and controversial theories on youth crime and race, he comes on the scene at a time when the country is rethinking the so-called "drug war."
As prisons bulge with nonviolent drug offenders, draining state budgets, drug use continues to climb. And many people are tiring of it. Through statewide referendums and national polls, they're signaling that they want more resources for treatment and prevention - a course that in the past, Mr. Walters belittled.
As a result, he's spent this summer busily courting leaders in the drug-treatment and prevention communities, trying to convince them that he can lead a "balanced" approach to the nation's drug problem.
His efforts have produced mixed results. Some opponents have only hardened, fearing a "foxhole conversion" that will last only through his confirmation hearing. But others have been impressed with his intellect and openness.
"I found it refreshing that he's so willing to talk to his opponents," says Jennifer Collier of the Legal Action Center, a drug-treatment and -prevention advocacy group in Washington. "He made it clear that treatment and prevention are issues he's willing to pursue seriously for the president and the nation."
As is customary for a nominee before a hearing, Walters is not speaking to the press. But he is sending signals. The latest came last week, when the White House announced it was nominating Andrea Barthwell, one of the nation's leading treatment advocates, to be Walter's deputy director for "demand reduction" - jargon for drug treatment.
Among other things, Dr. Barthwell is president of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a board member of the American Methadone Treatment Association. That move helped solidify support for Walters in some unusual quarters.
"I'm sure the president consulted with John Walters," says Mark Parrino, president of the American Methadone Treatment Association in New York. "That's a reflection to me that we will be dealing with a much more enlightened approach, which will include treatment. And I don't think I've been misled."
But Mr. Parrino says Walters is accountable for his "prior writings and speeches," which he admits might make "an observer wary." Last week, a coalition of civil rights, public-health, and drug-reform groups pointed to that controversial record and called on the Senate Judiciary Committee to closely scrutinize Walters during the hearings.
"He's been a leading hard-liner on this issue, one of the nation's main cheerleaders for more prisons, particularly with respect to drugs," says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal-justice-policy think tank in Washington.
From 1985 to 1989, Walters worked on drug policy as an assistant to William Bennett when Mr. Bennett was secretary of Education. When Bennett became drug czar under the elder President Bush, Walters went with him as chief of staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He stayed on until resigning in 1993, when he became an outspoken critic of the Clinton administration. At one point, according to former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, Walters said the country had plenty of drug treatment and questioned whether it worked. While supporting Walters now, McCaffrey still wants him held accountable for such statements.
In 1996, Walters raised more controversy in a book he co-authored called "Body Count." In it, he argues that a "false premise has emasculated the criminal justice system." The premise is that prisons' first purpose is to help rehabilitate criminals.
"We disagree. Strongly," Walters and his co-authors wrote. "The first purpose is moral, to exact a price for transgressing the rights of others."
That alarmed critics, but not as much as Walters's writings about what he called the "great urban myths of our time," which he described in an article for the Weekly Standard last spring. The "myths" are that "we are imprisoning too many people for merely possessing illegal drugs," that their sentences are too long and harsh, and that "the criminal-justice system is unjustly punishing young black men."
To others, those are not myths, but social realities that need to be addressed urgently and thoughtfully. "There is a great deal of racial disparity in how our drug laws are being implemented," says Hilary Shelton of the NAACP Washington bureau. "If you have such a cavalier attitude about this racial disparity and an insensitivity to treatment, it raises major concerns."
Mr. Shelton's organization has yet to take a stand on Walters's nomination. He and his colleagues are waiting to see how Walters handles the hearings.
Walters's supporters are optimistic. "I found him to be extremely reasonable - not just articulate and aware, but extremely balanced," says Parrino.
But Walters's opponents are unmoved. "He's going to try to come off as reformed and balanced in the hearings," says Mr. Schiraldi, "but I don't think any rational assessment of this man puts him a balanced position."