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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

'I've made mistakes...'

Bush says he's been drug-free for seven--no, 25 years. You got a problem with that?

By Nancy Gibbs

August 23, 1999
Web posted at: 10:41 a.m. EDT (1441 GMT)

TIME magazine

As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush has been adamant on the subject of drugs: Stay away from them; expect to go to jail if you're caught with them; and don't ask me whether I ever used them. While every other Republican candidate denied ever taking illegal drugs, Bush continued to hold to his line: "I've made mistakes in the past, and I've learned from my mistakes." Period. It was time, he said, for someone to put an end to the politics of personal destruction, and in the context of the past year, when America completed its excruciating graduate seminar in truth, character and privacy, he had history and public sentiment on his side. In a TIME/CNN poll last week, 84% of those surveyed didn't think youthful cocaine use should disqualify him from being President.

But on the heels of his Iowa victory, something suddenly snapped. At each press conference, Bush dropped another veil. First he said he could pass the White House background check that asks appointees whether they have used drugs in the past seven years. The next day it was up to 25 years. Even people who thought reporters had no business asking the questions were surprised by how Bush was answering them. By the end of the week, Bush allies wondered why he was giving so much oxygen to a story he needs to smother. It's not that they're suddenly worried he could lose; they just started wondering whether he'll be ready if he wins.

What he said

Bush's responses as they evolved through a difficult week

Somebody floats a rumor and it causes you to ask a question, and that's the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it. That is a game. You just fell for the trap ... [T]he people of America are sick and tired of this kind of politics. And I'm not participating.
Austin, Texas, news conference, Wednesday morning

I made some mistakes years ago, but I learned from my mistakes.
Baton Rouge, La., news conference, Wednesday afternoon

As I understand it, the current [FBI] form asks the question, 'Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is no.
Dallas Morning News, Thursday

Not only could I pass the background check and the standards applied to today's White House, but I could have passed the background check ... when my dad was President of the United States, a 15-year period.
Roanoke,Va., news conference, Thursday morning

I have told the American people all I'm going to tell them ... I don't want to send a signal to children that whatever I may have done is O.K.
Columbus, Ohio, news conference, Thursday afternoon

It was the first big public test of Bush's instincts and of his staff, and the results were pretty wobbly. On Wednesday morning in New Orleans, Sam Attlesey of the Dallas Morning News pulled Bush aside to ask him yet another drug question, this time about whether, as President, he could meet the same qualifications as the people he hired when it came to fbi background checks concerning illegal drug use. Bush was at first confused, and he gave his stock answer about not cataloging the sins of his distant past. Then he and his team piled into the motorcade to head for a fund raiser at the Fairmont Hotel.

But as Bush sat in his suite with his longtime friend and finance chairman Don Evans, finance director Jack Oliver and media adviser Mark McKinnon, he kept chewing on the question. The calls went out, to chief strategist Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes. It was one thing to refuse to talk about drugs--but this was about White House security and double standards. "Imagine the ad our opponents could make if we didn't answer the question," said an adviser. "'As President, George W. Bush would maintain a double standard when it comes to illegal drug use by White House employees--one for him and one for everybody else.'" And so they agreed that Bush should call Attlesey back and confirm that he would meet all the standards himself. Case closed.

It wasn't until after the New Orleans fund-raising dinner that night, as the entourage boarded a private jet for Roanoke, Va., that some advisers began to feel queasy. The logical follow-up question, they realized, would be,"What about during your father's Administration?" It was slowly dawning on them that the hole was just getting deeper. And that was even before checking the Dallas paper's website upon landing and seeing the nightmare headline: BUSH SAYS HE HASN'T USED DRUGS IN LAST SEVEN YEARS.

"Oh, my God!" groaned an adviser privately. Working by phone and e-mail, Bush and his top advisers weighed the options into the night. Bush decided he would have to move the boundary markers again. He'd volunteer that he could have passed even the 15-year background check in effect when his father was inaugurated in 1989. This would finally lay the story to rest, they imagined, if they stretched the drug-free zone all the way back to 1974, when he was 28. "It speaks to his life as a mature person," explained press secretary Mindy Tucker.

The Public Reaction

A TIME/CNN poll shows surprising tolerance

If Bush did use cocaine in his 20s, should that disqualify him from being President?

Yes11%
No84%

Should reporters be asking Bush questions about the allegation that he used cocaine?

Yes36%
No58%

Should a candidate have to answer questions about whether he used cocaine in the past?

 YesNo
August48%49%
June60%38%

From a telephone poll of 942 adult Americans taken for TIME/CNN on Aug. 19 by Yankelovich Partners, Inc. Sampling error is [+/-] 3.3%

Having acknowledged that questions about background checks were legitimate, Bush backed into yet another trap. When nbc's David Bloom noted that current White House appointees must list any drug use since their 18th birthday, Bush suddenly stopped answering and ducked back behind his stone wall. He'd admitted making mistakes; if voters didn't like that answer, he said, "they can go find somebody else to vote for. That's the wonderful thing about democracy."

By the end of the day Bush aides were calling their predicament a strategy. He has drawn the line, they said, marked out the statute of limitations, said he hasn't used drugs in 25 years. (If anyone proves he did use drugs after 1974, says an old Bush adviser, "he's cooked.") Pressing these charges when there is still no evidence to support them is just going to backfire on reporters, they argued, not without reason in light of the growing disgust with jugular journalism. But it was still a screwup, and in many private phone calls in and out of Austin, Bush loyalists admitted as much--just not to Bush. A long-distance ally says of the Austin staff, "No one's got the brains or b____ to go in and say, 'Governor, you are really, really hurting yourself.'"

What had some friends worried was that the story wasn't just about cocaine. Drugs and alcohol are, in the unchoreographed dance of candidate, reporters and voters, metaphors for something that actually matters: whether a candidate has the gravity and judgment to be President. This time last year, the country was practically screaming at Clinton to tell the grand jury the truth and all would be forgiven. Last week it wasn't just Bush's gleeful rivals who were saying he should confess any relevant sins. Well-meaning allies were telling the Governor the same thing and warning that the alternative was worse, damaging Bush's principal claim to the White House--the fact that he's not Bill Clinton.

Bush presents himself as a straight-talking Texan who does not mince words or parse meanings, does not run late or overeat or flirt with women not his wife.His biggest applause line is his vow to restore dignity and honor to the office. And so it was positively painful for friends to watch the Governor admitting that he made mistakes when he was younger but that "I don't want to send a signal to children that whatever I may have done is O.K." His nondenial was not as bad as Clinton's infamous "I never broke the laws of my country," but it was sung in the same key.

This is especially dangerous for a candidate whose spectacular early success in raising Republican hopes and cash owes more to who he is than to what he's done--and more specifically, to who his father is and what the Bush brand has come to mean. For many in the Governor's camp, the race is about restoring a moral bearing to politics, a return to the days when people (named Bush) who were groomed for high office brought credit and honor to it. Among Bush supporters there are the revenge camp, which wants to take back the White House from the Great Pretender, and the redemption camp--those who ran off with Clinton in 1992, lived to regret it and want to make amends. Both have placed their hopes in the son, and last week they were left shaking their head. As a longtime adviser put it, "Why replace one self-indulgent baby boomer with another, who's trading on his daddy's famous name?"

At his worst moments last week, Bush looked not so much like Clinton, who was re-elected, but like his father, who wasn't. George Sr. had an expression that went like this: If you're so damned smart, how come you aren't President of the United States? That cockiness surfaced like a genetic code in his son's handling of the drug questions. Even some aides who privately wished he would put the rumors to rest were convinced they'd be slapped down if they suggested it. "The lasting damage to Bush is not that now everyone thinks he did drugs," an adviser says. "No one cares about what you did 30 years ago. The lasting damage is the way he's reacted, showing his annoyance and anger. He's beginning to look like a guy with very thin skin. And the problem is that it's true--he does have very thin skin."

Happily for Bush, the only folks in an equally squirmy position were the reporters raising the questions. There was still not a shred of evidence of drug use. A lot of reporters wouldn't much like to answer these questions themselves. Voters have made it clear they don't care. In June, 60% of voters said they thought candidates should answer questions about cocaine use, but after last week's ruckus, less than half thought so. And when Bush argues that his answers are part of a principled fight to clean up the process, he is appealing to a palpable national longing.

Bush all but said the other candidates, with their instant denials and coy cooperation with the witch-hunts, were taking the easy way out. By answering any and all questions, they imply that nothing is out of bounds, not even questions about rumors of drug use from an unelected press corps that has its own skeletons. His approach was harder to pull off: raise the bar, create a zone of privacy, don't fall into the trap of trying to prove a negative. The problem is that Bush went about his nondisclosure selectively. In a political age when biography is destiny, Bush has not exactly clammed up on personal matters, detailing over time his history as a drinker, his religious conversion, his fidelity to his wife Laura. It amounts to saying that when it comes to electing a President, it is relevant whether he ever committed adultery but not whether he ever committed a felony.

It was certainly relevant to Shastan Cooke. The ninth-grader got to meet the Governor last week in Columbus, Ohio, at the welfare training center where he works. "Do well," the Governor said in a kind of blessing, before telling the crowd that it was time to say "Enough is enough." After Bush left, Cooke was asked whether it would matter if the Governor had ever done drugs. "It would make a difference," said the boy, who knew about what drug use had done to his neighborhood. "That's sending a message that you can do drugs and get away with it." And that's exactly the message Bush says he is determined to avoid.

--Reported by James Carney and Michael Duffy/Washington and Dick Thompson with Bush

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: August 30, 1999

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