'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)
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
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
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
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?
Should reporters be asking Bush questions about the allegation
that he used cocaine?
Should a candidate have to answer questions about whether he used
cocaine in the past?
From a telephone poll of 942 adult Americans taken for TIME/CNN
on Aug. 19 by Yankelovich Partners, Inc. Sampling error is [+/-]
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
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
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.
James Carney and Michael Duffy/Washington and Dick Thompson with
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: August 30, 1999