“You have to answer the question. It won’t go away.” — Reverend Jesse Jackson
The subject? George W. Bush. The “question (that) won’t go away”? Bush’s alleged cocaine use. Meet Reverend Jesse “Zero-Tolerance” Jackson, born-again Drug Czar. Jackson feels that Bush should come clean and directly respond to rumors about cocaine use. At first, Bush refused to answer any such questions. But, after prodding, he essentially denied using drugs within the last 25 years.
Does Reverend Jackson recall the mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry, caught on videotape, smoking crack? After a jail stint, Barry brazenly announced his candidacy to recapture his office. During that campaign, Jackson taped messages on Barry’s behalf, “He knows hope! He knows fear! He knows hardship! He knows championship! His spirit has never surrendered.” And where were the “zero-tolerance” commentators when Clinton White House staffers, because of previous drug use, failed to get permanent security clearances?
In July 1996, the Investor’s Business Daily reported, “To grant security passes to some recent drug users, the White House overruled the Secret Service. Even when crack cocaine showed up in staffers’ FBI reports, the Clinton team issued passes.” And, in March 1994, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Last week, Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers, acknowledged that she and more than 100 other White House staffers had failed to obtain permanent White House passes,” including, apparently, the White House personnel chief. Why not? According to The Washington Times, background checks disclosed use of “illegal drugs, convictions of drug offenses, alcoholism, and failure to pay federal or state income taxes.”
Back then, drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, said, “No Americans should be precluded from serving their country in any position so long as they now reject all illicit drug use.” Presumably, then, Bush’s recent remarks should satisfy the drug czar: “I have learned from the mistakes I may or may not have made, and I’d like to share some wisdom with you: Don’t do drugs.”
Quite simply, the media did not pursue the far stronger allegations of Clinton cocaine use with the intensity shown in the case of George W. Bush.
Several people have claimed that Bill Clinton used cocaine, including Gennifer Flowers, his former mistress. And, in 1984, an Arkansas police detective recorded Clinton’s brother, Roger, doing coke, and saying, “I’ve got to get some for my brother. He’s got a nose like a Hoover vacuum cleaner.” Unlike in Clinton’s case, no one, to date, claims to have witnessed Bush doing coke.
Yet the first direct question about Clinton’s prior drug use didn’t occur until a television debate against former California Governor Jerry Brown.
After Clinton’s denial, Brown lashed into the questioner, “Why don’t you lay off this stuff? What you did ten or twenty years ago is not really relevant.”
During the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, polls consistently asked Americans their opinion of Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Yet during Watergate, polls did not ask public sentiment about Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, or his successor, Leon Jaworski. When questioned why polls asked about Ken Starr, Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said, “As the situation unfolds, and as the story continues to develop, we look at different aspects of public opinion. It’s how the news cycle works. Our role is to measure public opinion based on how the story unfolds.”
But, a Fox News poll found that only 17 percent of Americans felt that cocaine use disqualifies a candidate, and 72 percent said they would forgive a candidate’s prior cocaine use. How, then, does “public opinion” on Bush’s alleged cocaine use become the “question that won’t go away”?
Consider this. A Freedom Forum poll conducted a survey of 139 Washington, D.C., reporters and bureau chiefs. In 1992, 89 percent of these journalists voted for Bill Clinton vs. 43 percent of the nation’s voters. Only 7 percent voted for George Bush. Ninety-one percent call themselves either liberal or moderate, with only 2 percent as self-described “conservatives,” and, only 4 percent are registered Republicans.
Despite what many think, reporters remain, at the end of the day, human beings. And human nature and common sense suggest that reporters are likely softer on people they like and agree with, and harder on people they don’t.
When, and under what circumstances, should journalists ask a candidate about “private matters”? Reporters must weigh the relevance, credibility, and seriousness of any allegations against the public’s respect for a candidate’s privacy. This is a difficult task. What is not difficult, however, is to ask for a little consistency. Please.