IN THE first week of August 1974, when I was a speech writer for President Richard Nixon, I walked into the office of the White House physician, next door to the White House. As I asked for some allergy medicine, I noticed a surgical-steel tray laden with filled syringes, their needles dripping. Next to them was a vial of a potent chlorpromazine tranquilizer.
I knew the corpsman who was loading the tray and I asked him what it was all about. He said it was for someone "over there," jerking his thumb toward the White House. He would not tell me who was getting shots of tranquilizers in those final days of the administration. He said only that it was "someone who needs to have his head clear, and won't."
This call comes to mind with the news that President Bush has been taking powerful benzodiazepene sedation in the form of the prescription drug Halcion when he travels. It was also revealed over a year ago that the secretary of state, James A. Baker, had been taking Halcion when he went to conferences overseas.
These are scary tidings. Halcion is the most terrifying drug I have ever used, and its effects are incalculably more frightening when they are at work on the president. I have been taking prescription tranquilizers since 1966. I have used almost every kind imaginable: phenothiazines, chlorpromazines and others I cannot recall. But Halcion, a chemical first cousin to the tranquilizer Xanax, is in a class by itself for mind-altering side effects. It is not a classic sedative, which basically just slows things down. No, benzodiazepenes are described by Halcion's maker, the Upjohn Co., as "anxiolytics," meaning they literally cut the anxiety in your brain.
When Halcion hits you, it's as if an angel of the Lord appears in your bedroom and tells you that nothing is important, that everything you were worried about is happening on Mars and that nirvana, Lethe and the warm arms of mother are all waiting for you. People who have used heroin tell me Halcion is better than heroin for making bad thoughts simply disappear.
The flip side is that in my experience, as in the cases of many men and women I talk with every day in a program that helps people get off drugs, Halcion took up residence in my head. It does not just do its magic and then disappear. Without it, sleep is almost impossible. I felt depressed and often suicidal for days after taking it and more or less permanently depressed if I took it continuously.
It clouds judgment and forecloses careful analysis. It makes the hTC user alternately supremely confident and then panicky with an unnameable dread. It causes intense, truly terrifying forgetfulness, as well as a serene bliss about that forgetfulness.
A friend of mine took a small dose of Halcion -- less than what President Bush is reported to take -- and then carried a gun through a metal detector at an airport. He had forgotten not only that he had a gun with him but also that guns are illegal at airports.
Halcion is serious medicine. When the president takes it, it's not just a matter between a civil servant and his physician. It's questionable whether the physician should even prescribe it, considering that it is banned in England and is the subject of major litigation and controversy over its side effects in the U.S. and around the world.
A president with a chemical between himself and reality is the last thing America needs.
Benjamin J. Stein is a lawyer, writer and actor.