Questions about Bush reflect complex attitude toward drugs

Experiences of '60s in collision with stricter views of '90s

August 21, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- To reveal or not to reveal, that is the question -- particularly when baby boomer candidates, who grew up in an era of casual drug use, campaign in a national climate that has demonized illicit drugs.

What George W. Bush has made into something of a secret -- did he or didn't he use illegal drugs in the past -- reflects the tension in today's cultural attitudes toward cocaine and other hard drugs. Americans tend to condemn illegal drugs while showing understanding for those who once experimented with them.

The government's assault on the drug culture, social analysts say, runs counter to the experience of the many politicians who grew up in permissive times, when drug use was commonplace.

"It seems like George W. is being caught in the hypocrisy about drug use among the successful professional class," said Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who co-wrote "Crack in America," a book about the nation's drug problems.

"Those same people who experimented with drugs and probably did not experience ill effects are still obliged to say that drugs are a terrible scourge," Levine said.

For cultural conservatives, the Bush drug question is a thorny one: How can the long-ago use of an illegal substance be justified at a time when most politicians eagerly embrace the war on drugs?

Indeed, elected officials invoke some of their most strident language to describe drugs, naming the nation's top drug fighter after a Russian dictator -- a "czar."

Some political analysts wonder how Bush will reconcile his baby boomer past with his political views, which embrace the get-tough-on-drug policies launched in part by his father in the Reagan-Bush administrations. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush has pushed for and signed several measures intended to crack down on drug crime, including harsher punishments for anyone convicted of possessing or selling less than a gram of cocaine.

Living up to standards

"The hard part about this is not George W.'s past, but his future," said Allen Clobridge, a Democratic political consultant. "He has signed tougher penalties for drug crimes in his last term, but now he is not willing to answer questions about himself, which suggests that he is not living up to his own standard."

Clobridge came of age in the same era as the 53-year-old Bush and knows how attitudes about hard drugs have changed.

"If he were my client, I probably would have advised him to come clean with it and say, `Look, sinners have become saved,' " he said. "There's a much better way to handle all this. I know because I lived in that period, and there was a completely different attitude toward drugs then."

For his part, Bush has tried to quell the fire caused by reporters' persistent questioning about his possible drug use by appealing to the experiences of his generation.

While continuing to refuse to answer more specific questions about his past yesterday, Bush told reporters in Akron, Ohio, that fellow baby-boomer parents "owe children that responsibility -- to share our wisdom" about drugs and alcohol.

Standing before a picture of a cross, he continued:

"One of the interesting questions facing baby boomers is, have we grown up?" he asked after touring a homeless shelter that treats problems including drug abuse. "Are we willing to share the wisdom of past mistakes?

"I think a baby boomer parent ought to say, `I have learned from the mistakes I may or may not have made, and I'd like to share some wisdom with you, and that is: Don't do drugs.' "

`Everyone did it'

Some pollsters suggest that voters, weary of scandals that focus on politicians' personal lives, are relatively unmoved by the notion of past recreational drug use by candidates.

"The feeling now is, `Everyone does it. Everyone did it,' " said Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant. "Nobody's perfect, so let it go."

The issue has placed conservatives who frequently inject discussions of morality into politics -- such as Ralph Reed, a Republican consultant and former chairman of the Christian Coalition -- in the unusual position of calling long-ago, casual drug use irrelevant in the political landscape.

"Most people who grew up in the period of baby boomers did, at one time, experiment with alcohol or premarital sex or illegal substances," said Reed, a friend and adviser to Bush. "It's a unique generational experience that is put in a context of a broader life -- as long as people have changed."

Public opinion surveys show that many Americans feel the same way. A majority of Americans -- 84 percent -- believe that Bush's possible past drug use does not disqualify him from being president, a Time-CNN poll released yesterday found.

Unwitting test case

In this campaign, Bush finds himself the unwitting test case of society's tolerance for possible past use of hard drugs. His experience will prove whether a reluctance to discuss possible drug use can sink a national candidate -- or whether asserting a zone of privacy around the issue is enough to put it to rest.

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