Coy answers from Bush wouldn't fly with teens

August 24, 1999|By Susan Reimer

PARENTS ARE often advised, when dealing with their children's curiosities about their misspent youths, to answer the questions with questions: "Why do you ask?" "What are you thinking about this?"

Any kid old enough to ride a two-wheeler can spot this thrust and parry for what it is: a non-answer answer. And kids will press the point to the limits of their real need to know.

A 10-year-old will be bored by any effort to drag him into a moral examination when all he wanted was a quick answer.

A 15-year-old will grill you like Perry Mason, hoping to trap you into an obvious lie, an embarrassing admission, or the hypocrisy of which he is sure you are guilty.

The press is playing that kind of game with George W. Bush right now, and it is a give-and-take as awkward and foolish as anything that has ever transpired in my kitchen between me and my teen-agers.

At issue is whether the Republican presidential hopeful used cocaine sometime in his misspent youth.

Reporters apparently think he did, because of the way he's not answering the question.

Bush started out by saying that he didn't want to diminish his discourse with voters by answering such intrusive and irrelevant questions about his "youthful mistakes."

The press would not let it go, though, and now Bush is reduced to saying that he could have passed the most stringent background checks applied during his father's administration. If you do the math correctly, that appears to mean he hasn't done any illegal drugs since at least 1974.

Well, my nomination to the Supreme Court would never be confirmed by the Senate, but that's not the way I should answer my children's questions. And that's not how Bush should have answered ours.

Bush has tried to cast himself as a politician-parent to us voter-children on this question: "I think parents, particularly baby-boomer parents, ought to say to children, `Do not use drugs.' "

A simple absolute like that is fine when dealing with 8-year-olds, but the fact is, it won't hold up to the realities of middle school, and it doesn't matter whether a parent or a president is saying it.

When asked what a parent should say to the precocious child who demands an accounting of his youth, Bush said:

"I think the baby-boomer parent ought to say, `I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made. And I'd like to share some wisdom with you.' "

"Mistakes I may or may not have made?" Any teen-ager worth his learner's permit would shred that answer with mocking laughter.

Bush has been willing to chronicle his abuse of alcohol and his victory over that. He is willing to tout his faithfulness in marriage.

I'd like to mention to my children all the things I've done right, too.

But I'm not sure the truth about my failures won't ultimately be more instructive.

Especially when they ask for the truth.

The point here is not whether Bush's answers about his own drug use would not have satisfied his own children. The point is that they won't satisfy the press.

The point is not that his answers would make him look foolish in front of his children, whose respect he wants and must have.

The point is that his answers make him look foolish in front of the voters whose respect he wants and must have.

Bush has tried to cast himself in the role of parent on this question, but he is not a parent. He is a politician.

As much as they might like to, my kids can't vote me out of office. And my cultivation of my relationship with them goes far beyond sound bites and position papers. I have a lifetime, not a primary season.

But when kids ask their parents about their own misspent youths, they should either get, "None of your business. I am not accountable to you," or they should get as much truth as they are old enough to process.

You wouldn't answer your kids by telling them what top-secret clearance you could have had in 1974, and voters don't deserve that kind of nonsense, either. It is insulting to us, and it makes Bush look ridiculous.

If he is running against the Clinton administration's reputation for parsing and half-truths and don't-ask-don't-tell and how you define the word "is," this isn't an auspicious start. His responses make "I didn't inhale" look like shocking candor.

I'm one of the voters George W. Bush is trying to win over, and my problem is not whether he's done drugs.

My problem is how he is answering the questions.

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