Bush issue should prompt honest debate about drugs

August 29, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

GEORGE W. BUSH, Republican candidate for president and coquettish tease about his alleged flirtation with cocaine, has handed the nation a marvelous gift, which some people inexplicably want to give back.

It's the gift of honest discussion about this thing, narcotics traffic, that has wiped out the lives of many people without money while giving a pass to many who have it.

By reluctantly alluding to certain indiscretions years ago, which Bush perhaps hoped we might find boyishly roguish and forgivable, he's unintentionally given us the chance to talk about drugs in all the ways we usually don't.

Instead of rounding up the usual cliches about desperate black inner-city kids terrorizing neighborhoods on their way to doing a little prison time, we can also talk about rich white boys on a toot through college on their way to the good life and discuss what -- besides an arrest record, a protective bank account and skin pigment -- distinguishes one group from another.

But some people don't want to hear any discussion about Bush and drugs. Bush, for one, says he won't play "that game," although, finding himself cornered, he's been forced to leave hints of previous use.

His defenders say such discussion is an invasion of his privacy.

They say any cocaine use happened long ago in his foolish youth.

They say there should be a statute of limitations on stupidity.

And they're right -- but they still miss the point.

We want to know Bush's involvement with cocaine not only as a measurement of his history, but the nation's. We can compare his story with a range of cocaine users', some of whom pay a price for it in the bleakest ways, and some of whom manage to skate through because they have enough money to insulate themselves from the law, and from the humiliation and personal wreckage faced by those without resources.

And, while we're at it, we can look at those, such as Bush, who want to score political points with get-tough, lock-'em-up gestures against those who use cocaine no differently from how they may have used it and hope we won't notice the irony.

Earlier this summer, Bush showed up in East Baltimore, along the ruins of North Chester Street, where some of his supporters staged a cutesy interview session with little kids at The Door, the anti-poverty program originated by the former Baltimore Colt lineman turned reverend Joe Ehrmann.

"Why are you running for president?" one child asked.

"Because I love America," Bush answered, gazing into the television cameras lined just behind the gathered children.

Spare us the empty pieties.

Instead of pandering to TV cameras -- actual reporters were prohibited from asking questions -- Bush had a chance to talk about real life in a visibly unloved American neighborhood, where drugs have ruined families and fueled not only a horrendous crime rate, but the abandonment and decay of entire streets.

An honest George W. Bush would have talked about the luck of the economic draw.

He might have told these children: "I think I know a little bit about your lives. I've locked up daddies just like yours. They didn't do anything I didn't do when I was a young man, but they got caught, and I didn't."

If a man such as George W. Bush can safely put such "indiscretions" behind him, how many others like him -- with great potential, with energy and intelligence, with contributions to make -- are snatched up by the law only because they didn't have the means to hide from it?

The cops spend a lot more time looking for drug traffic in places like North Chester Street than they do in the privileged confines of Yale.

The prosecutors sail more routinely into cases against street guys with no resources than they do into those against guys whose parents can afford the best lawyers, if they haven't conveniently bankrolled the local prosecutor's last run for office.

In the past few weeks, Bush has offered tantalizing hints of his past.

He's the only presidential candidate who hasn't said flatly that he's never used cocaine.

He's talked about being clean for the past seven years, or the past 25 years.

This is not the same as saying he's never used it. And, if he has, it allows us to put a new kind of face on our collective vision of a cocaine user, which is also our vision of someone we have to put behind prison bars.

Is that the right approach? Have we not yet discovered that 30 years of hard-line wars against drugs have gotten us nowhere?

Or are we simply cemented into a collective image of cocaine users -- young, black, out of control -- that arbitrarily rules out all hope for redemption, all possibility of human potential and certainly all notions of such a person running for the highest office in the land?

Pub Date: 8/29/99

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