Silence sends wrong signal

March 01, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - I was surprised, but hardly shocked, to hear that President Bush all but admitted to illicit drug use during a conversation that was secretly taped. I am only disappointed by the sleazy way the disclosure was disclosed and by the president's reluctance to set the record straight.

Like many of the rest of us parents, he says in the tape that he doesn't want to talk about any of his alleged past drug indiscretions because he doesn't want youngsters to do the same.

Unfortunately, experience shows, silence is a self-defeating way to discourage kids from drug use.

In case you missed it, Mr. Bush suggests on the tapes that were recorded when he was the governor of Texas that he smoked marijuana in the past. He also dodged a question on the tapes, whose authenticity the White House does not dispute, about whether he had used cocaine.

The New York Times broke the story on Doug Wead, a Christian activist who has published a book based in part on conversations with Mr. Bush that Mr. Wead secretly recorded in 1998 and 1999. Mr. Wead has since expressed regrets over releasing part of the conversations without Mr. Bush's permission, has announced that he is donating the book's proceeds to charity. Ah, nothing focuses your conscience like having a nation of millions call you a sleazebag.

My disappointment comes with Mr. Bush's refusal, so far, to speak openly and candidly about his past drug and alcohol use and how he recovered. He says he does not want to answer the questions "because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."

Take it from me, Mr. President, a lot of today's teenagers already think you "smoked and snorted," as one of my son's high school classmates put it. Your silence does nothing to defuse their suspicions. For the record, our president has never acknowledged using drugs. He has acknowledged a drinking problem that he appears to have kicked, to his credit, through the wonder-working powers of his religious conversion.

A national survey released by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that the number of parents who report never speaking with their children about drugs doubled from 6 percent in 1998 to 12 percent in 2004. And while many of us parents say we've spoken with our kids about drugs, that's not what a lot of our kids are saying: 85 percent of the 1,205 surveyed parents said they had spoken with their children at least once in the last 12 months about drugs, but only 30 percent of teenagers said they had learned much about drug risks from their parents. We need to share more straight talk, not silence, with our kids.

And more straight talk from the White House on down would help government to avoid doing greater harm, such as the provision that Congress passed in 1998 that bars college students or applicants with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid. If ever there was a case of throwing obstacles in the way of young people who are trying to improve their lives, regardless of past errors, this is it.

The provision's author, Republican Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, says he intended the bill to apply only to those convicted while they are students or loan applicants, not to earlier convictions. He also has been trying to correct that error with a new amendment.

In the meantime, we have a president who refuses to talk about his drug history and a Congress that continues to discriminate against aspiring college students who are honest about their past drug use. That's nuts. We, the people, need to talk. Then Congress needs to act. Leadership from the White House will help, Mr. President. Your silence will not.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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