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Does the public have a right to delve into politician's indiscretions?

Sunday, August 29, 1999

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Presidential aspirant George W. Bush says he has not used cocaine in the past 25 years. But by refusing to comment on his more distant past, the Texas governor has left open the question of what might have gone up his nose 26 years ago.

  The Casey for Governor commercial in 1986 showed William Scranton III in his younger days and drew attention to his work promoting Transcendental Mediation. (Associated Press)

Bill Clinton said he didn't inhale, but only after driving the public batty and eroding his own credibility by evading the question of whether he smoked marijuana.

William Scranton III, who admitted to experimenting with drugs in college, lost the 1986 election for Pennsylvania governor after his rival ran a television ad that evoked images of a dope-smoking hippie. Scranton, though, insists it wasn't the deciding factor in the vote.

And Thaddeus Kirkland, known to his Philadelphia-area constituents as having pleaded no contest after being arrested in 1988 for buying crack cocaine, is in the midst of his fourth consecutive term as a state representative and plans to run for office again in 2001.

What are we, the American public, to make of all this? Are politicians rewarded or punished for coming clean about their drug histories? Does not giving a straight answer about drug use pose even more of a threat to a political career than the answer itself? Does the public even have a right to delve into a candidate's indiscretions if they occurred in the distant past?

There are no definitive answers to these vexing questions, which have popped up again this month amid unsubstantiated rumors of cocaine use by Bush.

But political analysts note that more and more of today's movers and shakers in American politics are baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and were exposed to all of the unrepressed experimentation that decade entailed.

"There's a generational change that has occurred in our public offices," said local GOP political consultant Bill Green. "Those of us in our late 40s and early 50s went through a whole different experience. It was the '60s, and sex, drugs and rock and roll were not only an anthem, they were a reality. I would be surprised to look around a room at candidates in their late 40s and early 50s for whatever office and find [any] who didn't smoke marijuana."

This is not to say, of course, that all politicians in that age bracket dabbled in controlled substances or let it all hang out at summer-of-love Saturnalias. There are probably plenty of straight arrows out there who can claim a tee-totaling, narcotic-free life of marital fidelity and no criminal convictions. Either way, though, it seems that candidates of that era are expected, at least by the media, to address the issue.

Do straight arrows make better candidates than people with a few blemishes on their records? Not necessarily.

"I don't think there's anything inherently hypocritical about a politician using drugs at one point in life and then concluding that this is a dangerous and wrongful act and not one to be encouraged or recommended or sanctioned," said Pittsburgh-based political analyst Jon Delano.

Delano believes that would hold true in the case of Bush, who has fashioned himself to be a law-and-order governor, tough on drug users and sellers.

"To say that because he [might have] used cocaine 25 years ago, he cannot now come out against cocaine is very unfair," Delano said. "He has the right to say, 'I've done something wrong and stupid, and I've seen the light.' "

Kirkland said his turnaround led him to become more compassionate in dealing with addicts. The 44-year-old Democrat from Chester, Delaware County, said he began experimenting with drugs around the time he graduated from high school in 1973 and didn't stop for a long time. When he did, he chose not to bury his mistakes.

"I was very up-front with my drug use and drug involvement back in the '80s. When my life got turned back around in a positive way, I went back to the same areas [in which] I had purchased or used drugs and talked to those persons who used drugs and was very open with them about my past in trying to help them change their lives," Kirkland said.

"When it became time to enter the political realm, there was nothing hidden, and I was not in denial in any kind of way. I think that's why I was successful. I didn't deny it, I didn't shirk it, I didn't dodge it."

Kirkland said his experience has shaped his policies dealing with drug issues. He wants to expand health care benefits for drug users in rehabilitation, and he believes it is unjust that people arrested for crack use receive harsher jail sentences than those caught with powder cocaine.

While Kirkland has managed to succeed in spite of his past, Scranton arguably lost an election because of it. He has not tried another run for office since.

As a candidate for lieutenant governor in 1978, Scranton, now 52, acknowledged that he had used drugs, although he never specified what kind or how often. He said he wasn't quite sure why he had to address the issue, but he just knew that it was incumbent upon his generation of political hopefuls to 'fess up.

"I made a conscious decision before I announced that I was going to make this known," Scranton recalled in an interview. "I know we have to pay our dues on the issue for some reason."

Scranton said his candor effectively made his drug use a non-issue for a time. But it surfaced again in 1986 during his run for governor against Democrat Bob Casey.

On the Friday before the November election, Casey's camp ran a television ad against a backdrop of eastern sitar music, poking fun at Scranton's embrace of transcendental meditation. That ad, though, with Scranton's face transforming into that of an eastern spiritual leader popular at that time, also conjured images of hippies and drugs.

"I think that commercial and the rumors of drug use were devastating," Delano said.

"Candidates 'dealing' with the issue doesn't solve the underlying concerns that certain voters will have about drug usage," Delano said.

"I think particularly in that race you had the stodgiest, most upright family figure in Bob Casey, and the suggestion out of the Casey campaign was that young Bill Scranton was a hippie, smoking dope. It was a characterization, however untrue, that could easily have made the difference in an election won by 70,000 votes."

Scranton begs to differ. He believes he lost the election because Casey's camp publicized the fact that he had printed negative campaign literature after publicly pledging to cease attacks on his opponent.

"The infamous guru ad, I think, only by its atmospherics, tried to reinforce an issue of an irresponsible former hippie," Scranton said. "The ad generated a lot of attention, but did not lose me the election."

Both Scranton and Kirkland were up front and unequivocal in dealing with their past drug use. Vice President Al Gore has acknowledged smoking marijuana. Gov. Ridge has flat out denied ever using drugs. All of Bush's rivals for president have openly answered questions about narcotics. But Bush himself parried with the media for days, gradually distancing himself more and more from using cocaine, but not volunteering a clear, complete denial.

That, the local analysts said, might do more harm than good. Yes, they believe, Bush has a right to his privacy, a right to respond to the question in his own way and not be hounded mercilessly to give a different answer. But analysts consider the way he has handled the issue -- with obfuscation rather than clarity -- to be more inept than anything else.

"I think that the worst thing that a candidate can appear to be is indecisive and equivocating," Delano said. "I think Bush has come in for a lot of criticism because of the way he's danced around. It appears Clintonesque, and the last thing the Republicans need is a nominee who acts like Bill Clinton."

Bush has stated plainly that enough is enough when it comes to "trash-mouth politics." He has spoken about ending the "politics of personal vilification," and if the American public is not content with his answers to drug-related questions, then so be it. In principle, political observers believe Bush is well within his rights.

"To the extent it's ancient history and has nothing to do with whether or not the man can govern the country, people should just leave well enough alone," said Ken Gormley, a law professor at Duquesne University who has written on the right to privacy.

"We can ask ourselves the question, 'Why do we really need to know this information about George W. Bush?' " Gormley said. "Is it really to make an intelligent decision about him, or is it because we just get some kind of kick about knowing about it? And I'm afraid we've moved too much in the latter direction."

Polls have shown that Americans are not terribly concerned over whether Bush used cocaine. And analysts note with distress that narcotics has been elevated in importance over quizzing Bush on the myriad foreign and domestic policy issues that occupy the days of the president of the United States.

"We have problems in Russia. We have problems in Eastern Europe. We've got problems in Asia with the Chinese and the Koreans, and all we're worried about is did George Bush snort cocaine? Get real!" Green said.

Green, Delano and others believe that with the incessant burrowing into candidates' pasts -- sometimes, as in the Bush case, without any proof of illegal behavior -- Americans are setting an impossible standard for politicians to meet.

That, offered Green, is perhaps part of the reason why retired Gen. Colin Powell has chosen not to throw his hat into the ring of presidential politics, despite his impeccable credentials. Who, he pointed out, would want to deal with the scrutiny of today's media?

Ultimately, analysts and politicians believe in the power of redemption, the ability to mature and grow wiser from past indiscretions, and the fact that individuals change over time. Drug use two years ago by a presidential hopeful is relevant, they said. Drug use 30 years ago isn't.

"Certainly, citizens have a right to know certain things about their candidates in order to make an intelligent decision about whether to vote for them, so it's certainly relevant whether George W. Bush used cocaine or any other controlled substance last year," or even during the past seven years, the standard for federal employees to receive a security clearance, Gormley said.

"Beyond that, I really don't know what's fair game, and my sense is, at some point, a person has to say, 'I simply don't want to talk about that,' and we have to respect that."

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