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Bush Cocaine Use Back in the News

March 29, 2009

Tabloid rumors are now making the rounds that a supposed friend of vice presidential daughter Ashley Biden is shopping a video alleged to show her using cocaine. But while any gossip (no matter how dubious) regarding the first and second families gone wild is always sure to make the news, this imbroglio is certain to refresh memories of George W. Bush's purported predilection for the white powder. After all, as former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan suggested in his book last year, cocaine use was no barrier to becoming President.
That was among the more fascinating if less significant revelations in Scott McClellan's 2008 book, What Happened. Bush, McClellan now claims, told him he couldn't remember whether or not he used coke. That, of course, is a far cry from the response of Governor Bush offered Americans during the 2000 campaign. And as it turns out, McClellan, too, was telling the public white lies.
Last May, ABC News offered McClellan's recollection of his 1999 talk with Bush, hoping to get their line (so to speak) straight:

Writes McClellan: "'The media won't let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,' I heard Bush say. 'You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember.'
"I remember thinking to myself, How can that be? How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine? It didn't make a lot of sense."
And yet, McClellan concludes, "I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true, and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious - political convenience..."

Needless to say, Bush's Gonzales defense against charges of coke (a combination of "I don't recall" and "the dog ate my blow") never became part of the campaign talking points. Instead, Bush and McClellan insisted on refusing to answer the question.
Those refusals during 1999 and 2000 often produced comic results. Challenged about the cocaine rumors during his 1994 Texas gubernatorial race, Bush responded, "''What I did as a kid? I don't think it's relevant." As his campaign against Al Gore heated up, Bush frequently joked, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." In August 1999, Bush denied using illegal drugs during the previous 25 years, even resorting to counting on his fingers when asked if he could pass an FBI background check:

"As I understand it, the current (FBI) form asks the question, 'Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is 'No,'" Bush said in the interview.

At that 1999 same press conference, Bush fumed at what he viewed as a planted question. As the New York Times detailed:

''You know what happens, somebody floats a rumor and it causes you to ask a question,'' Mr. Bush said, interrupting the questioner in a rising voice, a tape recording of the news conference and a transcript provided by Mr. Bush's office showed. ''And that's the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it. That is a game, and you just fell for the trap, and I refuse to play.''

Eventually, the Bush campaign settled on a consistent approach and a new rationale. They would not comment on Bush's alleged past use drug use, explaining that the silence was for the kids. Call it strategic ambiguity.
First debuted in 1998, by 2000 Bush's version of plausible deniability was a standard on the stump:

In October 1998, Mr. Bush told Newsweek magazine that he had declined to itemize his ''irresponsibility'' because he wanted to set a proper example for teen-agers. ''The question is: Have you learned from your behavior?'' Mr. Bush said in the interview. ''The answer is yes. If I were you, I wouldn't tell your kids that you smoked pot unless you want them to smoke pot. I don't want some kid saying, 'Well, Governor Bush tried it.'''

Throughout the 2000 campaign, Governor Bush's non-denial assumed the predictable form:

"I've told the people of this country that, over 20 years ago, I made some mistakes when I was younger. I've learned from those mistakes."

Despite his doubts about Bush truthfulness on display in his new book, Scott McClellan then as always faithfully regurgitated the party line. In August 1999, McClellan like Bush was giving in to "political convenience":

Scott McClellan, a Bush campaign spokesman, today characterized the issue as ''baseless allegations and ridiculous rumors.'' But Mr. McClellan added: ''What he may or may not have done in the past is not the question we should be asking. It is, 'Has he learned from his mistakes?' and the answer is yes.''

Ultimately, Scott McClellan told much bigger lies to the American people on subjects more profound than what a young George W. Bush put up his nose. But in answering charges of Bush's cocaine use then, McClellan defended his boss by resorting to the over-arching falsehood, the sham that came to define the American tragedy that has been the Bush presidency:

''What Americans want to know is will he uphold the dignity and honor of the office. He will.''


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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