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Conservatives Forget Bush was America's First Cokehead-in-Chief

October 22, 2014

The conservative commentariat is having a field day at the expense of Hunter Biden, the vice president's 44 year-old son who was discharged from the Navy after testing positive for cocaine use. For its part, the Weekly Standard decried the "limited duty" reserve commission program under which Biden achieved his rank, lamenting "the culture of entitlement in political Washington that has tarnished the Navy." Meanwhile, RedState, which claims to "loathe political dynasties," breathed a sigh of relief that Biden "might have gotten lucky and managed to avoid a drug test long enough to get the career-enhancing status of 'military veteran.'"

But if recent history is any guide, Hunter Biden shouldn't despair too much over his current embarrassment for the same reason the right-wing echo chamber should temper its fevered case of schadenfreude. After all, George W. Bush showed that a former cokehead could still become President of the United States.
Dubya, as the story goes, quit drinking in the mid-1980's after the Reverend Billy Graham asked him if he was "right with God" and wife Laura supposedly told him to choose "Jack Daniels or me." But it was the questions over Bush's past cocaine use which periodically threatened to blow up his political career. Which is why he and his spokesman Scott McClellan refused to answer them.
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.''

Much to his chagrin, Scott McClellan during his rocky tenure as President Bush's press secretary learned otherwise. In his 2008 memoir, McClellan worried about Bush's white lies about white lines. As ABC News reported:

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..."

For his part, President George W. Bush was well aware of the example he set for others. As he put it in his May 2001 commencement address at Yale, his alma mater:

Congratulations to the class of 2001. To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.

As for Hunter Biden, he should take some time to relax and reflect. A good place to start would be comedian Chris Rock's classic 1990's stand-up performance, Bring on the Pain. As he joked about former Washington DC mayor and legendary crack aficionado Marion Barry:

Marion Barry, now come on man. How are you going to tell little kids not to get high when the mayor's on crack?
"Don't get high, won't be nothing."
"I can be mayor!"

Or even, as George W. Bush proved, President of the United States.


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

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