The Young and the Reckless
Admittedly, the young Barack Obama was a pothead and tried cocaine. Apparently, the young Mitt Romney was a bully who liked to pretend to be a cop, a firefighter and a gangster. But whether or not early Obama dabbled in dope or Romney was, well, a douchebag, doesn't really matter. Or, at least, doesn't matter to some of the GOP's leading lights past and present. As George W. Bush famously deflected questions of his days as a Republican party animal, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
That defense has long been a staple of the Young and the Reckless of the right. In 1998, Illinois Republican Congressman and Clinton inquisitor Henry Hyde brushed off revelations of his 1960's affair at age 41 with beautician Cherie Snodgrass as a "youthful indiscretion." (Snodgrass' daughter wasn't buying that line, explaining that "my mother is very mad about Henry Hyde's statement -- she thinks it belittles the importance of their relationship.") And in 2009, then candidate and now Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell tried to disown his reactionary 1989 Regent University thesis ("The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade") denouncing working women and "working women and "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators" authored when he was 34 years old. Labeling the unearthing of the 93-page document "backward-looking scare tactics", McDonnell contended "my views are different" now that he's a grown up:
"The things I wrote 20 years ago in an academic setting and the influences on my life at that time, many of them have changed because of my family, my job, my legislative experience, my real world experience."
But it was George W. Bush who in his races for Texas Governor and President of the United States created the template for the young and the reckless of the GOP.
Before he got "right with God" in 1985 and proclaimed in 1999 that his favorite philosopher was "Christ, because He changed my heart," Bush was frequently found with the bottle and apparently had a taste for nose candy. And that, his former press secretary Scott McClellan recalled in in 2008, meant Dubya's 2000 presidential campaign would have to tell some white lies. As ABC News reported on McClellan's memoir in May 2008:
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 feeble defense against charges of coke use (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 altogether.
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, "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.''
(Or as Bush promised at the 2000 Republican National Convention, "So when I put my hand on the Bible, I will swear to not only uphold the laws of our land, I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected, so help me God." We know how that turned out.)
Unlike Bush, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama remember where they were and what they were doing as the Vietnam War wound down in 1972. Obama was an 11-year old American kid. Romney was at Harvard after having spent two-years as a missionary in France, pooping in a bucket and feeling guilty (or not) about not serving in the military. But as George W. Bush, Bob McDonnell and the late Henry Hyde would have insisted, what the presidential candidates did when they were young doesn't matter.
Sadly, the Republicans' water-carriers didn't read the memo. Right-wing blogs reacted predictably to Dave Maraniss' reporting on Barry Obama's pot-smoking past and other old news. "For years we've wondered what dark secrets might lurk in The One's shadowy past," Hot Air wrote, "I knew we'd find out one day and I knew it'd be bad, but I never imagined quite how bad." Pat Buchanan biographer Tim Stanley explained "why it matters that Obama dated a composite and ate a dog." Recently asked about his 2003 mistreatment of a prisoner while serving in Iraq, Florida Congressman Allen West countered, "If you guys want to go back and talk about what happened nine years ago for me, let's talk about the president doing blow, and smoking dope."