Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, short updates on previous Monitor stories

404 Special: How the Cocaine Scandal Helped George W. Bush

In late August, two questions dominated the political news: did GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush once use cocaine? The second question was asked with a groan. Is the media going to chase endless rumors of Bush's past as they did with Clinton? (And more to the point, could the Republic possibly survive another year of Geraldo "news" specials?)

There could be more to the tale than appears -- including the shocking possiblity that his campaign is cynically orchestrating the story. And even if Bush and his pals aren't behind the rumors, the controversy has certainly worked well to his advantage in several ways.


First, a short recap of events: National attention to the Bush-cocaine story began on May 14, when The Wall Street Journal ran a page-one news feature: "Behind the Rumors About George W. Bush Is a Culture of Gossip." The Bush article mostly rehashed stories from his campaign for Texas Governor, along with variations on his standard glib response -- "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." Over the next three months the presidential candidate refused to answer further questions on the topic, claiming that he was "refusing to play the Washington, D.C. game of gossip."

Then in early August, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota had breakfast with reporters and raised the issue of fairness, commenting that he thought the media was more respectful of Bush's "privacy and his lack of willingness to discuss his past than you might have been with others." Asked if he thought questions about Bush's youthful drug use were appropriate, Daschle said, "Sure, it's a legitimate question. The second question is if that person denies it, how many press people, how many investigators do you put on his tail to find out whether he's telling the truth?" Daschle later stated that he wasn't suggesting that the press should dig into possible Bush drug use, but only pointing out that some politicians seemed to get preferential treatment.

A few days later, on August 18, Bush decided to join the "gotcha" game, after all. At a press conference he said he would pass a seven- year drug test, but declined to "inventory" his deeds from those "young and irresponsible" years (or even define "young"). Bush hedged again, then drew a faint line in the sand that stated he certainly, probably, hadn't indulged in cocaine for twenty-five years, which rolls the calendar back to 1974 when he was 28. That said, he again charged for the moral high ground, insisting that he wouldn't play "the politics of personal destruction" and comment further. "I am going to tell people I made mistakes and that I have learned from my mistakes, and if they like it, I hope they give me a chance. And if they don't like it, they can go find somebody else to vote for." And that was that.

It was a media disaster for Bush -- Or was it?

In the following days, the media was roundly attacked for pushing Bush into a corner. Columnists, editors, and letter-writers competed to show who could demostrate the greatest loathing for the press. A tiny sample: "Are you now or have you ever been a cigarette smoker? Tax cheat? Bed-wetter? ...In case you haven't figured out yet where I'm going with this, here it is in words of one syllable: Cut George some slack..." (Leonard Pitts/ Knight Ridder) "Without any substantiation, the relentless questioning of the Republican presidential contender is nothing but harassment..." (David S. Broder) "The most mystifying story extant in the dog days of summer --- that Texas Gov. George W. Bush used cocaine --- is without source or substance..." (Jim Wooten/ Atlanta Journal and Constitution). In the most widely reprinted column, Marvin Kalb and Amy Sullivan of Harvard's media and policy center chided reporters for chasing gossip instead of hard news. "The U.S. press seems again to be in hot pursuit of embarrassing stories about the personal lives of presidential candidates rather than substantive takeouts on their policy positions. What a waste... This year, six months before the earliest primary, the American people are again telling Washington that they are not shaken by rumors of Bush's possible cocaine use as a young man. In both cases, the press has shown that it has a tin ear. It either isn't hearing what is being said or, worse still, it isn't listening to its readers and viewers."

Kalb and Sullivan were right on the money -- the American public didn't give a toot about what Bush pushed up his nose (or maybe injected into his veins). A Time/CNN poll the day after the story broke found 84 percent of the respondents saying that the allegations didn't disqualify him from being president, even if true. His approval rating also rose slightly in the days following, exactly as happened last year as Clinton's popularity saw a boost during the worst of Monica madness. And money continued to pour into his war chest, which was soon bulging with an unprecented $60 million -- even though the election was more than a year away.


When the coke controversy erupted at the August 18th press conference, Bush appeared to flash a Nixon-like paranoia. Those drug rumors were "ridiculous and absurd" and surely "planted" by his GOP rivals. "You know what happens? Somebody floats a rumor, and that causes you to ask a question... I think they are being planted. I know they are being planted."

Were other presidential candidates skulking about newsrooms whispering to reporters? Two reports can be found: On June 1, James Ridgeway commented in The Village Voice that "aides to Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander [were] raising questions about his alleged snorting of cocaine while his father took the presidential oath." Larry Sabato, author of "Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics" told CNN in August that he had heard from reporters that the Forbes and Gary Bauer camps that were spreading rumors. Representatives from the campaigns denied the charges.

While Daschle's remarks -- or possible comments by an aide of Forbes, or Bauer, or Alexander -- raised the issue of the media's cozy relationship with Bush, it's absurd to suggest that reporters needed someone to tell them about the cocaine rumors. After all, the topic was splashed across the front page of The Wall Street Journal in May. Likewise the claims that Forbes or Alexander were trying to damage Bush by spreading the "coke at dad's inauguration" story are doubtful, because that rumor also appeared in the WSJ weeks before.

But given little notice is the possibilty of rumors about the rumors were flowing from the Bush camp. Asked on August 18 if his "campaign aides blame opponents, possibly Steve Forbes or Gary Bauer operators, of leaking cocaine gossip," Bush stuttered, "I don't remember, I don't remember that."


The first curious thing about The Wall Street Journal story on the Bush rumors is that it was a story at all. Editors rarely waste space on news that didn't happen, and here the investigation came up empty -- there was "no low-hanging fruit," as a Journal executive colorfully told Ken Bode of The New Republic.

But it should come as no surprise that a presidential- candidate scandal was given page-one treatment by The Wall Street Journal -- after all, last year the newspaper was a fount of gossip and rumors about the president. Their treatment of the two stories, however, could not be more different. The Journal was then leading the charge against Clinton by repeating unsubstantiated rumors. (See our March 1998 editorial, "Counting Lewinskys" for more details.) Had they shown Clinton the same courtesy and investigated those stories, it would have been revealed that the source was the Clinton-hating Lucianne Goldberg, and our nation may have been spared the impeachment circus. But as the newspaper raked muck last year with the apparent motive of destroying Clinton, it aired Bush's dirty laundry with little apparent reason except to exonerate him. As Pollock noted in her WSJ article, only about three dozen newspapers and magazines had previously run articles and editorials "gingerly raising the drug issue" -- it was scarcely a blip on the national radar until the Journal made it news.

If anything smells fishy about the cocaine story, it's that tale of Dubya snorting a few lines on inauguration day. It was also the easiest to debunk; as the WSJ noted, Bush was rarely alone that day. It does, however, raise the question that the entire purpose of the Journal's article was only to set up straw men to knock down. As Timothy Noah wrote in the June 21 New Republic:

It was a stretch to claim that the most sensational rumor mentioned in the article -- that Bush was high (on cocaine) at his father's inauguration -- was in general circulation. Although [Journal reporter Ellen Joan Pollock] called it a "gossipcircuit favorite," I hadn't heard the rumor. (I live in Washington, write a gossipy online column, and formerly worked as a reporter in the Journal's D.C. bureau.) Neither had the five top editors of The New Republic. A quick search on the Nexis database confirms that the cocaine-inauguration rumor hadn't appeared in print or on television before the Journal published it.
Although the WSJ story generated a bit of discussion, the media still seemed indifferent to pursuing tales of Bush's four decades of wanton youth. By a month later, a reader was hard-put to find a single story about cocaine use by the GOP heir apparent -- that is, until Bush turned it into news himself with his hot-headed reply at a press conference on August 18.


In the three months following the Journal story, it was all still only a tempest in a teaspoon -- the topic of an occasional summer editorial or Leno joke. TV nightly news and the big metro newspapers ignored the story.

When questions were raised (still "gingerly"), Bush stayed relentlessly to his script: He refused to play "gotcha" with the press, and besides, these were only rumors spread by his enemies. On August 14 he gave his stock answers in a CNN interview: "I understand that by refusing to play the Washington, D.C., game of gossip people may draw certain conclusions about me, but it's time for some politician to stand up and say 'enough is enough of this...' It's not the only rumor. The minute you answer one question they float another rumor." With so much practice, it's absurd to think that he was unprepared to hear a similar question at a press conference four days later.

But when George W. Bush began flipping through his calendar to find a year where he could say that he was drug-free, media coverage exploded. On August 18 for the first time, the story was prominent on the evening news broadcast for the three networks, and for the first time was smeared on the front page of the Washington Post, LA Times, and most other milestone newspapers. Did he use coke? When did he last do coke? Why isn't he talking about coke? It was the national media obsession for those few days as hundreds of articles appeared in the press, and it was the topic d'jour for Sunday, August 22nd TV news talk shows.

Media excitement quickly flickered out, however, smothered by the public's outspoken horror of the press starting another scandal hunt. There were a smattering of stories in mid-September when Bush pere gave an interview and called his son "a rambunctious little guy," but now at the end of the month, the cocaine story has again faded from view.


Looking back on the chronology of these events, the strangest thing appears: The only parties who seemed eager to talk about the cocaine story were George W. Bush and his admirers.

Yes, reporters sometimes tossed softball questions about substance abuse, but they let Bush duck away with rote answers about enemies spreading rumors (even though it was the fiercely partisan Wall Street Journal that cataloged those rumors in the first place). There was no national coverage of the story until August 18, when he appeared to muff it at a routine press conference.

But there were also times when Bush was positively loquacious about his past. Not long after the appearance of the WSJ story, the candidate seems eager to broadcast the allegations. A feature in the June issue of Texas Monthly had this remarkable exchange with editor Paul Burka, who asked if the rumors would stymie his bid for the White House:

To my utter stupefaction, he proceeded to tick off everything the national press was investigating about his past: five or six of the most salacious things that could be said about anyone -- including, in his own words, "I bought cocaine at my dad's inauguration" -- plus intimate gossip about his family.

As he well knew, I had already heard all of it through the media grapevine. "You missed one," I said. "You crashed a jet while you were in the National Guard because you were drunk."

He spread his hands. "That's easy," he said. "Where's the plane?" Game over. He spun around and headed off.

Perhaps the most revealing part of that exchange is his flip little punchline: "Where's the plane?" You can't find a missing jet if one wasn't lost, of course, and you likewise can't find evidence of a drug habit if none existed. So here's a radical theory: The entire cocaine issue may be phony because George W. Bush has never used cocaine.

Remember that the drug use stories surfaced in 1994 as Bush was first campaigning for Governor. The Texas press -- possibly the best in the nation, and not particularly sympathetic to Bush -- chased this trail for five years and came up completely dry. There were no witnesses, no proof whatsoever that Bush had toyed with drugs. More recently, supermarket tabloids waving fistfuls of cash have pursued it. They likewise came away empty. Maybe they find nothing because there's nothing to find. It's a snipe hunt.


Surely the Bush camp knew the cocaine issue was harmless. With his small army of advisors and deep, deep pockets, surely his campaign had earlier conducted its own polls and found that almost all of the American public didn't care -- and that it could even work to his benefit:

  • It makes him a victim   Overnight George W. Bush, an unsympathetic, arrogant millionaire with a dodgy past, became a martyr to the mad dog press -- and his sneaky, rumor-mongering opponents. You can bank on it that every politician has studied well the lessons of last year, particularly how the president thrived as his attackers pressed harder and harder. One of the Bush advisors, Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive director, even commented recently to USA Today: "In presidential politics, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

  • It sends a signal to core voters   Reed's participation in the campaign underlines another way that the story has brilliantly helped Bush. The greatest challenge for any Y2000 GOP presidential candidate is to walk the tightrope between the christian right and mainstream America; no matter what position they take on topics like abortion, they will strongly offend voters from the other side. Thus it's safest to not take positions at all and instead deal in symbols. Where the D.C. press corps hears Bush offering evasive non- answers to the coke questions, evangelicals hear stoic courage. He's also telegraphing a powerful message to evangelicals -- "Though I may have sinned mightily in the past, none of it matters now that I've found forgiveness in Christ." In the religious side of mid-America, it is unmistakable code-speak: "I'm one of you." And Bush piously claiming that he refuses to talk about his possible drug abuse because it "sends bad signals to children" likewise flags heroic signals to the core of voters that he must win.

  • It distracts from real personal scandals   The coke story cowed the press from discussing other scandals of his past. Read "The Bush Files" in our archives (which doesn't once mention substance abuse) and you'll find his past has a dumpster load of dirt for the press to sift through. Thus far Bush has tiptoed around the biggest acknowledged controversy in his past -- alcoholism. Until age 40 when he claims to have quit cold turkey, Bush loved his "four B's" -- beer, bourbon, and B&B. He has confessed to being a "heavy drinker," but "didn't have the genuine addiction." Yet a friend recalled for the Washington Post how Bush sucked down liquor: "Once he got started, he couldn't, didn't shut it off. He didn't have the discipline." Bush has repeatedly stated that his "heavy drinking" problems were cured when he was born again as an evangelical (see point above), but booze remains his Achilles heel. Whereas 84 percent of the public said that coke use didn't matter, only 68 percent waved off past drinking problems, according to the Detroit News. In other words: If the public came to view him as an alcoholic, it might well tip the election against him.


The real lesson to be found in the cocaine story is that Senator Daschle was right; the media has treated George W. Bush with kid gloves. The mind reels to think of what great lark the media might have had if the candidate said to be a booze-hound until 40 and maybe- cokehead until 28 was, say, Hillary Clinton. And the press has likewise been kind to itself -- only this article and the one from the New Republic point out the sugarplum slant of that Wall Street Journal story.

And also missing from the news have been important stories about his lackluster record as Governor. Since the mid-August dustup, there's been several damning stories that have received almost no national attention:

  • Screw global warming, full speed ahead   Adding a flop to his earlier flip, Bush now says the long-negotiated 1997 Kyoto Protocol to curtail global warming is anti-American. "It's going to cost the U.S. jobs," Bush said before the Iowa Caucus in early September. "I also don't appreciate the fact the United States bears the brunt of the goals of Kyoto while underdeveloped, developing nations are really excluded from cleaning up the environment. It's a bad deal for America and Americans." This remarkable comment was only reported by the Houston Chronicle, which noted that five months ago, Bush had alarmed many conservatives by announcing, "I believe there is global warming." Now apparently he doesn't. The treaty, which still must be ratified by the Senate, requires only a United States reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2008. The treaty has been agressively opposed by Exxon and other giant oil corporations, who have even sponsored a phony grassroots campaign to undermine passage.

  • Funeralgate   Few newspapers outside of Texas have given much coverage to a possible influence-buying scandal that insiders say was business- as- usual with the Governor. In brief: the former chief regulator of the Texas funeral industry was fired in February, and is now suing the state as well as the funeral chain Service Corporation International (SCI) and its chairman, Robert Waltrip. Last year regulator Eliza May began investigating reports of unlicensed embalmers being used by the corporation, and surprise visits were made to some funeral homes (which Waltrip indignantly called "storm trooper tactics"). The charges were discovered to be true, and SCI was hit with a $445,000 fine. May says she was intimidated by Bush aides to drop the case, and even was forced to turn over documents to Bush chief of staff Joe Allbaugh with Waltrip in the room.

    Waltrip appealed to the regulatory commission and personally to Bush. Although Bush has thus far admitted only a "20-second" conversation with Waltrip, SCI and Waltrip have a long connection with Bush and his father. SCI donated over $100,000 to the George H.W. Bush Presidential library, and last year the corporation gave the ex-president $70,000 to speak at their convention. For his past two campaigns for Governor, Bush Jr. received $45,000 in donations from SCI. Last month Dubya barely avoided having to give a deposition in the case, but this may be reversed on appeal, as May's lawyer calls Bush a co-conspirator, though not a defendant in the case. (For more information, see this Molly Ivins column.)

  • Follow the money   Although Bush has already raked in a record $60 million, the press had given almost no scrutiny to where this vast fortune has come from. His campaign made a splash when they announced that even the smallest donation would be posted to the Internet, but few followed up by noting that the listings were posted in a format that made them almost unintelligible. No matter; a software company called Inxight used the data as a way to demonstrate their data analysis product. They found that his most generous single category in July and August were... homemakers. Those homemakers mostly donated the legal maximum of $1,000. "Basically, they are part of wealthy couples who donate to the max," said Steve Bernstein, director of marketing at Inxight. One donor in 4 sent Bush their $1,000 limit, and 600 of those donors got carried away and illegally sent twice that amount or more, a few of them people who were already over the limit from prior donations.

In the absence of any compelling Y2000 election issue, the campaigns will increasingly lean on image -- and the Bush camp knows well how to manipulate that. Expect in months to come you will hear again Bush accuse his jealous opponents of spreading rumors. You will again hear Bush posture as a victim of the press, a sinner born again, a man of stoic courage who refuses to answer "bad questions," come what may. And unless the national press corps begins to ask Bush some harder questions, come January 2001 you will hear George W. Bush take the oath of office. (September 26, 1999)

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