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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

Straws in the Wind   

Was the Bush/ cocaine flap another media misfire?


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It wasn't anyone's finest hour.

For the news media, the flaplet over George W. Bush and cocaine had no real upside.

The gulf between the press and the public over inquiries into the private lives of politicians is huge, as the reaction to the Clinton/Lewinsky saga showed. Journalists, at least those in Washington, thought from the get-go that this was a big deal. They were stunned that to much of the public it was a big yawn.

To many, it simply underscored the all-too-rampant notion that the elite media are a bunch of scandal-mongering bullies whose concerns are wildly out of touch with those of ordinary Americans.

The sight of reporters day after day hounding Dubya hardly helped the image. What made it worse was there wasn't an allegation, even a spurious one, on the table. There was no Gennifer Flowers or Paula Jones holding press conferences, let alone any smoking straws or mirrors. All the press had were rumors that Bush, who has made no secret of his freewheeling past, had partaken. And a number of media investigations into the whispers had come up empty.

What's more, poll after poll showed The People couldn't care less. So once again we were in Disconnect City.

But it's a mistake to add this to the ever-growing roster of media high crimes and misdemeanors. The relentless pummeling may have gone overboard. But you can make the case that, despite the complete absence of evidence, this was a defensible line of inquiry.

Don't get me wrong. Personally, I have as much interest in whether Bush did coke as I do in catching the next Neil Diamond concert--none at all.

But consider:

Bush had signed harsh legislation that would severely punish those unlucky enough to be nailed in Texas for possession of a small quantity of coke. An anti-drug crusader should be willing to proclaim his drug-free past, or cop to his own behavior and explain why it's OK to lock up people for doing something a would-be president indulged in without penalty.

As for the zone of privacy, if such a thing actually exists for those who would be president in this media-sodden age--and don't bet the mortgage that it does--Bush had already shrunken if not eviscerated his. This, after all, is the very same candidate who has hardly been bashful about wallowing in his own marital fidelity. And Bush has had no problem freely discussing his own spiritual reawakening and his triumph over the hard drinking ways of his pre-40 life.

So what's the message: My private life is fair game when it might score me political points but off-limits when it's inconvenient?

There's another reason why the questioning might not be quite as off base as it seems. There was much moaning that all of this cocaine talk was getting in the way of serious scrutiny of the issues. But too frequently in today's politics, there aren't all that many issues.

Instead, there's an emphasis on character, on morality. Vote for me because I'm a better person.

Once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no turning back. It was Bush's own bobbing and weaving, more than the nattering of the negative nabobs, that kept the "story" alive. The irony is that despite its less-than-savory beginning, the coke interlude was our most revealing look at George W. Bush, even including Tucker Carlson's excellent profile in the debut issue of the astonishingly hyped Talk magazine.

Cornered, Bush's behavior could only be described as "Clintonesque." The refusal to answer the question, the assault on "the Washington game," then the too-clever-by-half and ever-changing responses: Was this right out of the president's dog-eared playbook or what?

There's another irony at work as well. The Republicans, who seem to like things biblical anyway, have learned what it's like to reap what you sow.

The politics of virtue were fun when that simply entailed belaboring President Clinton for his lusty ways. It was significantly less fun when the peccadilloes of Republican congressmen and noted moralists Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth and Dan Burton became media fodder. Or when Speaker-elect Robert Livingston's political career imploded thanks to the probing of Larry Flynt-funded truth-seekers. Then came the questions about coke.

In an article in March's AJR, Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald's editorial page editor, made a good point about when covering the private lives of public figures is valid. "I think," Fiedler said, "we have an obligation to expose hypocrisy in public officials."

When virtue becomes the issue, the questions are going to come.