Prodigal son

How will George W. Bush -- and the GOP -- confront the whispers about his past?

Published April 9, 1999 11:42AM (EDT)

Here in the host city of the 2000 Republican National Convention, it's official: Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the Republican to beat. Not only has Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge endorsed him, but on March 31, 10 Pennsylvania party activists and major donors flew to Austin to sup with the man who would be president. Alongside 20 other power brokers and fat cats from California, the Keystone State Republicans sat down for lunch at the upscale Shoreline Grill, next to the Austin Four Seasons, and Bush began his serenade.

"He started with the salad and went right on through," says candy magnate Bob Asher, one of Pennsylvania's two Republican National Committee members. "He spoke and answered questions -- and there were some very pointed questions. I went down there to see what he was all about, and I was impressed. I liked the fire; I liked the honesty. I've been involved in politics since Dewey-Truman, and I'm used to getting a lot of manure. But you didn't get that with him." That afternoon, Asher, his RNC counterpart and the state chairman all endorsed Bush's exploratory committee. Now, Pennsylvania Republicans like Asher are charged with raising major cash for the Bush campaign -- $1 million in the next two months, by one estimate.

But even at the lovefest at the Shoreline Grill, Asher admits, there was an awkward moment when Bush had to answer the "pointed questions" about his allegedly hard-partying past.

"I'm paraphrasing here," Asher says, "but he said something like, 'We're baby boomers, and I've made mistakes in my life that I'm not always happy about, but I'm going to move forward.'" The group didn't press the questions any further. "With 30 people you don't bring it up. You'd probably pull him aside and say something like, 'Wait -- how the hell you going to address this thing?' But it's out there and all of us know it's out there. We're not going into the thing blind."

What rumors are out there? About what you'd expect from a Texas Good Ol' Boy who went to Yale in the 1960s and made some money in Texas in the '80s -- drinking and drugs and diddling around. Texas columnist Molly Ivins, a liberal who normally skewers George W. (in fact, she nicknamed him "Shrub" in 1992) confessed this week she feels a little sorry for her frequent adversary, now that there are so many reporters skulking around Texas, looking into Bush's past. "I offer to explain how Bush flubbed the tax reform proposals last session -- couldn't even get his own party to go along -- and the visiting journalists want to know if he ever used drugs," Ivins complained. Already, Bush's advisors and top Republican strategists are brainstorming about how to handle the character questions that are likely to dog the GOP front-runner.

And front-runner he certainly is. The Bush money machine is chugging along strong: With less than a year to go until the New Hampshire primary, the Bush campaign has already snagged $6 million, three times as much cash as his closest financial rival for the GOP nomination -- his dad's former No. 2, ex-Vice President Dan Quayle. On Wednesday, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire announced he was endorsing Bush, giving him an incredible organizational boost in that key primary state. Now, with the unprecedented official outpouring of support for Bush -- at last count, 13 governors (including Ridge), six senators and 87 members of the House -- the pending primaries and caucuses almost seem a trifle.

In 1979, by contrast, then-Reps. Gerry Solomon and Trent Lott tried to muster congressional endorsements for Ronald Reagan, but they were only able to garner 15 supporters. Solomon, now CEO of a lobbying and consulting firm, is conducting a similar task for Bush, and he's finding it a snap. In just his first meeting to drum up support at the Capitol Hill Club in late February, Solomon was able to get 55 members of Congress to sign up. He anticipates reaching 100 by the end of next week.

"Look at the list of endorsements," says a thoroughly juiced Solomon, proudly pointing out that Bush's support ranges from liberal Republican Reps. Connie Morella of Maryland and Jim Leach of Iowa to |berconservative Reps. David Dreier of California and Phil Crane of Illinois. Bush "has proven that conservatism can be compassionate. That's why he has such breadth of support among women and minorities. It's uncanny, his support."

But don't order tickets for the Bush coronation just yet. Conservative activists are already wary of the self-described "compassionate conservative." Says Focus on the Family's James Dobson: "We don't know what he believes." Political insiders wonder aloud if revelations about a personal life more befitting a Democrat than a GOP standard-bearer could derail the Bush train.

Gov. Bush himself has acknowledged some trouble in his past. In statements recalling then-Gov. Clinton's admission to have "caused pain" in his marriage, Bush has said that he did "some irresponsible things when I was young and irresponsible," but that's been about as specific as he's gotten lately. He wasn't always so circumspect about his reputation for womanizing. Ten years ago, at the 1988 Republican Convention, Hartford Courant associate editor David Fink struck up a conversation with George W. "When you're not talking politics," Fink asked the vice president's son, "what do you and [your father] talk about?"

"Pussy," George W. replied.

Bush has also acknowledged that he used to drink to excess, though he's insisted that he hasn't touched a drop since his 40th birthday celebration 12 years ago. (He won't admit to alcoholism, however.) But he abjectly refuses to comment on his rumored use of other, less legal, self-medicatons -- like the use of marijuana or (cue the thunderclap) cocaine. When interviewed by WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, and asked if "drugs, marijuana, cocaine" had ever found their way into his bloodstream, Bush replied: "I'm not going to talk about what I did as a child. What I am going to talk about -- and I am going to say this consistently -- [is that] it is irrelevant what I did 20 to 30 years ago. What's relevant is that I have learned from any mistakes I made. I do not want to send signals to anybody that what Gov. Bush did 30 years ago is cool to try."

Bush's Clintonian statements aren't helping to put the issue to bed. "If I had done anything in the past that would have disqualified me for being in public office, you'd have found it," Bush said to reporters when asked about the whispers about his past. "When I put my hand on the Bible and was sworn to uphold the laws of the land, of the state, I also implicitly said I'd uphold the dignity of the office I was elected to, and I have done so." If there exists anyone out there who couldn't teach Parsing 101 after watching our president's weaselly ways this past year, let's be clear what Bush is denying in the above statement: absolutely nothing.

"There are rumors that he might have danced on a bar in the nude when he was in college, that's one thing," ardent supporter Gerry Solomon admits. "But you're not breaking any laws there. And whatever he did in his 30s, he was not an alcoholic. In the environment he was working in -- which was the high rollers in Texas in the '80s -- there might have been situations that were not exemplary. But since that time I don't think there was anything, and he hasn't broken the law. He's said that he drank too much, but since he straightened himself out, he's led an exemplary life."

Democratic and Republican campaign operatives say that the persistent rumors are something that Bush will have to deal with more candidly if he wants to hold the most powerful job in the world. But so far, the Bush campaign disagrees.

"The rumors are ridiculous and we're not going to dignify them with responses," says Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes.

But the campaign's refusal to "dignify" rumors is inconsistent. Hughes will address the gossip about Bush's alleged womanizing, for example, insisting that her boss has been faithful to his wife. (And lest we forget, it was George W. who in 1987 was handed the unseemly task of telling the world that his father had never strayed from his mother: "The answer to 'the Big A' is N-O," he said.) So it seems that the younger Bush is only unwilling to dignify media intrusions into his personal life when the subject involves the use of illegal narcotics -- arguably a personal tidbit far more relevant than infidelity for someone aspiring to be what Republicans during impeachment termed the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the United States.

Ironically, Bush is counting on impeachment fatigue -- fed up voters tired of tales of soiled dresses, spelunking cigars and the like -- to make opponents' efforts to bring up his past backfire. The questions are "an unpleasant fact of political life, and one of the reasons people are so disgusted with politics," says Hughes. "He has admitted that as a younger man he has made mistakes, but he is not going to itemize them. Everyone has to decide on their own how they're going to answer these kinds of irrelevant questions. Gov. Bush has decided how he's going to handle it."

That approach is flying with some politicos. One expert New Hampshire political observer says that Bush is riding high in the polls there right now and probably won't have to address any tawdry allegations unless tangible proof of wrongdoing materializes. "If George W. just says, 'Quite frankly, I'm not answering that; you'll have to take me as I am,' I think he'll be fine," says New Hampshire State Sen. Pat Krueger. "If this were four years ago, it might be different. But now, we've just been so inundated with this stuff the only ones asking the questions are reporters, not Joe Schmo."

Dee Stewart, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, goes so far as to say that by refusing to delve into his past mistakes, Bush is setting a proud example. "So many things today celebrate all the wrong things about people's lives and in a way, it's irresponsible," Stewart says. The culture war has never been about eradicating immoral behaviors, Stewart says, it's been about not wanting to celebrate them. "When you look at an opinion leader like Bill Clinton who bragged that he used marijuana and laughed about it -- and over the next six years there was a rise in the use of marijuana by 140 percent -- it's clear that the statements that leaders make do affect society. What Bush is saying by not getting into it is, 'Hey, we don't bring out the best in our children by celebrating the mistakes that we may have made in our past.'"

But a Gallup poll conducted in February for CNN/USA Today indicates that 72 percent of Republicans believe that the public has a right to know if a presidential candidate "had used drugs in the past." And even some of Bush's most ardent supporters think the sandbags can't hold indefinitely. "I think he will [address the rumors] in due course," says former Rep. Solomon. "I think he will answer all questions in due course. But I don't think anything he's done can compare to Bill Clinton."

Republican National Committeeman Asher agrees. "At the appropriate time, the governor will have to address whatever rumors are out there."

So how to do it? Let's presume that George W. has done more than fail to inhale. The problem for Bush may be his knowledge that, like the first line of American soldiers storming Omaha Beach, the first political person to 'fess to a particular sin usually becomes cannon fodder. If New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was the first candidate disqualified for being a divorcee, if eminently qualified Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg saw his nomination hobbled because he was the first to own up to having smoked a doobie, if Gary Hart bit the bullet on skirt-chasing, what candidate in his right mind would want to take one for the team on recreational drug use, perhaps even cocaine?

But the media's Mongol hordes smell blood. When word got out last week that Bush had once been engaged to a Rice University student named Cathy Wolfman (now Cathy Young), the media converged on her and her parents. As the Washington Post gossip column said on Friday: "Much of the speculation about Bush's reluctance to run for the White House centers on his self-described 'young and irresponsible' years. Young, 52, is considered a prime source for juicy details."

Young wouldn't dish the goods, but that doesn't mean that reporters have given up on scouring the land, looking for party girls and coke fiends with tales to tell out of school.

And there are limits as to how sordid a past Bush can have, which may also explain his reticence. Solomon says that he doubts the governor has ever used cocaine. When asked if he would continue to support Bush even if he had used coke, Solomon hesitates. "I'd have to think about it," he finally says.

"If someone produced evidence of [cocaine use], it changes the equation," Iowa GOP chieftain Stewart acknowledges. But Stewart is quick to point out the when did you stop beating your wife quality to the question. "Our society needs to get away from the whole notion that when someone runs for political office, their days from the cradle forward -- who they danced with at their high school dance -- [are] fair game for the press to get into. The mainstream media, tabloid media and pornography have in many ways merged."

But even if the media swore off scandals altogether, there's a full field of Republican contenders who probably wouldn't. It's hard to imagine that every Republican who wants control of the planet -- a list including sanctimonious Christians Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, brawler Pat Buchanan, gazillionaire Steve Forbes (who invested thousands in negative ads against front-runner Bob Dole in the last go-round), resentful could-have-beens Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle and firebrands Sen. John McCain and Rep. John Kasich -- will give the Texas governor a pass on his who-knows-how-sullied past. "There's a lot of wishful thinking by a lot of people who want to be president that there's a silver bullet that will just shoot Bush out of the sky," says Stewart.

Indeed, Tim Goeglein, communications director for Bauer for President 2000, insists that Bauer's "will be an issue-related campaign." However, he hastens to add, "if it is proven that a president of the United States or a man running for president of the United States has used illegal drugs, that will be an issue. If any American has broken the law and that American is running for the highest office in the land, that would certainly be an issue."

Bush may be especially vulnerable, since his campaign has decided to emphasize "personal responsibility." That's not an interpretation, that's from his speech announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. "I am committed to helping usher in the responsibility era, an era in which all individuals in this great land understand they are responsible for their actions, responsible for the decisions they make, responsible for the children they bring into this world," Bush said on March 2. Does the theme make him open to charges of hypocrisy? Does taking responsibility for one's misdeeds necessarily entail confessing them?

One top GOP strategist who says the race is "Bush's to lose" suggests a creative if somewhat cynical way for the prodigal son to explain his past. Wait until there's another Chris Farley-like tragedy, when a hard-partying celebrity dies of overindulgence, the strategist says. Then give a heartfelt speech "about the challenges of life and the ability of one to overcome those challenges."

The Republican National Committee's Asher says that Bush may be able to dispense with the issue, but only if he acknowledges it. "As long as the guy stands up there and says, 'Yeah, I drank too much, I used drugs ... but it was wrong,' he'll be fine," Asher says. "I was always taught in my church, you forgive people if they come clean. I was taught that was what religion was all about. If you truly are a person who believes in Christianity, you don't sit around and be judgmental. So some guy made a mistake three years ago. Or 20 years ago. If you really are a religious person, you forgive that."

Especially when the sinner is so damned appealing ... at least for right now.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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