With his nebulous responses to the question of whether he has ever used illegal narcotics, George W. Bush may be doing the nation a great service. The spectacle of the current feeding frenzy is as ugly as always -- but for once the "politics of personal destruction" may encourage an overdue debate about real public policy issues:
Are the laws that send thousands of people to prison every year for drug possession administered fairly? Is justice served by incarcerating young, nonviolent drug offenders? Should the courts mandate treatment rather than imprisonment for people who make the kind of "mistake" that the Republican front-runner has now all but admitted?
Journalists playing the gotcha game delight in pointing out the contradictions in Bush's selective discussion of his own character and behavior. He is eager to inform us that he is a faithful spouse and a teetotalling churchgoer, but he is offended when we inquire about his "youthful indiscretions" -- giving off a whiff of hypocrisy that smells all too familiar at this point.
Already, however, the arguments over what presidential candidates should have to reveal about their past personal misbehavior sound shopworn and frivolous. It's obviously time for the press corps to try shouldering a little more intellectual weight.
What matters here is not what Bush should or shouldn't say about himself, but whether he and all the other politicians advocating harsh punishment of drug offenders can square that failed policy with their personal experience. ("They got caught and I didn't" probably wouldn't go over too well in a focus group.) If and when the Texas governor reaches the confessional stage of his campaign crisis, someone ought to ask him why he believes a 14-year-old Houston slum kid should do time in an adult facility for the same "crime" that had no legal consequences at all for the wealthy, white and well-connected "W."
Answering honestly would require Bush to acknowledge one of the uglier aspects of the bipartisan "war on drugs" -- which is that like other kinds of wars, the casualties of this endless conflict are heavily concentrated among those who lack money, influence and social standing. Class will tell, as the saying used to go in places like Kennebunkport.
And what class tells us is that rich drug abusers get treatment and sympathy, while the poor get prison and scorn. The social disparities in the punishment of drug offenders are aptly illustrated by two cases: one that is statistically valid, and another that is simply real.
First, let's consider the typical drug defendant, who as we all know is likely to be a young jobless male without a high school diploma. A disproportionate number also are black or Latino. The average sentence for narcotics possession meted out to this typical defendant is roughly four years behind bars, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Department.
Upon conviction, the prospects for this typical offender are poor, since he is unlikely to receive treatment and will eventually emerge into society with a criminal record that leaves him pretty much unfit for any kind of work except the criminal conduct that sent him to prison in the first place.
Now let's examine the contrasting case of a more fortunate druggie -- a prominent Reaganite not altogether unlike the current Republican presidential front-runner. Lawrence Kudlow, the conservative Ivy-educated son of a rich New Jersey businessman, once served as chief economist for the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan administration. Later, he earned $1 million a year at the investment house of Bear Stearns. He was also a cocaine addict who checked into the Hazelden clinic in 1995, after he blacked out and his third wife threatened to divorce him.
Following successful treatment, the reformed Kudlow has told his sad story on television and returned to the good graces of his sympathetic fellow Republicans. He currently advises the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on tax and budget policy, no doubt urging big cuts in domestic spending (including publicly funded drug treatment programs for those who can't afford Hazelden or the Betty Ford Clinic).
In short, Kudlow has benefitted from liberal attitudes toward drug abuse, which prescribe medicalization rather than criminalization. Among his Republican peers, however, that kinder, gentler approach is considered too lenient to be applied to the poor.
This is where Bush's "compassionate conservatism" confronts rude reality. Judging from his past remarks and present policies, it is clear that he doesn't extend much compassion to the young and foolish who fool around with drugs.
Running for governor in 1994, he mocked incumbent Democrat Ann Richards' suggestion to increase treatment programs in the Texas correctional system. "Incarceration is rehabilitation," he said meanly, insisting that the state should spend more money on jails rather than treatment for juvenile offenders.
That is why George W. Bush deserves to be interrogated about cocaine and marijuana every day until he stops thumbing his nose and coughs up a true and comprehensive answer. He needs to be asked not only what drugs he did or didn't do in the distant past, but how he justifies his Draconian approach to drug use today.
Nor should the Democrats running for president -- both of whom have admitted smoking pot years ago -- escape similar moral scrutiny. All of them must tell us why anyone should languish in prison for doing what these candidates for chief law enforcement officer of the United States have admitted doing themselves.