George W. Bush's first dance in the frying pan has been rewarding for Democrats, but they're not alone in savoring the sweat on his brow raised by persistent media questions about his past drug use. Many conservative-leaning observers, including this writer, welcome the heir's long-awaited appearance in the hot seat, mainly to see what "the boy" (as George Will has pegged him) is made of.
Some Republican and conservative operatives believe the heat may have lasting effects. "Initially he had a plausible and workable strategy," says Roger Stone, a veteran of eight Republican presidential campaigns. "There is a growing feeling that the media are out of control, that political leaders and celebrities have a right to privacy."
But Bush stumbled, Stone believes, when he began "answering by degrees. That raises additional questions." What about lasting damage? "Way too early to tell," says Stone, but the possibility definitely exists. "The danger is that he is largely an undefined commodity. People are still forming impressions. At this time a discussion of cocaine is not a positive."
Those of us of a libertarian bent, however, delight in Bush's squirming, and see the opportunity to ask a serious policy-related question: Does Gov. Bush, a fierce and unforgiving anti-drug warrior in his home state of Texas, believe he should have been jailed if he used cocaine 25 years ago (as his coded, time-framed non-denials seem to imply)? Unfortunately, that question will probably never be answered, but libertarians may begin to ask it, loudly.
Bush might be expected to have the most trouble with conservative women and religious activists. They have spent the last few years flogging the White House nookie monster for his evasions and lapses, and can't help but notice that their man has a Clintonian odor about him of late. But their desire to back a winner might overcome their worries about Bush's past.
"All politicians aspire to a noble hypocrisy," observes Grace Paine Terzian, the flame-haired minister of propaganda and vice president at the conservative Independent Women's Forum. "From my perspective, youthful cocaine use is not as troubling as cheating on your wife." Grace blames the intrusive media for Bush's problems, though she admits feeling little such sympathy for Clinton during his long, slow evisceration. "That's my prejudice at work," she admits, adding she will give Bush a pass for the most politically noble of reasons: "We want our guy to win."
This line of reasoning was echoed by many. Bush would have to approach the frontiers of butt-naked barbarism to spook Terzian and her allies. But others are more concerned. Michael Jones, chief of the Voice of the Elephant Political Awareness Committee of Ft. Worth, Texas, likes Bush so far, but says his reaction to the cocaine question worried him. "His answers are pure Clintonspeak," says Jones. "They raise the character question. If he came forward and said, 'I was just a spoiled rich brat but I got over these problems,' that would be one thing. But he doesn't, so this could hurt him."
But where are voters like Jones going to go? It could be that, as in November 1998, when Democrats unexpectedly gained seats in Congress, conservative voters won't go to the polls. "Last time around, no candidate lit up conservatives," Jones explains, "so we stayed home. Most of us already think Bush is too liberal. If he becomes tarnished by character questions, we'll stay home again, or go to a third party." The result, he says, will be to "give the Democrats the trifecta -- the presidency and both houses of Congress." Such is the price of principle among deep-woods conservatives.
No one knows how many cliff-jumpers there are in the Republican ranks. But Bush faces a problem with religious conservatives that is deeper than cocaine allegations. That problem is sincerity -- or the lack thereof. The past few weeks have caused some conservatives to question Bush's character, and they are not as forgiving of character flaws as Clinton's Democratic friends.
"The Christian right would quickly forgive Bush for cocaine," says Roberto Rivera, a Christian intellectual at Charles Colson's Wilberforce Forum. "After all, many of them have had similar conversions. The problem with Bush is that there's a growing impression that he really isn't a changed man." Rivera points to Bush's Talk magazine interview with conservative journalist Tucker Carlson, in which Bush used the F-word and made light of Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas double murderer and religious convert who is much admired among evangelicals.
"That bothers the religious right much more than the cocaine story," says Rivera, an insight seconded by Michael Cromartie, who heads the evangelical studies projects at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "If he keeps using the F-word, he's going to have real trouble," says Cromartie. "And he made a major mistake by making fun of Karla Faye Tucker. Evangelicals found her to be a very sympathetic person."
If evangelicals do not believe Bush's conversion from a hard-drinking, and perhaps hard-drug ingesting, party boy is authentic, he will experience a wasting away of support that, until very recently, seemed very much in the bag.
"All of this lends support to people like Paul Weyrich, who are seriously questioning political involvement by religious conservatives," says Rivera. "They've been involved for 20 years, but all they've gotten is lip service from the Republicans." They have also suffered plenty of embarrassments, most recently when supposed comrade in arms Newt Gingrich was once again exposed as a cad.
"Gingrich was invited to address the Christian Coalition even though everyone knew he was having monkey sex with one of his younger aides," says Rivera. "The Bush situation confirms the idea that politics may not be the best place for religious conservatives to put their hopes."
This is not a universal view, Rivera adds. Even religious conservatives who are not overly fond of Bush are defending him as the victim of Democratic leaks and a hostile media. Bill Murray, son of missing (and presumed dead) professional atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Chairman of the Religious Freedom Council, questions the credibility of the damaging Talk magazine interview. The publication's "sensationalism" makes him doubt Carlson's revelations, despite Carlson's solid conservative credentials. Short of Bush being caught in an outright lie, Murray thinks the Republican front-runner will suffer little permanent harm.
One thing's for sure, however: Some of the glow is off Bush's halo.