Seldom has a public career been snuffed as fast as Dr. Peter Bourne's. On a Tuesday, the psychiatrist was on the White House staff, the president's top adviser on drugs and an important collaborator in the work of politics and public policy. Puff! By Thursday he's resigned and vanished into the nebula of nasty surmises and smirched reputation.
Dr. Bourne may not only hold the record for the quickest execution, but also the one based on the most trifling of causes. He has been chased out of public life because as a doctor, he wrote one prescription for 15 sleeping pills with a phony name on it to protect his patient's privacy.
The patient was his assistant, Ellen Metsky, who feared the fact that she was prescribed for by a psychiatirst could subsequently be used against her in politics and government. Vide Sen. Thomas Eagleton and the vice presidency in 1972.
Writing a pseudonym on a prescription is against the law, so when the authorities accidentally learned of this infraction, they immediately made Metsky's name public, the mass media immediately broadcast it everywhere and Bourne was immediately ruined.
I've known Peter Bourne for 12 years, long before he had any thought of going into politics. This biases me in his favor, but it also enables someone who has known him since he was a young doctor and U.S. Army officer to realize how seriously Bourne has been wronged and the rest of us have been cheated by his forced retirement.
An ethical man, an honorable man, a careful and cautious doctor, what is past believing is that there aren't even any allegations in what! I suppose we'll have to call the Bourne case. No money was involved, no conflict of interest, no lobbying - licit or illicit - no bribes, no smuggling, no dope traffic, no nothing. Even though he technically violated an obscure law, it's straining to tax Bourne even with bad judgement. What he did was to be a doctor to his patient.
The customary practice for government figures, when being hit by dangerous accusations, is to fight back, and Bourne did at first issue a statement saying he would clear his name. Twenty-four hours later he decided that, as he told President Carter, "there really is no way for me to combat the charges publicly made against me and the rumors which run rampantly throughout this community. . . I have watched and read the press and television reports of my problem. . . I have seen law enforcement officers release to the World the name of my patient, other articles containing the grossest innuendo and obviously emanating from law enforcement sources, a prosecuting altorney discuss my case on national television. . . now the attacks move from my medical conduct to my personal conduct."
He's right. The presciption incident is so minor it's inconceivable it'll ever get to court. Remember the uproar is over 15 lousy pills of a drug so common that doctors wrote more than a million prescriptions for it last year alone. Bourne isn't going to get his day in court because no court entertains accusations so frivolous.
We're left with gossipy trash about Bourne having been seen at a party at some time or other smoking a reefer or sniffing coke. I've never seen him do either, but if he did, he wouldn't be the first White House person in this administration or others to take some dope. If we're going to fire everyone in this country who's smoked a joint or snorted a spoonful of white nose corrosion, the upcoming unemployment the Republicans keep predicting is going to be a lot worse than even they hope.
Under other circumstances Bourne might hope for vindication in the president's keeping him on, but Mr. Carter is so weak politically he has had to concede to Congress and the mass media a de facto veto over the personnel on his own staff. The only places Bourne has to reply for redress are the news organizations who took his good name in an idle hour's exercise of power. They ran him out of public life for the same reason the biggest kid in the locker room snaps a wet towel at another boy's fanny - to hear the yelp and to remind everyone who is bigger than who.
There's no defense against big media. Big media defends its own just like doctors do. Sometimes you can get them to make a correction, very rarely a retraction. But when did you last hear or read an apology? - a front page editorial, the lead on network news show where they start off by saying. "We're sorry, we violated somebody's privacy, we wrecked a career, we ruined a home, we acted arrogantly, we threw out weight around and we hurt people."
Anyhow, I am sorry, but Bourne is a good and gifted man and there are enough people in America who wink and chuckle at mass media malarkey so that Bourne will make his contribution, if not in Washington, then somewhere.