This time, the panic hasn't set in the way it did the times before, when everyone froze each time the telephone rang and racked their memories and held their breath. There is a general feeling, at least on the surface, that if the political trendies survived presidential drug adviser Peter Bourne's resignation and political writer Alan Baron's arrest on cocaine charges and the Hamilton Jordan investigation, they'll get through Tim Kraft's imbroglio as well.
What is disturbing this time around, say the White House aides, whose observations should not be construed as reflecting on their own recreational preferences on those of their companions, are the reports that it was a colleague who gave information to a grand jury concerning former presidential aide Tom Kraft's alleged cocaine use.
There is paranoia in the air. There is talk of which hunts, of a kind of cocaine McCarthyism, of the way in which a mere allegation can be used to ruin a career even if, after many months and thousands of dollars, the end result is exoneration.
One aide repeats an old LBJ story by way of explaining the way in which the 1978 Ethics in Government Act has become, he feels, a dangerously unguided missile. It is the tattered tale of how Lyndon Johnson once threatened to leak a story about Bobby Kennedy at the time Kennedy was running against him in the primaries. The story was that Kennedy was gay. Someone mentioned that the story had no basis in fact. I know, LBJ is reported to have said. But let's make the little bastard deny it.
The problem, say the aides, is that the merest whisper of evidence can set the heavy machinery of the Ethics Act in motion, can force the appointment of a special prosecutor, the loss of a job and reputation and the expenditure of thousands of dollars in legal fees while the charges are investigated, charges that, in cases like Kraft's, are so minor that they are rarely even prosecuted.
"What is really frightening," says the aide, "is that if someone really wants to get me, they can. If I've made an enemy somewhere along the way, even if it's a worker in the White House mess, they can just accuse me, and I'm guilty before I even know what the charges are -- guilty as far as the press is concerned and my career is concerned, guilty whether there is any basis in fact or not."
Of course the situation breeds its own gallows humor. Gathered around a few bottles of beer ("rapidly becoming the drug of prudence if not of choice," as one of them comments) they plot political obituaries. "In lieu of flowers it is suggested that expressions of sympathy be made in the form of contributions to Synanon."
Another remarks on the hopelessness of trying to remember specific instances of drug use two years old. "If they called me in front of a grand jury and asked me where I did cocaine in 1977," remarks a former White House minion. "I'd have to say I did it where I could find it. And with who ever had it."
"Maybe everybody should just accuse everybody else," suggested one young woman. "Then it would take them years to investigate them all.We could take our tactics from Mao -- "Let 1,000 special prosecutors bloom."
"We were crazy," says a man who has watched the good times roll since 76. "But it's not surprising. It was a natural result of the '60s generation coming to power. Drugs were always illegal."
Now, he says, "You can't go to a party with people under 40 in this town without running into coke. You can't do this story without mentioning the Supreme Court law clerks, the Hill people -- what about the senators and the congressmen? They're not on the hot seat. Why don't they clean up their own backyard?"
There is a pause. "You know," he concluded, "I hate to think of the stories that are going to surface when this generation starts running for president."
There are rumors that a grand jury was also looking into allegations similar to Kraft's against certain "young journalists." The White House types are not surprised. Ever since presidential drug adviser Peter Bourne resigned amid published news reports that he snorted cocaine at a party where reporters were present as invited guests, a new dimension has been added to the old debate of where reporters draw the line between private lives and professional responsibilities.
The shared use of illegal drugs between reporters and their sources has occupied a strange postion in the shifting sands of on-the-record off-the-record and not-for-attribution. Not only was it assumed that such things would not be reported, it was risk that was shared equally. The chemical communion could establish a common bond between reporters and sources.
But they were tenous relationships of best. Covering one drug-related story was reporters who denied their own drug use to their editors in order to stay on the story. When the rumor went around, following the launching of the Hamilton Jordon investigation, that a journalist was calling up White House aides and asking them about their drugs use at a party at which he himself had allegedly been observed using drugs, the threats flowed freely.
"If the day ever comes when it's the press against the politicians," said one politico, "That little bastard is going to be dead."
"Everyone knows what the rules are now," said one aide, by way of explaining why he didn't want to be interviewed." And the rule is that you don't talk about this. Even among ourselves, although God knows it took us long enough to figure that out. But no, I'm not really that worried this time. Maybe I'm just resigned. And maybe it's just there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
The young White House aide is sitting back and telling a story, one, he says, that illustrates the stand he and his friends have adopted toward the investigation of Tim Kraft's alleged use of cocaine in 1977 and the possibility that he might not be the only aide against whom such allegations are lodged.
The story, which long ago may have passed into the realm of the apocryphal,, goes like this: A colleague whose reputation as a philanderer was legendary tells his wife that he is off to Ocean City with a long-lost college friend who is coming into town for the night. He does go to Ocean City -- with his mistress. Meanwhile, the friend actually does arrive in town and telephones the philanderer's wife.
She takes him in, gives him dinner and a room for the night, and the next morning drives him to the airport. When her husband returns with fond tales of the late night he spent with his old friend, she confronts him angerily.
Your explanation is absurd, she tells him, your friend was here. I want to know the truth. Caught red-handed, he pauses, but only for a moment. That's my story, he says finally. And I'm sticking to it.
"That's what I'm going to say if they ask me about cocaine," said the aide telling the story. "I can't imagine any circumstances where I would say I saw someone doing it. That's what's so hard to understand about [published reports that Evan Dobelle answered grand jury questions concerning Tim Kraft's possible drug use]. All you have to say is No -- I've never used cocaine, I don't know anybody who has ever used cocaine, I don't even know what cocaine looks like.
"That's my story," he said. "And I'm sticking to it."