AT LEAST two Americans came to discover exactly what George Bush meant when he promised "to get tougher, tougher than we've ever been" on drugs. One was a drug-dealing novice, the other a cocaine kingpin.

The novice was Keith Jackson. He was the 18-year-old who was charged with (but acquitted of) selling the bag of crack that President Bush held up during a nationally televised speech on the nation's drug problems in September 1989. The kingpin was Leonel Martinez, one of the most successful drug dealers in the United States in the 1980s. Known as a respectable Republican campaign contributor, Martinez also transported cocaine by the kilo and marijuana by the ton across the Caribbean. He lived in a $2.5 million mansion next door to Oakland A's slugger Jose Canseco in one of the swankest neighborhoods of metropolitan Miami.

Together, their stories provide an epitaph of sorts for the Bush administration's war on drugs.

The idea of holding up a bag of crack had been dreamed up in the summer of 1989 by a clever speechwriter from Yale. Bush liked the idea. Phone calls went from the White House to the attorney general's office to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the local police. The request-cum-order: Lure somebody -- anybody -- to Lafayette Park and buy crack cocaine from him.

Keith Jackson, at the time, was a suspected entry-level dealer who was just starting his senior year at Spingarn High School. He lived with his mother, younger brother and grandfather on M Street NE. His friends described him as loyal, easy-going and popular with girls. His teachers found him pleasant and consistently gave him D's. Keith said he wanted to be a barber. He had also sold cocaine on four occasions to undercover government agents. All the president's men set him up as their sucker.

Bush, though, could have also chosen another symbol of the nation's drug problem: a photograph, then in possession of law enforcement authorities in Miami that showed Bush as vice president shaking the hand of Leonel Martinez. The photograph, no less than a drug sale in Lafayette Park, illustrated how illicit drug activities had reached every corner of American life.

The problem was that Leonel Martinez was something of a political philanthropist who specialized in helping the Bush family. His first campaign contribution came in May 1984, when he donated $200 to the Dade County Republican Party, chaired by Jeb Bush, George Bush's son. In September 1984, he donated another $2,000 to Jeb Bush's party. On Dec. 5, 1985, Martinez wrote a check for $5,000 to the Fund for the Future of America, a political action committee set up to advance Vice President Bush's political career. In July 1986, he donated another $5,000, the legal maximum, to George Bush's PAC. It was probably around this time that Martinez had his picture taken with Bush.

In October 1986, Martinez had attended a Republican fund-raiser in Miami where Bush was the keynote speaker. The next day Martinez donated $6,000 to the Republican gubernatorial candidate -- whose campaign was chaired by Jeb Bush. In October 1987, after yet another appearance by George Bush in Miami, Martinez and his wife each donated $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign.

All the while, Martinez was transporting huge quantities of drugs into the United States. In 1983 and 1984, he imported 10 to 12 loads of marijuana weighing 4,000 to 5,000 pounds each. Another boat carrying 23,000 pounds of marijuana was intercepted by police in June 1984, just a few weeks after his first campaign contribution. Customs agents, though, were unable to link Martinez to the drugs. Between July 1985 and February 1986, Martinez attempted to transport 3,400 pounds of cocaine into the United States in four different shipments. Martinez was finally arrested in June 1989 after buying 800 pounds of cocaine from undercover agents.

There's no evidence that George or Jeb Bush knew, or even suspected, that Leonel Martinez was a drug trafficker when they accepted his contributions. The Internal Revenue Service, Customs, and the DEA had all had their suspicions about the source of his money. But their investigations between 1983 and 1987 proved nothing conclusively and were, in any case, not available to the Bushes.

Nor is there any evidence that the Bushes attempted to return Leonel Martinez's contributions when they learned in June 1989 that he had been arrested on drug charges. The Bush PAC that Martinez favored was still in existence at the time; its treasurer, Roy G. Hale, says that if he had been informed of Martinez's arrest, he would have returned the money promptly.

Thus when Bush held up the bag of crack in his September 1989 speech, he and his son knew or should have known that an indicted cocaine kingpin had given thousands of dollars to their campaign organizations. Yet the president preferred to dramatize the drug problem by luring Keith Jackson to Lafayette Park.

The White House got its prop -- at the expense of an ongoing police investigation. Keith Jackson, it turned out, wasn't really the main target of the probe. Agents had been cultivating him in the hope that he could lead them to bigger players in the distribution network of Rayful Edmonds, one of the biggest drug dealers in Washington. They didn't arrest him after the undercover buy because they really wanted a bigger dealer.

After Bush's speech, the agents had to abandon that plan. They feared that Jackson or somebody close to him might have seen the president talking about crack purchased in Lafayette Park and realize he had been set up. Jackson was arrested. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post revealed how the crack sale had been arranged. When reporters badgered Bush about the propriety of the set-up, the president responded angrily, "You don't have any sympathy for this drug guy, do you?"

Not really. When Keith Jackson went on trial in December 1989 on five counts of selling drugs, there was not much media attention. The jury could not reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. He was retried in January 1990 and convicted for two of the cocaine sales to the undercover agents. Under the provisions of a tougher anti-drug law passed (with the vocal support of George Bush) in 1987, Judge Stanley Sporkin had no choice but to sentence Jackson to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Jackson is now serving his time in a federal prison in Petersburg, Va.

Leonel Martinez escaped the brunt of that law. In October 1990 he pleaded guilty to running a continuing criminal enterprise and entered a detailed description of his drug trafficking career. He surrendered nearly $22 million in assets and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Martinez's plea agreement stated that he was only pleading guilty to crimes committed before the tougher 1987 sentencing law went into effect -- despite the fact that he was arrested in possession of hundreds of pounds of cocaine in 1989. Martinez thus gained the possibility of more generous "good time" provisions and consideration for parole. A Justice Department official familiar with the case says that the fact that Martinez was 60 years old and in poor health meant leniency was not inappropriate and that, in any case, no political pressure had been brought to bear on his behalf.

It's not like Martinez wasn't trying. Formal approval of the plea bargain had to be provided by Dexter Lehtinen, the top federal prosecutor in Miami -- who owed his job to Jeb and George Bush. Lehtinen, a former Republican state legislator with little prosecutorial experience, is married to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the congresswoman from Miami. In July 1990, while Leonel Martinez's case was still under consideration by Lehtinen's office, his wife's campaign received a $500 campaign contribution from Margarita Martinez, Leonel's wife. Three months later, Martinez pleaded guilty.

Martinez cooperated with federal drug investigators and in October 1991, his sentence was reduced to 12 1/2 years, with eligibility for early release for good behavior. He has since been charged in state court with the murder of two members of his drug organization and is awaiting trial at a federal correctional facility in Talahassee. His lawyer estimates that Leonel Martinez will get out of prison around 1998. Keith Jackson will have to wait until the year 2001.

Jefferson Morley is an editor of Outlook.