Every once in a while, I have one of those "I-wish-I-wrote-that" moments. That's precisely what happened when I read a Time magazine essay by John F. Stacks about whether or not George W. Bush should be compelled (how?) to reveal whether he ever used illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. Until I read Stacks, I would have said "No!" and followed it with an impressively erudite disquisition on the need for even public figures to have some private space. Now, though, I want to know.
My reason -- Stacks's reason -- is that using cocaine is a crime for which many go to jail. The issue, then, is not so much what Bush did in the past but whether he is a hypocrite in the present. After all, he is tough as nails on drugs, having supported state legislation mandating jail for anyone caught with cocaine, even less than a gram. Would a bystander with the hearing of a German shepherd have heard him murmur, "There but for the grace of God go I?" It would be nice to know.
I happen to think Bush is a Fifth Amendment cokehead. If he had not used the stuff, he would certainly say so. After all, it's not as if he is such a reticent fellow. He has told us much about his past -- his drinking, his carousing, his lost youth, his meandering career path and how he gave up booze and found God. This is a stirring tale, and I am moved every time I hear it.
But to quote yet another magazine (the National Review), "If politicians want us to respect their privacy, they will first have to respect it themselves." This, clearly, Bush has not done. He tells us, for example, that he never committed adultery but becomes indignant when the pesky press asks about cocaine use. It is an inconsistent position and leaves us all a bit in the dark: What, if anything, has Bush learned from the life he once led?
Why, for instance, does he think that people who use cocaine recreationally ought to go to jail? What about marijuana or, for that matter, heroin? Does he think that if -- just if -- he once used marijuana or cocaine he should have done jail time? Can he empathize with others or, possibly, has his own experience convinced him that we ought to have jail as a deterrent? Should 600,000 people be arrested annually for breaking the marijuana laws? We would like to know.
I concede that coming clean is not tantamount to coming to your senses. Bill Clinton and Al Gore admitted to some familiarity with dope (Clinton, you will remember, did not inhale), and yet they have lacked the political will to institute a sane drug policy. Bush, though, is a conservative, albeit a compassionate one. Just as Nixon could go to China, so Bush, as a hard-liner on crime, might question the nation's drug policies. As Texas governor, he has presided over the execution of 98 persons -- even, with some admirable insouciance, a pious woman (Karla Faye Tucker). He has the requisite body count to do something useful.
It would be good, too, to hear from Bush about his parents and their values. Incessantly, the lack of values gets mentioned whenever a child goes astray. And sometimes some very astute lawmakers -- Rep. Bob Barr comes to mind -- deduce the connection between bad behavior and the refusal of governments to tack the Ten Commandments to the walls of public buildings. Bush was a self-acknowledged youthful debaucher, and we would like to know if, perhaps, the Ten Commandments were not posted in his house or if his parents, the former president and first lady, failed to instruct him in essential values. Bush might want to say something about that.
I don't expect Bush to say anything terribly original or bold about the lessons he has learned from life. Party doctrine insists that all social issues be buried under mounds of goopy bromides, and Bush himself seems to be the sort of person who avoids reflection. He says he's "made mistakes," but he's learned from them. "What matters is who I am today," he has said.
I could not agree more, especially when it comes to the strictly personal matters that he has already talked about. But there can be no such disconnect between the past and the present. When Bush says "What I did 20 or 30 years ago, in my judgment, is irrelevant," he's not just turning his back on who he once was but on others who may now be doing what he once did.
It seems compassion begins -- and ends -- at home.