August has become the month of scandal -- and sometimes we in the press seem ready to concoct one if it doesn't happen naturally. It was 25 years ago this month, when the last of the White House tapes -- containing the definitive evidence of President Nixon's attempt to cover up a criminal conspiracy -- sent him into exile. Last August, President Clinton finally confessed he had been lying about the Monica Lewinsky business.
It may be nostalgia for those past dog-day stories that has caused so many of my brothers and sisters to set up a howl for George W. Bush to answer the question whether he ever used cocaine or other drugs. No one has produced a single witness who claims to have seen the Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful inhale or inject a controlled substance. Bush told reporters Thursday he would certify that he had not used drugs at least since 1974. But his adamant refusal to answer the broader "did you ever" question appears to have been taken as a challenge by some reporters to bully him into a declarative "yes" or "no" statement.
I'd suggest that energy could be better directed to pressuring Bush into giving the public a few more clues about the ideas and policies he intends to offer. A few minutes after Bush won the Iowa Republican straw poll on Aug. 14, I ran into his strategist, Karl Rove, and asked if or when we were likely to hear something from his candidate beyond the stump speech he's been delivering almost without variation since the day he announced last spring.
"There will be a time for another speech," Rove said with a smile, "but not until every American can recite the words of this one by heart." Rove is an old pal, and he understood that a joke was a better response than an earnest discussion at the tag end of a 12-hour day of politicking.
But the question remains. A lot of people in the crowd of 25,000 who descended on Ames for the straw poll shared the feelings expressed by Harris Tenedt Jr., of Story City, who said of Bush, "I certainly like him, but I'm waiting to hear something from him we can really relate to. It's mostly been mush."
Bush is not the only one who has been pretty vague about his agenda. The same thing applies to Democratic challenger Bill Bradley and -- on several of the big questions likely to be on the next president's desk, including the reform of Social Security and Medicare and the redefinition of America's national security responsibilities -- to Vice President Gore and most of the Republicans chasing Bush.
From Labor Day until Thanksgiving, there will be a period of almost three months with no major straw polls or other distractions, a perfect time for all these candidates to deliver some serious policy speeches that help voters like Mr. Tenedt figure out what they propose.
In a well-ordered process, each of them would deliver such an address every week or 10 days during September and October -- when the press will have time and space to summarize and analyze what they're saying. Ideally, we'd then have a series of forums or debates, where they would test their ideas against each other. Suppose on three successive Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays in November, the candidates debated economic policy, social policy and national security policy. We'd know a lot more about them after that.
Steve Forbes has been urging such debates, and he is right. If we don't get them this fall, there may be no other opportunity. From January through March 7, when the nominations of both parties are almost certain to be decided, it will be a demolition derby -- with statements, schedules and tactics dictated entirely by the demands of the crammed calendar of caucuses and primaries. Even if debates are held, the press will be too preoccupied with handicapping the race to devote any significant attention to substantive policy.
The candidates who think they are ahead in the race -- meaning Bush and Gore today -- will likely be told by their advisers to stay away from any debates this fall. Bush in particular will be told there's no point getting up on stage with eight other people, most of whom have no realistic chance of being the Republican nominee.
But Republicans should not let him off the hook. They'd be wise to heed the words Lamar Alexander uttered as he left the race last week: "We're going to send one of these candidates into a debate against Al Gore or Bill Bradley, and he better be prepared." Alexander raised the same warning four years ago about another "anointed" candidate, Bob Dole. He was ignored then. Republicans should not make the same mistake twice.