GEORGE W. Bush is trying to strike a bargain with the public on the question of whether he ever used cocaine or other illegal drugs. He won't deny it but -- so far, at least -- won't explicitly admit it, either. Instead, he lapses into code: He could have passed an FBI background check for a government job at the outset of his father's presidency in 1989, he says. By that he turns out to mean that he could have said no as of 1989 to the question: Have you used drugs in the past 15 years?
You are free to translate that to mean that (a) he did use cocaine and/or other illegal drugs prior to 1974, when he would have been 28 years old, and (b) he hasn't used them since (and an aide came around later to make that explicit, lest anyone think the response left open the possibility that he had used them after 1989). Whatever happened, happened long ago, and he could be counted upon not to do it again; that was the message.
The presidential candidate says that's all he'll have to say on the matter (though he has tried to impose such limits before, and not succeeded). He contends that his coded remarks let the people know all they need to know about the subject, while preserving a degree of privacy and dignity to which even public figures are entitled. If it costs him not to say more, he says he'd rather pay that price than the alternative. The position wins him some sympathy.
The resort to code is not unprecedented. Code-speak has become the technique of choice for politicians confronted with questions about past personal behavior. As with so much else in contemporary politics, Bill Clinton perfected it. Asked about evidence of infidelity during the 1992 campaign, he acknowledged on national television, wife dutifully at his side, that he had caused "pain in his marriage." Asked later to elaborate, he said he thought the American people understood what he had meant, and that he had said enough.
We don't seek by this to imply an equivalency, in either direction, between the behavior of the two men. Mr. Clinton didn't just resort to code in that television interview. He said some other things that later turned out to have been just plain untrue, having to do with his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, for example. And of course he famously failed to adhere to his implied promise not to do it again, then lied outright when caught, in a way that nearly cost him the presidency. Part of the price of his behavior was a poisoning of the well of public trust. It's more than ironic that Mr. Bush should now be among the sufferers from that.
Our own sense is that Mr. Bush will likely have to say more -- that he owes at least an explicit acknowledgment of whatever it is that he now seeks to acknowledge only obliquely, and some kind of statement relating the bye he would seem to be seeking for himself to the stern position he now takes as a public official toward drug offenders. He's right that, wherever he tries to draw the line, the press will pound for more, as is its function. Veiled acknowledgments might be enough if they could be counted upon to be accurate characterizations of the conduct they skip past. Too often they have turned out not to be. The public may well be weary of scandal after the past few years, but it has good cause, on the strength of those same years, to be more wary than ever of being lied to.
Mr. Bush is right that public figures are entitled to a measure of privacy. But the public also is entitled to at least enough of the truth about public figures to be able to judge them. The candidate isn't quite there yet.