"Mr. Bush, now that you've admitted using cocaine some time ago, the American people want to know why it took you so long to tell the whole truth. Was it because you hoped, like President Clinton, that you could get away with clever answers? Didn't your political smarts tell you that the best thing to do was to put it all out there at once and get it behind you?"

"Mr. Bush, I appreciate the fact that you've owned up to using illegal drugs. But you haven't said how LONG you used coke. Was this a one-time use? Twice? More times than you can remember? Could you tell us approximately how many times you snorted -- if snorting is what you did -- and over what period of time? The American people would like to know whether you were just a rebellious youth or an alcohol-swilling junkie."

"Sir, don't you think it's important to tell the voters with WHOM you used them? Was it with other bored middle-class white guys? With strangers? With the sort of people you've been eager to throw into Texas prisons for similar offenses? After all, the American people want to know if a presidential candidate used to hang out with low-life criminals, even in his youth."

George W. Bush, who still may be the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, is at pains to figure out how to put an end to the insistent rumors that, along with his admitted alcohol abuse, he also used cocaine. My guess: He can't.

Already he has said he hasn't used coke for seven years, the period an FBI screening would cover if he were up for a top federal job. Then he let it be known that he could have passed muster if the drug use question had been put to him 25 years ago. He won't, he insists, go beyond that.

If that sounds like a confession (rather than the "stake in the ground" he keeps talking about), it's a confession that doesn't satisfy the media. Too much like "I hurt my marriage" or "mistakes were made." Just tell the truth, reporters -- and even some of his supporters -- keep urging: It's the only way to get it behind you.

As the hypothetical questions at the top of this column suggest, it would do no such thing. It would only change the nature of the interrogation. "Sir, were the circumstances under which you used cocaine what might be described as `sexual'? I mean, are we talking group sex -- what some might call an orgy -- or something involving, say, just one other couple? Was it just with other guys? Don't you remember?"

The endless and awful questions a confession would almost surely trigger make the present question -- Did you ever use cocaine? -- sound almost boring.

And if George W. is as smart as he's supposed to be, that's where he'll leave it. The people are pretty tired of the question already. Why would he set himself up for new, more interesting questions?

What I'm offering is, of course, unsolicited tactical advice. What of the more serious question of relevancy? Is it of no consequence if a man who asks our vote for his presidency once was a user of illegal drugs? Would it be inconsequential because it happened (if we take his stake in the ground as a confession) 25 years ago? Would it be consequential if it had happened 20 years ago? Fifteen? Five?

I think it matters -- but primarily for what it teaches us about the candidate. If we deduce from his admission of alcohol abuse and his near-admission of cocaine abuse that he is a reckless personality, one of the privileged elite who imagine themselves exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us, that's one thing. If we see him as someone who, apparently quite abruptly, came to himself and turned his life around, that's something else.

Our impressions, either way, may be the result of the dogged persistence of the campaign reporters. And for that, the reporters deserve some credit.

But I don't expect further doggedness on the same old question to yield much additional insight into the candidate -- unless, in some forlorn attempt to put the thing behind him, he pulls up his "stake in the ground" and triggers a whole new set of questions.

In that case, I'd know for sure: The man lacks judgment.