What, in these justifiably cynical days, should we expect from politicians? Does that hoary old notion "character" matter any more? Most of us now accept that, so long as personal failings do not affect a politician's ability to do the job honestly and capably, they are neither here nor there.
But the case of the man who seems set to become the world's most powerful politician, George "Dubya" Bush, suggests that things are not quite as simple as that. Character - redefined, perhaps not as the absence of failings but as the ability to learn from them - still matters. And Bush's biggest character flaw is his inability to draw a capacity for humility, compassion and forgiveness from his own experiences.
To his credit, Dubya has never pretended that he has not known some wild times. "When I was young and irresponsible", as he puts it, "I behaved young and irresponsible".
His strategy has been to admit some kind of misbehaviour without being at all specific.
On the one hand he tries, by admitting some unspecified "sins", to seem honest. On the other, he resorts to the ludicrous evasion of defining his early 30s as his childhood.
Bush has pretty much acknowledged that this "childhood" was marked by a heavy dependence on alcohol. Though denying he was "clinically alcoholic", he "couldn't remember a day he didn't have a drink" and, as he puts it, "alcohol began to compete with my energies".
In his own words, too, he "wasn't pleasant to be around" when he was drunk. Clinically alcoholic or not, he clearly had a severe drink problem up to the age of 40, when he found Jesus and went on the wagon.
None of this does him much harm. Americans love redemption, and born-again Christians are even more besotted by the sinner who has been saved by the love of Jesus. In this culture, it is better to have sinned and repented than never to have sinned at all.
And thus far Bush deserves all the credit. It takes guts for a man to overcome an addiction. Reformed addicts should not be despised for their past weakness but admired for their courage and willpower. Leaving aside all the religious tub-thumping and soft-focus fairy tales of the presidential campaign, Bush's transformation from overgrown frat boy to phenomenally successful politician really does say a lot for his character.
The relative honesty of his statements about alcohol, however, is utterly undermined by the evasion and hypocrisy that characterise his statements on his relationship to other drugs.
This time last year, Bush's "youthful indiscretions" became a public issue when the Democratic Party's leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle, complained that the then Republican front-runner was being given an easy ride by the press over the "legitimate question" of his alleged use of cocaine in the past.
The New York Daily News then asked all the presidential candidates (back then, there were still 11 of them) whether they had ever used cocaine. All except Bush replied that they had not. Bush did not reply at all. The Associated Press then asked all 11 whether they had ever used any illegal drugs. Two acknowledged using marijuana, eight said they never used any drugs and, again, George W. Bush refused to answer.
Shortly afterwards, the Dallas Morning News asked a subtle and clever question of Bush. Would he, as president, insist on his appointees (judges, cabinet members, ambassadors and so on) passing the standard FBI background checks? Implied in the question was a query about whether Bush himself would pass these tests, one of which asked whether the subject had used an illegal drug in the past seven years. Bush, and his advisers, got the point, and decided to take the opportunity for a carefully ambiguous denial.
"As I understand it", Bush told a press conference, "the current [FBI] form asks the question, `Did somebody use drugs in the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question and the answer is No." Taking him at his word, this meant that Bush had not used drugs since 1992.
The following day, Bush shifted the boundary back farther, stating that, at the time his father was inaugurated as president in 1989, he would have passed the background check that was then in force, which required a statement that the subject of the check had not used drugs in the previous 15 years.
He was saying, in other words, that he had not used drugs since 1974. And this, essentially, is his final word on the matter.
Again, since no one suggests that Bush now uses illegal drugs, he deserves credit for his ability to kick whatever kind of habit he once had. The problem is that, instead of holding himself up as an object lesson in the ability of addicts to rehabilitate themselves, he has done the opposite. Towards those whose problems he once shared, he has been utterly merciless.
Texas, of which Bush is Governor, has the largest single prison system in the world. Counting those on parole, it contains well over half a million people. Texas is astonishingly punitive, with 700 adults for every 100,000 currently incarcerated; and 21 per cent of these prisoners are behind bars for drug-related offences.
Bush has upheld this system and, if anything, sought to make it even harsher. He has personally insisted, as Governor of Texas, on a law debarring anyone convicted of a drug felony from ever again claiming welfare payments. That would mean, for example, that a woman caught in a car with a man who has a gram of cocaine in his pocket would be permanently debarred from the welfare rolls.
When politicians act with such staggering callousness and hypocrisy, their character becomes a legitimate political issue.
© 2000 ireland.com