On the audiotapes of George W. Bush recorded secretly by his erstwhile confidant Douglas Wead in 1999, the future president revealed how much he feared candid discussion of his personal use of marijuana and cocaine. As quoted in The New York Times, Bush vowed that no matter what rumours and facts circulated about what he did or might have done, he would doggedly decline to answer forthrightly.
His natural urge to protect his privacy evokes sympathy, however quaint his expectations might be at this point in our political history. But in justifying his refusal to talk about his foolish youth, he appealed to a higher purpose. "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions," he told Wead. "You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried."
For many American parents of a certain age, that self-serving yet poignant response must strike an empathetic chord. Concern that children will mimic parental misbehaviour is universal, and so is the impulse to conceal embarrassing truths. Bush rightly worries that children imitate adult models in the belief that they, too, can escape the consequences.
When Bush uttered those words, he was in his second term as governor of Texas and on his way to the White House. After all, if he could drink too much, smoke those forbidden herbs and perhaps even snort illegal powders and nevertheless become a successful politician, then "some little kid" might reasonably assume he or she could sin likewise without undue risk.
Any such assumption would be terribly mistaken, of course, unless the kid happened to belong to a wealthy and well-connected family like the Bush clan.
Prisons and jails across America are crowded with non-violent drug offenders whose lives have been ruined — and whose families have been damaged or destroyed — by the same punitive legal system that never touched young "Georgie," except to issue him a drunk-driving summons.
The poor and the black are incarcerated for using pot and coke, while the rich and the white lie to their kids (and occasionally to the voters) about those same transgressions.
Certainly that was how the justice system worked when Bush and Wead had their candid chats. The Texas politician couldn't reassure his friend that he hadn't used cocaine, let alone marijuana, but as governor he was imprisoning young people unlucky enough to be arrested in possession of those narcotics, often for draconian mandatory-minimum sentences. He always cherished his image as a tough, swaggering, law-and-order politician who didn't hesitate to imprison teenagers. But that isn't what happens to people from good families.
His niece Noelle Bush went through a drug-rehab program and was released two years ago. His friend Rush Limbaugh went through rehab and has returned to berating the less fortunate on the radio, without doing one day of time.
The lopsided cruelty has only escalated since Bush entered the White House. Federal agents have cracked down on medical users of marijuana, depriving them of a substance that eases their sickness and keeps them alive.
The human and economic costs of the drug war continue to swell. So burdensome are those costs that many conservatives, including such Bush tutors as former secretary of state George Shultz, have publicly pleaded for saner policies.
Despite his claims to be a "compassionate conservative," Bush has ignored those pleas. He seems to feel that if he overcame his substance-abuse problem, then nobody else really has an excuse.
No reporter ever asked the Texas governor why all those other people deserved to serve five or 10 or 20 years in prison, when their crimes were no different from what everyone knew he had done, whether he admitted it or not.
No reporter will ask the president that question today, either, although it is just as pertinent in light of his revealing conversations with Wead.
Indeed, Bush not only avoided public responsibility for his own past mistakes but found a clever way to turn those wayward years to political advantage. He brandishes his late return to sobriety as a symbol of his Christian faith.
It is hard to tell what Bush learned in his recovery from sin, except that other people got caught and he didn't.
That would be enough to make anybody smirk.
Joe Conason is the author of The Hunting of the President:The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.
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