Media: Better muckraking than stonewalling

Mr Bush's evasions over his alleged cocaine use carry a whiff of hypocrisy - but do the US newshounds have the bite to call his bluff?
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"Are you or have you ever been...?" That resonant American question is back on the political agenda, this time with reference to cocaine-usage. Sure, volunteered the governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who was reelected last year after admitting his one-time habit the first time around. Sure, a little more diffidently, said Lincoln Chafee, an aspiring senator from Rhode Island who is concerned to clean his campaign slate at the outset.

But the one person to whom the question was really addressed has so far refused stubbornly to give an answer: the governor of Texas and favourite for the Republican presidential nomination, George W Bush. Mr Bush will tell you about his marital commitment (unblemished) and his alcohol problem (banished through abstinence), but he will not tell you whether, in years gone by, he snorted cocaine. He will tell you he made mistakes, that he has learned lessons, but if you ask him what those mistakes were, how he learned the lessons and precisely when, he insists that this is part of a despicable Washington "game" that he will not play - so there!

It is at times such as these that you pine for the British tabloid press. Britain's politicians may not appreciate it, but they have a good deal to be thankful for. The tabloids ensure that their follies and crimes are exposed before they become too much of an embarrassment. They function as bellwethers of public opinion, teaching which sort of scandals are survivable and which are not. And they test the thickness of the politician's skin and his or her instinct for survival - all before too much damage has been done to the body politic.

Mr Bush needs someone to tell him to his face that his evasion of the question is not good enough. American tabloids, though, are unlikely to do that job. They can be rigorous in pursuit of wrongdoing, but exposure of hypocrisy is not their forte. Now, Mr Bush is racing for the White House and has much more to lose from continual stonewalling or a botched confession than he would have done when he campaigned for state governor six years ago.

Take the separate, but pertinent, example of Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his amorous exploits. Mr Gingrich, it now transpires, was dallying with a Congressional employee almost half his age at the very time - from last autumn onwards - when he was leading his House Republicans in their moral crusade against President Clinton.

"Newt Gingrich's affair with a young Capitol Hill aide was an open secret in Washington all during impeachment, and all through his pompous lectures about America's cultural and moral decline," wrote Maureen Dowd, the doyenne of US broadsheet columnists recently, before moving on to consider Mr Bush and his maybe-cocaine problem.

Which left an obvious question hanging in the air: if the affair of the married Mr Gingrich was so well known at the time, how on earth was he able to lead the impeachment of the President for the selfsame thing, not to speak of a congressional election campaign, without a word appearing in the media? What was the arcane ethic that dictated the grisly detailing in print of the President's unconsummated adultery with Monica Lewinsky, yet respected the right of the House Speaker (number three in the state hierarchy) to deceive his wife in private?

Americans offer a host of explanations, from the objection that there was no "open" secret, just a secret, to the legalistic distinction that Mr Clinton's wrongdoing was "not about sex", but about lying. Thus it is argued that the President could have carried on with Monica Lewinsky to his heart's content, but the moment he lied about the relationship under oath, it became a matter for the law - and crossed the line from private to public. Wherever the private-public line is drawn, though, it is hard to believe that Mr Gingrich would have emerged from the impeachment proceedings with his double standards so firmly intact, had he had the British tabloids to contend with.

It was only two weeks ago, with the announcement that Mrs Gingrich was suing for divorce, that the media declared open season on her husband's misdeeds. By which time Mr Gingrich was out of office, out of Congress and trying his luck as a radio commentator, and the allegations were of no political consequence.

American reporters are rigorously trained to report facts not rumour, which is a laudable standard to observe. But they also seem less eager than their British counterparts to seek out the evidence that turns rumour into fact, especially if that could threaten established alliances.

The popular weekly magazines, the so-called "supermarket tabloids" sold at check-out counters, do more in the line of muck-raking, but even during the Lewinsky investigation, their exposes - however well-sourced - rarely crossed into the mainstream press. This tabloid/mainstream divide in the media saved Mr Clinton more than once. Gennifer Flowers's claims about their affair, which could have damaged him in 1991, were confined to the weekly tabloids and never made it into the mainstream.

Which brings us to George W Bush and the multi-layered cocaine question: whether he took cocaine as a young man, whether he needs to tell the voters about it if he did, whether a cocaine habit in his past would or should jeopardise his chances of winning the presidency, and whether his stonewalling so far will stand.

The latest opinion poll, for what it is worth, finds than 84 per cent of those asked believe that a past cocaine habit should not be a bar to presidential office, even though some argue that someone who resorted to drugs in the past might resort to them again in situations of extreme stress. That argument may be heard more loudly if Mr Bush wins his party's nomination and the campaign turns really nasty. In that case, though, it will be for the voters to decide.

The more immediate question is whether he will have to tell more, and this depends less on the public than on his Republican rivals (who have now called off their hounds) and on reporters. In a biting commentary this weekend, the New York Times columnist, Frank Rich, concluded that Mr Bush was home and dry, at least for the time being and listed a number of Republican moralists - fierce critics of Mr Clinton to a man (and woman) - who had publicly expressed indulgence for the Governor's stonewalling on drugs.

Having proved, Mr Rich said, `that only the despised press will call him on youthful indiscretions... Mr Bush emerges from his first crisis in a position that is nothing if not win-win".

Even "the despised press", however, would be better than nothing. As it is, however, most reporters abandoned the chase just as suddenly as they began it, apparently satisfied by Mr Bush's oblique admission that he may have used (unspecified) drugs before 1974. After a frantic two weeks in which they raised the cocaine question at every opportunity, and the Bush camp had trimmed its answers by the hour, they tucked this last answer under their belts and picked up where they had left off: with deferential questions about Mr Bush's plans for the economy.

One aspect of the Bush controversy, however, is truly remarkable. George Bush Junior has been in the public eye for almost a decade, yet there is still no definitive answer - either from Mr Bush or from reporters - to the most basic question of all: did the aspiring presidential nominee once use cocaine, and so break the law, or didn't he? As a privileged fraternity "boy", George W may have enjoyed - and may still enjoy - the protection that such a social circle affords. But his reticence on the issue sits ill with his responsibilities as state governor for enforcing Texas's draconian drug laws - some of the toughest in the United States.

Desperate for a plausible candidate for the White House, Republican stalwarts may decide not to push him too hard. Reporters, keen to qualify for the inside track of a new administration, may abandon the chase. An electorate dominated by baby-boomers may accept Mr Bush as he is. But it is hard to believe that in Britain such ambiguity would long endure: a crack tabloid reporter would have established the facts long ago.