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?

"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.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own