Bush Jnr dodges the drug question

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The Independent Online
GEORGE W BUSH, the leading Republican candidate for the presidential election next year, is fending off persistent questions about whether he has ever used drugs.

Mr Bush says the issue is irrelevant and that what he did in his youth is not germane to the elections. But the formulation he is using to answer the question is wearing thin, and his patience - not one of his strongest suits - seems to be similarly frayed.

At a news conference yesterday in Austin, Texas, Mr Bush became irritated by the questioning. "Somebody floats a rumour and it causes you to ask a question, and that's the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it," he snapped. "That is a game. You just fell for the trap. I refuse to play." The questions are "ridiculous and they're absurd, and the people of America are sick and tired of this kind of politics. And I'm not participating," he said.

At one point, asked about rumours that he had used cocaine, he said: "I think they are being planted." But he did not deny them, nor did he say who he thought was behind them.

When asked about drug use, he repeats essentially the same formula: "I was young and irresponsible and I behaved young and irresponsibly," he has said when asked point- blank whether he has ever taken drugs.

But by dodging the question he leaves room for his political opponents to attack him. "I think it would be wrong for any possible Republican presidential nominee to refuse to say clearly and distinctly that they've not used drugs," said the religious conservative Gary Bauer, one of Mr Bush's rivals.

The New York Daily News asked all the presidential candidates whether any had ever used cocaine. Eleven said they had not: one, Mr Bush, refused to answer.

Nobody has provided any evidence that Mr Bush has ever used any illegal drug. But rumours - sporadically repeated in the media, and the subject of constant gossip wherever reporters covering Mr Bush gather - have been rife. Mr Bush's refusal to put a stop to them has stoked the rumour mill.

The press started out liking Mr Bush and his staff greatly, but tensions have begun to develop in the past few weeks as he has looked increasingly unstoppable politically. There have also been accusations from Democrats that whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton, the President's wife, was constantly faced with hard questions, Mr Bush had been given an easy ride.

The hagiographic press coverage of Mr Bush has started to turn nasty in the past few days, especially after his victory in the Ames straw poll in Iowa on Saturday. "If there was any message in Ames for Bush it is that he will not win the nomination by default. He'll have to work for it," said the Los Angeles Times in a comment representative of the media's mood.

t The independent counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton will continue, even though Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor, is likely to resign soon. The judicial panel that appoints special counsels yesterday split on the issue, but a majority of judges voted to keep the inquiry alive. Mr Starr is reported to have suggested successors.