Politicians on Drugs
While W twisted, other Republican pols fessed up and called for reevaluating the current laws. New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary Johnson talked about his recreational use of grass and coke in college and pronounced the current war on drugs a failure, noting that the courts and prisons are crammed with people arrested for holding small stashes. Why not regulate drugs like alcohol, he asked, and then hold people responsible for behavior under the influence?
Warwick, RI's Mayor Lincoln Chafee, a Republican running to replace his father, U.S. Sen. John Chafee, acknowledged he'd used cocaine during his college years and smoked pot in his post-college years. ("I had three choices?lie, which was not an option, or evade it, and receive the consequences of that, or be honest," Chafee explained. "And I chose to be honest.") Chafee, too, used the occasion of his confession to advocate considering drug decriminalization. In Newsweek, legal writer Stuart Taylor?last seen on the national scene championing Kenneth Starr?noted that Bush's dilemma (to tell or not to tell) should cause the nation to weigh revising "the draconian drug-sentencing regime that has packed prisons with nonviolent, small-time drug offenders?mostly poor and nonwhite?and helped send the number of Americans behind bars soaring above 1.8 million."
Bush deserves no sympathy for the fix he's in. As of this writing, he has dated his no-to-coke reply to 1974, which sounds a little fishy to me since the heady days of the cocaine era occurred several years later. But my question for the Governor would be: Did you ever sell? (Bush and his competitors are vying for a job that comes with the power to destroy the planet; these are not out-of-bounds queries. The candidates, of course, have the right to take a pass and see how that silence flies with the voters.)
Let's take a nostalgic look back at the Disco 70s. The cocaine culture was one of commerce. Users were always looking for the right connection. Once a pipeline was found, one consumer would often buy extra to peddle to friends. Sometimes you had a supplier; sometimes a buddy did. (Before you ask, I tried cocaine once. In a magazine office. Snorting lines off a framed photograph of the Beatles. The rush made me more hyper than usual and caused my nose to itch and run for days. I was not tempted to experience again this combination of anxiety and hay fever.)
Perhaps Bush couldn't bring himself to provide a definitive statement on cocaine because that would be a gateway admission, one that would open the door to other dicey topics. His circumlocutory reply?we boomers have to share with our children the wisdom derived from the mistakes of our youth but we should not disclose the specific mistakes?was the sort of bull no teenager would buy. Still, grant W credit for supplying an opening to those who have long argued the war on drugs is hypocritical. Unwittingly, he became their poster boy.
Elizabeth Dole also exploited Bush's first crisis, but in a different fashion. As the media closed in on W, Dole pumped up the volume on her antidrugs spiel. She accused the Clinton administration of being soft on drugs, claimed the President has not used the bully pulpit to scare kids away from drugs and blasted the administration for cutting the budget for drug interdiction and being indifferent to the flow of drugs through Mexico. As a snide Washington Post editorial noted, Dole was wrong on all counts: Clinton has mounted an antidrug advertising campaign, the interdiction budget is up and arrests have been made in Mexico. Not that this means the Clinton war on drugs is any more successful than the Bush war on drugs, the Reagan war on drugs or the Nixon war on drugs. But Dole's attack on the Clinton efforts illustrate how easy it is to be a crusader in the war on drugs: You merely have to open your mouth.
Apparently, The Washington Post editorial board is not very influential in the Dole household, for its rebuke didn't prevent Dole from continuing her silliness. Last week, as she tried to ride the momentum of her third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, Dole called for a new war on drugs, saying she favored zero tolerance. But what does zero tolerance mean? About a third of Americans?77 million?admit they have used illegal drugs. Should they all be chased down and busted? Should more taxpayer money be tossed at trying to stop a $60 billion a year industry? And?let's go back to first principles?why do so many Republicans who claim they want to limit government believe citizens should be free to abuse tobacco and alcohol, but cannot use marijuana, even for medicinal purposes?
The lack of depth of Dole's thinking on this front was reflected in a remark she made at a GOP fundraiser at the Washington state estate of Thomas Stewart (a Republican funder who was fined $5 million in 1998 for violating campaign finance laws). As GOPers downed hamburgers and baked beans, Dole said, "I yearn to be the Pied Piper who leads this country in the drug war." Pied Piper? Storybook check. Mr. Piper was the fellow hired to rid the town of Hamelin, Germany, of its vermin. He did so. But when the town leaders refused to pay his fee, he returned and led away the children of Hamelin. This is Liddy Dole's role model?
"Celebrity politics has arrived. You might even call it 'trash celebrity politics.'" That was historian Alan Lichtman on the possible presidential candidacy of Warren Beatty. His comment is unfair. Celebrity politics, true. But trash? As I wrote last week, Beatty is pondering a bid in order to promote pet issues. Where's the filth in that? In fact, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Beatty praised Al Gore and Bill Bradley for having "unselfishly devoted much of their lives to public service when they could so easily have enriched themselves in the private sector, as I have."
Beatty's agenda is twofold. A lifelong liberal Democrat activist, he fears the Democratic Party has moved too far right and has little to offer those Americans not enjoying the high-flying economy. (After all, what has the Clinton-led party done for the 43 million Americans who go without health care coverage?) Beatty also claims that the Democrats and Republicans have become little more than the handmaidens of their corporate contributors. Lichtman may not agree with Beatty, but the actor is a man who represents a view not often seen in the narrow political debate covered by C-SPAN and CNN; his desire to expand the civic conversation is admirable.
Beatty's idea is working, at least minimally. He's attracted press notice. Last week, his two-part message was the subject of a Crossfire I cohosted. On that show, former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, an old pal of Beatty, seconded Beatty's argument. Hart chided his party for abandoning the themes of "social conscience and social justice" and noted that its candidates have become too dependent on contributions from corporate special interests. "The big bucks have run Washington," Hart maintained. On the other side was Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a self-professed centrist Democrat from California and one of the leading fundraisers for the party. She defended her party's acceptance of corporate contributions, but refused to answer the question I like to pose to elected officials: Why is it wrong to assume that when a corporation, a millionaire or a union gives mega-donations to candidates that such donations affect the actions of the people who receive the money? In response, her mouth produced these words: "Americans can support politically any political candidate." At the same time, however, Tauscher went on about how the Democrats are in favor of campaign finance reform. Well, if the system works fine as is, as she suggests, then why reform it? As for the Democrats and the less fortunate, Tauscher argued that her party had not abandoned anyone. What about the 43 million without health insurance? A "strong economy" is the best remedy, she said. But during the recent economic boom?for which Clinton and Tauscher claim credit?the number of the uninsured has risen from about 39 million to 43 million. "Well, I don't know about those numbers," Tauscher said. Sen. Bulworth would have throttled her.
This being shouting-head tv, nothing was resolved, but the subjects of money-and-politics and social justice did receive a dose of national airtime. Let's thank Beatty for that and hope his presidential tease so moves other producers, bookers and journalists.
At the end of the Crossfire show, I also wanted to thank Hart for being such an influential figure in my life. Not because of anything he did in the Senate. No, I owe him because he yielded to his temptations. After Hart was caught in an adulterous affair and pulled out of the '88 presidential race in 1987 (he reentered the contest later that year, but became a quick also-ran), his longtime chief aide, Billy Shore, left politics and moved over to Share Our Strength, a charitable group that combats hunger, poverty and illiteracy. Under Shore's leadership, SOS has called on writers to donate their work to anthologies of short stories and essays. The royalties from these books support SOS. A few years ago, James Grady, an author best known for his novel Six Days of the Condor, was asked by SOS to put together a collection of crime stories. He recruited a few big-name authors and reached out to some lesser-known scribblers. I was in the latter category. I had never published any fiction. Give it a shot, Grady said. I did, and Grady and the publisher accepted my submission for the book Unusual Suspects. Thus began my moonlighting career as a fictionist. The story?entitled "My Murder"?was nominated for a prestigious award. I lost, but this entire episode encouraged me to continue my fictitious ways. The result: a novel that is being shipped to bookstores as you read this. Its title? Well, my publicist tells me I shouldn't be hawking the book until after Labor Day. Who pays any attention to anything before then? So out of fear that the generous proprietor of NYPress will not permit me to promote my book, by name, twice, I am going to remain discreet for the moment. But I did want to express my gratitude to Hart. He could not keep his pants zippered, and that proved politically fatal in the days before Clintonian standards. The Hart scandal?which includes a cruise on a yacht named Monkey Business with big-hair Donna Rice?triggered a chain of events that turned me into a novelist.
Since this column has turned into one of giving thanks, let me thank Maaike Laanstra-Corn. She made her appearance on Aug. 22?after her mother, eschewing painkilling medication, valiantly pushed for nearly six hours, setting what we were told was a hospital record. Maaike's arrival was three weeks earlier than expected, but she clocked in at a healthy 6 pounds, 1 ounce, with all the usual equipment. In a short period, Maaike (please pronounce it correctly: MY-KAH) has brought much joy to us. And sleep-deprivation?the results of which I hope you don't discern in the columns of the weeks ahead. There is much to report, but I'd rather be napping.
I'm willing to tackle it all, though: diaper pins, the fear brought on by a hiccuping infant, nipple creams, SUV strollers, sex with a mother, and what I intend to tell my child about drugs... when I'm a presidential candidate.
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