drugs and public office

August 23, 1999

My favorite news story this week is the relentless press assault on whether or not a candidate for president, George W. Bush, has ever used cocaine. Now that one just has me glued to the TV.

Actually, all in all, it would probably work out better if George Bush instead used Quaaludes — they might slow him down a bit. Al Gore needs to snort cocaine once in awhile, if only to get him a bit more animated. For that matter, Bill Bradley needs a dose of both — two Quaaludes and a line of coke — it might finally get him focused and keep us awake. I have no doubt that Pat Buchanan has never done LSD, but he really probably ought to take a trip. He’d get my vote if, just once, I saw him sitting cross-legged under a tree, with a flower in his hair going, “Oh, wow!”

Then there’s Dan Quayle. He has obviously spent most of his life completely stoned; it’s obvious to me, anyway.
So, drugs and officials who either hold or aspire to hold public office — which is more troubling to you: the fact that a presidential candidate may have used a so-called “hard drug” in his youth or the fact that the jerk isn’t willing to talk about it? When do these characters ever learn? The truth usually has no effect on the electorate, but as soon as a politician starts trying to fudge around with the truth, they immediately get into trouble. Which, if you think about it, means that all politicians are in trouble.

Do you really trust anybody who claims to have no vices? Isn’t running for a high political office by nature a vice — vanity?

Does it even matter that a candidate might have done cocaine twenty-five years ago? If so, why? It doesn’t matter to me. George Bush says he made mistakes when he was young. Hell, I don’t consider doing cocaine at twenty-five in 1975 a mistake. In those days, it was everywhere and none of us who did it thought it was dangerous.

That’s right, Jack: I’ve done cocaine. Actually, it was fun and I was young. Should that make me ineligible for public office? There are probably a dozen reasons why electing me to political office is a bad idea, but drug use when I was a kid is probably not one of them.

The national press corps needs to get it into its head that we, the people, really don’t give a damn whether or not George snorted some coke a long time ago. Bill Bradley and Al Gore have both admitted to smoking pot and it was not news then.

I am now about the same age as these guys — we all came of age in the ‘60s. Now, anybody my age who claims to have never smoked marijuana is either lying or was so uptight and out of it back then that they might as well be lying.
It’s interesting that, as a country, we have gone from focusing on the issue of “family values” — an issue that dominated the last three presidential elections — to the issue of one’s personal character. For one thing, family values fell by the wayside because nobody could quite articulate what they were.

So now — and they blame Bill Clinton for this — the issue is a man or a woman’s character. It’s not about who may serve our country best. That’s probably because we all know by now that the process of running for political office is like a filter going the wrong way: it filters out anybody who might actually do the rest of us any good. So we know from the get-go that anybody who makes it to the primaries has already got serious character problems.

By the way, I kind of like John McCain from Arizona. He is the only one who regularly attacks both parties — which means one of them is his own — for being corrupt. That takes good character and, by the way, I guarantee you that none of us will ever have the opportunity to vote for John McCain on a presidential ballot.

So, there’s the question of private character versus public character. What do I mean by that?

If we had known about the private JFK, would we have elected him president? If we had known Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression, would we have elected him?

As a matter of fact, once while Lincoln was still in Congress he was rejected by Mary Todd. He stayed in bed for six months dealing with his depression. If it had been invented then, Lincoln would have been our first “Prozac president.” Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? “Prozac president ruling a Prozac nation.”

Speaking of drugs, Kennedy did them every morning: we now know that his doctor shot him up with a potent combination of painkillers and speed. Kennedy certainly wasn’t the first president who had vices. Jefferson was a slave owner, but fooled around with a slave named Sally Hemmings. Should that fact have disqualified him from authoring the Declaration of Independence? Would you have preferred that it had been written by some totally upright, uptight, anal retentive, 18th Century tee totaling, celibate preacher? Think about that.

Ulysses S. Grant was one hell of a general and later president, in spite of the fact that he was drunk most of the time. Winston Churchill started everyday with a shot or two of cognac.

Now, I’m not saying all of this because I am going to support George Bush, but I sure would rather spend the next year reading about the candidates’ beliefs and hearing lies about what they intend to do rather than hearing lies about what they may have done. Some lies are just more relevant than others.

Can we have a public life that is not an exact reflection of our private life? Take me, for instance. About twenty years ago, I was a salaried consultant to several large non-profit housing programs. The job required lots of travel and demanded that I be very accessible to my clients. I had to really be there for them at any hour of the day or night.
One morning, my wife walked out on me to go live with the guy she had been sleeping with for the last six months. It devastated me. I should have been glad to see her go, but at the time, it really hurt. Some of you have also been in that place. It hurt much more than I could handle.

But I still had to work, not just for my own sanity but because I had an obligation to the clients who relied on me. That obligation was not conditional on how I happened to be feeling or the events in my personal life.

It was then that I made a simple decision. Keep in mind, I’m not recommending this, I’m just reporting it. When I was working I was fine about the divorce, but the nights were killers. So I decided to handle it the best way I could figure: I would just stay drunk for six months. Then, at the end of six months, I’d stop and review the whole situation.

And that’s just what I did. At the end of six months, I sobered up, checked out how I was feeling about my wife leaving me, realized that I felt fine and cut back down to my normal level of booze consumption.

Now here’s the thing: during that whole six-month period, not one of my clients knew of my situation, and I probably did the best work of my life in that time. Publicly, I was being a true servant. Privately, of course, I was completely whacked out. So, how do you judge me? I can tell you how my employer judged me and how those that I served judged me: they judged me strictly by what I did publicly.

If we hadn’t made such a big deal out of it, would the Clinton-Lewinsky affair really have made a difference in any of our lives? Okay, now I can expect the question many have brought up, “But what message does this kind of behavior send to our kids?” Give me a break! How many of you honestly think your children pay that much attention to national issues? If they do, there is probably something much more deeply wrong with them.

My other answer is that before you go worrying about what your kids might become because of the examples set by others, you ought to really check out who you are as a parent. We live in a country where the average amount of time a father spends with any of his children on any given day is twenty minutes. And you expect me to worry about what kind of example Bill Clinton is setting?

It’s always everybody else’s fault but our own, and that’s a shame. Personal responsibility starts at home.

How would you like the world to judge you, not by your public presence, but by your private life and by your even more private past? Should you be judged as a human being by who you were as opposed to who you are?

Now, there is the notion that past behavior predicts future behavior. That is a tricky one, because at least to some degree it is true. If we had known the complete truth about Bill Clinton’s sex life it might have been reasonable to predict that he would be stupid enough to continue carrying on even as president. The man has a problem.

But once we get into all of this stuff, it raises questions about who and what kind of people we will choose to enter public office. I’m curious, given the inane public scrutiny these characters have to go through: is there even one of you who would choose to run for a prominent political office? Probably not too many of you, I would wager.

Here’s an example of how all this scrutiny can keep a good candidate out of contention. A guy named Thomas Eagleton was on the Democratic Party ticket in 1972. He was a good guy, but the press found out he had once undergone psychiatric treatment. The party dumped him like a live hand grenade. It happened again with Gary Hart: somebody got a picture of the presidential candidate on a boat with a woman who was not his wife and it was “Goodbye, Gary.”

Everything we do needs to be understood in context. The people who are now in leadership positions in business or politics are the generation that came of age in the 1960s. If we apply the same moral standards that we applied to, say, the folks who grew up in the Depression or during the Second World War, we are missing the point. The context of those two eras is very different.

Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan grew up during the time of Prohibition — if it was discovered that they had an illegal drink at a speakeasy back then, should that have disqualified them from public office?

My generation, among other things, was the first generation in the history of the world to grow up in relative affluence. We were the first generation that didn’t have to struggle just to survive; we could put our energies elsewhere. For the most part, that was good — and really, it is testimony to the amazing work of the generations before us.

We were also the first mass media generation. We were also the most highly educated.

We came of age at a time when all the old rules were being questioned. With our education, we were capable of realizing that much of what we were getting from our textbooks and our political leaders were lies. We just didn’t believe most of what was told to us, because so much of it was just unbelievable.

We decided that we did not have to believe the government when it claimed there was some good reason why thousands of our boys were dying in some far-off place called Vietnam.

We were confronted with the reality that the wealthiest country in the world had large pockets of dire poverty. And a lot of us decided that this was not okay, no matter what business or the government said. We were the generation that finally faced up to the racism that was embedded in our culture for so long. We looked around and said, “For a democracy, this place isn’t all that democratic.”

It was a time of enormous turmoil.

Even if we leave out presidential candidates who came of age in the ‘60s, did you know that the odds are that any president we had before the 20th century probably had done significant amounts of cocaine and weed? Marijuana grew everywhere once upon a time and was considered a tonic for a variety of ailments. And have you ever wondered where the “coca” in Coca-Cola came from? Coca-Cola was originally sold as an elixir — they didn’t take out the cocaine until the 1920s.

I guess the whole point of this is that we can all be better citizens, and part of doing so requires that we make clear what we want from the media. I don’t want to hear about George Bush and cocaine. I just don’t. If your reporters can’t come up with something better than that, fire them, the damn editors, the publishers and the whole board of directors.

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