To Err, Bush May Find in the '90s, Is to Be Forgiven

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In 1952, when Adlai Stevenson ran for president, he faced a whispering campaign about his divorce. In this post-Monica age, the memory seems quaint, almost Victorian.

Today, candidates routinely admit having smoked pot back in the '60s and '70s, and few voters seem to care. A president is caught dallying with a White House intern and his poll ratings soar.

So as Texas Gov. George W. Bush endures the latest candidate crucible--this one involving allegations of past cocaine use--most observers see the controversy as nothing more than an overblown, media-hyped manifestation of the summer doldrums.

"If the [presidential] scandal of '98 showed anything, it's that the American people are wise enough to separate personal behavior from professional behavior," said GOP strategist Rich Galen. "If this wasn't August of a [nonelection] year, this story wouldn't last 36 hours."

For his part, Bush sought to ignore the controversy Friday, delivering anti-drug remarks during a stop at an Akron, Ohio, rescue mission and declining to answer any more have-you-ever questions.

Americans seemed equally blase. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed in a new Time/CNN poll said even if Bush used cocaine more than two decades ago--something that has never been proved--it should not disqualify him from being president. A mere 11% said past cocaine use would be a disqualifier.

Even so, few political professionals believe the controversy is ended. Democrats and Republicans alike faulted Bush for his clumsy handling of the matter; after long refusing to answer any drug-related questions, Bush, 53, offered a series of shifting statements over two days, pushing his denials back 25 years, then drawing a line at behavior in his late 20s.

In a larger sense, however, the public's ho-hum response to the latest character contretemps seemed to demonstrate how much Americans have come to accept (or deem acceptable) from candidates for the nation's highest office. "There are things that--had they come out 20, 30 years ago, would have disqualified you," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster and campaign strategist. "Obviously, that line is changing."

There is too the public's extraordinary capacity to forgive, demonstrated throughout the recent history of political scandal. Many historians have argued that President Richard Nixon's downfall wasn't the Watergate break-in but the cover-up that followed. If Nixon had apologized earlier--the way Ronald Reagan owned up to the Iran-Contra affair--Nixon might have survived, many historians suggest.

Much of the criticism Bush now faces stems not so much from whether he ever used cocaine but the grudging--and qualified--way he has discussed the issue. "The question is whether he's created an ancillary problem about his truthfulness and upfrontness," said David Doak, a Democratic strategist, expressing a view shared by some Republicans. "That may end up being the bigger problem politically."

In any event, the standards for public office clearly have evolved. And not just when it comes to matters such as divorce, which proved inconsequential by the time the twice-married Reagan ran for president in 1980. Or Roman Catholicism, an issue that John F. Kennedy laid to rest in 1960.

There has been notably little discussion, for instance, about the drug histories of Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the two contestants for the Democratic nomination. Both admitted trying marijuana back in the 1970s. As recently as 1987, a history of smoking pot was deemed sufficient grounds to disqualify Douglas H. Ginsburg from a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The culture changes," Maslin observed. "The truth is we have now a huge swath of the American electorate that went through a period of time when drugs were prevalent. A lot of them are now parents, just as George W. Bush and Al Gore are parents, and to some degree they might be a little uncomfortable about what they did in the past. But that certainly wasn't true of the electorate 20 or 30 years ago."

Not long after Ginsburg withdrew his name from consideration for the high court, then Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was compelled to abandon his front-running campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination after exposure of an extramarital affair. A mere four years later, marital infidelity became a nonissue for voters, who elected Bill Clinton president after he all but confessed to adultery.

Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the public has come to develop a healthy estimation of what to expect from candidates who are, after all, only human.

"Americans have . . . tried very hard to find a fairly nuanced balance between private behavior and public performance," he said, "recognizing you can't separate them entirely [but if] you make them the sole criterion or dominant criterion . . . you restrict your pool to the Mother Teresa or Ralph Nader equivalent."

Partisans debate whether the public's increased tolerance represents a lowering of standards or a greater degree of sophistication; most agree it has much to do with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

"Bill Clinton has done an enormous favor for all candidates in 2000," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who has written extensively on the nature of political scandal. "He has lowered the bar . . . so much that I suspect all the candidates will be able to escape harsh judgment, whatever their individual sins."

Having said that, Sabato joined critics who reserved their harshest criticism for the media's exhaustive and extensive coverage of the unproved allegations against Bush.

"This represents a significant new low in journalistic standards," argued Q. Whitfield Ayres, a GOP pollster. "Every other time, you've had at least a shred of evidence, or an allegation from at least a marginally credible source."

Bush received support Friday from an unlikely quarter: No less an authority than Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, on Friday downplayed the candidate's equivocal answers to the cocaine questions. "Probably 70 million Americans have used an illegal drug--one third of all Americans aged 12 and older," McCaffrey said at a Washington news conference. "Americans who once tried an illegal drug overwhelmingly have walked away from drug abuse."

But even those who faulted the media for overdoing its coverage suggest Bush courted scrutiny by answering some personal questions--volunteering, for instance, accounts of his hard-drinking past and professing his marital fidelity--while turning back inquiries into possible drug use.

"If, in fact, the governor used [cocaine] at some point in the past, he ought to 'fess up and then let the American people decide whether it's a serious issue or not," said Marvin Kalb, the newsman turned media watchdog at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Frankly, I would love to see reporters spend the same energy on truly significant issues."

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Times staff writer Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.

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