Bush Learned Nothing From His Mistakes
Watching the political press corps try to figure out what to do about George W. Bush's supposed cocaine use is a walking test case in media ethics that will be used in journalism schools for the next 50 years. You probably didn't know there were courses in media ethics. You may now make up your own joke.
For starters, under the old rules, before we wrote about something we were expected to have some evidence that it was true. Under the new rules, the fact that there is gossip about someone is news, whether the gossip is true or not. In this case, the fact that Bush refuses to deny that he used cocaine has seemed to the entire press corps sufficient evidence a charming latter day version of "Have you stopped beating your wife?"
To add insult to injury, the Washington media is busy analyzing the Bush campaign's response, deciding that it was insufficiently nimble for the big leagues, that he didn't stay "on message" and otherwise picking apart his campaign operation.
The week before, they had of course been praising said operation as flawless and awesome. Now "Bush himself is responsible for the current flurry..." Oh, sure. This is my favorite media trick We do something disgusting and then blame it on the person to whom it was done.
The media, as happens so often, are asking the wrong question. Bush stands there and begs us to ask it. "I have learned from my mistakes," he says over and over. The question is: What did he learn?
Until 1973, Texas had the most draconian drug laws in the nation. Whether they stopped Bush or not, they didn't stop me, didn't stop people now serving in the Legislature and didn't stop most of a generation of Texans from trying marijuana. What did he learn from that? Nothing.
Harsh laws do not stop young people from trying illegal drugs. So what does Bush do when he gets to be governor? Increases the penalties and toughens the system so it's harder on young people. Signs a memorably stupid bill making possession of less than a 20th of an ounce of cocaine punishable by jail time.
Are there people who are now in Texas prisons for making "youthful mistakes"? Based on a combination of Texas Department of Criminal Justice figures and U.S. Justice Department figures, there are at least 5,000 people in Texas prisons for marijuana possession alone. Twenty percent of the Texas prison population of 147,000 is there on drug related charges.
The truth is, if Bush had been caught using marijuana or cocaine 25 years ago, he would not have been sentenced to prison he was rich and white, and his daddy was an important guy. That's the way the system worked then; that's the way the system works now. Lee Otis Johnson, the black political activist from Houston, got 30 years for marijuana, white boys walked. Bush saw it happen; what did he learn?
When he became governor, he had a world of opportunity to try to make the system more fair. What did he do? He vetoed Sen. Rodney Ellis'bill (passed unanimously by the Republican controlled Senate and by the House), which would have given poor defendants the right to see a lawyer within 20 days. Twenty days, big deal in most of the country, an indigent defendant gets a lawyer within 72 hours or they have to let him go. We have poor people who spend months in jail just waiting to see a lawyer. Bush vetoed that bill. He learned nothing.
When Bush came in as governor, this state had committed to the most extensive in prison drug andalcohol rehabilitation program in the country the joint legacy of Ann Richards and Bob Bullock, both recovering alcoholics. Eighty percent of the people in Texas prisons are diagnosed by the system as having substance abuse problems. The entire program is gone now completely repealed.
Bush learned nothing. That's the story.
(Reprint, Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 1999)
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