By mid August 1999, Bush seemed to be losing control of the story. On August 18 — asked by a Dallas Morning News reporter if he’d require appointees in a hypothetical Bush administration to answer standard background-check questions on drug use — Bush offered this bizarre reply: “As I understand it, the current form asks the question, ‘Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?’ and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is ‘no.’ ” One day later, Bush complicated matters still further by saying he could have passed the 15-year-background checks used during his father’s presidency, which, his campaign spokesperson explained, meant he hadn’t used illegal drugs since 1974. “[I] made mistakes and . . . I have learned from my mistakes,” Bush concluded; if people weren’t satisfied, they could “go find somebody else to vote for.”
Taken in aggregate, Bush’s responses were just as unconvincing as Clinton’s infamous I-never-inhaled line. And despite the Bush campaign’s attempts to cast them as part of a principled stand against dirty politics, they weren’t working. The New York Times called on Bush to come clean, noting that he’d already politicized the personal by touting his marital fidelity — unprompted — in 1998. (He’d also spoken openly about his history of alcohol abuse.) Republican moralist Bill Bennett, too, urged Bush to be candid. “Bush has essentially admitted to something,” USA Today noted in an editorial. “But he refuses to say what, creating a political paradox.”
It took a remarkably fortuitous development to stop the bleeding. With author J.H. Hatfield’s claim that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972, only to have the charges thrown out through his father’s intercession, the 1999 book Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President didn’t look like a boon to the Bush cause. But when Hatfield’s sketchy past came to light — he had pled guilty to embezzlement and tried to have a former boss assassinated — it became exactly that. (Hatfield later committed suicide.) In retrospect, Hatfield’s charge wasn’t the only thing to be discredited when St. Martin’s recalled the book; so, it seems, was all talk of Bush’s cocaine use. “The incident could not have been designed better by the Bush campaign itself,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told Globe reporter (and former Phoenix media critic) Mark Jurkowitz at the time.
Fast forward to 2004, when Kitty Kelley’s Bush-clan exposé The Family: the Real Story of the Bush Dynasty offered yet another addendum to the Bush-and-cocaine storyline: Kelley quoted Sharon Bush, the ex-wife of Bush’s brother Neil, saying that George W. had used cocaine at Camp David during his father’s presidency on more than one occasion. Sharon Bush said she’d told Kelley no such thing; Bush surrogates dismissed Kelley’s claims as recycled junk; and the story went away.
Which brings us, by and large, to where we are today. After the Post’s story on Obama ran, Kirian Chetry, Steve Doocy, and Andrew Napolitano took up the implications of Obama’s coke use on Fox News & Friends. When Chetry asserted, mistakenly, that Bush had talked “very candidly” about using cocaine, Doocy and Napolitano rushed in to correct her. When Chetry persisted, saying that someone (she couldn’t remember Kelley’s or Hatfield’s names) had written about the subject in a book, Doocy laughed off the point. (“Lots of people have written things in books,” he chuckled.) Then it was on to jokes about Clinton and his silly denial of inhalation. Crisis averted.