Things got curiouser and curiouser at an Aug. 4 Monitor breakfast. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was our guest. From his responses to our questions came a story that hit front pages in papers from coast to coast and which said, in essence, that Mr. Daschle had challenged the media to probe reports that George W. Bush had used cocaine in the past.
On hearing about this story the Texas governor bristled. "I don't like trash-mouth politics and I don't like tearing somebody down," Mr. Bush said while out on the campaign trail in Iowa.
Now I was sitting right next to Daschle during the entire session and I must say that I was astonished to see what was said in the big headlines erupting from his comments. I'd heard no "challenge" to reporters to press Bush on this cocaine question.
Then Daschle himself issued a "clarifying" statement in which he said he did not in any way challenge or urge reporters to investigate any rumors about Bush: "In fact, I said something decidedly different. I said, and I believe, that it is absolutely appropriate and acceptable for Mr. Bush to refuse to answer questions about his personal behavior."
So let's turn to the transcript of the breakfast and the back-and-forth between Daschle and reporters from which this controversy has emerged:
Q: You said there is some line the media can cross which is excessive in regards to personal conduct. Generally speaking, is it a legitimate question that anyone seeking the presidency should answer as to whether or not they've taken cocaine?
Q: It's a legitimate question. And the candidate running for the highest office in the land should answer that question, true?
Daschle: Sure, it's a legitimate question. The second question is if that person denies it, how many press people, how many investigators do you put on his tail to find out whether he's telling the truth.
Q: What if a person says, "I'm not going to address that"?
Daschle: Well, that's his right, too.
Q: Would that raise a legitimate question in the minds of the voters to elect him?
Daschle: I don't think it necessarily would. I would say that a person who answers the question one way or another ... if the person refused to answer the question, I think you have to make a judgment as to how important that question is in the overall scheme of whether this person is competent to hold office or not. I frankly don't think it's a competency question.
So one can see from the above colloquy that Daschle isn't specifically siccing the press on Bush. Indeed, he clearly is saying he thinks it is appropriate and acceptable for Bush not to reply.
But Daschle, in his later clarifying statement, then underscored what he also had brought out at the breakfast: "What is not so acceptable," he said, "is for the media to arbitrarily hold one public figure to one standard of disclosure and another public figure to a far higher or lower standard."
My take on what he was telling us at the breakfast was that he believed the media had been much tougher on Clinton (and, particularly, on Mrs. Clinton) than they had been on George Bush - "on his whole past."
On reflection, however, I can see how a different interpretation took wings. Some reporters obviously got the impression that Daschle's deploring of "double standard" journalism on their part was more than just a philosophical comment. They obviously thought he was egging them on to get tougher on Bush. I frankly didn't have that interpretation - particularly after Daschle said, quite firmly, that it was Bush's "right" not to respond.
Since that breakfast, the media have relentlessly pressured Bush to respond to the "cocaine question." He has grudgingly indicated "no use" for the past 25 years. But the pressure persists for him to go back to his youth in answering the question.
Oh, yes, at the breakfast Daschle volunteered his own answer to the cocaine question: "No, I haven't ever taken cocaine; I'm not sure I've ever seen it personally."
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