When did you stop beating your wife?

Answering righteous questions in a not-so-righteous world

By Mark Vorzimmer
web posted August 30, 1999

Answer A: "I'm not going to dignify that question with an answer."
Answer B: "July 7, 1983, when I sobered up."


The infamous, "When did you stop beating your wife?" question has reappeared. Only now, candidates running for president must face a new more contemporary version-a new "litmus test" no one appears to like, yet no one can refrain from asking: Have you ever done drugs? Republicans must answer to avoid being called hypocrites; Democrats, to prove they're not going to flout drug laws once elected.

Widely perceived as unethical, the question is nonetheless being asked of candidates for public office. To lash out at the media for asking the question is to court disaster, to deny "people's right to know." Apparently George W. Bush hadn't devised an answer to the drug question ahead of time-at least one with which he felt comfortable. Does this prove he's not a clever politician? Perhaps. And after Bill Clinton, many people hope so. One is still left to make sense out of this whole drug issue. It will become increasingly harder to find candidates for public office that have never tried, if not used “recreational” drugs. So where does the public's right to know intersect a candidate's private life?

Moral vs. legal questions

A person is free to cast a vote for an individual based on moral or legal matters (beyond, of course, a candidate’s policy platform); however, the difference is that legal questions are always publicly relevant. No portion of a candidate's life, relative to the breaking of laws, should be off limits. Once asked about drug use, it is undoubtedly a question for the public record, not an issue over which a candidate can demur. No one should scorn the public, or the media's right to ask questions of legal significance. A candidate's decision-making capacity is always a matter of public importance. However, the weight the electorate attaches to a candidate's perceived or proven drug use is a matter for personal consideration.

In today's cultural environment, moral questions are perceived differently than legal ones-though they are publicly discussed, they are not automatically a matter for the public domain. Since becoming decriminalized, pornography has become a moral issue. As with religion, each of us can hold an opinion on pornography, as long as it does not inform our public policy. Although drug taking also has moral implications, from the point we passed laws prohibiting their use, they became legal issues (more on that later). When different social issues are, or should be moral vs. legal (e.g., welfare, abortion, state-run lotteries, you name it), might just be the fine point between liberals and conservatives.

Again, turning to our two prominent examples, Bill Clinton's adultery was perceived by many as being a strictly moral issue. Conservatives faced the daunting task of trying to convince democrats to consider public policy in a moral realm-to impeach Clinton for committing moral offenses. Once the moral points were broached, the criminal issues were thrown out with the morally tainted bath water. When Clinton answered the drug question, he didn't really think it was anyone's business, he just couldn't avoid being glib, and lying. And lying. And lying.

And then simply not answering the question any longer. George Bush believes moral questions are relevant to someone's candidacy, which is why he's having so much trouble dealing with the questions himself. Ann Coulter said on "Geraldo Rivera Live" that she thought Bush's response to the drug question was "quaint." She was implying that his apparent cognitive dissonance was a sign that, although he had probably done some drugs in his lifetime, he greatly regretted it-attaching relevance to drug use which other candidates and the public might not actually share.

The real "Teflon" presidency

Why then, when so many moral and legal problems seem to bounce right off Bill Clinton's back, does George Dub-ya appear to be stumbling on a question he's had months, if not years to answer? Though no one could dispute his answers to the drug question were maladroit, the problem lies less with George W. Bush than it does with our hyper-dynamic culture. Society's view of drugs has changed dramatically, just in the past 10 years. They are illegal, yet widely used. They are socially scorned, yet ignored. Society is morally ambivalent about drugs-especially non-violent drug users-and public policy has reflected this schizophrenia. The DARE Program teaches school kids that everything from aspirin to heroin is a drug.

Conservatives think drugs are bad, and even those that may have participated in their use at one time never stop believing in their destructive power. As with the religious, they will always be proper hypocrites. And that is the problem with liberals, they think hypocrisy is a nonstarter. They outrageously suffer none of the slings and arrows of cognitive dissonance.

Republicans faltered in their preeminent use of moral issues against a morally impervious Bill Clinton, and an increasingly ambivalent, malleable American culture. Whether Bill Clinton committed adultery or did drugs was something that Americans have been conditioned into thinking was none of their business. Besides, what portion of the public can say they haven't dabbled in some variation of both? And herein lies the trap for liberals: Moral and legal questions are both pertinent to a candidate's fitness for office.

Moral and legal questions must also be important in everyone's personal lives, because they are matters of great importance to our country. The difference is this: Truly moral issues must be weighed personally, with a person's vote, rather than publicly when deciding on a candidate for office. Grave legal issues should disqualify a candidate for office. Bill Clinton committed crimes, both before entering public life, as well as throughout his career in elective office. When this happens, there is an abuse of public trust, and when the perpetrator is not removed from office, there is a sanctioning; an institutionalizing of corruption that undermines the base upon which all democracy is founded.

Any drug use George W. Bush engaged in is a matter of public importance, because drugs are, and have been throughout Bush's lifetime, illegal. What evidence there would be to support a drug case against him after this many years would almost certainly negate any further legal consideration, however. This is much different than Bill Clinton's active, ongoing, civil and criminal wrongdoing, all of which should have been viewed in much more harsh terms by the voters, and much more comprehensively by the public and the media. Bill Clinton's Teflon made Ronald Reagan look like he was wearing David Letterman's famous Velcro suit.

Would past drug use by George W. Bush present a grave legal issue for the Bush campaign? Absent any evidence, it should take an election to find out. Relative to the other differences between the Bush and Gore political ideologies, past drug use by either candidate is one of the most meaningless aspects of the campaign.

Mark Vorzimmer is a frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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