SO THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION really is on drugs. Or was, in the not too distant past.
Secret Service agents told a congressional committee last Wednesday that dozens of White House aides had a history of serious drug abuse when they joined the executive branch in 1993. "I would say more than 30 -- more than 40, perhaps -- had drug usage," Agent Jeffrey L. Undercoffer testified. "There was some where the drug use was recent.... I have seen cocaine usage, I have seen hallucinogenic usages, crack usages. I would say those are the big three."
John Belushi! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.
At least 21 Clinton staffers were deemed such worrisome security risks that the Secret Service at first refused to grant them permanent White House passes. According to Agent Arnold A. Cole, they were finally cleared only on orders from the White House counsel -- and only after agreeing to a regimen of frequent drug tests.
Does any of this ring a bell?
It should. Way back in December 1994, shortly before taking office as speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich called attention to all the former drug users working in the White House.
"I had a senior law enforcement official tell me that in his judgment, up to a quarter of the White House staff, when they first came in, had used drugs in the last four or five years," Gringrich said in a TV interview. "Now, that is very serious.... I'm not making any allegation about any individual person, but it's very clear that they had huge problems getting people through security clearance because they kept bringing people in who had a lot of things that weren't very easy to clear."
Whereupon the skies opened, and brimstone poured forth.
"We cannot do business here with a speaker of the House who is going to engage in these kinds of unfounded allegations," fumed Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff. He lashed Gingrich for "behaving like an out-of-control radio talk-show host," for making an "absolutely false" accusation, for trafficking in "smear and innuendo."
Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos labeled Gingrich "irresponsible." Hillary Clinton: "So unfair." Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers: "Reckless charges."
The media agreed. Panetta's heated denunciations were played up big. Few reporters paused to wonder if the gentleman did protest too much -- or if Gingrich's tip bore looking into. On dozens of editorial pages, there were comparisons to the most infamous demagogue in American history. The Georgia Republican's words, said Newsday, were "laced with the kind of innuendo that fueled McCarthy's witchhunt." Herblock, the Washington Post's venerable cartoonist, portrayed Gingrich as McCarthy, cruelly blackening reputations with a broad brush.
Now, 19 months later, it turns out that Gingrich was basically telling the truth and Panetta was lying through his teeth. Shouldn't last week's stories have so noted? It isn't every day that Secret Service agents give evidence under oath of a widespread history of "cocaine usage ... hallucinogenic usages, crack usages" among White House employees. Did no reporter remember how Gingrich had been vilified when he raised the subject a year and a half earlier?
Apparently not. A search of the giant Nexis database turns up hundreds of stories reporting the new White House/drugs revelations. Of those hundreds, exactly zero pointed out that Gingrich -- savaged so furiously in 1994 -- had now been vindicated. The same number -- zero -- took the White House chief of staff to task for his deceitfulness.
Just what kind of journalism is this? When a leading member of Congress warns that people with a record of dangerous and illegal drug use are working in the White House, any good reporter's first instinct should be to check it out. It's one thing not to share a high official's political opinions; it is something else to ignore him -- or worse, to lacerate him -- when he makes a grave charge touching on the national security. Especially when he attributes his information to "a senior law enforcement official."
And now that the falsehood of Panetta's denials has been confirmed, what kind of journalism is it not to rectify -- or even allude to -- the frenzy of Gingrich-bashing he set off? If it's a big and serious deal that Joe Klein lied energetically about being Anonymous, isn't it at least as serious that Panetta lied energetically about the ex-druggies in the West Wing? Or do reporters resent being misled only when the misleading is done by a novelist?
Meanwhile, at least nine of those former crack-smokers and hallucinogen-droppers are still working in the White House. Press Secretary Mike McCurry declines to reveal who they are, what they do, or why they were hired over the Secret Service's objections. But not to worry, he says; they haven't failed a drug test since joining the Clinton administration.
Somehow, that fails to reassure. I incline to the idea that private drug use should be decriminalized, but crack users don't belong on the White House staff. McCurry's insistence that they pose no problem can be taken at face value -- or it can be checked out by people trained to uncover facts. People like congressional investigators. Or reporters.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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