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Jewish World Review August 23, 1999 /11 Elul, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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George W. feels the heat --
"THE REPUBLICANS are getting exactly what they deserve," announced a satisfied liberal columnist sparring with me on CNN. She was referring to George W. Bush's evident discomfort in handling questions about possible cocaine use in the past. "They've been rummaging around in everyone's closets, so now it's their turn."

But she's oversimplifying. In truth, Republican officeholders (as distinguished from pundits, activists and lawyers) were actually quite reticent about raising the matter of Bill Clinton's sordid personal conduct. Neither George Bush nor Robert Dole ever said a word about it. Only Dan Quayle criticized candidate Clinton's character -- and he cited only the man's history of lying. Journalist Mark Steyn shrewdly observed that the Republicans' reluctance to mention Clinton's personal life had the effect of shielding him from all accusations of wrongdoing -- in effect pulling a protective condom over Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater and the other scandals that pock-marked his first term.

When the president lied under oath in the Paula Jones case, his "personal" conduct became a criminal matter. But even then, Republicans treaded gingerly. Those who spoke out forcefully -- Tom DeLay, Dick Armey -- were noticed precisely because they were so rare.

But George W. Bush should know that most members of the press probably agree with that columnist. Throughout the Lewinsky drama, they were torn. By day they duly reported the story (particularly the print press -- TV less so), by night they wrung their hands and mopped their brows, agonizing over how they were behaving. Only 10 days after the story broke, CNN broadcast the first of what would turn out to be thousands of panel discussions in which members of the press questioned one another and themselves about whether they were being fair to Bill Clinton. They do not fret so when they are in full chase after a Republican.

And when they go after George W., as they are now beginning to do, they will do so in the belief that Republicans have asked for it.

All of that having been said, George W. has committed his first error of the campaign.

Having spoken of his loyalty to his wife and his victory over alcohol, he opened the door to questions about other aspects of his past behavior. He thought that perhaps he could head off inquiries with his "when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible" line. But within a few days, he appeared to be hedging on cocaine in a way he hadn't on alcohol or adultery. He also caused even sympathetic listeners to wonder about his definition of "young."

When he was questioned about possible cocaine use (and it's only a rumor, no person has come forward with a specific allegation), he declined to deny it, saying to do so would only invite further open-ended questions and he wasn't "going to play that game." But later, lacking Bill Clinton's calm capacity to lie through his teeth, he offered that he could obtain a security clearance -- which would mean no drug use in the past seven years. Hmmm. Does that mean that until the age of 44 or 45, he was "young"? He later lengthened the period he would vouch for to 15 years.

Here's what is difficult to understand: Liberal critics of the likely Republican nominee are now claiming that character matters; that we must take the measure of a man before we elect him. But the ink is hardly dry on their passionate arguments that Bill Clinton's law-breaking, perjury and sexual dalliance with an underling were all "private" and irrelevant to his official duties.

Is there a principled way to approach the "pasts" of our would-be leaders? Yes. The test should be not whether they have sinned, but whether they have matured. Part of maturity is repentance. By this standard, Bill Clinton would never have passed muster. He spent the campaign of 1992 lying and dissembling. He pouted that he was being crucified for "a woman I didn't sleep with and a draft I didn't dodge."

Part of what is getting George W. in trouble now seems to be his unwillingness to lie -- and after eight years of mendacity, that is downright refreshing.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate