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Jewish World Review Aug. 26, 1999 /14 Elul, 5759

Don Feder

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Bush fails character test with lawlerly evasions -- SORRY YOU'RE OFFENDED by what you consider impertinent questions, Gov. Bush. But after Bill Clinton, we can't take the chance of electing another sleazebag who'll turn the presidency into an obscene joke and plunge the nation into a constitutional crisis.

Last week, George W. was irked by a reporter's question about persistent stories that he used cocaine. His voice rising, the GOP front-runner replied, "Somebody floats a rumor and that causes you to ask a question. And that's the game in American politics, and I refuse to play it."

But play it he did, like an amateur.

When the Dallas Morning News reminded him that high-level presidential appointees have to answer the very same question on an FBI background check, Bush semi-relented, disclosing he has not used drugs in the past seven years, the period specified in the bureau's questionnaire.

Later, he took a more extensive stroll down memory lane. "Over 20 years ago, I did some things," the candidate vaguely explained. "I made some mistakes, and I learned from those. That's all I intend to talk about." Now, really, Governor.

If you said that you smoked marijuana or tried cocaine in your 20s and now understand that it was very wrong, no one would hold it against you. But your lawyerly evasions, worthy of a Bill Clinton ("I'm not having sex with Monica Lewinsky at this precise moment in time"), make it look like you have something to hide.

Is there a man or woman who's led a blameless life? St. Augustine admitted that his youth was devoted to exploring the outer limits of debauchery. Not for nothing did he call his autobiography "Confessions."

Increasingly, Bush sounds like He-Whose-Tongue-Is-Permanently-Forked, whining about the "politics of personal destruction." Sadly, Bush also appears to be copying Clinton in releasing only as much information as he thinks he must, without really coming clean.

Most of us are entitled to our privacy.

On the other hand, most of us won't appoint judges who will interpret the Constitution. Most of us won't have a "football" (with nuclear launch codes) in our possession. Most of us will never hold in our hands more raw power than anyone who's ever drawn breath.

Want a private life, Governor? Don't run for president.

Are callous newshounds and puritanical inquisitors transgressing the bounds between public and private, checking seismographs for erupting bimbos and searching bureau drawers for stashes and paraphernalia?

If so, I only wish we were this inquisitive seven years ago.

Despite credible evidence that the fair-haired boy from Little Rock was a slam hound who, as his brother Roger once described him to an undercover narcotics agent, had a "nose like a vacuum cleaner," we delicately averted our gaze.

For this, we were rewarded with a president who rutted in the Oval Office, lied under oath to cover up his conduct, became the Chinese politburo's guardian angel and got us into a war in the Balkans to distract attention from his scandals.

In 1992, we knew that Clinton was a draft-dodger, and suspected he was also a serial adulterer and drug user. In office, his conduct was exactly what you'd expect of a man without honor or integrity.

Ethics alone aren't enough. In Jimmy Carter, we had an honest man who was basically incompetent. Then, too, it is entirely possible for a wretch to rise above himself. On the battlefield, deeply flawed individuals have made noble sacrifices.

But, by and large, the inner man is reflected in public performance. Our best presidents -- Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman -- governed according to their values.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was perhaps more flawed than most of our presidents. Yes, as a young man, he had a mistress (one, uno). And yes, he was famous for stretching the truth. But without the character that helped him to overcome polio, he never could have led America through World War II.

In the recent British film "An Ideal Husband," youthful indiscretion comes back to haunt an upright politician. Sins of the past are compounded by lies. Still, in the end, the hero has the strength of character to tell the truth and not succumb to blackmail. That's what a hero does.

Like his father, Gov. Bush may be a thoroughly decent man, honorable in every way. But candor is itself a test of character. And that test he has already failed.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder can be reached by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate