WASHINGTON -- Under relentless media pressure, Texas Gov. George W. Bush said yesterday that he has been drug-free for the past 25 years, but he refused to provide any details of his self-described youthful "mistakes."
In his most extensive comments on a subject he has insisted he won't discuss, the Republican presidential front-runner said he could have passed the background check that his father, George Bush, instituted when he became president in 1989. That standard disqualified prospective White House employees who had used illegal drugs during the previous 15 years.
With his statement, Bush effectively asserted that he has not taken illicit drugs at least since 1974, when he was 28, said his campaign spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker.
Yesterday, the governor said of voters: "Either they're comfortable with that answer or not, and if they're not comfortable with that answer, there are all kinds of other candidates they can cast their lot to."
Bush's equivocations on questions about any past use of drugs -- especially cocaine -- may be undermining his insistence that he will not play the "Washington game" of responding to rumors. On Wednesday, he said he had not used recreational drugs in the past seven years. Yesterday, it was 25 years.
Such shifts are keeping the issue alive and giving reporters ample reason to keep questioning Bush.
"He has got to steel himself to this and just say, 'Next question,' "counseled Marlin Fitzwater, who was a press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Rumors have circulated about his cocaine use since Bush's successful run for Texas governor in 1994. And though reporters have repeatedly tried to substantiate them, no evidence has ever emerged to support the innuendo.
Still, Bush has never flatly denied the charges. As far back as May 1994, he called them "irrelevant," parrying inquiries about drug use by saying, "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't."
But the run for the presidency is proving far more problematic, with reporters devising ever more creative ways to try to pin down the governor. On Wednesday, a reporter with the Dallas Morning News asked whether Bush would insist that employees of a possible Bush White House answer questions about drug use on a background check.
"As I understand it, the current form asks the question, 'Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is, 'No,' " Bush said.
Yesterday, campaigning in Roanoke, Va., Bush went further, extending his self-described drug-free period to the mid-1970s.
"Not only could I pass the background check of the standards applied in today's White House; I could have passed the background check on the standards applied on the most stringent conditions when my dad was president of the United States," he said.
In fact, the current background check for the 1,500-member presidential staff and high-level presidential appointees demands that applicants disclose drug use dating back to their 18th birthdays -- a policy that actually started in 1989, in the administration of the governor's father.
When confronted with that standard in Columbus, Ohio, Bush retreated to his position that he would not comment.
"I've told the American people all I'm going to tell them is that I've made mistakes years ago, and I've learned from those mistakes," Bush responded.
'7 -year headline' couldn't stay
The shifting dates might have been a political necessity for Bush and his campaign aides, suggested Ralph Reed, a prominent Republican strategist and Bush ally.
"When they woke up this morning and realized the headline was, 'Bush says he hasn't used drugs in seven years,' you don't want to leave that headline out there," Reed said.
By carving out a 25-year drug-free zone for himself, Bush also explicitly pushed the issue firmly into the distant past, Reed said.
The issue has the makings of a standoff between the press and the politician. Recent polls indicate that a majority of the American people want candidates simply to stop answering questions about their private lives, said Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. But the public is evenly split over whether the news media should report on a candidate's drug use.
When Americans are asked more specific questions, Bush's dilemma becomes clearer. In a Fox News poll taken last week, 69 percent of those surveyed said they wanted candidates to answer questions about any cocaine use in their past. That compares with 41 percent who say they want answers about any marijuana use.
"I truly believe the American people would find it hard to forgive the use of hard drugs," said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University who has written several books on the presidency and the press. "There is a world of difference in the public's mind between casual use of marijuana and cocaine. We're not even in the same ballpark."
Gore, others admitted use
Bush may fear a phenomenon in American politics in which each new infraction yields a victim, only to allow the next perpetrator to pass on through, unscathed. Douglas H. Ginsburg, a Reagan administration nominee for the Supreme Court, was felled by marijuana use.
Yet Vice President Al Gore admitted to past marijuana use in 1988, and President Clinton famously confessed that he had tried it but "didn't inhale."
Gary Hart's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987 collapsed under the weight of an adultery scandal. Yet Clinton survived similar allegations five years later.
No politician has confessed to the use of hard drugs. And if Bush were the first, Fitzwater warned, he would be tarred with the distinction forever. Clinton's dodge on marijuana has become a fixture in his legacy.
"That's an issue he's lived with forever," Fitzwater said of Clinton. "Once you've seen that eight-year phenomenon, it makes much more sense to take a hard stand and never admit to anything."
Bush's stand has, in fact, not been all that hard. He has been "completely inconsistent," Rozell said, about answering intrusive personal questions. Bush has categorically denied having committed adultery, and he has been blunt about a drinking problem that ended with a religious awakening in 1986.
Yet on the issue of drug use, Bush has demurred, saying yesterday, "I believe it is important to put a stake in the ground and to say enough is enough when it comes to trying to dig up people's backgrounds in politics."
Bush 'has got to shut up'
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who is critical of the media's "gotcha routine," agreed that Bush "has got to shut up."
He is not so sure, however, that Bush will be hurt by this imbroglio.
"Is he handling it well?" Sabato said. "No, they should have thought out a clean answer and stuck with it. But I still don't find it compelling, and I don't know anyone who does."