David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 1/19/01
(This editorial follows up on our 11/17 "A Message to the President-Elect," http://www.drcnet.org/wol/160.html#editorial in the Week Online archives.)
Dear Mr. Incoming President:
I never heard back from you regarding my letter two months ago. No problem, I'm not sure it even got to you. You see, I didn't know your address at that time, to send it. Actually, Florida was still up in the air, so I didn't know your name either.
But if you remember, there was something I knew about you -- again, not to a judicial certainty -- but with enough certainty that any reasonable person would agree it's true. I'm writing to let you know that I still know and it's still on my mind.
I'll give you a hint -- it has to do with your youth -- the youth you've described as "young and irresponsible." (Youth in this case seems to have extended at least through age 30 -- youth defined as that time during which you won't tell us whether you were "young and irresponsible" in this particular way.)
Figured it out yet? Okay, I'll just tell you, in case you haven't.
I still know you used illegal drugs.
I know this, because you've said you haven't used them in at least 25 years, but have refused to say whether you used them before that, and I can't think of any reason you wouldn't just say you didn't if that was the case.
But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that past drug use should disqualify you from the presidency. Nothing of the sort. But there is one problem.
It's your drug policies. As Governor of Texas, you promoted harsher sentences for low-level drug offenders -- people much like you, 25 or more years ago -- and have showed precious little mercy to those caught in the criminal justice system's web.
One of those people is Charles Garrett. In 1970, Garrett, addicted to heroin, was caught with a mere two grams of it. The jury sentenced him to life in prison. Anticipating little mercy, however, Garrett had already fled, not to be found for 28 years. During that time, by all accounts, Garrett had left his "young and irresponsible" youth behind and become a model citizen -- a family man, working, paying taxes -- the kind of American you would probably say makes our country great.
But Garrett was caught, and the state of Texas, under your leadership, chose to enforce Charles Garrett's life sentence and take him away from his family forever. You didn't respond to appeals for clemency.
I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet that you possessed two or more grams of one or more illegal drugs at one or more times -- maybe even in Texas. But you didn't caught, and if you had, well... things would probably have gone a little bit differently. Certainly as things stand they went better for you, as tomorrow's events demonstrate.
But don't get me wrong -- I don't think you should have gone to prison for being "young and irresponsible" either. But why should Charles Garrett?
The way I see it, you should do one of a few things:
1) Repudiate your "tough on drugs" stance, replace your "tough on drugs" nominees (e.g. Ashcroft, Whitman, Abraham) with more reasonable people, and lead the charge to decriminalize drugs or at least moderate sentencing policies -- in this case, you needn't talk about your drug past, if you prefer not; or
2) Acknowledge that you used drugs when you were younger, and consistent with your current positions, acknowledge that it would have been appropriate for you to serve hard time in a Texas prison and that that would have benefited society -- since you seem to think it benefits society to send other such people to prison today; or
3) Resign. Find out first if Dick Cheney ever used drugs -- your father could still be on the "Kitchen Cabinet" that way.
Speaking of your father, he wasn't always the drug warrior he became as Vice-President and President. The same year that Charles Garrett was convicted in absentia, the younger Rep. George Bush made the following wise remarks on the floor of Congress:
"Contrary to what one might imagine, however, this bill will result in better justice and more appropriate sentences... Federal judges are almost unanimously opposed to mandatory minimums, because they remove a great deal of the court's discretion... As a result [of repealing mandatory minimums], we will undoubtedly have more equitable action by the courts, with actually more convictions where they are called for, and fewer disproportionate sentences."Unfortunately, he went the wrong direction and having helped repeal mandatory minimums, then helped bring them back and worsen them in the 80's. You, on the other hand, have started from the wrong side. Why not flip-flop, like your father did, but this time go the right way?
That would truly be "compassionate conservatism."