Bush’s Game of Beat the Press Ends in Defeat

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George W. Bush's press tactics have taken a hit. First it was the stonewall, vowing never to dignify questions about his admittedly "irresponsible" past (except ones about, say, adultery, that he could answer with certainty in the negative). Then the no-comments got angrier, and the press got hungrier, and on Wednesday in New Orleans the wall of privacy came tumbling down. Asked by the Dallas Morning News — they win the trip-the-candidate prize — about whether Bush would require that his appointees answer the drug-use question for FBI background checks, George W. bit. "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." Thursday morning in Virginia, back the goalposts went again. "Not only could I have passed in today's White House, I could have passed the standards applied under the most stringent conditions when my dad was president, a 15-year period." Bush Sr. signed up for the job in 1989, so now we’re back to 1974 –- when Bush was 28 — and the jig is pretty much up.

"He’s pretty much screaming that he did cocaine at one point," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "You wonder why he didn’t just say that before –- the whole story could have been squelched so easily." Did he really think he could win? "This is an object lesson in how difficult it is to fend off this media hunger for investigation into private lives," says Branegan. "[Former Clinton press secretary] Mike McCurry called it 'telling the truth slowly,' but I don’t think it’s done Bush any good, dragging it out like this." It’s the lesson every politician swears by — full, early disclosure is the only smart play anymore — until it happens to them. Bush’s Pandora’s box is mostly open, and he’s caught in the worst of worlds. He’s essentially admitted to it — "Over 20 years ago, I did some things... I made some mistakes and I learned from those," Bush said Thursday — and now he has to hope, as Branegan says, that "the public has a statute of limitations on this sort of illegal activity." But the worst part is how Bush ended the confession: "That's all I intend to talk about." Stay down, George. Stay down.