The Magazine


Jan 20, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 18 • By CARL M. CANNON
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FOUR YEARS AGO, IN THE FIRST FEW weeks of the Clinton presidency, a three- star general attached to the Joint Chiefs of Staff was at the White House on official business when he said good morning to a young, female Clintonista. Instead of answering in kind, she scowled and replied: "We really don't want people in uniform over here . . ."

Isn't life odd? And, considering the way things have turned out, wouldn't it be sweet if she were one of the aides now forced to undergo periodic drug testing? For the three-star general she insulted that winter day was Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the most decorated man in the U.S. armed forces and now Clinton's drug czar. McCaffrey is the reason the administration has finally articulated a coherent anti-drug policy, and he is the driving force behind the administration's unexpectedly strong response to two invidious state referenda in Arizona and California that would make it easier for Americans to use illegal drugs. "He's the man on this issue for us," one senior White House official says, "and there's no secret about it."

The Clintonites need him. One of the few times Bob Dole actually sank his teeth into Bill Clinton in 1996, after all, was in his evocative assertion that the administration was "AWOL in the war on drugs." According to officials who are most active in fighting drugs, it was a fair characterization.

While presidents get too much credit -- and too much blame -- for nearly everything that goes on in the nation's life, there was ample reason in this instance to hold Clinton accountable for the alarming increase in marijuana and other narcotics among America's teenagers. In 1992, 22 percent of high school seniors reported using marijuana during the past 12 months. This figure has risen in each year of Clinton's presidency and now stands at 36 percent In 1992, only 2 percent said they were using pot daily; now, it's 5 percent. The same pattern holds for cocaine, heroin, LSD, and other drugs.

Why does Clinton deserve the blame? Remember that in 1992, the public's perception of Clinton's view of drugs came chiefly from his brother's troubles as a cocaine user, his own claim that he tried marijuana in college but "didn't inhale," and the notorious MTV interview in which he chuckled and said he would inhale if he tried pot again. After his election, Clinton's top advisers mused in public about moving the drug czar's office out of the White House, and one of his first official acts was to cut the staff of the drug czar's office from 145 full-time employees to 25. His surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, spoke about the possible benefits of drug legalization, and after her son was busted for cocaine, she said he hadn't really committed a crime Three months after taking office, attorney general Janet Reno publicly criticized federal sentencing procedures resulting in long prison terms for " minor participants" in drug deals. And last year, presidential spokesman Mike McCurry finally confessed what readers of the Washington Times knew right off the bat in 1993: that several of those Clinton hired as White House staffers confessed to recent or ongoing drug usage during FBI background checks and had to agree to undergo random testing in order to receive security clearances.

All of this sent a rather unmistakable message. When the New York Times interviewed 30 teenagers from Massachusetts and New York about drug use one month before the '96 election, Clinton's name kept coming up. "For him to say, "Don't do drugs," then to say he did it, but he didn't inhale, that's kind of a far-fetched story," a blonde 16-year-old from Gloucester identified only as Jennifer told the Times "He must have tried it more than once," added Isa, a 17-year-old senior from New York. "I bet maybe 50 percent of the Congress has tried it. I mean, adults still use."

This was the mess Barry McCaffrey inherited early last year when Clinton tapped him to head the drugcontrol office whose personnel and power the president had slashed three years before. With his war record, his button- down demeanor, and his occasional bursts of temper, McCaffrey was seen by his military colleagues as something of a tough guy. They also considered him something of a liberal. In 1970, McCaffrey wrote a 30-page paper while teaching at West Point that predicted -- and approved of -- vastly expanded opportunities for women at the academy and in the rest of the armed forces. At West Point and various war colleges, McCaffrey was known for teaching young officers the absolute need to avoid human-rights abuses in combat. Among his many decorations and prizes is an award from the NAACP