When in a fix, politicians will often clutch at the letter of the law and abandon its spirit. And of all the dodges, lies, and half-truths Bill Clinton told during his political career, his assertion as governor of Arkansas that, yes, he experimented with marijuana as a student, but no, he did not inhale, is the most absurd, if not the most consequential.
Now, if Clinton had dealt crack in his youth, he would have been well-advised to plead the Fifth and tell the pesky journalist not to ask such impertinent questions — which was essentially the approach of former British prime minister David Cameron when he was asked if he’d ever tried cocaine. But in this case, Clinton’s qualification was amusing because it was so unnecessary. The law he had violated was not American, but English. He puffed — or rather, came close to puffing — a doobie while a visiting Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.
In the United Kingdom, journalists love asking leadership candidates about drugs (more as a proxy for hypocrisy than as a stand-alone test of moral character), and the current Tory leadership competition to replace Theresa May has been no exception.
When asked the drugs question, Andrea Leadsom, Matt Hancock, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab, and Jeremy Hunt all admitted to having tried cannabis, the last of these adding that it was in drink form (okay?). Rory Stewart told the Telegraph that he had smoked opium while backpacking in Afghanistan. In Clintonesque form, Boris Johnson remarked that he tried cocaine but “sneezed and so it did not go up my nose.”
In an interview from 2007 with Piers Morgan, which has now resurfaced, Johnson expanded on this experience, explaining: “I tried [cocaine] at university and I remember it vividly. And it achieved no pharmacological, psychotropical, or any other effect on me whatsoever.” This admission has also, seemingly, had no effect on his political career whatsoever. Johnson has his own peculiar political gravity, much to the irritation of his enemies. But, alas, the same is not so for Michael Gove.
Gove, the current environment secretary and Johnson’s chief rival to replace Theresa May, admitted last week to taking cocaine on “several occasions” as a 30-year-old journalist, a decision he “deeply regrets.” Unlike the other candidates, this means that Gove has taken the Class A drug on multiple occasions as an adult professional — which conjures images of sordid elites, rather than teenage shenanigans. Worse still, around the same time, Gove was penning articles condemning drug-taking and lax enforcement for the Times of London. Later, in 2013, when he was education secretary, his department introduced a potential lifetime ban for teachers with convictions (a.k.a. those stupid enough to get caught) for possession or supply of Class A drugs.
It’s all rather awkward. Gove’s line now is that “people should never be defined by the worst decision that they’ve made” and that “people should be given a chance to redeem themselves and change.” But as prime minister? He also said on The Andrew Marr Show that “I am very, very conscious that the mistake I made was not one I would want anyone else to make.”
Since Gove answered these questions so candidly — which, remember, he needn’t have done — a host of others have cropped up. For instance, did Gove ever lie on any American immigration forms, which asks visitors if they have “ever violated any law related to possessing, using, or distributing illegal drugs?” His spokesman says that he did not.
People, especially teenagers, are certainly capable of self-betterment. But can a person who has ever willfully broken the law be trusted in the highest office in the executive branch of government? According to a YouGov poll, when it comes to cocaine, 56 percent of Britons, and as much as 67 percent of Tory voters, believe that someone who has ever taken cocaine should not be a member of Parliament.
This is somewhat surprising, given that the British public tends to have fairly liberal attitudes to drug legislation. For instance, a Populus poll suggests that 59 percent of the population thinks marijuana should be legal.
However, the charge against Gove is hypocrisy of the worst kind. Everyone knows that drugs are a social menace. The drug trade causes the misery of addiction, violence, family disunity, and corruption, which most seriously affects those living in areas of socioeconomic deprivation. This is to say nothing of the catastrophic effect it has on countries such as Colombia. Some believe greater legalization and regulation is the answer, others think we need to get tougher on drugs.
But in Gove’s case, what’s striking is that, if you read his columns from the 1990s, the charge of hypocrisy seems misplaced. He writes: “There is a greater sin than hypocrisy. It is the refusal to uphold values because one may oneself have fallen short of them.” And, surely, that’s true.
Gove didn’t wriggle out of the question with evasion or cheap humor. He didn’t do a Clinton. He faced it like a grown man. Like a grown man who had snorted cocaine and now wishes — very sincerely, and for all the right reasons — that he hadn’t.