With narcotics use by public officials heating up as an election-year issue, President Clinton's drug czar is suggesting an amnesty of sorts for Americans who have used drugs in the past.
"No Americans should be precluded from serving their country in any position as long as they now reject all illicit drug use," Barry McCaffrey said in a position paper released Wednesday. "We call upon the 50-million Americans who have tried and now do not condone drug abuse to join in the nation's anti-drug effort."
William Bennett, who held the same job as head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George Bush, described McCaffrey's statement as disappointing.
Focus on the drug issue has been intense in recent weeks. Earlier this month the White House revealed that some current Clinton aides are regularly tested for drugs because FBI security checks revealed "extensive and-or recent drug use found in their backgrounds."
McCaffrey insisted the position paper wasn't motivated by politics. But it was issued at a time when the White House and Republican lawmakers are trading barbs over the drug histories of politicians in both parties.
Instead, he said, the policy statement is aimed at providing guidance to millions of beyond-the-Beltway baby boomers _ many of whom used or experimented with drugs _ as they struggle over how to discuss that touchy issue with their children.
"This new generation that is now running America _ the school principals, the police chiefs, the business leadership _ many of them were exposed to illegal drugs in the '60s and '70s, and rejected it, because it scared them," McCaffrey said in a telephone interview. "What we're saying to that age group is, "Look _ you're running the country now. Let's tell our children that the drug revolution didn't work.' "
McCaffrey said his plea is directed both at local community leaders and Washington policymakers: "It's for everyone, really."
Those explanations did not mollify Bennett, saying he questioned whether McCaffrey "has become an apologist for the White House."
"This is a very weak, very tepid statement and cannot be taken literally," Bennett said. "This isn't the kingdom of Heaven where if one repents, one gets in. These are policy positions in the White House, and acts should have consequences."
The former Army general's statement comes as Republicans continue to hammer at the White House on the drug issue.
Campaigning Wednesday in Pennsylvania, Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said he would never overrule the Secret Service if it recommended that White House passes be denied employees because of past drug use.
"They won't be there when I'm in the White House," he said. "No wonder we're losing the war on drugs when you've got such a big, big problem in the White House itself."
The White House has said that of the 21 current and former workers placed in the special random-testing program, none has ever tested positive.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich also has blasted White House press secretary Mike McCurry for not admitting that his past drug use was a mistake.
"I was a kid in the 1970s. Did I smoke a joint from time to time? Of course I did," McCurry said last Wednesday. "The FBI knows that. The point is, if I use drugs now, in any shape or form, I'm gone, I'm history."
"They have a presidential press secretary in the White House, on camera, who says, of course he did marijuana in college, as though every student in America this year ought to say, "Well, I can be like Mike McCurry,' " the Georgia Republican said Saturday.
But Gingrich himself has handled the issue in much the same way, saying the fact that he and friends dabbled with drugs during the 1970s "was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era."
Anti-drug experts said they hoped McCaffrey's statement doesn't get lost in the political debate.
"This has become sort of the politics of accusation _ who did what, when," said James Copple, president of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, an organization with 4,000 chapters nationwide. "The message has got to be broader and deeper than that."