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UP IN SMOKE? : If Past Use of Marijuana Is the New Political Litmus Test, Will Anybody Be Left to Govern?

November 12, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Even as President Reagan Wednesday announced a new Supreme Court nominee, political observers continued to debate the indiscretions that brought down the last candidate, and to wonder, "Where will it all end?"

Was Judge Douglas Ginsburg's withdrawal amid revelations that he has smoked marijuana merely the coup de grace to an already shaky candidacy--or does it signal a harsh, perhaps unreasonable, new standard by which those aspiring to any high office are to be judged? If this is the new standard, the question seemed to be, who will be left to run the country?

"It may be getting somewhat absurd," suggested Joe Cerrell, chairman of the board of the American Assn. of Political Consultants. "I can see them asking (new nominee Sacramento) Judge Anthony Kennedy, 'Did you engage in premarital sex with someone other than your wife?' "

As potential justices and office-holders are put under "a stronger microscope," Cerrell said, qualified people may well shy away from submitting themselves to such intense scrutiny of their private lives. Cerrell, a onetime adviser to President John F. Kennedy and a political consultant for 30 years, asked, "Is anybody totally free of relatively minor crimes?

Took Box of Raisins

Because he once inadvertently walked out of a store with a 15-cent box of raisins in his pocket, Cerrell asked, does this make him a shoplifter?

More than one observer has suggested that Ginsburg, 41, is a victim of the 1980s. If he, as he has acknowledged, smoked marijuana as a student in the '60s and as a Harvard law professor in the '70s, so, they say, did hundreds of thousands of other educated, middle-class young Americans.

Whereas, as Patrick Anderson wrote in "High in America," it was possible to grow up in the America of the 1950s in blissful ignorance of marijuana--"it was something, like flying saucers, that happened to other people"--by the mid-'60s pot-smoking was a rite of the counterculture, a symbol of the times just as much as protests against the war in Vietnam, communes and Bob Dylan singing "Mr. Tambourine Man."

But this is 1987. Americans are lifting weights instead of dropping acid. Once, Peter Fonda as pot-loving Capt. America raced across the screen in "Easy Rider." Today, it's Jane Fonda with aerobics videos. Brownies are out; low-fat yogurt is in. And, apparently, Americans want people who hold offices of public trust to be squeaky-clean.

'Millenium Madness'

"I call it millenium madness," said Timothy Leary, 67. "Every 1,000 years people go crazy." The onetime "high priest of LSD" and Harvard instructor who in the '60s said it was time to "tune in, turn on and drop out," served a jail term in the '70s for possession of marijuana. Leary now lives in Beverly Hills and is currently booked at Carlos 'n Charlie's restaurant as a stand-up philosopher.

He blames Ginsburg's troubles on "the loony tune right wing . . . that crazed group who are out of touch with American culture." But Leary is optimistic about the future--"Every sign is that the Reagan repression has peaked and is in disarray." And, he pointed out, by 1992 "the overwhelming predominance of American voters are going to be veterans of the summer of love. By 1992, if you say you didn't smoke marijuana the logical assumption will be that you were a social retard or that you're lying in your beard."

Indeed, in the wake of Ginsburg's confession, two presidential candidates have admitted to having smoked marijuana--Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. Other politicians who have come forward with confessions are conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); liberal Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.); Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and his Republican challenger, Rep. Connie Mack.

In Joe Cerrell's opinion, it is going to be "very, very difficult" to find people to run for office if past marijuana use is a barrier. He noted that another presidential hopeful, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), 59, seemed "almost embarrassed" at having to explain that, while he drank beer, he never smoked pot because it was not available when he was in college.

If past use of marijuana is the yardstick, much of a generation appears to have been disqualified. According to estimates of the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse, one-third of all Americans over the age of 12, and 60% of those from 18 through 25, have tried it at least once.

A New York Times-CBS poll this week found that 58% of Americans do not think that having tried marijuana should disqualify a candidate for the Supreme Court, and 68% of those surveyed felt too much attention is being paid to the private lives of public officials. (In the same poll, however, 46% thought Ginsburg did the right thing by withdrawing; only 32% thought he should have fought for the nomination.)

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