WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration and other supporters of T. Timothy Ryan Jr., nominated as the nation's chief thrift regulator despite past marijuana and cocaine use, argued Saturday that baby boomers should be forgiven their youthful dabbling in drugs as they move into key jobs in government and business.
The White House said it knew that Ryan had smoked marijuana occasionally and tried cocaine once or twice in the early 1970s, but it did not consider the disclosures "relevant" to consideration of his nomination, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Saturday.
Officials said the Administration does not consider past experimentation with drugs as a political kiss of death because it was a shared experience among millions of young Americans during a more permissive era.
The youth of the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom experimented with marijuana and other drugs, are now old enough to begin filling an increasing share of the nation's most important and influential jobs.
"Timothy Ryan's generation of Americans is now emerging into top leadership positions in both government and the private sector," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a political and personal friend of Ryan for 14 years.
"It would be bad policy to reject, across the board, those who in their college or graduate years, on one or two occasions, experimented with controlled substances and then--as Mr. Ryan has assured me and the Administration--never used them again."
White House and Treasury officials were making phone calls on Ryan's behalf Saturday, explaining to senators who will vote on Ryan's confirmation that they knew about Ryan's drug use before they sent his name to the Senate.
"We knew about it beforehand," Fitzwater said Saturday. "We felt it was not relevant. We felt he was the best candidate."
Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, who picked the 44-year-old Ryan to regulate the ailing savings and loan industry, called several senators to emphasize that the Administration is sticking with its nominee.
"The White House and the secretary are 100% behind" Ryan, said Treasury spokeswoman Desiree Tucker-Sorini.
Ryan first acknowledged past drug use when he filled out a questionnaire for the FBI as part of the standard clearance process for seeking the government post as director of the Office of Thrift Supervision. One question asks about any use of illegal substances.
After filling out the questionnaire, Ryan told FBI agents in personal interviews that he had used marijuana occasionally while attending law school, sources said Saturday. He also said he had used cocaine at least once, and possibly twice.
Ryan said his last use of drugs may have been during the summer before he took the bar examination, the sources indicated.
After his disclosures to the FBI, Ryan notified Brady and White House officials about his past drug use. They told him it would not alter their support for his nomination.
"These things happened a long time ago when a lot of people were experimenting with drugs," one Administration official said. "This kind of thing should not be held against him now."
The information contained in FBI reports was made available to members of the Senate Banking Committee, which approved his nomination by an 11-to-10 vote Friday. The full Senate will vote on the nomination Wednesday.
Several committee members leaked the news of the drug disclosures late Friday, but the Administration remained undeterred.
The Administration, which has mounted a concerted war on narcotics, contends that any use of illegal drugs is morally reprehensible and cannot be condoned.
But officials acknowledged that the social and political climate was different in the 1960s and 1970s, when drug use often was regarded as acceptable among many college students and young adults.
"Each individual must be fairly examined," Warner said. "When these early mistakes in life are disclosed up front and honestly, that person should be given the opportunity today to compete for and accept positions of major responsibility in our society."
Last month, President Bush stated: "In my view, if somebody used marijuana some time ago and is not into anything of that nature, why, no, I don't think that should be used against them."
He made the comment in response to questions about Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, a Democratic candidate for governor who refused to say whether she had used illegal drugs.
Before the 1988 presidential campaign, Bush told reporters he had never experimented with illegal drugs. "But I'd hate to speak for my kids," he said.
The Administration is anxious to win Ryan's confirmation by the Senate because of legal uncertainties surrounding the Office of Thrift Supervision.
A federal judge blocked the impending seizure of an Illinois savings and loan, ruling that the agency could not act because former OTS director M. Danny Wall was never confirmed by the Senate. An appeals court will hear arguments on the issue April 11.
Ryan's formal confirmation would remove any ambiguities about the government's legal authority to carry out regulation of the trillion-dollar industry.
Ryan served as solicitor of the Labor Department from 1981 to 1983.