Coming very soon: Bush dances nude

So now we know. The next president of the United States is to be a 62-year-old actor called Warren Beatty: we know that because British journalists, far more enterprisingly than their American counterparts, have doggedly investigated this surprise candidacy and unleashed the news on an amazed world.

I know very little indeed about Beatty - I wouldn't know him if he walked into the room - but I do happen to know that he has a sister who is an avid believer in reincarnation and thinks she was an Egyptian princess in a previous life (not, note, a slave to the princess or a peasant tilling her fields).

Thank God the silly season here is over this Labor Day weekend, because it has been a long one. For the Beatty nonsense, we have none other than Arianna Stassinopoulos (or Arianna Huffington as she still likes to be known here, despite the end of her marriage to the former Republican congressman) to thank: she is busily transmogrifying herself yet again, this time into transcontinental wit and caring political moderate.

She had this man Beatty to dinner, then launched the balloon in a column. Trilled the foremost Greek philosopher and sage of our time: "Beatty has had a famous 35-year-long love affair with the Democratic Party." Her logic was blindingly simple: the great man should therefore become the country's next Democratic president.

Now back to reality. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal opinion poll, Beatty failed to score even the most minor of blips: George W Bush is still ahead of Al Gore by 44-32 points, with even Jesse "The Body" Ventura - a bald-headed man who used to be a professional wrestler but is now governor of Minnesota - managing to acquire 12 per cent support as the next president.

In another poll this week in California - the largest and most important state, which goes to the primary polls in exactly six months' time - Beatty had the approval of just 1 per cent of Democratic voters. Interestingly, that poll had Californians divided down the middle between Bush and Gore, at 48 and 46 per cent respectively.

The summer started off with Bush's position being hailed as invincible, but it has not been a good one overall for him; the halo of the favoured son is beginning to fade amid gathering storm clouds.

This week, Mom had to come to the rescue after allegations that he had taken cocaine: "He has always been a fabulous son," said Barbara Bush - as steely a first lady as there has ever been.

The problem for little George is that Americans don't like the idea of Mom having to run to the side of her 53-year-old son.

He is beginning to look like a wimp, and Americans don't like wimps, either. His prevarications over whether he used illegal drugs seven, then 15, and now 25 years ago are not going down well at all: Americans don't like a guy who is not straight with them (after all, when Clinton finally told the truth about Monica, his ratings shot up).

But for young George - it seems absurd to refer to a man in his sixth decade as young, but in many ways he still behaves like an adolescent and basically only has a four-year CV, as governor of Texas - the ramifications of the cocaine question (and his non-answers) are suddenly becoming very serious.

He has been happy to brush off past indulgences as "youthful indiscretions", but in the America Ronald Reagan and then his own father built up, using cocaine is a youthful indiscretion only if you are white and wealthy: now, merely being in possession of just five grammes of crack-cocaine (the cruder, cheaper variety favoured by young blacks) lands a teenage offender with an instant, mandatory, minimum five-year federal prison sentence (and no possibility of parole).

That "three-strikes-and-you're-out" law enforcement policy so beloved of Republicans means that the nation's jails are increasingly filling with drug-offenders facing absurdly long sentences for what in other countries would be deemed relatively minor offences: in federal prisons, no fewer than 60 per cent of prisoners are now there for drugs offences. According to the Justice Department, 55 per cent of them are aged between 18 and 28; their "youthful indiscretions" have ruined their young lives.

George W says he would pass a Secret Service clearance test, but if he did use cocaine this is untrue: for cocaine possession there is no statute of limitations, and under current guidelines Bush would be denied federal employment.

Yet, should he be voted into the White House next year, he will be spearheading the country's $18 billion anti-drugs drive.

The question, therefore, is fast becoming a potentially fatal minefield for George W. His successful early fund-raising and his standing in the polls made him feel immune from the relentless dirtiness of US presidential politics; now he is having to ponder how to deal with these damnable questions.

If George Bush admits to cocaine use in his twenties, the American people will hardly fall over with shock: what they will start to question is the integrity of a man who signed a Texas law specifically designed to send first-time drug-users straight to prison.

There's much more dirt to come, too. Brace yourself for a photograph of Bush dancing naked on a table at a high-jinks party, for example.

The front-runner's summer has already turned to autumn, and he faces an even darker winter in which he will have to keep his nerve if that adolescent anger is not to blow.

And now he has that Warren Beatty to worry about, too.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?