It's easy to make fun of elected officials caught using illegal drugs. It's less easy, but just as important, to muster some compassion for them. Rep. Trey Radel, a Florida tea party Republican who recently pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine, evokes both reactions. And that is in stark contrast to Rob Ford, the Toronto mayor who has earned nothing but contempt for his utter lack of responsibility or genuine apology.
Radel's crime (actually, a misdemeanor in D.C.) was that he bought cocaine from an undercover cop. He copped to the infraction immediately, and gave a somewhat suspect explanation – that he has been fighting alcohol addiction for some time and it impaired his judgment. This was remarkably similar to the explanation Ford gave – that he indeed smoked crack, but in his defense, he was plastered at the time.
The similarities end there. Ford has displayed a remarkable level of hubris, lying about the drug use until confronted with irrefutable evidence, refusing to quit, attacking his critics, comparing the questions about his judgment and fitness for office to the attack on Kuwait and running through a government office, nearly knocking down a female city councilor. He seems to take an everyman pride in being an alcohol and drug abuser, not to mention a complete buffoon. He says he's working out to get in shape (he's morbidly obese), but otherwise hasn't given any indication he will change his behavior or get help.
Radel, too, is easy to criticize. He's a so-called "family values conservative, which ought to mean one doesn't troll Dupont Circle for drugs. The lack of discretion is pretty stunning, considering how easy it would be to get caught in such a circumstance. What's perhaps most galling is that Radel voted for an amendment to require recipients of food stamps to pass drug tests to get benefits. That is not only expensive and insulting and a little cruel. (Should children, who comprise a good chunk of food stamp recipients, be denied sustenance because a parent is a drug user?) It is also appallingly hypocritical. Radel gets a government salary, and did when he was using cocaine. Maybe Republicans behind the hateful amendment had the wrong target.
Still, it was impossible not to watch Radel's press conference late Wednesday night and not feel some compassion. He's a drug addict, and he admitted it (which, cliché as it sounds, is indeed the first step to healing). He apologized. He said it was all his fault. He said he had no excuse. He said he would seek treatment (and forgiveness) and not take his House salary while he is undergoing said treatment. It's still not the sort of confession one wants to hear from one's congressman, but under the circumstances, it was about the best we could expect.
It is legitimate to question whether Radel should resign. Aside from the fact that he broke the law and may have been impaired while working, Radel won't be able to represent his Florida district fully while he is seeking treatment. Still, if there is a demand to resign, it should come from Radel's constituents and district – not those outside his district or even in congressional leadership. If leadership doesn't want him around, they can give him the Big Freeze (which has worked to push out other lawmakers). But it is Radel's district, and his electoral fate belongs in its hands.
What Radel's case does showcase is the importance of seeing drug abuse for what it is – more of a health problem than a criminal one. Putting drug users in jail has done nothing to stop drug abuse. In fact, it's arguable that drug users learn how to become more fully-fledged criminals in prison. Not a lot of role models there.
Radel has come out against the harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing rules on drugs. He's obviously not the best poster boy for the case – it really would be better if it didn't appear as though he had a vested personal interest in the matter. But he's got a point.
Be angry or disappointed in Radel as a congressman – he deserves that. Demand that he lose some of the privileges afforded to sober, law-abiding citizens. He deserves that, too. But as a human being in pain from addiction, he needs our compassion and help.