The Friday night death of former President George H.W. Bush has opened a wellspring of tributes from famous friends and foreign dignitaries commending the generous friend, accomplished politician and skilled diplomat they saw in the 41st president.
Contrasting with so much praise is one particularly appalling anecdote that has also bubbled to the surface from the depths of the Bush White House’s so-called “War on Drugs.”
Bush, as you may not know, once used the Drug Enforcement Agency to lure a black high school student to Lafayette Park near the White House to make a drug buy that the president would use to illustrate a public health crisis on national TV.
The student, 19-year-old Keith Jackson, received a 10-year prison sentence, as University of Baltimore assistant history professor Joshua Clark Davis detailed in a series of viral tweets.
From his desk in Oval Office on Sept. 5, 1989, Bush held up a bag of the rocky white substance and declared: “This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House.”
It could have “easily” been heroin or PCP, he said.
The idea to obtain the drug as a prop for television had come from aides during the president’s summer retreat in Maine, The Washington Post reported a couple weeks later, and Bush quickly latched onto it. The televised bag would help launch the president’s ramped-up effort in the War on Drugs by showing how pervasive the issue supposedly was.
Yet the manufactured drug buy serves as a sobering reminder of the War on Drugs’ targeting of marginalized communities, along with the strain it has placed on the nation’s justice system since former President Richard Nixon first announced it in the 1970s. The effort is also largely seen as a failure: Decades later, research shows the “war” has not been successful in reducing drug use in America ― although it has markedly increased incarceration rates.
Obtaining the drug was no small feat, the Post reported. The DEA knew Jackson sold drugs in his neighborhood and surrounding area. But initially, the teen didn’t even know where the White House was and had to be persuaded to come to Lafayette Park ― that’s how little crack cocaine was actually sold around the president’s home.
As DEA agent William McMullan told the paper outright, “We had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy.”
Davis told HuffPost that although he recalled Bush’s televised address from 1989, it wasn’t until he was researching for a book on activism that he learned about Jackson.
“The story of what happened to Keith Jackson got much less attention than that Oval Office address,” Davis said.
“This is just one person’s life, but it is a window into how damaging the war on drugs was to many people,” he continued, adding that Bush’s involvement tends to be forgotten in the history of the War on Drugs.
The DEA did not arrest Jackson until after Bush’s speech aired, with agents simply hoping the teen would not hear about it.
Jackson was arrested and, two hung juries later, prosecutors finally secured a conviction in 1990 on three counts of selling cocaine in two locations around his neighborhood. He had been acquitted of charges in the Lafayette Park sale.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin urged Jackson to ask Bush to commute his sentence, which the judge considered too harsh. Sporkin was bound by law to hand down the mandatory 10 years even though Jackson had no prior criminal record.
“He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech,” Sporkin said, per The Washington Post. “But he’s a decent man, a man of great compassion. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence.”
Jackson’s sentence was not commuted. He was released in 1998, according to the Washington City Paper.