The political legacy of former president George H.W. Bush is the subject of national media attention following his death on November 30. As part of this, Bush’s role in escalating the War on Drugs is resurfacing, with new light being shed on the lies deployed by his administration to rationalize aggressive policing and prohibition.
“This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House,” said President Bush on September 5, 1989, holding up a bag of white crystal rocks while seated in the Oval Office for a nationally televised address intended to show the ubiquity of the drug.
What Bush failed to mention was that the drugs had not, in fact, been “seized,” but rather had been purchased for $2,400 by undercover DEA agents. As the DEA told the Washington Post, the agents had “manipulat[ed]” a black high school senior, 18 year-old Keith Jackson, to sell the crack in Lafayette Park, near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The president wanted to “show [crack] could be bought anywhere,” said James Millford, who was an executive assistant to the DEA administrator, Jack Lawn, at the time. In reality, Keith Jackson didn’t even know where the White House was until the agents directed him—a demonstration of the intensity of racial segregation in DC.
Jackson was arrested after Bush’s speech aired. He was sentenced in 1990 to 10 years in prison. (He had been acquitted of the charges from the Lafayette Park sale, but tried for sales in another neighborhood.) He was released in 1998.
The 1990s War on Drugs—characterized by Bush’s assertion in his 1989 address that “we need more jails, more prisons, more courts and more prosecutors”—routinely used exaggerations and outright engineered facts to justify an assault on communities of color.
“This is a major part of Bush’s legacy,” wrote historian Joshua Clark Davis in a viral tweet thread that discussed Jackson’s case. “It’s what his War on Drugs did to just one person. But it shows the human costs of that war in miniature detail. A high schooler was lured to the WH to sell crack and spent 7+ years in prison, so that the President could make a point on TV.”
Video Still: C-SPAN