On September 5, 1989, President George H.W. Bush — who died on Friday at the age of 94 — delivered his first nationally televised address from the Oval Office, a speech designed to announce his administration’s anti-drug policy. During that speech, preserved for history by C-Span, Bush illustrated his point with a dramatic prop. He held up a bag of crack cocaine that he said had been “seized” in a city park directly across from the White House.
The moment was a memorable one and helped Bush rally support behind his “war on drugs,” but as historian and author Joshua Clark Davis recounted in a detailed Twitter thread compiled by the Thread Reader site on Saturday, there was a human story behind Bush’s now-famous visual — the story of a 19-year-old African-American Washington D.C. teen named Keith Jackson with no prior criminal record, and who didn’t even know how to get to the White House until he was lured there by drug enforcement agents specifically to make the drug sale that would give Bush his bag of crack — a bag of crack that was purchased for $2,400, not “seized” as Bush claimed.
When Jackson was sentenced to 10 years behind bars more than a year later, after two juries deadlocked and failed to convict him, even the judge in his case lamented the legally required length of the sentence, and implored Jackson to appeal to Bush for a commutation that would shorten his sentence, as the Washington Post reported at the time.
President George Bush wanted to show America what crack cocaine looked like at his first Oval Office address on Sept 5, 1989. He wanted to show you could even buy crack in front of the White House. That’s how bad the crisis had gotten. That’s how Bush announced his War on Drugs. pic.twitter.com/exGGPxJ6f2— Joshua Clark Davis (@JoshClarkDavis) December 1, 2018
“He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech,” United States District Judge Stanley Sporkin — an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who had previously been a top lawyer for the CIA — told Jackson at the sentencing. “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.”
Sporkin noted that though Jackson was convicted of three separate drug sales — he was never convicted for the White House sale — he had not initiated any of the sales. “I think you’re a nice young man and you have a future. But I do believe you were out of control for a period of time,” the judge told a tearful Jackson.
Bush did not commute Jackson’s sentence. The teen served almost eight years in federal prison before his release in 1998. But Jackson was not even the DEA’s first choice for the sting that would give Bush his prop. According to a Washington Post account from 1989, the first suspect failed to show up to Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
Washington D.C. was so segregated that when an undercover DEA agent contacted Jackson, the 19-year-old was puzzled, asking him, “Where the f*** is the White House?” In fact, few if any drug sales took place within view of the White House at that time.
Not only did Bush refuse to reduce Jackson’s sentence, he defended the set-up that led to Jackson’s arrest. “I think it was great because it sent a message to the United States that even across from the White House they can sell drugs,” Bush said, justifying the DEA sting of the teen.