What did he snort, and when did he snort it? Inquiring minds want to know, but Texas Governor George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, says it’s none of their business.

"What I did as a youth is irrelevant to this campaign," he told Newsweek last year. Since then, he has given essentially the same answer several more times, most conspicuously in a New York Daily News story headlined, "Bush Won’t Reveal If He’s Used Cocaine." The paper posed the cocaine challenge to 12 presidential candidates, and only Bush declined to participate.

The sight of Bush repeatedly being put on the spot about his rumored drug use is so pathetic, apparently, that even Democrats are coming to his defense. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who initially seemed to suggest that the press should keep digging until it turned up a tiny spoon, now complains that he was misinterpreted. "I believe it is absolutely appropriate and acceptable for Gov. Bush to refuse to answer questions about his past personal behavior," he says.

"I would hope we don’t go down that road," says former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. First Lady Hillary Clinton, who is expected to run for the Senate from New York next year, agrees: "I don’ think it serves our nation or our political process well for people to have every shred of their privacy taken from them."

Perhaps Daschle et al. are simply encouraging Bush to self-destruct by continuing to stonewall on the drug question. But let’s take them at their word. Are they right to argue that cocaine use is a personal matter?

In this country, it assuredly is not. Under state and federal law, cocaine possession is punishable by fines, imprisonment, and property forfeiture. If you happen to be caught with the drug, you could end up spending anywhere from six months to the rest of your life behind bars.

"Bush won’t deny he used cocaine," observes Zack Exley, the Massachusetts computer consultant who owns the satirical Web site gwbush.com, "yet hundreds of thousands of people are serving very long sentences for equivalent or lesser crimes, including many in Texas." A self-described "Christian who hates hypocrisy," Exley has posted letters from imprisoned drug offenders reacting to Bush’s coyness about the days when he was "young and irresponsible."

"Why are people always dredging up what you did a decade, even two or three decades ago?" writes one. "Like you say, it’s time to forgive and forget....Speaking of forgetting, I’ve been rotting in federal prison for years now."

Surely, though, this guy was involved in distributing drugs, whereas Bush was, at most, a recreational user. But it’s hard to see why supplying drugs merits a prison sentence if actually using them can be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion unworthy of discussion.

Bush has already admitted to a drinking problem so severe that he has not touched a drop of alcohol since his 40th birthday. On the face of it, it seems odd that he should be more reluctant to talk about using cocaine, something more than one in 10 American adults have done, the vast majority of them without suffering any serious consequences.

Yet it is precisely the unproblematic aspect of drug use that seems to trouble Bush. "If I were you," he told a Newsweek interviewer last year, "I wouldn’t tell your kids that you smoked pot unless you want ’em to smoke pot. I think it’s important for leaders, and parents, not to send mixed signals. I don’t want some kid saying, ‘Well, Governor Bush tried it.’ "

For the sake of the kids, Bush seems determined to hide the truth: that people generally emerge unscathed from their encounters with illegal drugs. Among other things, they go on to successful careers in politics.

Contrast Bush’s silence with the candor of Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico. During his 1994 campaign, Johnson was open about his own use of marijuana and cocaine in the 1970s, and he has recently called for a debate about drug prohibition.

"What I did was criminal," Johnson told the Albuquerque Journal, "and yet those people that I knew that did the same and those that still do it today, I don’t consider them criminals." Whether and why the government should is the important question that Bush is dodging.