On September 1, 1989 two disparate worlds within the same nation briefly overlapped. Then President George H.W. Bush and his speechwriters mulled over what would be the new leaders first address to the nation while vacationing at the Bush compound in affluent Kennebunkport, MA. Far removed from the shores of Kennebunkport, in the shadows of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, 18 year-old Keith Timothy Jackson toiled in the District crack trade, chasing his iteration of the american dream. As Bush and his operatives searched for a tool to dramatize a forthcoming speech on the nation’s drug control strategy, they stumbled on just the right “prop,” local Spingarn High School senior, Keith Jackson.
In his own admission of events, Bush concedes the “first Oval Office address for a President is a big deal.” Bush wanted to set the tone for his administration, one avowedly rooted in promises of law and order, stability, and the security of a CIA past. According to Bush, the 2.4 ounce bag of crack cocaine that he would hold before the nation–one purchased in a drug sting involving Jackson–was the “perfect prop.” A closer look suggests that the crack in question was not the only politically useful prop at the drug war’s disposal. While Bush only managed to hold up that plastic bag by the nape, he may well have been holding up Jackson, and countless underclass youth like him before the nation. In addition to Jackson and those that fit the drug courier profile, the neighborhoods in which they resided also became useful background noise in the broader chorus of the crack scourge.
The message of the address was clear. Crack had already eaten up the rotten core of cities nationwide and threatened to do the same to more prized and affluent neighborhoods absent swift, aggressive government action. Jackson, the drugs he purveyed, and the communities that harbored youth like him were the threat to be punished and controlled. To drive this point home, Bush and his handlers wanted to send the message that crack was being bought and sold anywhere. Given that this was far from the case in reality, the DOJ and DEA were asked to manufacture a reality in which crack cocaine was sold “near the White House.” Enter unwitting local youth and disposable citizen Keith Jackson. In the words of one White House aide, Bush “liked the prop” because it “drove the point home.” The dramatic prop would show how the crack trade had spread to even the President’s own neighborhood, even if it really hadn’t.