Obama: I Inhaled

In his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama wrote with surprising candor about his experiments with drugs as a teenager: alcohol and marijuana, primarily, but he fessed up to cocaine use as well. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” he wrote. “I got high [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind.”

The book was published in 1995, long before Obama–then a recent law school graduate–could have seriously contemplated a run for national office. But even as his star rose, he didn’t try to clarify himself with exculpatory revisions or play down his published statements. As recently as November 20, at a high school in Manchester, New Hampshire, the presidential contender was asked by a student what he remembered from his own high school days. “I made some bad decisions that I’ve actually written about,” he said. “There were times when I, you know, got into drinking, experimented with drugs. There was a whole stretch of time where I didn’t really apply myself a lot.” It wasn’t until college, Obama said, that he realized he had “wasted a lot of time.”

A report that ran the next day in the New York Daily News quoted Jason Marcil, a senior who serves as student council treasurer at Manchester Central High School. “I’m glad that he was honest about it,” Marcil said. “It’s obvious that, like, he’s learned from his mistakes. He’s been there. He knows what not to do.” Marcil went on to say, “There might be people that do drink or do experimental drugs and they may think that they are not going to get very far in life, but obviously Sen. Obama has gotten pretty far in life.”

New Hampshire voters quoted in the same article had similar things to say:

“Honesty is the best policy. That’s the way I’ve dealt with my kids, too,” said Joyce Davis, 59, a librarian from Wolfeboro, N.H. “They know what’s going on and they know no one is perfect.”

Davis Clarke, 68, a retired pilot from Strafford, N.H., said he won’t hold Obama’s drug use against him when he goes to the voting booth.

“I have a son who got into a drug habit. It very nearly cost him his life,” said Clarke, his voice shaking with emotion. “I have as much confidence in Obama to do what’s right now as I do with my son.”

I would guess that many Americans, at least many of those who plan to vote in the upcoming Democratic primaries, share these sentiments. When you look at Obama’s career, it’s clear that his youthful rebellion didn’t do any long-term damage and that he more than turned himself around as an adult. I would also say that his forthrightness in owning up to his past is admirable; given the recent history of presidential lies, I think Americans are looking for a leader who tells it straight. And besides, moralizing over such matters seems totally beside the point right now; given the mess the current administration will be handing over come January 2009, I bet voters will find more important things to look for in a candidate than a clean urine sample from the early ’80s.

All of which is to say, I think the Hillary Clinton campaign has misstepped in highlighting Obama’s drug use as a teen. Yesterday Bill Shaheen, one of Clinton’s top advisers, in an interview with the Washington Post, flagged this chapter of Obama’s past as a potential vulnerability that Republicans would exploit if he became the Democratic nominee. “The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight…and one of the things they’re certainly going to jump on is [Obama’s] drug use,” Shaheen said, adding that Obama’s candor would “open the door” to further questions. “It’ll be ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'” Shaheen said. “There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”

The Obama campaign quickly retaliated by describing Shaheen’s statement as part of “an increasingly desperate effort to slow [Clinton’s] slide in the polls.” Perhaps recognizing that the cheap shot had little utility and could actually backfire, or maybe because he was chided by Clinton directly, Shaheen almost immediately backtracked, saying, “I deeply regret the comments I made today and they were not authorized by the campaign in any way.”

Obama has clearly prepared himself for attacks on this point and is well equipped to handle the heat, whether it comes from his Democratic rivals or Republican opponents. The Swift Boat-style smears he will have to counter (and they’re already coming) are another matter. These attacks have less to do with his record than with the color of his skin and the politically ugly allegations that he’s actually a Muslim (he’s not) who was schooled in a madrassa as a child (untrue).

As a voter, I’m more drawn to a candidate who can quickly and effectively bat such attacks away (neither Kerry nor Gore could do it) than one who’s increasingly eager to launch them. And I admire a candidate who not only admits that he inhaled but identifies with, inspires and actively sets himself as a role model for a younger generation of not-so-perfect but not-yet-lost inhalers.

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