The Grand Old Partisan of Illinois

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The not-necessarily-final, not-necessarily-fatal role of a presidential candidate

Does it matter that Barack Obama did drugs when he was in high school and college?

That’s the question that will (if not already has) come to dominate Obamamania, thanks to a Washington Post story that ran yesterday.

This, and the questions that naturally follow, are difficult to answer, and inevitably exposes almost anyone who gets into the debate to charges of hypocrisy. How can Republicans say it mattered while supporting a President who, by his own refusal to talk about it, has ostensibly acknowledged that he did drugs in his youth, as well? Doesn't the fact that Obama openly acknowledges it make it less scandalous? Does something that a person did 20+ years ago really matter today?

I’ll take the last question first. And the answer is: it depends. To me, the question can’t be generalized. Does it matter if you stole a candy bar when you were kid? If you did pot as a teen, or coke in college? What if you committed negligent homicide as a 37 year old Senator? At what age, and at what level of criminality, do you draw the line for dismissible “youthful indiscretions?”

The question of how – or if – you talk about it once you enter public life is far more important, and even more difficult. Seemingly every presidential candidate since 1992 has dealt with it in their own way. Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, and he was rightfully mocked for trying to have it both ways. George W. Bush wouldn’t discuss his youth at all, except to say that he had found redemption through Christ and changed his ways, and has been criticized for being dishonest and hypocritical. Barack Obama wrote in his memoirs that he did drugs, and then joked with Jay Leno that inhaling was “the whole point” (and, yes, made a caveat along the lines of “don’t try this at home, kids”). Will Obama’s handling of this delicate subject be as ultimately successful as that of Bush and Clinton?

My guess is that the “middle America” voters Obama is courting (and needs to win) are more like Bush. They think that even if parents did drugs in their youth, they shouldn’t tell their kids because they might get the impression that they, too can experiment and still turn out okay in the end. America is not like Illinois, where the partisan scales have tipped so far that a Democrat can successfully campaign as a champion of education while telling students how they need only be C-students to become Governor. Ridiculous as it was, there’s a reason Bill Clinton told us that he “didn’t inhale.”


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