This is funny: as we all presumably know, Barack Obama described using drugs, including cocaine, in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father. Clinton surrogates, like the odious Robert Johnson, have periodically tried to make an issue out of it, and have been smacked down. I'm glad: while I think one might worry about various specific kinds of drug use (e.g., having been not just a user but an addict, or using drugs well into adulthood, or while piloting aircraft or driving a bus, or after having sworn to uphold the law), I have hoped for years that the American electorate could reach a point at which the knowledge that someone had tried drugs in high school or college would be a non-issue. That said, however, I've always thought it was worth asking how serious Obama's drug use was, and, in particular, whether he ever sold drugs. It's not the most important thing in the world, but it would be good to know. The NYT seems to have had the same thought, and sent Serge Kovaleski out to investigate. Here's what he found:
"In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.
Vinai Thummalapally, a former California State University student who became friendly with Mr. Obama in college, remembered him as a model of moderation — jogging in the morning, playing pickup basketball at the gym, hitting the books and socializing.
“If someone passed him a joint, he would take a drag. We’d smoke or have one extra beer, but he would not even do as much as other people on campus,” recounted Mr. Thummalapally, an Obama fund-raiser. “He was not even close to being a party animal.” (...)
At Punahou, a preparatory school that had few black students, Keith Kakugawa and Mr. Obama were close friends. They met when Mr. Obama was a freshman and Mr. Kakugawa, who is Japanese-Hawaiian, was a junior. (...)
Mr. Kakugawa, who spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses beginning in 1996, said he pressured Mr. Obama into drinking beer.
But Mr. Obama did not smoke marijuana during the two years they spent time together even though it was readily available, Mr. Kakugawa said, adding that he never knew Mr. Obama to have done cocaine. “As far as pot, booze or coke being a prevalent part of his life, I doubt it,” Mr. Kakugawa said. He had graduated, however, by the time Mr. Obama was in his junior and senior years, when he wrote that he most frequently used marijuana and cocaine “when you could afford it.”"
So the big story seems to be: Obama might have exaggerated his drug use, although he might also just have kept it quiet, or not told the people the NYT interviewed. For some reason, I find this very amusing. As Steve Benen says: "Barack Obama may be the first major politician in history to exaggerate his drug use in the wrong direction."
There is one part of the NYT piece that I think is slightly off, having read Obama's book (which I recommend to everyone, and would recommend even if he weren't running for President.) Kovaleski writes:
"Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic."
What strikes me as off, here, is this bit: "he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic." If you think about it, the temptation to use drugs to excess is not a challenge to overcome. Addiction might be, but the temptation to use drugs too much, or in the wrong way, is not. It is not like a mountain to be climbed, or a moat to be forded, or a monster to be slain: an external thing that you have to conquer or overcome. It is a temptation: it comes from within, and if you yield to it, that does not show the extremity of your circumstances, but a fault in you. Playing up this temptation "to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic" would be absurd: like my exaggerating my tendency to procrastinate in order to make myself seem like a great big hero for being able to conquer it.
In fact, this is not how Obama describes himself or his drug use. The overwhelming sense I get from reading his account of his adolescence is precariousness: he is trying to make sense of himself and his world, and in particular of what it means that he is black. He finds a number of easy ways out of thinking this through, and drug use is one of them. (The wrong kind of anger, and the wrong kind of politics, are others.) He is often tempted to fall into them, and generally does, for a time. And what gets him out, according to him, is generally not his own heroism or insight, but some other person who tells him a truth he needs to hear at the moment when he needs to hear it.
It's not, of course, as though his own character is irrelevant to his escape. (And, in the book, it feels like a narrow escape, an escape from various forms of falsity into which he could easily have fallen.) People can tell you all the useful truths in the world, but if you are not willing to listen to them and think hard about them, they will do you no good at all. Obama, to his credit, did listen to them. He describes a party he and a friend had, after which they left a considerable mess. Later, his friend Reggie is laughing about it, about how the cleaning ladies looked at the mess and started to cry. Obama laughs along, though he knows there is something wrong with this. But another friend is present, one he has always felt he could be more honest with than with anyone else:
"You think that's funny?'" she said to me. Her voice was shaking, barely a whisper. "Is that what's real to you, Barack -- making a mess for somebody else to clean up? That could have been my grandmother, you know. She had to clean up behind people for most of her life. I'll bet the people she worked for thought it was funny too."
She grabbed her purse off the coffee table and headed for the door. I thought about running after her, but I noticed a few people staring at me and I didn't want a scene. Reggie pulled on my arm, looking hurt and confused, like a lost child.
"What's her problem?" he asked.
"Nothing," I said. I took the beer out of Reggie's hand and set it on top of the bookcase. "She just believes in things that aren't really there."
In the book, he thinks a lot about this after everyone has gone, and he calls his friend back and apologizes. But he doesn't draw attention to this: to his willingness to hear what she had to say, and to take it to heart. What comes through most clearly is his shame, and his sense of good fortune in having people who were willing to call him to account when he was not willing or able to do so himself.
And that's why, when Kovaleski writes that Obama might have exaggerated his drug use "to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic", it struck me as all wrong, and not just because being tempted to do too many drugs is not a "challenge" to "overcome". In this book, Obama does not present drugs as a "challenge"; he presents them as a way of ducking the task of thinking clearly about who he is and what he should make of himself. He does not present himself as a hero who overcomes great obstacles, but as a confused teenager trying to find some honesty while being constantly tempted to choose some easier falsification instead. His obstacles are largely internal, and his escape, to the extent that he has escaped, is always provisional and precarious, and always due, in his telling of it, to someone else who gave him the truth he needed at the moment when he needed it. That's a completely different kind of story from the one Kovaleski seems to think he's telling, and if Obama did exaggerate -- and I don't see any evidence that he did -- his exaggeration would have served a different purpose entirely.