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The Bogarting Candidate

You have to hand it to Bill Shaheen. Hillary Clinton’s former New Hampshire campaign co-chair may have demonstrated a blunderously poor understanding of the national Democratic electorate, but the remarks that led to his resignation earlier this month showed off a decent awareness of the everyday logistics of drug use. Shaheen, of course, stepped down after suggesting that Obama’s candor about his youthful drug use would open him up to other questions in the general election: “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ ” he said.

Naturally, Clinton soon dropped Shaheen like so many stems from a dime bag--but not before the ensuing controversy opened her campaign up to charges of negative campaigning, drug-war myopia, and racial bias. (Among dozens of pols who admit drug use, why does only the African American get accused of possibly being a dealer?) The jury is still out on the political implications of the kerfluffle. But at the very least it has earned Obama another round of praise for his drug-use honesty, a distinct point of contrast with the New York Senator’s husband.

Or is it? Soon after Shaheen resigned, The New York Times reported that a campaign spokesman declared that Obama had stopped using dope in college at around age 20 and “did not share/distribute drugs.” Which seems fine enough--until you think about it.

Imagine the scene: It’s 1981 and there you are at some dorm party. Your friend is there, too, and he’s getting ready to smoke up. He never offers you any? Really? A popular, gregarious sort like the classmate who’ll go on to rally communities and lead the law review? While “I didn’t share” is hardly a whopper along the lines of “I didn’t inhale,” it’s still something of a stretch. College may be a time of cash-strapped cheapskatery, and Obama’s adolescence may have involved no shortage of introspective searching, but no one goes an entire undergraduate career without offering one wee little hit to the next guy on the dorm-room couch.

Not that this is a bad thing. Obama went to college in the late seventies and early eighties.  Those were also the days before dope, rightly or wrongly, came to be demonized, in the overheated tones of the “Just Say No” era, as the nation’s top public enemy. Recreational drug use was, to use the political handler’s favorite term, mainstream--far more mainstream, for better or worse, than the abstemious childhoods of Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. Against that backdrop, it was a lot better for a drug-using pol to have been a generous citizen of his era rather than an up-tight hoarder. The picture of a young man who shared a bit here and there is far more comforting than the image of someone getting high all alone.

The sad thing about the Shaheen controversy--and even about Obama’s role as the victim in the whole affair--is that it shows how, after two decades of candidates tiptoeing towards honesty about personal vices, the political system still can’t seem to handle it.

In 1987, the first major baby boom presidential candidate, Al Gore, drew great praise for acknowledging his own youthful marijuana use. Of course, the candor turned out to have been intricately stage-managed by a campaign fearful of the fate that befell Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew his candidacy after acknowledging adult dope-smoking. In a 2000 biography of Gore, Bill Turque describes frantic campaign conversations about how to acknowledging Gore’s drug use while shading the truth about its extent and how much he had actually liked it. Gore ultimately called it “infrequent and rare” and added that “when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Still, Gore did a lot better than the first two members of his cohort to actually make it to the White House. Bill Clinton embarrassed himself by declaring that he had smoked but hadn’t inhaled. (It would actually be more embarrassing if it were true, as that would imply a guy who picked up the joint just to impress peers). George W. Bush, with a chemical history that is probably rockier than any other major politician of his generation, declared the whole subject verboten in the name of the children.

By contrast, Obama--until now--has been an inspiration. His autobiography doesn’t just mention pot and blow; it meditates on the meaning behind the depressive world of the youthful narrator. “The highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was,” he writes. “I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.”

Here’s hoping Obama, whose candor could do so much to reclaim the White House for those human enough to have engaged in ordinary young-adult tomfoolery, doesn’t let the drug politics of election season further blur those edges. What “didn’t inhale” and “didn’t share” have in common is that both involve wishing away the realities of life out of some overwrought fear that voters will be too simplistic to understand. Push those fairy-tale expectations to their logical conclusion and you wind up with a politics that accepts nothing but campaign-trail automatons. In the Obama narrative, he’s the one who’s supposed to defeat the robot.

Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer