As an ambitious 14-year-old in 1983, I was very concerned not to do anything which might sabotage my chances to become President of the United States.
After all, my plan had me first learning Russian, then advancing smoothly in my political career (I imagined that there would be an obvious ladder of sorts, upon which I would climb, rung by rung, to the top). Then, finally, I would sit down to negotiate a nuclear freeze with a grandfatherly Mikhail Gorbachev.
I knew we could work things out, the old Gorb and I.
This ambition peaked my senior year, in 1987, when I did actually go on the first-ever U.S.-Soviet high school exchange, spending 5 weeks in the snow-bound town of Akedemgorodok, Siberia. The LA Times and other papers interviewed me; I was on my way.
I returned to my high school that spring just in time to confront Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush when he came to speak to our student body. "No more bloodshed in Nicaragua, Mr. Vice President!" I urged him as I shook his hand. He asked me to walk with him. I imagined the crowd of students and teachers around us growing hushed as we conferred. He explained to me how the Sandanistas had a "Marxist-Leninist slogan on their coins," how we need to resist this ideology wherever we find it... I said, "But what about self-determination for the Nicaraguan people?" He smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder. Then he said, "Nice talking to you," and his security guards ushered me back to the other side of the rope fence.
We hadn't been able to work it out. I felt my political career slipping away.
But I digress.
As I was saying, I considered myself on a track to the Presidency. I was concerned, though, about one thing: my drug use.
I smoked marijuana occasionally with my friends. That was it. But it was enough, at that time, to wipe out my chances for national office.
So when I smoked, I always felt a pang of concern -- not guilt, concern. What of my future? Whiter my dreams? What if someone takes a picture of us with this weird-looking bong?
The truth is that I was never destined for politics. I appreciate too much the impulse to follow thoughts and experiences to their limits. (See my previous post on "Weirdness and Politics" on that.) And I never could find that ladder.
But a young man named Barack Obama shared the same dream of the White House, apparently even earlier than I did.
And he too, as he recounts in Dreams From My Father, took the occasional hit from a bong. He even tried cocaine. And who knows what else. Here's what Obama writes:
"Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed... 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."
So he confesses that he used drugs. To me that is fine. He didn't endanger himself greatly, or harm anyone else. He used them to escape, and probably to have some laughs.
What is impressive to me is the way that he is willing to talk about it. I know that he must have fretted about the consequences of his drug use when he did it -- after all, he had ambitions even then. But by the time he had grown into a man, when he published his first book at 34, he had claimed it as part of his story, part of his personal growth.
That's the kind of honesty we need on the issue of drugs. That's the kind of honesty we need period.
So when Hillary Clinton's campaign draws attention to Obama's drug use, I believe that they draw attention to his strength. And they put her campaign in an unattractive light.
It's one more example of ends vs. means.