Just before the California Primary, after a lot of soul searching, I changed my vote from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. There were lots of reasons for my switch but I don’t need to go into those and I feel no urge to persuade others to follow suit. There was one fact about Obama that had nothing to do with my defection from Camp Hillary, but was such a breath of fresh air that I wonder if it might have pushed me over the edge in support of the candidate if I hadn’t already gotten there on my own. And that is Barack Obama’s matter-of-fact admission that yes….he inhaled.
I know Obama’s discussion of his past drug use is not a new revelation. In his 1996 memoir, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” he wrote candidly about his struggles during adolescence. “Pot had helped,” he said of those years, “and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.” What? When I recently reread those sentiments, I was flabbergasted. Could it be that we’re finally entering an era where political candidates can admit they’re human beings and still get elected? It is one of the many joyous changes that separates this upcoming election from all those that came before it.
As much as I admired many things about Bill Clinton’s Presidency (especially when compared to the insanity of the last eight years), his public stance about his own youthful marijuana use (“I didn’t inhale and I never tried it again”) was absurd and insulting, even though it was politically understandable. His wordplay evoked the dysfunctional dance that exists between our anointed leaders and those of us who place them on pedestals. We demand that these role models exhibit none of the human foibles that we all exhibit daily. If they have any warts (as they certainly all do), we insist that they hide them out of view, at least until after the election. It’s a tired game. When they say ridiculous things like they tried pot but didn’t inhale, we play along. They know they’re lying, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, we know they know we know they’re lying, but until recently we all felt duty-bound to play by these rules in every facet of public life. To admit to any past indiscretions with unabashed honesty and candor was seen as a death knell for a serious politician. Remember Thomas Eagleton?
Of course, this verbal shell game is not limited to public officials: we all do it to some extent. Every family has its own rules about which subjects are taboo or what pre-programmed responses we are supposed to use to answer questions about difficult topics. Mine sure does. If we choose to veer from these unspoken rules and speak the truth as we see it, all hell can break lose, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the willingness of the participants to deal with their feelings in a productive way. When I was 11 years old, my parents went through a very ugly divorce. My father has a lot of guilt about this traumatic period. He has probably asked me a hundred times whether I suffered any pain or lasting effects as a result of the fights, lies, and general acrimony of those years. “Absolutely not,” I always replied. “I understood that you and mom were doing the best you could under the circumstances and that you loved all of us and never wanted to cause us any pain.” While the second part of that answer is certainly true, I’ve recently started changing the first part of my programmed reply. Thanks to therapy and a growing awareness that acknowledging my actual feelings will not be fatal to myself or others, my current response to my father’s query (and I swear to you, he asks this question at least once every few weeks) sounds more like, “Hell, yeah, the divorce had a huge impact on me! I do understand that you were both very young and doing the best you could, and I know how much you loved us, but those years were very traumatic. I wanted to escape from all the pain so badly that I developed the ability to shut out my feelings and crank up my fantasy life, whether it was believing that I was one of “The Waltons” or one of the singing Von Trapps or hoping that my real parents, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, would soon arrive to carry me away from all this chaos.” Okay, my actual reply to my father may not be that long or include blog links, but I do answer a lot more honestly these days instead of saying what I think I’m supposed to stay. When I first started fiddling with the family covenant in this and other areas, I received some panicked responses, a few cries of treason, and some general discomfort on both sides, but I have to say that going off-script and actually stating what was real for me felt very liberating and ultimately led to much closer relationships with my family members.
Could the same be true for people in the public eye? Is it possible that we have matured enough to be able to hear people say things that feel less palatable than the scripts we feed to our candidates and want fed back to us in return? The bullshit lines that are interrupted every ten seconds by rote applause? How thrilling it is to hear someone speak their unabashed TRUTH, whatever it is. When I heard Michelle Obama’s line about being proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, I immediately understood the context and appreciated the thought, yet I also cringed at her spontaneity, knowing that the Fox News crowd would soon be condemning Michelle as unpatriotic and other such nonsense. And they certainly did. For the next several days, Cindy McCain introduced her husband on the campaign trail with the comforting words, “I always have been and will always be extremely proud of my country.” Really, Cindy? ALWAYS? There are so many reasons to be grateful for this country, but we certainly have countless examples of shameful moments to ponder as well. Cindy, were you proud of this country’s long history of slavery or of government-sponsored violence and racism? Were you proud of Joseph McCarthy and his minions who destroyed the lives of many innocent people? Oh wait, let’s stop, I don't want to go off on a crazy tangent and you don’t need to hear me reiterate the very true but clichéd maxim about how what we should really be proud of in this country is our ability to recognize our faults and freely talk about the things we’re not proud of. In any event, I say “Right on, Michelle Obama!” even though I’m sure her husband’s people told her to zip it after hearing that unpopular comment.
I don’t think Barack Obama is some kind of Divine Deliverer sent from on high. I know that despite his refreshing honesty and candor that he’s still a politician, still wants to get elected, and still worries about what he says and how it’s received, but I greatly admire his courage in veering from the expected script, such as his recent spectacular speech in response to the controversy about his former pastor. There will be heaps of dirt dug up on Obama before November and I wish him luck in not insulting our intelligence by hiding behind the same old creaking comments that we expect from politicians. Aren’t we all eager at this point to hear the candidates express real opinions, even if we take issue with some of them, rather than just a steady diet of platitudes and God Bless America pablum?
To be clear, while I am exhilarated by Barack’s admission of youthful drug use, I’m obviously relieved that such behavior is long behind him and that he recognizes how destructive it was. By being honest about it, he can help others who suffer from similar travails SO much more than he could with silly comments about whether he inhaled or not. I desperately want all of the candidates to trust us enough to be that honest with us, but I also understand why some of them won't take that risk. With our salacious desire to condemn people for making real statements from their heart instead of delivering the test-marketed party line, we have shown over and over again that we haven’t earned such trust. But I think that is starting to change.
It’s a constant struggle, though. I know that Obama has been a long-time cigarette smoker. Even though such a fact has nothing to do with his ability to be President (in years past it would have seemed freakishly odd if people in high positions didn’t smoke!), I have such an emotional thing about smoking (after watching my mother and grandmother die way too young from smoking-related illnesses) that I would not be comfortable seeing the President of the United States smoking in public. I’d worry that it might have some kind of influence on young people in this country. Obama has said that he’s finally kicked his habit and I have no reason to doubt him, but in this case, if he IS still smoking, I think I’d rather he do it in private and not admit to this weakness. Yikes, I guess that’s pretty hypocritical on my part, huh?
Maybe I’d change my tune if he discussed his struggles with nicotine and how hard it was for him to lick this addiction. In any event, I think his own people would go ballistic if he was ever photographed lighting up a cigarette on the campaign trail (unless access to the photo could be restricted to members of the tobacco lobby). On the other hand, contemplating a smoking Obama in the White House compared to our current cigarette-free Commander-in-Chief, I think I’d happily FedEx a few cartons of Marlboros to Pennsylvania Avenue.