The Obama Question

“I made some bad decisions that I’ve actually written about. You know, got into drinking. I experimented with drugs. There was a whole stretch of time that I didn’t really apply myself a lot. It wasn’t until I got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, ‘Man, I wasted a lot of time.’”

Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) stopped by a study hall at Manchester Central High School last week and answered students’ questions about the war in Iraq and his education plan. But when an adult asked about his time as a student, Obama launched into his “youthful indiscretions” regarding his drug and alcohol use and “goofing off” at school.  That poor adult asking the questions was probably just looking for a nice fluffy answer about applying yourself at school and got a national controversy.

Of course, pot smoking has been admitted by politicians before and no one really believes that Bill Clinton didn’t inhale. President George Bush has not denied the allegations of cocaine use.  So the message is, if you don’t get caught by law enforcement, it is okay.  Why does this issue continue to pop up?  It is because minor drug use is still illegal, and for good reason.  Some, like Bill Clinton, become successful politicians only because they were lucky enough to not get caught.  That doesn’t sit well with Americans whose fundamental sense of fairness compares that, inevitably,  to the guy who was caught, convicted and is checking a box on job applications for the rest of his life.

Most of us know someone or some family who has been affected by either a DUI arrest and conviction or a small drug possession arrest or conviction.  Recreational drug use — even addiction — can be beaten, but a conviction is forever. For most of us in the white bread and mayonnaise world of education and privilege, our friends don’t get caught and if they are caught, they aren’t convicted.  But if you are poor and uneducated, your life can be relegated to permanent poverty for much less than what Sen. Obama admitted to doing.

I know I am sounding like a knee-jerk liberal on this, but bear with me.  I believe in the rule of law and that you either enforce the laws evenly or you change them.  Whether it’s the “wink and a nod” policy on immigration enforcement or the “wink and a nod” policy on drug and alcohol law enforcement, it’s the same argument. We are enforcing the law on some people and not others and that is wrong:  it breeds resentment and disrespect for the law. 

For example, the mother of naturalized US citizens who has traveled legally back and forth to this country for 15 years on the appropriate documents and never overstayed her visa has been denied future access to visas because now that she’s over 65, the issuing agency says they are afraid she’ll overstay her visa and become a burden to the Medicare system.  As my friend, John Stossel would say, “gimme a Break!” At the same time, benefits are being given to illegal immigrants crossing our borders with no documents every day. Enforce the laws or change them.

Similarly, recreational drug use is treated with abandon as long as “nobody is hurt.” Unless you live in wrong neighborhood.  Across this country there are drug courts being used effectively to help keep the recreational first time offender out of the prison system, but there are not enough of these programs.  My husband has been the doctor in our local detention center for the last 15 years.  He will tell you and the studies bear this out: the biggest need is drug rehab programs in detention centers and most of these folks could go back to being productive and taxpaying members of society.

When communities all across this country are dealing with methamphetamines and other drugs that are destroying and sentencing families to permanent cycles of poverty, the recreational drug use of the educated and privileged seems to pale in comparison.

So how did the candidates react?  The Democrats remained silent but as expected, Rudy Giuliani, who has the most skeletons in his closet, said, “One of the things that we need from our people that are running for office is not this pretense of perfection.” He went on to say, “We’re all human beings. If we haven’t made mistakes, don’t vote for us.”

Mitt Romney was at the other end of the spectrum.  When asked about Obama’s revelations at a campaign stop in Iowa, he said, “It’s just not a good idea for people running for President of the United States who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘well I can do that too and become President of the United States. I think that was a huge error by Barack Obama…it is just the wrong way for people who want to be the leader of the free world.”

Romney is right. There is a time and a place for everything and Obama’s time was motivated by the need to reveal rather than to let the Clinton camp reveal his failings as he closes the gap in Iowa. His motives were not about children but about his own campaign’s momentum.  Revelation is a great thing and good for the soul, but it was the soul of Barack Obama’s campaign that he was trying to protect, not his own.