Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Our First Post-Modern Presidential Candidate

Depending on where you draw the line, Barack Obama may or may not be a Baby Boomer. He is, in any event, the first serious presidential candidate born during the 1960s. Thus, many of his formative experiences took place years after the early boomers were well into adulthood. It may be time, therefore, for politics to come to grips with the 1970s.

The issue of recreational drugs emerged in 1992 with the candidacy of Bill Clinton. The former president famously responded to the question of marijuana use by claiming to have smoked pot without inhaling. This made him, and not for the last time, a temporary object of public ridicule. To be honest, I always thought that, in this one case, Clinton may have been telling the truth. You're at a party with friends and you don't want to appear uncool, so you pretend to toke. Makes sense to me.

By the presidential campaign of 2000, the nation had come to terms with the adolescent use of marijuana. Dozens of politicians had copped to the charge, many insisting that they only tried it once, a claim I always found far less believable than Clinton's. The more interesting controvesy involved the question of whether George W. Bush had ever abused cocaine. Bush refused to address the issue even as he owned up to a serious alcohol problem prior to his fortieth birthday. Most people assumed W's non-denial to be a confirmation, but it nevertheless succeeded in ending the discussion, allowing the Republican nominee survive until his court-assisted victory that November.

America was a very different place in the mid-1960s, the time during which Clinton and Bush came of age. It wasn't until 1965 or so that the first stirrings of the counterculture were felt outside of, say, San Francisco or New York. Drug use was far less common in those days than it would become several years later. Indeed, Bush's likely experiments with cocaine probably only occurred because he extended his wanton youth all the way to the onset of middle age. By 1978, when W was still apparently binging, Bill Clinton was busy being elected Governor of Arkansas, having already served as the state's attorney general.

In 1978, Barack Obama turned seventeen, his own adolsecence perfectly time to correspond with the excesses of the disco era. Not everyone tried drugs during the late 70s, of course. But weed was ubiquitous and coke prevalent, and it would be hard to find a young person from that era who did not at least know several people who indulged.

For his part, Obama acknowledges that he sampled both marijuana and cocaine. This would place him in a category with several million other teenagers of the period, including numerous honors students, valedictorians, and probably even Eagle Scouts. It was, in retrospect, a stupid and somewhat risky thing to do, but it simply wasn't abnormal at the time.

Now, of course, Obama's youthful indiscretions have become part of the 2008 campaign. Team Clinton is whispering (and sometimes saying out loud) that voters will be turned off not only by their opponent's past, but by the fact that he is so forthcoming and relatively unapologetic about it. Having spent their entire adult lives explaining and justifying the 1960s, Bill and Hillary now hope to save the flagging family franchise by running against the 1970s.

More about this tomorrow.

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