Wednesday, December 19, 2007

She Don't Lie, She Don't Lie, She Don't Lie...

Within the next decade or so, presidential politics will be dominated by people who came of age during the 1970s and early 1980s. As noted yesterday, Barack Obama is the first representative of that group to make a serious run for the White House. Not coincidentally, he is also the first to own up to using cocaine during his youth. Agents and supporters of Hillary Clinton's campaign have made this an issue, claiming that Obama's confession hurts his electability.

When political operatives muse about their opponent's electability, they are usually being disingenuous. That would certainly seem to be the case here. While the Clintonites obviously want Democratic voters to worry about Obama's prospects next fall, they also hope to make the Illinois senator's drug use a talking point among newspaper columnists and television pundits. They have, of course, succeeded.

From the point of view of post-baby boomers, this issue will continue to cause problems. People born before the 1940s are likely to regard cocaine use as bizarre and troubling. Younger voters who grew up in the "Just Say No" era of the late 1980s and beyond may not only consider such behavior as criminal, they may also associate former users with crackheads, the desperate and dangerous men and women whose experience with cocaine caused a decade-long, and often justified, national panic. Thus, members of Obama's generation could get squeezed from both ends of the age spectrum.

Worst of all, there is no way to water down the issue. Former marijuana users can insist that they only tried the drug once, they didn't like it, and it didn't affect them. These rhetorical tactics will not work with cocaine. Most Americans still believe that even one-time coke use is unacceptable. And everyone who tries cocaine is "affected"; it is not a subtle drug.

There is also, as a certain Nobel prize winner might say, an inconvenient truth lurking beneath all the discussion of the excesses of the 1970s. Simply put, millions of young people--and some not-so-young people--used cocaine, often with some regularity, and lived to talk about it. Their presence today as respected teachers, lawyers, and U.S. Senators implicitly contradicts the claims of drug czars and public service advertisers that experimenting with coke is equivalent to stepping into the abyss. This is not a conversation the country wants to have, and voters may punish the candidates who, through no fault of their own, force the issue onto the agenda.

Don't get me wrong: cocaine use is a bad idea. It can cause at least psychological addication, it puts a strain on vital organs, and for the very few but very unlucky, it can be a ticket to the mortuary. But the reality, as bad as it can be, does not square with the generally hysterical arguments made about the drug's power and danger.

Cocaine use is down in the United States, if statistics are to be believed, and that is a good thing. Indeed, it remains possible that the overheated campaign against the drug has contributed to that decline. Nobody, therefore, wants to open a discussion that ends with the realization that most non-crack users from the 70s and 80s emerged unscathed. What would we tell the children?

Well, we could tell them the truth, and trust that they are bright and sophisticated enough to handle it. Yes, Mom and Dad and President Obama once tried coke. We all lived to tell the tale. Cocaine probably won't kill you and marijuana likely won't turn you into a babbling imbecile (well, actually it will for an hour or so, but that's another matter). But drugs are far from safe, they distract you from your personal goals, and they are illegal. Mom and Dad once purchased Barry Manilow records, too. You should learn even from their non-fatal mistakes.

If we don't have an honest national conversation about what happened under the disco ball, people like Barack Obama and those who follow him will continue to face potentially damaging whispering campaigns. The silence of George W. Bush is no longer an option. By choosing to be frank about his past, Obama has already done a significant service to his generation. It remains to be seen, however, the extent to which he will be punished for that honesty.

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