by Paul Waldman
It’s sometimes said that politics is like high school, and in just the last couple of weeks we’ve learned a little more about what both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were like when they roamed the halls of the Cranbrook School and the Punahou School as teenagers. Romney, The Washington Post told us, was a privileged bully who pushed around nonconforming classmates. Obama, an upcoming biography from David Maraniss reveals, was a major pothead. The teenage version of both men, in other words, was just what many Americans probably imagined.
Yet almost no one, not even conservatives, got particularly riled up over the details of the “Choom Gang,” Obama’s group of friends who apparently spent much of their high-school years amidst a cloud of pot smoke. Perhaps it’s because Obama had already revealed, in Dreams From My Father, that as a teen he had smoked marijuana and even done cocaine. But the collective yawn over the news certainly marks a change from a generation ago. When Bill Clinton said in 1992 that he had tried marijuana but didn’t inhale, few people believed him (though I did; I could absolutely see Bill passed a joint at a party, thinking quickly about his political future but also eager to look cool, and “triangulating” toward some uncomfortable spot between the two impulses). But everyone understood why he tried to have it both ways: He didn’t want to lie, but also feared being painted as a stoner. And for a time, there was a standard script a politician was expected to follow when asked the pot question, a script Michael Kinsley explained in a 1990 Los Angeles Times column: I “experimented” with marijuana, it was a youthful indiscretion that I deeply regret, and I didn’t enjoy it. Our last president simply refused to answer any specific questions about whether he had done drugs, saying he didn’t want to set a bad example for children (which could only mean, one assumed, that the answer was yes).
But something changed in 2008. When Barack Obama, the first post-boomer presidential nominee, was asked whether he had inhaled, he forthrightly replied: “When I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.” No one got angry, and no one suggested it might doom his candidacy.
That’s probably because the fact that Obama smoked pot in his youth means he’s like around half of American adults. According to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 50 % of Americans in every age group between 20 and 55 say they have smoked pot before. Given the natural reluctance of many people to admit to an interviewer that they’ve done something illegal, the true numbers are almost certainly higher. The most recent Gallup poll on the topic found that for the first time, a majority of Americans now favor legalization of marijuana. Those facts may form part of the reason the Choom Gang story didn’t have legs.
Here’s another reason. It’s one for which I have nothing but anecdotal evidence, but I’m pretty sure it’s true: Your average journalist is in the pot-smoking half of the country. As a group, journalists tend to be curious and skeptical of authority (with some exceptions, to be sure), just the kind of people who say yes that first time the joint gets passed their way. And it’s hard to get all up-in-arms about something you’ve done yourself.
Don’t get me wrong: Marijuana is still a profound cultural marker separating the hippies from the squares, the cultural division that has shaped our political life for nearly a half-century now. But when voters look at the presidential race and learn that one party’s nominee has never taken a hit off a joint (or a drink of alcohol, for that matter), and the other’s spent more than a few youthful hours in a van filled with smoke, they haven’t learned anything fundamental that they didn’t already know.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.