The web is abuzz with excerpts from our colleague David Maraniss’ soon-to-be-released biography of Barack Obama, which give us a portrait of a future president who would not have been judged most likely to succeed by his high school classmates. What seems to be getting the most attention is one of Obama’s favorite extra-curricular activities:
As a member of the Choom Gang, Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking trends. The first was called “TA,” short for “total absorption.” To place this in the physical and political context of another young man who would grow up to be president, TA was the antithesis of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled.
Whether episodes from a candidate’s high school days are a relevant subject for exploration is something that is getting a lot of discussion these days. The Post got a lot of criticism from the right a few weeks back, when it published Jason Horowitz’s story on Mitt Romney’s days at an exclusive Michigan prep school, when witnesses say he held down a student presumed to be gay and cut his hair. It will be interesting to see whether there is similar umbrage over the latest information about Obama.
One thing I find interesting is that, taken together, these accounts offer reassurance: High school is not destiny.
Neither Obama the slacker nor Romney the prankster would have seemed destined for greatness. Which is reassuring for the great majority of those of us who left behind no trophies with our names on them in the glass display cases.
Nonetheless, these years are worth exploring, if only because they give us a chance to trace the trajectory of character, and to show that it is not just something we are born with, but also something that we grow into.
For both Obama and Romney, the years that followed high school were ones that required them to grow up quickly, and to find in themselves the traits that put them where they are today.
In Obama’s case, as he wrote in his own memoir, that meant coming to terms with his racial identity, and with a childhood that had been shaped more by the absence of his parents than their presence. It was after high school, at Occidental College, that he came to an important realization:
I was like a drunk coming out of a long, painful binge. ... Two years from graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, or even where I would live. Hawaii lay behind me like a childhood dream; I could no longer imagine settling there. Whatever my father might say, I knew it was too late to ever truly claim Africa as my home. And if I had come to understand myself as a black American, and was understood as such, that understanding remained unanchored to place. What I needed was a community, I realized, a community that cut deeper than the common despair that black friends and I shared when reading the latest crime statistics, or the high fives I might exchange on a basketball court. A place where I could put down stakes and test my commitments.
Romney has never shared with us his inner thoughts about his own journey, but we can sense a lot just from seeing what he did in the years after Cranbrook.
As I noted recently in our She the People blog, the years after high school took Romney out of his incubated world and tested him. He went to France as a Mormon missionary, and saw a lot of doors shut in his face. Most searingly, he was almost killed when a car that he was driving was hit head-on by another vehicle. And one of his passengers that day did not survive.
At Harvard Business School, when most of his classmates — including George W. Bush — were still single and unburdened by responsibility, Romney was already the father of two babies, living in the suburb of Belmont.
So, yes, the high school years, as much as we cringe at our memories of them, are relevant, but not because they tell us who we are. Instead, it is by understanding them that we learn how far we have come.