Correction to This Article
A Jan. 3 article incorrectly said that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Obama was the first African American to be elected Law Review president by the publication┬┐s editors.

Effect of Obama's Candor Remains to Be Seen

Sen. Barack Obama is near the top of polls on potential Democratic presidential candidates.
Sen. Barack Obama is near the top of polls on potential Democratic presidential candidates. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Long before the national media spotlight began to shine on every twist and turn of his life's journey, Barack Obama had this to say about himself: "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. . . . I got high [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind."

The Democratic senator from Illinois and likely presidential candidate offered the confession in a memoir written 11 years ago, not long after he graduated from law school and well before he contemplated life on the national stage. At the time, 20,000 copies were printed and the book seemed destined for the remainders stacks.

Today, Obama, 45, is near the top of polls on potential Democratic presidential contenders, and "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" has regularly been on the bestseller lists, with 800,000 copies in print. Taken along with his latest bestseller, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," Obama has become a genuine publishing phenomenon.

Obama's revelations were not an issue during his Senate campaign two years ago. But now his open narrative of early, bad choices, including drug use starting in high school and ending in college, as well as his tortured search for racial identity, are sure to receive new scrutiny.

As a potential candidate, Obama has presented himself as a fresh voice offering a politics of hope. Many say he offers something new in American politics: an African American with a less-than-traditional name who has so far demonstrated broad appeal. What remains to be seen is whether the candor he offered in his early memoir will be greeted with a new-style acceptance by voters.

It was not so long ago that such blunt admissions would have led to a candidate's undoing, and there is uneasiness in Democratic circles that "Dreams From My Father" will provide a blueprint for negative attacks.

Two decades ago, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was forced to withdraw as a nominee for the Supreme Court after reports surfaced that he had used marijuana while he was a law professor. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton thought marijuana use could be enough of a liability in 1992 that he felt compelled to say he had not inhaled. And President Bush has managed to deflect endless gossip about his past by acknowledging that he had an "irresponsible" youth but offering no details.

Through his book, Obama has become the first potential presidential contender to admit trying cocaine.

"I believe what the country is looking for is someone who is open, honest and candid about themselves rather than someone who seems endlessly driven by polls or focus groups," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman. Gibbs said yesterday that Obama was not available for an interview.

Presidential aspirants tend to write more sanitized books for use as campaign tools. "Faith of My Fathers" by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) depicts his family's history of military service. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has reissued "It Takes a Village," which offers her views about child-rearing in contemporary society. In fact, Obama's latest book, "Audacity of Hope," lays out his policy positions.

But "Dreams From My Father" is not like that. Obama wrote the highly personal book when he was in his early 30s, after being approached by a publisher when he became the first black person elected editor of the Harvard Law Review.

"This is not the kind of book you would ever expect a politician to write," said GOP consultant Alex Vogel. "Anyone who has a career in politics has to be concerned with what's in their past, but there is no question that Americans have an appetite for redemption."

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