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."
In fact, Bush himself has been a beneficiary of those sympathies. He has suffered little criticism from his conservative base after acknowledging that he drank too much in the past and is now a teetotaler.
Obama's partisan opponents and experts said it is too early to know whether the admissions will be a liability because the public seems to be enthusiastically embracing his openness at this point. What's more, they note that it is better for a politician to disclose his own transgressions, rather than be put on the defensive by revelations.
A senior Republican strategist who will be advising a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 said he did not see anything in the book that would be a "disqualifier," but he cautioned that Obama has not yet gone through an intense vetting process and that a problem could arise if there is more to his story than he has chosen to share. The strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also suggested that there will be high tolerance for marijuana use among voters because many baby boomers probably tried the drug in the '60s.
"Who's going to cast that first stone?" asked Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic political consultant, who has advised Obama's political committee.
Rhodes Cook, a independent political analyst, said that Democratic primary voters, who are typically more liberal, would be more understanding of his drug use -- "and if he makes it to a general election, it will be old news."
Obama's supporters said his admissions in the book could work to his advantage.
"I think it will be received as refreshing," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Obama's fellow Democrat from Illinois. "If you compare similar books, many of us in the political business tend to have selective memories."
Obama writes extensively about his struggle to come to terms with being a black man whose African father returned to Kenya when he was 2, leaving him to be raised by his white Kansas-born mother and grandparents in Hawaii. He describes an identity crisis arising from his realization that his life was shaped by both a loving white family and a world that saw in him the negative stereotypes frequently ascribed to young black men. He recounts a search of self that took him from high school in Hawaii to Columbia University, and then to the streets of Chicago as a community organizer.
"We were always playing on the white man's court . . . by the white man's rules," he writes. "If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher . . . wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had the power and you didn't. . . . The only thing you could choose was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage.
"And the final irony: should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors . . . they would have a name for that too. Paranoid. Militant."
Obama has not expressed any regrets for his candor. In a preface to the new edition, he says that he would tell the same story today "even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically."
In the book, Obama acknowledges that he used cocaine as a high school student but rejected heroin. "Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though," he says.
In an interview during his Senate race two years ago, Obama said he admitted using drugs because he thought it was important for "young people who are already in circumstances that are far more difficult than mine to know that you can make mistakes and still recover.
"I think that, at this stage, my life is an open book, literally and figuratively," he said. "Voters can make a judgment as to whether dumb things that I did when I was a teenager are relevant to the work that I've done since that time."