Thomas Fitzgerald: Seeing through the smoke

Barack Obama in his senior-year photo from the 1979 yearbookof Honolulu's Punahou School.
Barack Obama in his senior-year photo from the 1979 yearbookof Honolulu's Punahou School.

For both Obama and voters, there's more to fret than new book's pot tale.

Posted: June 04, 2012

This is your future president on drugs:

Barack Obama and his high school buddies would drive to the top of Mount Tantalus in Honolulu, rock out to Aerosmith or Blue Oyster Cult - "Don't Fear the Reaper," perhaps - and fire up some highly potent Hawaiian marijuana. Then they'd chase it with beer.

They called themselves the Choom Gang, after a slang term for smoking pot; Obama was the leader and an avid partaker.

"When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted, 'Intercepted!' and took an extra hit," writes David Maraniss in his forthcoming new biography, Barack Obama: The Story.

Yet when these vivid details and more about Obama's 1970s teenage weed consumption leaked recently, the news was greeted with a collective shrug from most of the nation.

It seemed that the news media and the punditocracy gave a free pass to Obama yet again - fueling the meme, popular on the right, that he ascended to the presidency in the first place in 2008 without a thorough vetting.

Obama had helped himself by getting ahead of this particular story - way ahead, in fact, having written in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, that he used drugs, including cocaine, as a young man.

More important, the public has grown more tolerant over time toward marijuana use.

Not just the boomers, either: In a Gallup poll in October, 50 percent of Americans favored legalizing pot, compared with 46 percent opposed. When Gallup first asked the question - back in the Woodstock year of 1969 - only 12 percent supported legalization, and 84 percent were opposed. Support began trending up after 2000.

Heck, this year a pair of Republican candidates for president, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, admitted to having smoked weed. Both blamed variants of the ever-popular "youthful indiscretion."

But a quarter century ago, Douglas H. Ginsburg's nomination for the Supreme Court was withdrawn after revelations of his marijuana-smoking. Frenzied reporters began asking politicians down to the township level whether they had ever tried ganja.

Al Gore, then a Tennessee senator running for the 1988 Democratic nomination, said he had gotten high while serving in Vietnam, but looked back on it as a mistake. A fellow presidential hopeful, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, also copped to copping a buzz. So did Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the very epitome of a New England Brahmin.

By the time Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Clarence Thomas admitted past marijuana use in 1991, it was just a speed bump - and, in any event, he was contending with the much larger problem of accusations that he had sexually harassed Anita Hill.

Then along came Bubba.

In response to the inevitable pot question, Bill Clinton first said he had not violated the laws of the United States or of his native Arkansas. Turns out he had tried marijuana at Oxford University in Britain, where he was a Rhodes scholar. But, Clinton added famously, he "didn't inhale."

People didn't mind so much that Clinton had tried the stuff, but the episode showed a slick and evasive side of his personality that was to cause him problems later on in the White House.

So the question arises: Do Obama's experiences with pakalolo - literally "crazy tobacco" in Hawaiian - reveal anything about his conduct as president?

He comes across in Maraniss' account as a control freak, but nobody who reaches the Oval Office is completely chill. He also was a rule-maker for the Choom Gang. Critics of administration policies might see the seeds of overreaching in that. Or not.

Obama, for instance, developed and enforced the practice of "Total Absorption," or T.A., when it came to pot-smoking, Maraniss writes. If you exhaled prematurely when you were with the Choom Gang, "you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped the next time the joint came around." As one of Obama's friends tells the writer, "Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated."

The future president also introduced "roof hits." Writes Maraniss: "When they were chooming in a car all the windows had to be rolled up so no smoke blew out and went to waste; when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling."

It all seems like a joke. But rest assured: If the voters decide on Nov. 6 to "intercept" Obama's tenure in the White House, it won't be because he was a onetime pothead.

It'll be the economy, dude.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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