Stakes & Commitments

by Michael O. Allen on February 9, 2008

Photo by Max Whittaker for The New York Times: Barack Obama, then known as Barry, in a 1978 senior yearbook photo at the Punahou School in Honolulu. At Punahou, a preparatory school that had few black students, he talked with friends about race, wealth and class.

Back at the time the New York Times explored in today’s paper, running for president of the United States had to have been the furthest thing in Sen. Barack Obama’s mind. He must have been around 20 years old and he was trying to figure out his way in this world.

What seems clear is that Mr. Obama’s time at Occidental
from 1979 to 1981 — where he describes himself arriving
as “alienated” — would ultimately set him on a course to
public service. He developed a sturdier sense of self and
came to life politically, particularly in his sophomore year,
growing increasingly aware of harsh inequities like
apartheid and poverty in the third world.

He also discovered that he wanted to be in a larger
arena; one professor described Occidental back then
as feeling small and provincial. Mr. Obama wrote in
his memoir that he needed “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.”

Sen. Obama, (D-IL), wrote in “Dreams From My Father” about youthful drug use prior to and during this period, drug use that stopped after he transferred to Columbia University in New York City.

Mitt Romney, who abandoned his candidacy for the Republican nomination this week, disgracefully tried to make some political hay out of this admission. He got nowhere. Later, Bill Shaheen, an adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also tried to make it into a campaign issue, suggesting that Mr. Obama’s history with drugs would make him vulnerable to Republican attacks if he became his party’s nominee.

“It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs
to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’” Shaheen told
reporters in New Hampshire. “There are so many openings
for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.”

Hillary disavowed the comment and forced Shaheen to resign as one of the co-chairs of her campaign.
People in the past questioned whether Mr. Obama took some literary license in “Dreams of My Father” to make the book more dramatic. In this article, the Times tracked down people who knew Mr. Obama back then and almost to a one none remembers him as a drug user.

“He was not even close to being a party animal,” one friend from the day told the Times.

Serge F. Kovaleski, the Timesman, wondered and speculated about this:

Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though,
significantly differs from the recollections of others who do
not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private
about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the
memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or
rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some
writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he
overcame seem more dramatic.

In more than three dozen interviews, friends, classmates and
mentors from his high school and Occidental recalled
Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised,
someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug
problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.

In short, it was a portrait of a remarkable young man poised to do great things, not unlike someone any father would wish their sons and daughters to grow up to be like. He displayed the allure he now poses for voters even back then.

Mr. Obama displayed a deft but unobtrusive manner
of debating.“When he talked, it was an E. F. Hutton
moment: people listened,” said John Boyer, who lived
across the hall from Mr. Obama. “He would point out
the negatives of a policy and its consequences and
illuminate the complexities of an issue the way others
could not.” He added, “He has a great sense of humor
and could defuse an argument.”

Voters in caucuses and primaries this weekend, next week, and the next several months will have opportunities to take the measure of this man and decide whether to make him the Democratic Party nominee for president. They could choose to vote, as he is fond of saying, for him, rather than against somebody.

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