On Tuesday, Barack Obama discussed his youthful drug use during an appearance at a Manchester, New Hampshire high school:
I made some bad decisions that I've written about. There were times when I got into drinking and experimented with drugs…There was a whole stretch of time when I didn't really apply myself a lot.
Obama's comments elicited praise from a twice-divorced, cross-dressing former New York City mayor whose hand-picked police commissioner has been indicted on corruption charges and who lately has been making a big deal out of his own willingness to admit mistakes:
I respect his honesty in doing that. I think that one of the things we need from our people who are running for office is not this pretense of perfection. The reality is all of us that run for public office, whether its governor, legislator, mayor, president—we are all human beings. If we haven't made mistakes, don't vote for us, 'cause we got some big ones that are gonna happen in the future and we won't know how to handle them.
Not surprisingly, a former Massachusetts governor known for his perfect grooming, morally upright lifestyle, and eschewal of legal as well as illegal drugs disagreed:
It's just not a good idea for people running for president of the United States who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, "Well, I can do that too and become president of the United States." I think that was a huge error by Barack Obama…It is just the wrong way for people who want to be the leader of the free world.
Romney's position is reminiscent of the one George W. Bush took in a 1998 interview with Newsweek:
If I were you, I wouldn't tell your kids that you smoked pot unless you want 'em to smoke pot. I think it's important for leaders, and parents, not to send mixed signals. I don't want some kid saying, "Well, Governor Bush tried it."
The next year, when A.P. asked Bush what baby boomers should tell their kids about their own drug use, he replied:
I think the baby boomer parent ought to say, "I've learned from mistakes I may or may not have made, and I'd like to share some wisdom with you, and that is don't do drugs."
It's a mystery how you learn from mistakes you haven't made, but notice that Obama basically followed Bush's script. And when Giuliani admires Obama's "honesty," it's only because the senator characterized his drug use as a mistake that held him back. If a politician said he used to smoke pot, enjoyed it, suffered no harm as a result, and does not really regret it (except for the P.R. problems it presents), you can be sure Giuliani would not praise his honesty. Romney's fear (and Bush's) is that every time a successful and prominent person admits past illegal drug use, regardless of the caveats, it undermines the government's message that even the most casual contact with these evil substances will ruin your life. It would never occur to them that the proper response is to modify the message rather than mold reality to fit it.