Campaigns No Longer Go Up In Smoke

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Near the end of the Rock the Vote presidential candidates' forum in Boston
this week, the moderator posed a question that once filled politicians
with dread.

"Which of you are ready to admit to having used marijuana in the past?"

Though Howard Dean joked that the candidates would "keep our hands down on
this one," only former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun declined to answer
the question. Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen.
John Edwards said they had. The Rev. Al Sharpton said he had not.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he hadn't but added that he would
decriminalize marijuana use.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman actually apologized - for not having smoked
pot.

"I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers in Democratic debates,"
Lieberman joked. "I never used marijuana, sorry."

Not so long ago, the question presented an agonizing dilemma for
politicians who committed youthful pot-related indiscretions: Admit having
violated the law, and in so doing align oneself with the sex, drugs and
rock 'n' roll hippie counterculture? Or lie about it, and hope to not get
caught?

In 1992, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton famously tried to
have it both ways by saying he'd smoked marijuana as a student "but didn't
inhale."

Eleven years later, nobody batted an eyelash at the candidates' frank
responses.

"I think we're way past that in politics in America," said Republican
consultant Dave Carney. "I think since the Clinton evasions, every
candidate running for city council in the country has been asked that
question - and not a single candidate has won or lost based on their
answer. It's silly."

James Morone, a political science professor at Brown University and the
author of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (Yale
University Press, 2003), said Clinton showed the political world how not
to address the marijuana question.

"The lesson is, don't deny it, don't let the press find the story, just
get out there yourself and make it vanilla," he said. "When you come clean
with something, the crucial thing is, what does your base think? And the
Democratic base could care less about marijuana use."

Since the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the early 19th-century theologian
Jonathan Edwards, who offered hope to sinners who would open their souls
to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, Americans have loved nothing
better than a conversion story, he said.

"No matter how horrible you've been, you can stand in the river and
change," he said. "Americans are always in motion, redefining themselves,
going on diets - unlike in other countries, here you can always start
anew."

Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the Democratic State Committee, said the
ascendance of the baby boomer generation has neutralized the marijuana
issue.

"Ten years ago, you were talking about people who went to college maybe in
the late '50s, early '60s" when most ambitious young students didn't touch
marijuana, she said. "Now people who are running for office went to
college in the late '60s, early '70s. There was more pot smoking going on
in those days - that was the reality of that particular time."

Sullivan also noted that George W. Bush was elected president despite his
refusal to answer questions during the 2000 campaign about rumors of
cocaine use during his early years. (No credible publication has confirmed
those rumors.)

"That's a very serious question, despite his refusal," she said.

Jayne Millerick, chairwoman of the Republican State Committee, said she
thought the indifference toward the question had more to do with the
serious issues confronting the nation, post-Sept. 11.

"It does seem to me that voters are more interested in how they stand on
whether they're going to increase their taxes or what their positive ideas
are about the economy," she said. "People are really focused on issues
this time around, and I think that's a good thing."

Even Howard Simon, a spokesman for the Partnership for a Drug Free
America, was not troubled by the Democrats' casual treatment of the issue.
He said that thousands of parents ask his organization how to respond to
their kids' questions about their own past marijuana use. The Partnership
advises parents to be honest - and then to talk with their children about
what they learned from the experience.

"I don't think I have a problem, really, with any of their answers," he
said of the Democratic candidates. "If people can't, to a certain extent,
be willing to talk about these issues, we're not going to solve them,
either. And if you're not talking about it, kids are going to find out on
their own."

Carney, however, had a problem with the question itself - along with many
of the other less-than-substantive queries the Democrats were forced to
answer at the Rock the Vote debate. (The final question was, "If you could
pick one of your fellow candidates to party with, which would you
choose?")

Carney said such questions demeaned the very serious political interests
of young people, especially the thousands of high school-aged volunteers
and college interns who work for little or no pay for political campaigns.

"There's not a campaign in the country today that doesn't run on kid
power," he said. "It diminished the perception of what kids think about
politics - and you know, they think a hell of a lot more than those stupid
kinds of questions."


Author: Lisa Wangsness
Source: Concord Monitor
Contact: letters@cmonitor.com
Website: http://207.180.37.15/
Pubdate: Friday, November 7, 2003