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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, February 12, 2008

Lying About Recovery

A shocking new investigation by the New York Times has revealed that Barack Obama lied about his drug use as a high school student in Hawaii and in college in Los Angeles. Obama – in his memoir Dreams from My Father – insinuated that he was a heavy drug user, including cocaine as well as marijuana.

But interviews with high school and college friends uncovered the truth – Obama was a casual marijuana smoker! Contrary to the image he cultivated in his autobiography, friends revealed “Mr. Obama as being grounded, motivated and poised,” someone absent “any drug problems” who would “dabble only with marijuana.”

Why would someone exaggerate his drug use?

It seems that Obama, a lifetime nerd, wanted to appear hip. People don’t want to read books about highly motivated, studious, ambitious high school grinds who long to achieve high-ranking positions. (Wait a second – isn’t that the Hillary Rodham story?) A walk on the wild side – even an imaginary one – was called for.

Obama may also have been playing the recovery angle. People can’t hear enough about the down-and-out substance abuser who makes a life-or-death decision: “I’m going to struggle out of this hole, and run for president.” Now that’s a tale to conjure with.

That’s what the current president did. George W. Bush revealed recently to a faith-based rehab program that, after a bender to celebrate his fortieth birthday, he got off the juice. Of course, being a Republican, he did it by finding God. As a Democrat, Obama did it by applying to Harvard Law School.

Neither Obama nor Bush, it turns out, had the patience to enter a residential treatment program. What fun would that be? It also wastes a lot of time. And, however much Americans like to hear about people’s personal recoveries, they don’t appear ready to vote for someone fresh out of Betty Ford.

All of this suggests that personal redemption from an addictive habit is the path to the White House. This would explain why Mike Huckabee, who lost a hundred pounds and wrote a book about it, is still in the race while George Romney, who has never had a drink and whose favorite food is granola, is out.

How far will people go in inventing drug, alcohol, or other bad habits in order to get elected? Would Mitt Romney still be in contention if he had simply broken down and confessed, “I used to swig coca-cola like a sailor”? Or would Hillary guarantee her path to the presidency by confessing that she was anorexic at Wellesley?

As parents, should we even encourage some kind of mild addiction that our children can overcome? Currently, college applicants hire consultants to liven up their personal statements. A special branch of this industry may develop to perfect kids’ recovery stories – “I spent the better part of my junior year playing video games” or “I maxed out my parents’ credit cards buying matching ensembles.”

Not that plenty of us haven’t overcome one thing or another in our lives. Usually, we did so without turning to God, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the Betty Ford Center. But we used to think these were things we needed to hide. Who knew we should have put these at the top of our résumés?

Stanton Peele, a psychologist, is a senior fellow of the Drug Policy Alliance and author of Addiction-Proof Your Child (Three Rivers Press, 2007).