Remember When the NY Times Suggested Obama Exaggerated About His Drug Use?

An artist’s satirical portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama at the Hemp Parade, or ‘Hanfparade’, on August 7, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week’s “Choom Gang” excerpts from David Maraniss’ upcoming Obama biography depicting the president as a one-time pioneer in the art of marijuana inhalation reminded me of this New York Times headline from the 2008 Democratic primary: “Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life.”

The Times piece, which got widespread pick-up, suggested that the stories Obama told about his drug use in his memoir Dreams From My Father were not necessarily true:

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.

It’s funny to think that this was one of the major stories vetting Obama’s drug use during the 2008 campaign, and it actually ended up underplaying the extent to which drugs were a part of his life in order to depict him as a fabulist. The Times line about Obama only “dabbling” in marijuana could very well be true (depending on your definition of dabbling), but that does not lead to the conclusion that drugs were a “bit part” in his life.

The main lines from the memoir that were used to show Obama the exaggerator were these:

“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” he penned in the memoir.

Mr. Obama describes a scene in that period where, in the meat freezer of a deli, he watched someone named Micky — “my potential initiator” — pull out “the needle and the tubing,” apparently to shoot up heroin. Alarmed, Mr. Obama wrote that he imagined how an air bubble could kill him. 

Again, these may or may not have been exaggerations. But the story that the Times tells of a clean-living Obama who didn’t run with too bad of a crowd was certainly one. From Maraniss’ book:

[Obama’s dealer] was a long-haired haole hippie who worked at the Mama Mia Pizza Parlor not far from Punahou and lived in a dilapidated bus in an abandoned warehouse. … According to Topolinski, Ray the dealer was “freakin’ scary.” Many years later they learned that he had been killed with a ball-peen hammer by a scorned gay lover. But at the time he was useful because of his ability to “score quality weed.”

In another section of the [senior] yearbook, students were given a block of space to express thanks and define their high school experience. … Nestled below [Obama’s] photographs was one odd line of gratitude: “Thanks Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang, and Ray for all the good times.”

That sounds much more in line with the Obama of Dreams From My Father than the one from the Times.

I bring this up not to rag on Serge Kovaleski or the Times for running this piece four years ago, but just to say that even if what we’ve seen of Maraniss’ reporting about Obama’s drug use and poetry and ex-girlfriends so far seems trivial, it is actually very impressive and the kind of stuff that is worthwhile to accurately have on the record.