The Candidates' Former Selves
For most of us, the college experience—what we remember—lives on in two neat categories: “Never Again” and “I Found Myself.” This formative process produces “Don’t Remind Me” and “The Best Time of My Life,” where high-minded philosophies mix with pragmatic acceptances that retain extraordinary influence on our decisions, hopes, fears, aspirations and nightmares until the end of our days. And it's the same with our political candidates, our fearless leaders who were once fearful fresh(wo)men, whose honesty and openness at 18 would horrify campaign managers, PR gurus and senior strategists of later years. Before the spin set in, before we became utterly confused by who we might elect into office, we can take a step back from who they are and look at who they were.
There was a time when Hillary Rodham might have been among those at the Conservative Political Action Conference booing that liberal swine John McCain. Leaving home in Park Ridge, near Chicago, Girl Scout Hillary went to Wellesley a devout Barry Goldwater Republican, leafleting for the Arizona senator and joining the Young Republicans. When she finished her undergraduate years, she had led teach-ins, demonstrated after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, written her thesis on Chicago leftist organizer Saul Alinsky and volunteered for Clean Gene McCarthy’s attempt to upend the ’68 Democratic presidential bid. College was a Tale of Two Parties—she attended both Democratic and Republican conventions, interned at the House Republican Conference headed by Congressman Melvin Laird, who would become Nixon’s secretary of defense, and in her graduation speech chastised Republican Senator Edward Brooke for being out of touch with the new generation, a rebuke that earned her a mention in Life magazine. The period was one of conflicting emotions and positions, coupled with tepid romantic prospects—acknowledging that there wasn’t much time for life outside of school and activism, little of Hillary Rodham’s writings at the time concerned boys. In a recent interview with Katie Couric, the senator admitted that her nickname with some of the boys in school was “Miss Frigidaire.”
Mike Huckabee once ate fried squirrel. Sure, he married his high school sweetheart at age 18 after his freshman year at Ouachita Baptist U. Sure, he graduated magna cum laude in less than three years with his BA in Religion, played a mean rock guitar from age 11, and worked as a PR man for televangelist James Robison, but the squirrel always comes up. On Meet The Press, Tim Russert asked about the squirrels and Huck responded, “It’s not the best thing in the world but, you know when you go squirrel hunting, you got to do something with those things. And part of it was just to say we could do it. I mean, it was a college thing. I mean, but fried squirrel is a Southern delicacy. You got to know that.” There’s nothing more college than doing something just because you can, and nothing more indicative of dorm life than a culinary crisis: denied hotplates—no doubt by those vindictive Ouachita RAs—Huck and Co. used popcorn poppers (allowed) to fry up some squirrel.
"Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.” When most politicians hesitate to claim an inhale, Barack Obama laid it all out in two sentences: yes to pot and coke, no to heroin. He even knows the lingo. It was Obama’s election as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review that spurred a publisher to commission Obama’s profoundly frank introspection of his past triumphs and failures, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Long before his meteoric rise from Illinois state senator to presidential candidate, a once-afroed “Barry” Obama discussed his youthful boozing, pot-smoking ways and the prohibitive expense of cocaine use. In his memoir he writes that drugs were, “…something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory," and stated in an interview during his run for the Senate, referenced by the Washington Post, that “Voters can make a judgment as to whether dumb things that I did when I was a teenager are relevant to the work that I've done since that time." At the end of high school and the beginning of college, Obama says he came to realize that he was not applying himself, and soon ended his extracurricular shenanigans. The New York Times reported that Obama considers much of his time spent at Columbia—where he transferred after two years at Occidental College—as one of monk-like introspection, devoted to causes such as the Black Student Organization and anti-apartheid groups (though today, prominent student leaders of his era say they don’t recall his involvement). In the same interview given during his senatorial campaign in 2004, Obama said that he would remain frank with the public about his past because such honesty was important for "young people who are already in circumstances that are far more difficult than mine to know that you can make mistakes and still recover.” And no smack, kids.
Collegiate John McCain was a proud and repeat member of the Century Club, the elite few with the tenacity and dedication to consistently achieve over 100 demerits at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. McCain, nicknamed—either affectionately or less so—“punk,” and “McNasty,” graduated sixth-to-last in his class of 899. In his John McCain: An American Odyssey, Robert Timberg quotes an Episcopal High School classmate, “He prided himself as a tough guy, seemingly ready to fight at the drop of a hat,” an attitude he carried to college. A Vanity Fair article features this quote where he says he spent the majority of his time at the Academy, "being made an example of, marching many miles of extra duty for poor grades, tardiness, messy quarters, slovenly appearance, sarcasm, and multiple other violations of Academy standards." But a confident McCain had other talents and pursuits, including his role as romantic advisor for his friends and dating an exotic dancer known as “Marie, the Flame of Florida” during flight school. He remained, throughout his unsteady academic tenure, an immensely popular rebel and outsized amateur boxer whose famously short temper would just as soon cause a fight as stop upperclassman bullying.
How the years can season, refine, narrow and dull. Alas, we don’t see “Senator McNasty” written on a ballot. Obama’s two-sentences on drugs have now ballooned into carefully-worded, serpentine treatises. There aren’t any fried squirrels on 110-lbs lighter Governor Huckabee’s new diet. A Hillary Rodham that once stood squarely between both parties is now Hillary Clinton, oftentimes one of the most polarizing figures in politics. But Huck still plays the guitar, Hillary still may garner comparisons to cold kitchen appliances, McCain’s still short on the fuse, and if he wins, Obama is definitely bringing back the afro.
-- Joe Horton