Did the Clinton campaign light up Obama drug-use story?

Hillary's New Hampshire co-chairman says Obama's past raises electability concerns. The campaign says it wasn't involved.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 13, 2007 1:58AM (EST)

With two new polls showing Barack Obama either catching or passing Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and with the Clinton campaign hoping to cut off Obama's forward progress by raising questions about his electability, the chairman of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign used an interview with the Washington Post today to suggest that Obama's past drug use could cause problems in the general election.


The Clinton campaign would have you believe that it is. A spokeswoman tells the Associated Press that the campaign had nothing to do with the comments about Obama's past drug use. "Sen. Clinton is out every day talking about the issues that matter to the American people," said campaign spokeswoman Kathleen Strand. "These comments were not authorized or condoned by the campaign in any way."

Maybe it depends on what the meaning of the word "campaign" is.

Bill Shaheen, who raised the issue of Obama's past drug use today, may not work at Clinton's campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. But Shaheen, the husband of former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, is a co-chairman of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign and her national campaign. While the job of a campaign "co-chairman" can be a largely ceremonial one, Bill Shaheen and his wife aren't exactly strangers to Hillary Clinton. They were important enough to her that she put in a personal phone call to them on the day she announced her candidacy for the presidency in January. And when Bill Shaheen announced that he was endorsing Clinton and would be serving as her New Hampshire co-chairman, Clinton said: "My campaign in New Hampshire is in exactly the right hands. Bill Shaheen brings so much with him, and I am absolutely thrilled to have his guidance and leadership."

What it all means: While it was easy enough to accept that a couple of volunteer coordinators for Clinton in Iowa were freelancing when they got caught spreading the phony Obama-as-Muslim story via e-mail -- especially when the Clinton campaign promptly sent them packing -- it's a little harder to take it on faith that Shaheen was talking to the Washington Post, let alone talking about Obama's past drug use, without some kind of approval from the Clinton campaign.

But talk he did, and here's what the Post says he said:

"Shaheen ... expressed his personal misgivings about whether Obama or Edwards would be electable if they became the party's nominee. Among his concerns about Obama as the nominee Shaheen, a lawyer and influential state power broker, mentioned as an example Obama's use of cocaine and marijuana as a young man, which Obama has been open about in his memoir and on the trail.

"'The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight ... and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use," said Shaheen ... . Shaheen contrasted Obama's openness about his past drug use -- which Obama mentioned again at a recent campaign appearance in New Hampshire -- with the approach taken by George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000, when he ruled out questions about his behavior when he was 'young and irresponsible.'

"Shaheen said Obama's candor on the subject would 'open the door' to further questions. 'It'll be, "When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?"' Shaheen said. 'There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome.'"

We'll put aside for a moment the irony of Shaheen's complaining about "dirty tricks" even as he unleashed his attack -- not to mention the additional irony of a co-chairman for a candidate often accused of showing a lack of candor complaining that someone else might be too candid -- and observe instead that Shaheen is right about at least one thing: Obama has, in fact, been open about his past drug use.

Poking fun at Bill Clinton in 2006, Obama said, "When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point." More seriously, Obama has acknowledged that, as a young man, he used marijuana and cocaine when he could afford it. "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man," he wrote in "Dreams From My Father." "I got high [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind."

Last month in New Hampshire, Obama told high school students that he'd "experimented with drugs" and made some "bad decisions" as a kid. "It wasn't until I got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, 'Man, I wasted a lot of time.'"

Responding to Shaheen's remarks today, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said it was all "old news," and he didn't buy the idea that the Clinton campaign wasn't involved in spreading it. "Hillary Clinton said attacking other Democrats is the fun part of this campaign, and now she's moved from Barack Obama's kindergarten years to his teenage years in an increasingly desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls," Plouffe said. He said that Obama "plans on winning this campaign by focusing on the issues that actually matter to the American people."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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