Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Just yards into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., visitors walk into a exhibit showing our 16th president in a log cabin, reading a book as a teen by candlelight. That’s part of his iconic image, a young man so earnest in learning he didn’t let his less-than-modest upbringing stop the page-turning.

We all know the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. He was 6. Whether this “I cannot tell a lie” episode truly occurred or is apocryphal is irrelevant. The tale is part of the national narrative. I’d actually like to believe it happened (although there is much scholarly evidence to the contrary.)

Republicans now are having great fun with a section from President Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father” in which the future commander in chief owns up to eating dog meat when he was 6 to 10 years old and living with his mom and stepfather in Indonesia.

“With Lolo, I learned how to eat small green chill peppers raw with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy),” Obama writes.

Obama’s 2008 White House rival John McCain recently used Twitter to mock this.

“Good pic of my son Jimmy’s bulldog, Apollo — I’m sorry Mr. President, he’s not on the menu!”

Much of the nation used the biography of Bill Clinton’s early 20s against the president. His admission of pot smoking (and famous claim of self-restraint when it came to inhaling) is one of those moments minted for low-information voters.

Just the other day, someone sent me a message on Facebook referencing Clinton and marijuana, and Obama and school-days drug use, in light of the recent Washington Post story revealing Mitt Romney’s prep-school bullying.

“I’m sure all would be forgiven if he would have admitted to doing some weed and blow ‘back in the day,’” read the Facebook comment that represents much thinking.

Obama acknowledged his own youthful experimentation with illicit drugs during an event in November 2007 in Audubon, at the middle-school gym.

An audience member asked him, “Unlike other presidents, did you inhale?”

“I did,” Obama said. “It’s not something that I’m proud of. It was a mistake … But you know, I’m not going to ... I never understood that line. The point was to inhale. That was the point.”

The comment drew applause and some of the most sustained laughter of the night.

John Kerry? The “swift boating” of his Vietnam War record. Kerry was in his 20s.

So it is against this backdrop that defenders of Mitt Romney are calling for what amounts to an age of political consent.

Their case: things candidates do and say as kids and young men are outside the lines.

Romney’s advocates are challenging the relevance of a disturbing Washington Post expose about Romney’s alleged 1965 bullying of another student at Michigan’s exclusive Cranbrook School. Romney would have been 18 years old at the time.

Contemporaries say Romney led a prep-school pack as they held down the fellow student, widely believed to be gay, and cut his long, blond hair. The story also reports that Romney taunted effeminate students with shouts of “atta girl!” in class, and walked a nearly blind teacher into a door.

Are these acts of 50 years ago legitimate fodder in a 2012 campaign? Do they show a pattern of entitlement and bigotry? It’s a stretch.

But our politics are constructed around biography. Romney was 18 at the time of the well-sourced story.

Millions of Americans can relate to Clinton and Obama’s youthful experimentation with drugs, inhaled or not.

And generations have been inspired by Lincoln’s reading of candle-illuminated books, Washington’s owning up to his dad about the hatcheting of a tree.

How many of you held down a classmate and cut off his hair while he cried and pleaded? How many of you could forget that if you did, and not be haunted by the cruelty of it, even decades later?

Dismiss the Romney-as-class-bully story if you want. The incident took place at a very different time and place in America. There is that side of it.

But the story is cherry-tree fair in seeking to fill out the still largely unexamined life a man who would be president.