When Barack Obama told New Hampshire high school students that he had been "into drinking, and experimented with drugs" when he was their age, his confession was a two-day story. The first day when he said it, the second when Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney debated whether it was wise for him to have spoken about it to the kids.
Rudy applauded Obama's candor and "honesty," saying that Americans should not expect a "pretense of perfection" since we're all "human beings." Then the former mayor of New York made his point: "If we haven't made mistakes, don't vote for us, because we've got some big ones in the future and we won't know how to handle them."
Mitt Romney disagreed. He said Obama's confession was a "huge error," and made Obama a poor "role model," leading kids to think, "Well, I can do that, too, and still become president of the United States."
Romney's answer might have been just the right thing to say in 1987, the year Ronald Reagan nominated Douglas Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, only he withdrew the nomination when it became apparent that the judge had smoked pot when he was a young professor at Harvard Law School. Not so long after that there was Bill Clinton, who made a fool of himself with his hedge that he didn't "exhale." This was a revelation of a duplicitous character, but it didn't prevent his being elected president. Since then lots of boomers who dabbled -- and in many cases immersed themselves -- in pot have become leaders, and nobody much cares about that part of a past.
Rudy's defense of Obama wins the argument. The senator put his behavior in both moral and practical context, observing that smoking pot and drinking is a waste of valuable time. Americans like conversion stories and admire those who can reform themselves. It hasn't hurt George W. that he's a recovered alcoholic. Rudy no doubt expects that his emphasis on "not being perfect" will work for him as he continues to be challenged by his connection to Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner recently indicted for fraud, tax evasion, obstruction of justice and other assorted felonies.
"Nobody's perfect" could work as a theme for several presidential wannabes, especially for Hillary Clinton, now that certain pundits are comparing her to Richard Nixon, whom she despised. But this could work in her favor, showing how tough she can be, and dilutes the picture of her as a commander in chief in pink. The bloggers who call her Hillary Milhous Clinton are not so sanguine. They put the Nixon comparison up there with the bumper sticker "Hillary -- America's Mother-in-Law."
Some feminists who can imagine Hillary as a Nixon look-alike are terrified that if she's elected the first woman president it could set back their revolution for decades. It's one thing to be as competent as a man, quite another to be as corrupt as a man. Tough is OK. Devious is not. Comparisons can hurt. So can mixed metaphors. The Nixon link is the flip side of Hillary's faux folksy domestic images conjured in Iowa when she told women to support her clean-up of Washington by bringing their mops, brooms, brushes and vacuum cleaners to the rally. Too cute by more than half.
Domestic cliches worked only a little better when she said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," adding with intentional irony, "And I'm very much at home in the kitchen."
We've come a long way from asking a woman candidate to field feminine questions, as Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, had to do. No one cares about Hillary's recipes because we figure she doesn't have any. Nor do we see women imitating Hillary's hairdo or style, as they did Geraldine Ferraro's. In this election, character issues will count for much more than "gender" images, either feminist or feminine.
What hurts Hillary on the extreme left of her party, however, could turn out to be what other voters could like about her -- standing firm on her vote for the war in Iraq as "a sincere vote based on the information available to me." She doesn't back it up with support of a fledgling democracy, as many conservatives do, but she understands how that will play better in the election campaign, when the goofy left will be pushed aside.
Giuliani got it right. Nobody's perfect. The question is whose imperfections make the candidate most vulnerable -- and least valuable -- for the highest office in the land.