By Olivier Knox
Bill Clinton he was not. When it came to smoking pot, the teenage Barack Obama had rules. You had to embrace “total absorption” or face a penalty. When you smoked in the car, “the windows had to be rolled up.” And he could horn his way in, calling out “Intercepted!” and grab the joint out of turn.
Best-selling author David Maraniss’ “Barack Obama: The Story” describes the future president’s teenage antics, notably his copious marijuana smoking, details of which were published early Friday by Buzzfeed. While the book won’t be released until June 19, vast sections of it were already available Friday on Google Books.
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Starting on page 293, the reader begins to get the dope on high school-age Obama’s group of basketball- and fun-loving buds, who dubbed themselves the “Choom Gang,” from a verb meaning “to smoke marijuana.”
“As a member of the Choom Gang, Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking trends. The first was called ‘TA,’ short for ‘total absorption.’ To place this in the physical and political context of another young man who would grow up to be president, TA was the antithesis of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled,” writes Maraniss, author of a biography of the 42nd president.
“When you were with Barry and his pals, if you exhaled precious pakalolo (Hawaiian slang from marijuana, meaning “numbing tobacco”) instead of absorbing it fully into your lungs, you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped the next time the joint came around. “‘Wasting good bud smoke was not tolerated,’ explained one member of the Choom Gang, Tom Topolinski, the Chinese-looking kid with a Polish name who answered to Topo.”
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Obama also made popular a pot-smoking practice that the future president and his pals called “roof hits.” When they smoked in the car, they rolled up the windows, and “when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling,” Maraniss writes.
Obama “also had a knack for interceptions. When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted ‘Intercepted’ and took an extra hit. No one seemed to mind,” according to the text.
Maraniss details how the Choom Gang relaxed at a spot they called “Pumping Stations” partway up Mount Tantalus on Oahu.
“They parked single file on the grassy edge, turned up their stereos playing Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, and Stevie Wonder, lit up some ‘sweet-sticky Hawaiian buds,’ and washed it down with ‘green bottled beer’ (the Choom Gang preferred Heineken, Beck’s, and St. Pauli Girl),” according to Maraniss.
“No shouting, no violence, no fights; they even cleaned up their beer bottles. This was their haven, in the darkness high above the city and the pressures of Punahou,” he writes.
They also operated by consensus (NATO-style!), with any member able to “veto” a suggestion. “Whenever an idea was broached, someone could hold up his hand in the V sign (a backward peace sign of that era) and indicate that the motion was not approved. They later shortened the process so that you could just shout ‘V’ to get the point across,” says Maraniss.
Sure, they drove around in a VW bus nicknamed the “Choomwagon.” And their dealer was a “freakin’ scary” guy named Ray who met a grisly end. “Many years later they learned that he had been killed with a ball-peen hammer by a scorned gay lover.” (On his yearbook page, Obama says “Thanks Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang, and Ray for all the good times.”)
But Maraniss also suggests that Obama, like, oh, everyone in the world, embellished his mischief.
“Later in life, looking back on those days, Obama made it sound as though he were hanging out with a group of misbegotten ne’er-do-wells, what he called the ‘club of disaffection.’ In fact, most members of the Choom Gang were decent students and athletes who went on to successful and productive lives as lawyers, writers, and businessmen,” the author says.
Obama was a solid student, and adept at what some readers might know as “osmotic learning.”
“He seemed nonchalant, yet performed well. How did he do it? He told his Choom Gang mates that the trick was if you put the textbook under your pillow the night before you would perform better on an exam. ‘It never worked for me,’ said Topolinski.”