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Being the Change we Want to See: Let's Not Trash Cindy McCain Over Her Past Drug Problems


Cindy McCain's had painful back and knee problems her doctors did not effectively address. To deal with the resulting pain, she started using--then misusing--Percocet and Vicodin. Like many others, she became dependent. She stole some medication, obtained some bogus scripts, and got caught.

Except for her privileged social position, much of her story is pretty standard. The first injection drug user I ever interviewed was once a reasonably successful blue collar worker. He hurt his back in a car crash, needed pain killers, and began the trajectory that left him a gum-mouthed homeless street user in New Haven.

Chronic pain is a common starting point for prescription drug abuse and opiate dependence. American medicine manages pain badly, and some unlucky patients discover special vulnerability to the opiate lure. Drug-seeking behavior of the Cindy McCain kind is pretty standard, too. I suspect that most of you reading this post agree that substance use disorders are mainly medical problems to be addressed through treatment rather than through the heavy hand of law enforcement.

Is it wrong to go after Cindy McCain? If she lets her husband campaign in the family airplane or has complicated financial and personal dealings, I think that's fair game. As for her drug problem, I have great wariness -- a wariness compounded by the comments that have started to accumulate below my posting.

Her behavior has put the issue on the public record. If this were not widely discussed on HuffPo and elsewhere, I would not have posted this comment. I do believe it is right and fair to bluntly ask Senator McCain: "Your wife became drug dependent, broke some laws to get these drugs, and was treated leniently. Less-privileged people in similar circumstances generally get much rougher handling, often under policies that you yourself support. What do you plan to do about this?" This is not to score shabby partisan points by rummaging through the McCains' private life. It is to hold the Senator to account for the shabby way our society mistreats hundreds of thousands of people with substance use disorders.

Incidentally, Senator McCain supports the "Addiction-Free Treatment Act," a particularly noxious piece of legislation designed to stop federal support for methadone maintenance treatment. Trainloads of studies find that methadone treatment, though imperfect, improves patients' lives, reduces criminal offending, and benefits the wider community. McCain deserves harsh criticism for this stand, quite apart from his wife's problematic drug history.

If and when we do discuss Cindy McCain's personal travails, we must do so within our own moral universe rather than to adopt -- preemptively or otherwise -- the take-no-prisoners view we associate with Karl Rove. Commentaries are accumulating that pretty-much say: Go after Michelle, and we'll come back with how Cindy the rich trophy wife is really a drug addict. I read the comment threads in one recent HuffPo posting. Some of these comments are quite ugly.

That's just not the way we should go. Liberals and those further left -- during the 2008 campaign and later -- must figure out how we can be angry, partisan, and strategic while resisting the toxic mindset of Bill O'Reilly and the swift boat crew. That's the problem with Keith Olbermann. He is not a gentleman, though he is sometimes very funny.

Graciousness is one secret of Barack Obama's success. I think there is a market for that. Americans are ready for Atticus Finch after eight truculent years of Rambo. At least I hope so. Let's start by showing some class regarding Cindy McCain's human frailty. Restraint may prove politically wise. If nothing else, it will astonish many people.