Brian Viner: Like Obama, we were all young once

It is the inalienable right of all 19-year-olds to look idiotic
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The Independent Online

The pictures of a youthful Barack Obama variously stroking his chin, self-consciously brandishing a cigarette and wearing a Panama hat, taken 28 years ago by an aspiring photographer called Lisa Jack and revealed this week to a world still insatiably eager for insights into Obama's past, show what Ms Jack considers to have been the future President-elect's "spirit of fun and thoughtfulness". And there was I, thinking what a plonker he looked.

Still, it is reassuring to find that Obama, officially the coolest man on the planet (so cool that he's officially our best bet for cooling down the planet), had plonker-ish tendencies at the age of 19.

I'm less than three months younger than him, and photographs taken of me in 1980 are no less, in fact significantly more, embarrassing. It is the inalienable right of all 19-year-olds to look idiotic, especially when trying to convey a spirit of fun and thoughtfulness.

Besides, any politician with no such photographs in the closet should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. All the old pictures of another future President, Ronald Reagan, showed him looking incredibly dishy either in B-movie stills or as a lifeguard, or a college football star. We should have known when he got to the White House that in the apparent absence of an embarrassing past, it was the present we needed to worry about.

Conversely, it did Tony Blair no harm whatever that we all chortled at the pictures of him in his long-haired student days. At university I knew a guy who wouldn't let anyone take photographs of him, going so far as to put his hand over camera lenses at parties. He told us it was because he had political aspirations and didn't want to be embarrassed a decade or two down the line. The last I heard of him, he was running a chain of launderettes. He'd have stood more chance in politics with a few pictures in circulation of him smoking weed, or peeing into a college plant pot.

Far from trying to suppress photographs of themselves from long ago, our political leaders should encourage their publication, with the obvious exception of David Cameron posing with fellow-members of the Bullingdon Club. We in the media are never more hypocritical than when we encourage our public servants to conceal minor embarrassments from their past, as if we don't all have blemishes of taste or behaviour on our CVs.

So let us celebrate not Obama's youthful spirit of thoughtfulness but his youthful lapses of judgement, which show that he's just like the rest of us. And how utterly, splendidly normal that his motivation for wearing the Panama, stroking his chin and puffing on a fag (had it been a fag in the American rather than the British vernacular, of course, it would have been deemed a revelation too far) was to attract women, having worked out that the girls at Occidental College in Los Angeles went for sensitive intellectual types rather than muscular, hoop-shooting jocks.

The words of an old Lonnie Donegan song spring inexorably to mind:

Young man in the hot-rod car, driving like he's mad

With a pair of yellow gloves he's borrowed from his dad

He makes it roar so lively just to see his girlfriend smile

But she knows, he's only putting on the style