In an era in which at least one prominent politician said he "didn't inhale," the Democrat running for Congress in the Southern Tier isn't being coy about the drugs he did in the 1960s -- and how it differs from what he's doing today.
Caleb S. Rossiter, the longtime peace activist who is challenging Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning, wrote a book two years ago that details a bad drug trip, his vehement efforts against the Vietnam War, and his father's suicide.
"The Chimes of Freedom Flashing" isn't your average political memoir, and Rossiter is proud of that.
"I'm very glad to have written that book, glad to have gone through tough times the way I did," he said.
He stresses that he's a much different man at 46 than he was as the angry youth portrayed in his book.
Rossiter said he quickly turned away from the drug culture, and today he backs laws against drug use. He is convinced his frank discussion of his early experimentation won't hurt him in his race for a congressional seat in the largely conservative Southern Tier district.
The book, published by a small publisher in Washington, D.C., doesn't detail Rossiter's years on a School Board in Ithaca, his years as a teacher, his Ph.D. in policy analysis from Cornell University, his years working as a foreign policy aide in Congress or his founding of an organization that aims to keep weapons out of the hands of dictators.
Instead, it describes his wild years, which ended when he turned 18. For example, he describes a road trip in which he and a drug dealer shared a joint made of marijuana and "a sprinkling of opium."
He also relates his experience with LSD.
"One sunny morning I dropped half a little brown tab onto my tongue," Rossiter wrote. He then describes its effect as he went to a supermarket in Ithaca.
"I became irritated at the buzzing neon, which I had never heard before, and as we turned a corner, I churlishly punched a five-foot pyramid of canned corn. Wow! It sounded like a brass band being dropped into a garbage can."
Rossiter's drug trip later took him to the edge of a lake, where he kept busy smearing his body with watermelon.
It wasn't altogether a positive experience.
"It was fascinating out there on the edge with your very own monster, but dangerous and lonely," Rossiter wrote. "And if you spent too much time out there, you'd never get anything done in the real world."
Rossiter makes it clear that he learned from his youthful experience.
"I strongly support keeping drugs illegal and the application of a lot of money to fight drugs," he said. "At the same time, I question the application of some of that money. All the money spent overseas fighting drugs coming into the United States hasn't worked. That money should be spent right here for drug treatment and local law enforcement."
Turning away from drugs in his youth, the young Rossiter focused his efforts on the central political issue of the time: the war in Vietnam.
He spent one summer pamphleting the draft board, took part in numerous anti-war protests, applied -- and was rejected -- for conscientious objector status, and eventually got a student deferment. He doesn't regret any of his anti-war effort.
"Millions of citizens, unpaid and ostracized,
took the patriotically traitorous and apparently futile step of opposing their own country's unjust foreign war . . . and succeeded," Rossiter wrote. "Everyone who attacked their officers, sabotaged their patrols, burned a draft card, fled to Canada, dodged the draft, marched in a protest, put up a poster, signed a petition, voted for a peace candidate, or just griped to their neighbors can take pride in being part of that success."
Rossiter said his strong anti-war beliefs have not become an issue in his congressional campaign. In fact, he has received a $1,000 campaign contribution from Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Muller and Rossiter -- founder of a group called Demilitarization for Democracy -- worked together on the campaign for an international ban on land mines.
Rossiter said he hopes to be appointed to the Veterans Affairs Committee if he wins election to the House, and said he'll do far more than Houghton to ensure the 31st Congressional District's veterans get the federal help they need. In particular, he rages against the cuts at the Bath Veterans Administration Hospital, which has shrunk from 1,000 beds to 480 in recent years.
In addition, Rossiter said, his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to keep arms away from dictators should not be taken as a sign that he's anti-military. For example, he supported the deployment of troops to the Persian Gulf after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait. And while he thinks President Bush attacked Iraq more quickly then necessary, he added that "I think the terrible mistake was that once we went to war, we didn't destroy Saddam Hussein's ability to make war."
While the Vietnam War has been over for 23 years, Rossiter said in his book that it remains a defining experience of his life.
Another defining experience, he said, was his father's suicide. When Caleb Rossiter was 18, he found his father, Clinton Rossiter, dead in a corner of the family basement. The elder Rossiter had swallowed a combination of barbiturates and other drugs.
The world knew Clinton Rossiter as a renowned and oft-quoted political historian at Cornell. In researching his book, Caleb Rossiter came to know his father as a strong man who lost a 20-year battle with clinical depression.
That explains Clinton Rossiter's sudden rages, which included an attack on his own young son Caleb, "hitting me square across the forehead with all his might" with Caleb's guitar.
Caleb Rossiter said that for years, he thought that his own rebellious actions might have played a role in his father's suicide. After all, the young Rossiter acknowledged that he drank heavily in his teen years and "felt drawn to theft and damage like a moth to a flame," stealing bicycles from homes and stereo equipment from fraternity houses.
But after asking his mother about the details of his father's death, he discovered the elder Rossiter left a suicide note in which he acknowledged he had "the death wish for years."
That research "put me back in touch and much more in love with my father than anything else that had happened in 25 years," Rossiter said.
Calling his mother, Mary Ellen, "the hero of the book" for keeping the family together in spite of his father's illness, Rossiter acknowledged that his father's death changed him irrevocably.
"The anger blew out of me with my father's death," he said.
Rossiter said he does not expect to be damaged by being honest about his troubled youth.
"I've always felt the best way to handle any situation is to be honest," he said. ". . . Americans like it when you say what happened straightforwardly. That's a good thing about us."