Another interpretation of Obama at Columbia
[Update: an intrepid UR reader behind the firewall managed to track down a few papers by Michael Baron, the seminar teacher who claimed to remember Obama. Baron, who got his PhD from Columbia in 1980 and left academia shortly thereafter, seems to have been a specialist in China, and his views seem to follow the liberal rather than Maoist/Chomsky/SDS line. To my mind, this makes it considerably less probable that he’s a shill and considerably more probable that Obama’s wallflower story is true. Activists are pretty strict about ideological discipline, or at least were in those days. And see also my last comment.]
This one is less incendiary, but probably more realistic. It is in response to the suggestion of free_thinker in the previous comments.
Perhaps Obama, as an activist at Columbia, was a little like a football player on scholarship. He is not ever seen in class, because he is not ever in class. It is generally understood, at least among the staff, that he has other things to be doing. And it might even be that someone else is doing his homework.
In other words, he might have been an intern/catamite/etc in some parallel, opaque world of activist politics. The goal is to have a capable young man for a couple of years who will do all kinds of odd jobs for you, while in exchange receiving a Columbia degree.
Note the extreme reticence, for example, in the interviews of people like the chairman of Obama’s political-science department, Professor Chalmers. He says as little as possible. He says: “I don’t remember Obama.” He doesn’t say: “I don’t remember Obama! Now isn’t that interesting? I suppose he must have been there at the time! Now isn’t that odd? Why don’t I call up some of my old colleagues, and see if they remember the 6’2 mulatto with the Afro, who was such a promising young man and is now the leading candidate for president? Why, how odd!”
Wouldn’t you like to have that discussion? As Carlyle likes to put it, Satan’s Invisible World Displayed…
What I think is going on is that, in 1968, there were three classes of professor: those who were willing to tussle with the activists, those who were neutral, and those who were on the activists’ side. Obviously, the activists won. The first class was purged, the second was tolerated, and the third was promoted. Today, being with the Movement is basically a requirement for advancing one’s career in any nonmathematical academic field. I suspect it is increasingly helpful (perhaps in the form of increased funding to “green” subjects) in science and engineering.
Therefore, Chalmers is like a professor at a state college who is caught between the football coach, the dean of arts and sciences, and the local capital’s muckraking correspondent. He doesn’t want to lie and say the kid was in his class, but he doesn’t exactly want to make a big fuss about the issue, either. If the press is in its full carnivorous attack mode, anything goes, including him. If not, he’s not going to go around dripping blood in the water.
So I am confident that Obama was working for something when he was in NY in 81–83. And whatever that something is, it (a) has some pull with the Columbia political science department, and (b) doesn’t want this story to become news. And I am pretty confident that something relates, in some sense or part, to the New York radical community. Wouldn’t you say this might be a bit larger, more stratified, complex and socially elite than, say, the local bowling club, Renne Faire, or what have you?
Because I am 100% sure that if Barack Obama was in a bunch of political-science classes at Columbia in 1981–83, he would have been widely noticed and remembered. If only because of his unusual name and unusual looks. A poli-sci program is not a civil-engineering department: it attracts people who are interested in people. And a Barack Obama who was not interested in school would not have gotten good grades—as I suspect he didn’t at Occidental, either, where he is remembered as a party animal and soi-disant revolutionary. Not exactly the invisible man, in other words.
If the picture at Zombie’s is accurate, there were at most, say, 40 black students per class at Columbia in the early ’80s. Each one of these individuals either knows Barack or doesn’t. Ted Rall says he saw Barack going in and out of the BSO occasionally, and that’s our best observation of Obama at Columbia. I repeat: each of these people remembers Barack or doesn’t. If they do, why aren’t they talking? If they don’t, how can a black student community of 40 possibly fail to notice a new black face on campus?
And, while I am convinced that Senator Obama is talented, I am not convinced that he is talented enough to get a political-science degree from Columbia without ever coming to class. Especially not since he was such a star student in Michael Baron’s class—whose other six members, not counting Michael Wolf, also have ample opportunity to tell their stories, and dismiss this scurrilous smear. (Is there a way to submit a smear to Fight the Smears? Please help, Mr. Smears! Tell me all about these bad thoughts I’ve been thinking about our dear President-to-be, Senator Obama.)
Update: there are a lot of good comments, but here is one that adds some detail:
So if he did attend Columbia College at Columbia University, he would have taken the 4 Core Curriculum seminars, and there would have been a total of roughly 50 other students who sat with Barack Obama in small, discussion heavy seminars in which the articulate Barack Obama is likely to have been the only black student. And he would have spent two full semesters with half these students for about 4 hours a week.
The only 6’2" Afro sporting, well spoken, East African featured, unusually named, black student.
I find it highly unlikely that nobody out of this pool of seminar classmates would remember him.
It’s a very small subset out of the larger class, but if he was a loner and monk as he describes himself, living off campus and not participating in clubs/orgs/social scene at Columbia, these people would most likely have the greatest contact with him and remember him.
Also the two year long seminars Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civ are taken during Freshman and Sophomore years, respectively. As a transfer, Barack would have either taken both of these during his Junior year, or Lit Hum during his Junior year and Cont. Civ during his Senior year, or both during his Senior year (least likely; Columbia usually pressures transfers to get started on the Core ASAP). This means his seminar classmates would not be members of the class of ’83, but of ’85, and/or ’84, possibly ’86.
I like the theory that the press should have pursued the classes of ’84 and ’85, not ’83, because Obama would have been taking the core curriculum as a transfer. While not hugely compelling (surely Wayne Allyn Root’s social network extends downward, for instance), it is by far the most innocuous explanation I can find.
I think the theory that Obama transferred to General Studies, not Columbia College, can be ruled out. The Columbia spokesman said Columbia College, and he knows the difference.
(He also mentions, or seems to mention—the Sun correspondent is not quite clear on the source—the mysterious graduation-ceremony brochure. Which, once one gets suspicious, seems like a very odd bit of corroborating evidence. Not the sort of thing one would mention if one was completely sure about the matter. Can we imagine a Naval Academy spokesman bothering to confirm that McCain was mentioned in the graduation brochure?)
Also, could we please have no further discussion of Lee Harvey Oswald on this thread? I may be a nut, or even a tar baby, but I’m not that kind of a nut. (And, as a racist, talk of “tar babies” makes me a little nervous. What is a tar baby, anyway? Is it what I think it is?)
And for comparative purposes, here is the LA Times on Obama at Occidental. This is the kind of story a reporter gets when he tries to track down someone who actually did go to the college he says he went to. The difference is quite conspicuous, I’d say.