President Barack Obama's love of secrecy has, by this point, become a favorite rhetorical cudgel for the President's opponents. And perhaps no set of documents is more coveted due to its total unavailability than the President's college records. These documents have sparked all sorts of conspiracy theories.
To be fair, Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, didn't release his college records either. Those only became public after a leak from inside Yale University, not due to any consent on the part of the former President. All the same, Obama's time at Columbia is filled with gaps, such as the question of whether his classmates really knew him, or the issue of his missing thesis, et cetera. At times, it is enough to make you wonder just what we do know about President Obama's college years, hence the rush to speculate among those who oppose the president. If only there were something we knew, these seekers of truth cry.
Well, look no further. Below are five facts regarding Obama's college years at Columbia, that are a starting point for the discussion.
#5. Barack Obama Did Attend Columbia University
This one is pretty much beyond dispute. Two of Obama's former roommates, Sohale Siddiqi and Phil Boerner (the latter of whom was also an Occidental transfer) substantiate it, along with one of Obama's former professors, Michael L. Baron (about whom more later). Politifact also uncovered and spoke to another alumna of Columbia who remembered Obama:
Cathie Currie, who currently teaches social psychology at Adelphi University, recalled Obama joining her group occasionally to play pick-up soccer games on the lawn outside the library. She was a graduate student at the time, and Obama was an undergrad.
He was a good soccer player, she said, even though basketball was his primary athletic passion. Obama also made an impression with his maturity and wisdom, she said. He talked about things like government for all the people, she said. In fact, Currie assumed because of Obama's heady conversation that he was a graduate student as well.
Currie isn't surprised that he was not widely-remembered by fellow Columbia classmates. "My sense of it was that he was keeping a low profile," Currie said.
He seemed like someone who had made a decision to prioritize his studies, she said. "We'd ask him to go out with us for beers after soccer," she said. "He seemed like he wanted to, but then he'd step back and say, 'Sorry, I'm going to the library.'"
Moreover, Columbia was advertising President Obama's status as a Columbia alum as early as 2005, before his run for the Presidency was even being talked up. He also is listed in the Columbia University Student Directory from the 1982-1983 school year.
Finally, one of the few pieces of Obama's writing we have found from that period is an article in the Columbia Sundial, a now defunct weekly magazine, on nuclear disarmament dated March 10, 1983. If Obama was not attending the school, it is very unlikely that he would have bothered reading its publications, much less write an article for one of them.
#4. Barack Obama moved addresses while at Columbia
Two addresses are listed for Obama during his time in New York, one of which he shared with his aforementioned roommate Phil Boerner. The apartment Obama shared with Boerner is listed as Apartment 3E, located at 142 West 109th St, in New York.
Barack has said that he spent a lot of time in the library while at Columbia and one reason for this was that our apartment had irregular heat, and we didn’t enjoy hanging out there once the weather got cold. The radiators in our apartment were either stone cold, or, less often, blasted out such intense heat that we had to open the windows and let in freezing air just to cool things down. When the heat wasn’t on, we sometimes sat with sleeping bags or blankets wrapped around ourselves and read our school books. We also didn’t have regular hot water and sometimes used the Columbia gym for showers.
He later moved to Apartment 6A at 339 East 94th St, where he spent his senior year, according to the Times, which also noted that telephone directories from the early 1980s listed “B. Obama” at 339 East 94th Street. This address also features in Obama's memoir in which he writes about chatting with his Puerto Rican neighbors about the Knicks or gunshots they had heard in the neighborhood.
#3. Obama's classmates didn't see him as the type to become President
Obama's behavior at college wasn't exactly what one would expect from a future President of the United States.Two different acquaintances of Obama's speak to his introverted, eccentric and sensitive character - a far cry from the sort of gregarious bombast one expects from Presidential candidates. First, from Phil Boerner's essay on Obama:
Barack wasn’t thinking about becoming President when he was in college; he wanted to be a writer. Barack is a good man — some might even call him a saint for tolerating my beginning banjo playing. Based on my six years of knowing him in college and the years immediately after, I can vouch that Barack is a man of character, and I trust him to do the right things when he is President.
And from a 2008 Associated Press story:
Andrew Roth knew Obama at Occidental and in New York. He speaks bluntly: "The thought, believe me, never crossed my mind that he would be our first black president."
And yet, here he is, on the brink of the Democratic nomination. And he's gotten there with the help of some of those friends from so long ago.
None of this is to say that Obama wasn't political. As later points will show, he was that in spades. But Presidential material? Perhaps tellingly, few if any saw the White House in his cards.
#2. Obama was a strong supporter of nuclear disarmament
Remember Michael Baron, the Columbia professor who remembers Obama and corroborates his time at Columbia? Well, Prof. Baron seems to remember more than just President Obama's presence in his courses. Apparently, the future president was quite the foreign policy buff and earned a solid A from Baron. Moreover, Obama is alleged to have written a lengthy "thesis" paper under Baron's supervision - a thesis which is itself the subject of speculation, since there is no copy of it on file. Indeed, Baron has apparently been frantically searching his own personal files trying to find a copy.
What Baron does remember is the topic of the paper, which, when combined with over evidence, tells us quite a bit about college-age Obama's particular academic interests and beliefs:
His former professor, Michael Baron, recalled in an interview with NBC News that Obama easily aced the year-long class. Baron described the paper as a "thesis" or "senior thesis" in several interviews, and said that Obama spent a year working on it. Baron recalls that the topic was nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union.
"My recollection is that the paper was an analysis of the evolution of the arms reduction negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States," Baron said in an e-mail. "At that time, a hot topic in foreign policy circles was finding a way in which each country could safely reduce the large arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at the other … For U.S. policy makers in both political parties, the aim was not disarmament, but achieving deep reductions in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and keeping a substantial and permanent American advantage. As I remember it, the paper was about those negotiations, their tactics and chances for success. Barack got an A."
Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama's critics. "The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made," he said. "None of the papers in the class were controversial."
Fortunately for Baron, a more polemic and controversial piece of writing by President Obama does survive - namely, the aforementioned article he wrote in the Columbia Sundial magazine.
Human Events summarized the article fairly accurately this way:
Obama deems the Reagan era defense buildup a “distorted priority” and “dead end track.”
Writing in the midst of the Cold War, Obama was nevertheless oblivious to the threat the Soviet Union then posed to the United States. Indeed, he does not even mention the Soviet Union in his article. Instead, Obama blames — you guessed it — America and its “twisted” world view for the “growing threat of war.”
If only Americans would change their thinking, he argues, the threat would subside. Give re-education a chance.
“Most students at Columbia do not have first hand knowledge of war,” he begins. “Military violence has been a vicarious experience, channeled into our minds through television film, and print . . . We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experiences down into our hearts and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.”
That’s why campus peaceniks are so important. “Two groups on campus, Arms Race Alternatives (ARA) and Students Against Militarism (SAM) work within these mental limits to foster awareness and practical action necessary to counter the growing threat of war. Though the emphasis of the two groups differ, they share an aversion to current government policy.
“These groups, visualizing the possibilities of destruction and grasping the tendencies of distorted national priorities, are throwing their weight into shifting America off the dead end track.”[...]
For Obama, the only thing wrong with the nuclear freeze movement is that it’s not ambitious enough. One “is forced to wonder whether disarmament or arms control issues, severed from economic and political issues, might be another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem instead of the disease itself.
Based on this description, it's fair to conclude that Obama was a supporter of nuclear disarmament and a critic of the Reagan-era Defense buildup. Indeed, Obama sounds almost like a 60's draft dodger in places of the piece, comparing student groups that are opposed to selective service registration to antiwar thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman. Grandiose stuff, and also consistent with the President's love of high flown rhetoric.
#1. Obama attended at least one socialist conference while at Columbia
The evidence for this one comes straight from the horse's mouth - namely, Obama himself. On page 122 of "Dreams From My Father," one discovers this passage (emphasis added):
Political discussions, the kind that at Occidental had once seemed so intense and purposeful, came to take on the flavor of the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union or the African cultural fairs that took place in Harlem and Brooklyn during the summers -- a few of the many diversions New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film, or ice-skating at Rockefeller Center.
This is a quite candid admission by Obama, not least of all because it doesn't appear to be him stretching the truth at all, unlike with other passages in his memoir. The New York Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) did, indeed, hold a conference at the architecture school Cooper Union in April of 1983, when Obama was still a senior. National Review contributor Stanley Kurtz, in his book "Radical In Chief," documents there being precisely no such other events held by the DSA, and fingers Obama's name on a DSA mailing list, as well as other material that suggests Obama preregistered for another such event. Obama's specifically named venue lends credence to the idea that he attended the 1983 Socialist Scholars' Conference. To quote Kurtz:
Evidence strongly indicates that Cooper Union was not a regular location for socialist conferences, but was, on the contrary, a onetime venue. It was chosen as a site to attempt to revive the lapsed tradition of Socialist Scholars Conferences because of the Marx centennial, and its success led to a series of smaller socialist speaking events at CUNY Graduate Center, and full-scale socialist conferences at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Given all this, Obama's reference to "socialist conferences" at Cooper Union surely means that we can reliably place him at the April 1983 Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference.
It should be noted that none of this is to imply that Obama holds the same views now that he held in college. Many people mature past their collegiate political views, though Kurtz's book argues that Obama has not done so.
However, given that the President's ideology did incline this way back then (even if it doesn't anymore), then one can see where the Obama campaign might want to avoid further scrutiny of Obama's time in college, since it would bolster (however unfairly) the narrative that the President is a dyed-in-the-wool Left wing radical. As Newsrealblog puts it:
The conferences in question were presented by the Democratic Socialists of America, self-described as the largest socialist organization in the country. Though there’s no specific mention or evidence of Obama attending any of these conferences, Kurtz has found Obama’s name on the organization’s conference mailing lists from that time frame. Kurtz also draws a conclusion that since the 1983 conference, timed with the anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, was practically a who’s-who of the American far Left, Obama would no doubt have been there.
At these conferences, Obama is certain to have had exposure to some scholars and philosophers who would influence his life in extremely consequential ways. The conferences featured speakers like Frances Fox Piven, whose strategy for collapsing capitalism made her a darling of the Left, and James Cone, who devised the notion of Black Liberation Theology.
The conferences also featured workshops like “Poverty In America,” “Social Issues,” “Black Theology and Marxist Thought,” “Race and Class in Marxism,” and “The Case For Transitional Reform.” (Yep, the conferences sure sound like a great way to spend time in New York.) Many of these workshops centered around the concepts of Alinskyite community organizing and working from within the system to push the political direction of the country toward the Left, to socialism.
How many more articles like that could be written if Obama's college transcripts showed him regularly taking courses on this kind of material, or even one or two? Even one such article, however flimsy its substance, is probably too many for the Obama campaign.
Nevertheless, Obama's time at Columbia is not a complete cipher. More information is desirable, to be sure, but the rush to find out more should not obscure the interesting elements of what we already know.
With reporting by George Thomas.