Obama Juvenilia Popping Up All Over
By Robin Shulman
Few people want to be judged in later life by what they did and said in college. But when someone is about to become president of the United States, his juvenilia, when it surfaces, is immediately combed in full public view for clues about the man he has become.
This week, it was a Barack Obama's 1983 foray into journalism that came to light, a piece about the campus antiwar movement published in a Columbia University newspaper, The Sundial. Interesting in and of itself, it's just one of a series of pieces of Obama's past to surface recently that spotlight the political development Obama himself has charted in two memoirs, "Dreams From My Father," and "The Audacity of Hope."
These new items add to the picture of the young Obama, first as a student at Occidental College in California, then as a transfer student at Columbia University in New York, and then as an ambitious, newly married man who spoke in support of gay marriage (in a 1996 questionnaire for a gay and lesbian newspaper that was recently rediscovered) and about his own relationship with Michelle Obama (for a never-published book on American couples in an interview just published in Le Monde).
The trickle of juvenilia started soon after the election. In December, Time Magazine published a series of portraits of Obama from 1980. The photos were taken by Lisa Jack, a fellow student at Occidental, and show a sweet and slightly sly Obama posing with a cigarette and a Panama hat. Jack remembered him as "cute," with a charisma already apparent.
Then Obama's Occidental friend, Eric Moore, gave an interview to California's Gold, a public television series, about Obama during college. Moore said he asked Obama, "What kind of name is Barry Obama? For a brother, you know, it's very unusual." Obama said he was the child of a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, and his given name was Barack. "I told him, 'Barack is a strong name....you should rock Barack,'" said Moore.
Obama first gained political awareness while at Occidental, he wrote in "Dreams From My Father." He took philosophy classes. He joined a student campaign to push the college to divest from apartheid South Africa. He gave one particularly powerful speech urging divestment. "I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted," he wrote.
By the time he transferred to Columbia to pursue a political science degree, he was engaged with issues. Obama told Columbia College Today, an alumni magazine, that he was somewhat involved with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-apartheid activities.
His article in The Sundial is a warm analysis of Students Against Militarism and Arms Race Alternatives, two campus groups, for The Sundial, a now defunct campus paper. It includes the stuff of journalism -- facts and quotes and historical context. But it also presents a sense of the early -- and earnest -- Obama.
He wonders whether increased student interest in the antiwar movement comes from young people's tendency to latch on to "the latest 'happenings,'" or from "growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust."
He quotes reggae star Peter Tosh singing "everybody's asking for peace, but nobody's asking for justice." Obama responds, "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."
Written just months before he graduated, Obama's article in The Sundial describes "military-industrial interests" that "keep adding to their billion-dollar erector sets."
He describes war as a "spectacular experience," adding, "There are some things we shouldn't have to live through in order to want to avoid the experience."
The title of the piece was one that might seem familiar to followers of his campaign, more than 20 years later: "Breaking the War Mentality."
Posted at 4:23 PM ET on Jan 15, 2009
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