September 11, 2008
Barack Obama makes his first campaign visit today to his alma mater, Columbia University. Just don't ask the prolific self-diarist to talk about his undergraduate days in Morningside Heights.
The Columbia years are a hole in the sprawling Obama hagiography. In his two published memoirs, the 47-year-old Democratic nominee barely mentions his experience there. He refuses to answer questions about Columbia and New York -- which, in this media age, serves only to raise more of them. Why not release his Columbia transcript? Why has his senior essay gone missing?
Now in our view, the college years shouldn't normally be used to judge a politician's fitness for office. We're not sure the transcripts of Al Gore, John Kerry and George W. Bush -- which showed them to be C students -- illuminated much for voters. The McCain campaign won't release his records, but we know he graduated at the bottom of his Naval Academy class.
But Mr. Obama is a case apart. His personal story, as told by him, made possible his rise from obscurity four years ago to possibly the White House. He doesn't have a long track record in government. We mainly have him in his own words. As any autobiographer, Mr. Obama played up certain chapters in his life -- perhaps even exaggerating his drug use in adolescence to drive home his theme of youthful alienation -- and ignored others. What's more, as acknowledged in "Dreams From My Father," Mr. Obama reconstructed conversations and gave some people pseudonyms or created "composite" characters.
Voters and the media are now exercising due diligence before Election Day, and they are meeting resistance from Mr. Obama in checking his past. Earlier this year, the AP tracked down Mr. Obama's New York-era roommate, "Sadik," in Seattle after the campaign refused to reveal his name. Sohale Siddiqi, his real name, confirmed Mr. Obama's account that he turned serious in New York and "stopped getting high." "We were both very lost," Mr. Siddiqi said. "We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay." For some reason the Obama camp wanted this to stay out of public view.
Such caginess is grist for speculation. Some think his transcript, if released, would reveal Mr. Obama as a mediocre student who benefited from racial preference. Yet he later graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, so he knows how to get good grades. Others speculate about ties to the Black Students Organization, though students active then don't seem to remember him. And on the far reaches of the Web can be found conspiracies about former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who became the candidate's "guru and controller" while at Columbia in the early 1980s. Mr. Brzezinski laughs, and tells us he doesn't "remember meeting him."
What can be said with some certainty is that Mr. Obama lived off campus while at Columbia in 1981-83 and made few friends. Fox News contacted some 400 of his classmates and found no one who remembered him. He had transferred from Occidental College in California after his sophomore year because, he told the Boston Globe in 1990, "I was concerned with urban issues and I wanted to be around more black folks in big cities." He got a degree in political science without honors. "For about two years there, I was just painfully alone and really not focused on anything, except maybe thinking a lot," he told his biographer David Mendell.
Put that way, his time at Columbia sounds unremarkable. Maybe that's what most pains a young memoirist and an ambitious politician who strains to make his life anything but unremarkable.