Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Augustine 25 Remembers: Face to Face with the Young Barack Obama


As you may know, the girls at Occidental College liked to dress up young men and take their pictures. There are some famous pictures of the young Barack Obama while he was at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA floating on the internet. Posted above, I have the rough equivalent from my own spell at this small liberal arts college. Personally, I was one of the founders of the anti-apartheid group that Obama mentions in his book, Dreams of My Father.

From what Obama writes, I guess I had the unusual opportunity to meet the young Barack Obama at a turning point in his life. According to his book, Dreams of My Father, Obama got one of the early signs of his interest (and ability) in public speaking during his participation in an anti-apartheid rally at Occidental College in Los Angeles in the fall of 1980.

I had graduated from Occidental College in 1979.

I met him later that same year in late December 1980. At the time, I was in my second year of graduate school at Cornell. I was visiting a girlfriend who was still attending Occidental College who introduced me to him and his friend Hassan.

My most vivid memory of my time visiting with Obama was the way he strongly argued a rather simple-minded version of Marxist theory. I remember he was passionate about his point of view. As I remember, he was articulating the same Marxist theory taught by various professors at Occidental College. Based on my more detailed studies at Cornell, I remember I made a strong argument that his Marxist ideas were not in line with contemporary reality - particularly the practical experience of Western Europe.

What is significant to me now, in retrospect, was the way he conceded to my argument. At the time, I remember that this was an early victory in my life...the ability to make a powerful, fact-based argument that changed minds. In retrospect, I don't know if he was just trying to restore peace...my gut feeling is that I persuaded him - at the very least - that his education at Occidental College was not really up-to-date or terribly valuable.

Ironically, he ended up leaving Occidental College and transfering to Columbia University in 1981.

I can identify with those "intellectuals" who report that Obama is easy to talk to and seems to take advice well. I think I was one of the first to see this behavior in action...at least according to the timeline presented about his intellectual development in Dreams of My Father.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. is an award-winning political scientist.

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