A New Look At Obama’s Columbia Years
Written by Bwog Staff
The Bridge, New Yorker Editor David Remnick‘s much-anticipated, 672-page biography on our favorite reluctant alum, Barack Obama, hit stores today. Bwog chatted with Remnick this afternoon about Obama’s years in Morningside. His takeaway: “I think his Columbia years were decisive. In fact, he says so himself at one point: it is the place where he got serious about himself and the world. He led a fairly solitary life in a range of not-great apartments. Not many people remember him because of that…”
Beyond his 2005 interview with Columbia College Today, and his 1983 student magazine article, The Bridge includes a fair amount of previously untold information about Obama’s time at Columbia. Here’s what we learned:
- According to Phil Boerner, Obama’s roommate, friend and fellow transfer, Obama transferred from Occidental to CU because: “we [Boerner and Obama] felt like we were in a groove and we wanted life to be more difficult…Obama used to tell his friends that he wanted to go somewhere where the weather was cold and miserable so that he would be forced to spend his days indoors reading.”
- Obama took a a course on modern fiction with the late fabled Edward Said. He was underwhelmed. Remnick writes, “And yet Said’s theoretical approach left Obama cold. ‘My whole thing, and Barack had a similar view, was that we would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism,’ Boerner said. ‘Said was more interested in the literary theory, which didn’t appeal to Barack or me.’ Obama referred to Said as a ‘flake.'”
- “In his spare time,” Remnick relates, “Obama wandered around the city, taking in Sunday services at Abyssinian Baptist Church, a socialist conference at Cooper Union, African cultural affairs in Brooklyn and Harlem, jazz at the West End. He took long walks and runs in Riverside Park and Central Park. He shopped at the Strand downtown and Papyrus and the other bookstores around the Columbia campus.”
- Obama lived at 142 West 109th and Amsterdam with Boerner. Their monthly rent was $360. Remnick writes that, “the apartment’s charms included spotty heat, irregular hot water, and a railroad-flat layout. They adjusted, using the showers at the Columbia gym and camping out for long hours in Butler library.” Um, POTUS…they’re just like us!
- Obama “…I will tell you that I think I had a hunger to shape the world in some way, to make the world a better place, that was triggered around the time I transferred from Occidental to Columbia…And so there’s this period of time where I move to New York and go to Columbia, where I pull in and wrestle with that stuff, and do a lot of writing and a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and a lot of walking through Central Park. And somehow I emerge on the other side of that ready and eager to take a chance in what is a pretty unlikely venture: moving to Chicago and becoming an organizer. So I would say that’s a moment in which I gain a seriousness of purpose that I had lacked before…” So, what’s up class day speaker 2011?