Obama's Back Story

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and the author of Barack Obama: The Story, looks at President Obama's early years and how his childhood and youth influenced his presidency.

→ Event: Join David Maraniss at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street & Broadway on Wednesday June 20 at 7:00 PM.


David Maraniss

Comments [35]

Jeremy from Manhattan

I attended Columbia as an undergraduate during some of the same years as Obama. Plus, I was a Political Science major, as he was. But I have no recollection of meeting him, nor do any of my college friends. I thought David Maraniss was more than a little disingenuous when describing the school and the Morningside Heights neighborhood of the early 1980s. Was the crime rate high? Yes, but it was all over the city. I worked at the Columbia Spectator student newspaper and know the guy who wrote the story about the cockroach crawling into the ear of his roommate. However, again, it's not as if New York apartments have suddenly become rid of cockroaches today. The quote about this happening all the time was from the St. Lukes Hospital ER doctor, who wasn't referring to Columbia students exclusively, but to the fact that they see people with cockroaches in their ears more frequently than any of us might like to think about. We did report on some Freshmen who found a rug rolled up in a dumpster on 114th Street and brought it up to their dorm room only to find a dead body in it. The story went national, and for years whenever I'd mention I went to Columbia, people would say, "Is that the dead body in the rug school?" When I edited Spectator that summer, we reported on another dead body found in a garbage can on Morningside Drive. Police surmised neither body had likely been murdered on the Heights, but somewhere else. The bodies had been dumped in the Heights, they said, because it was a quiet neighborhood where suspicious activity goes unnoticed. As for the senior thesis issue, there may not have been a general requirement for a thesis, but there was for PoliSci majors. We had thesis seminars in our senior year. As for whether or not Obama made Deans List, and what the GPA was necessary to make the list, that should be relatively easy for a reporter to find out. Why are we guessing about any of these statistics surrounding Obama's academic record? One last thing about Columbia in the 1980s: it was an incredibly competitive school. It was not the kind of school you could party your way through. The undergraduates were taught by full, tenured professors who were also teaching graduate courses at the same time and, too often, held the undergraduates to the same standard as their graduate students. We used to joke that the difference between a B+ and an A at Columbia was doing twice the amount of work. Professors like Zbigniew Brzezinski were not in the habit of inflating grades. Columbia College had a robust core curriculum (most of the other Ivies had jettisoned their core, or weakened it substantially, in the 1970s), requiring students to read through many of the classics from Western canon using original sources (not textbooks) and write lengthy research papers. It was a curriculum designed to teach students how to think through difficult problems. In Obama's case, I'd say it worked.

Jun. 20 2012 04:40 PM
clive betters

the first caller is a buffoon !

Jun. 20 2012 01:14 AM

Alana Casanova-Burgess~

I'd like to apologize for my comment suggesting that Martin CheezleWhiz was again, demonstrating his irrepressible prejudice toward folks of a different color or religion than himself.

Despite the fact that it was accurate.

Jun. 19 2012 12:17 PM

Sheldon from Brooklyn~

Yes, every Kibbutzer!! Or, the IDF!!

Jun. 19 2012 12:10 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Hmm - so, any kid that spent his summers in a Kibbutz, or his formative years attending a "religious" school - should have his loyalty to the USA and his world-view questioned? Interesting...

Jun. 19 2012 11:51 AM
Alana Casanova-Burgess

A reminder to keep your comments and conversations on civil and relevant to the segment topic. Thanks!

Jun. 19 2012 11:46 AM



Jun. 19 2012 11:38 AM

john from office~

REAL nutz!

Jun. 19 2012 11:37 AM
The Truth from Becky

Here is what you need to ask yourself..."Why am I not the President, could this be the reason for my envy and hatred?"

Jun. 19 2012 11:29 AM

Ed from Larchmont~

Are Catholics so against abortion because priests anticipate a future with a potential shortage of young boys to sexually abuse??

Jun. 19 2012 11:27 AM
The Truth from Becky

U R Invisible, hiding behind the fake name.

Jun. 19 2012 11:27 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Ha ha - There is one standard for rich white men, another for everyone else.

Bush waltzed through Yale in a booze filled bubble of privileged mediocrity - no worries.

But Obama's narrative has to be deconstructed like a lab rat:

How did this guy get into an Ivy League school (without affirmative action?)

Did he study secretly Marxism?

Did he get his post-colonialist "radicalism" form his "African" father?

Where is his birth certificate?

Oh..and yes - he hired a "black" attorney general to "fit in" with the African- Americans. Ridiculous

Jun. 19 2012 11:27 AM
Karen from NYC

@MC -- I'm also a Columbia alum, grad school and law school (and an Obama supporter). These comments re the transcript/major are so lame; nobody gets into HLS with crappy grades, and you're right that there is no (or wasn't during Obama's years) senior thesis requirement at Columbia. The noisy Right's idea of the ivy league is to the real ivy league as Houses of the Rich and Famous is to Beekman Place.

Jun. 19 2012 11:26 AM

Sooooooooo...if you have Pakistani friends that means you have an automatic connection to terrorist - please do not make me throw up! The Bush family had very close connections with the bin Ladens. Please stop with this nonsense. Barack Obama is a very decent man. Too bad some Americans equate patriotism with being White only. Black people have been very loyal, TOO loyal to America.

Jun. 19 2012 11:26 AM
john from office

Wow, Obama brings out all the nuts. He is an American success story, the end.

To think he was picked as a young child to become president is out of this world.

Jun. 19 2012 11:24 AM
Ed from Larchmont

What in his background makes him so radically pro-abortion, more than almost anyone else?

Jun. 19 2012 11:23 AM
Karen from NYC

I was a grad student at Columbia in the early eighties, also a preceptor (graduate student instructor); I also participated in, e.g., a 3 week long divestment sit-in run by the BSO. Although I knew most of the BSO members and other politically involved faculty and students at Columbia during that period, I neither met nor heard talk of a Barack Obama. Had he been politically active during those years, Obama would have been involved in the divestment blockade -- everyone else was.

Wrote about Marx! Ha -- I teach Marx. Guess I'd better not run for political office.

Jun. 19 2012 11:21 AM
Michael from Manhattan

Commenters/callers with thinly-veiled contempt for Obama and questions about his academic record would do well to insert the name "Bush" in their questions and ask themselves whether those questions were asked -- much less answered -- when GWB was running on his thoroughly-scrubbed military/academic record.

Jun. 19 2012 11:19 AM
The Truth from Becky

The caller: "I did not have a lot of African American friends, my friends, roommates cousin brought Barry to a huge party, and I didn't have any African American friends..ohh you people are insulting and ignorant at the same time.

Jun. 19 2012 11:19 AM
bernie from bklyn

@phil the and everyone like you need to move on or stay quiet and go hide away in your mother's basement....thesis paper on marxism? enough already!
this man is the president of the united states...he didn't trick anyone to get to this point. he deserves the respect that comes with the office and he's not getting it. the only conclusion that can be drawn is that some people just can't get over the fact that they have a black president. pure, total racism.
of course, you can disagree with his policies but the disrespect directed towards this man is shameful and un-american.

Jun. 19 2012 11:18 AM

How could Barak Obama have had a 3.7 average at Columbia, and yet never have made the deans list even once. In those days it took a 3.33 average to make the deans list. This, BTW would be a matter of public record. Its much more likely that Obamam had a 2.7 average or less.

Jun. 19 2012 11:18 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Psychologists note that the ages between 6 and 10 are when young boys imprint on the culture around them....who are the heroes that they want to be (fireman, astronaut), the ideas of good and bad, and group cultural affinities (patriotism, and who the bad guys are).

Obama spent those years in an Indonesian Muslim community (apologists are careful to call it "multicultural") and in a school run by the Raden Saleh Foundation. These imprint years probably explains his statement to NYT's Nicholas Kristoff that the call to prayer from a muezzin in a minaret is the "prettiest sound on earth."

Does Maraniss or any caller know the level of animus toward Israel and Jews among Indonesian Muslims from 1967 through 1971?? What unconscious predjudice could young Barack have 9 year old white old boys in the Old South?

Jun. 19 2012 11:17 AM
The Truth from Becky

David, you are alternating between using Black and African American which clearly you are not comfortable using, I am waiting for the N word to pop out of your mouth.

Jun. 19 2012 11:16 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

BECKY....yawn...we are all ready for your usual regression to "racism".
I'll do it for you ..."You are all racists!"
Sorry that you are so psychologically traumatized by being black.

Jun. 19 2012 11:16 AM

@Dorothy from Manhattan - who cares! if the guest doesn't mind why would you? get over it.

Jun. 19 2012 11:15 AM
MC from Manhattan

You don't write a senior thesis at Columbia . I am a CC alumni . YOu don't get into Harvard Law with a half assed transcript... I went to grad school at Columbia when Obama was there. Only someone that has no idea about what it takes to go to an ivy league grad program, would suggest otherwise you know ... people like Donald Chump

Jun. 19 2012 11:15 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Okay, Columbia University IS in Harlem.

Jun. 19 2012 11:15 AM

Who cares what his grades were? If Bush was an A student, would that change your opinion about him? If FDR was an A student instead of a C student, would that change your opinion about him?

Jun. 19 2012 11:14 AM

This last caller is hilarious: "his grades", "marxism"?! Hello! he is a student and when you go to college you get good, bad, really good, and everything in between grades! Also, of course you HAVE TO write papers about the theories on Political Science and that in OBVIOUSLY included Marx.

Jun. 19 2012 11:14 AM
The Truth from Becky

You people are clearly obsessed, some negatively, with the President's life, is it the bi-racial element that intrigues you?

Jun. 19 2012 11:12 AM
The Truth from Becky

Who are your David to tell someone else's story? Some people have a superiority complex.

Jun. 19 2012 11:11 AM
oscar from ny

Like the prophet daniel said ....that at the end of times the obamanation that causes desolation...

Jun. 19 2012 10:53 AM
Linda from Jersey Shore

@Dorothy from Manhattan, amazed and appalled? WOW. I save amazement and appalled for bigger things in life.

Jun. 19 2012 10:25 AM
Dorothy from Manhattan

Before you introduce him, learn to pronounce his name -- accent on the first syllable. I'm amazed (and appalled) by how many names WNYC (not necessarily, or usually, Brian personally) WNYC misprounces.

Jun. 19 2012 10:04 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan


A great Washington Post story last week built on excerpts from Maraniss's book. (link below)

(And we're all the worse off for his identity confusion.....his need to "become" things and to "prove" his allegiances. Look no further than his Justice Department.)

“I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference, and scorn.”
Still true, still understandable.

Jun. 19 2012 08:57 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.