Within the Family
A Lion in the White House
Congratulations to Barack Obama ’83, who among his firsts is the first College alumnus to win the Presidency. It was a remarkable election for Columbia, with both major party Presidential candidates bearing strong College connections. Obama graduated from the College after transferring from Occidental, and Republican John McCain P’07’s daughter, Meghan, also graduated from the College.
In addition, two alumni ran for Vice President (an office held from 1817–25 by Daniel Tompkins, Class of 1795). Wayne Allyn Root ’83 was the Libertarian Party nominee running with Bob Barr, and Matt Gonzalez ’87 ran on the same ticket as Ralph Nader.
Obama was not the first College alumnus to become a major party candidate for the Presidency. That distinction belongs to DeWitt Clinton (Class of 1786), who was the Federalist Party nominee in 1812 and lost to incumbent James Madison. The Federalist Party, founded by Alexander Hamilton (Class of 1778), who wanted a strong, fiscally sound national government, was considered a major party from 1792–1816.
No discussion of College alumni and the Presidency would be complete without mention of Nicholas Murray Butler (Class of 1882), who was University president from 1902–1945. Butler was the Republican Party nominee for Vice President in 1912; he was added to the ticket headed by incumbent William Howard Taft a few days before the election, after Vice President James S. Sherman died in office. Taft, however, was defeated for reelection by Woodrow Wilson, and Butler returned to Morningside Heights. He remained a prominent figure in Republican politics, but his bids for the Presidential nomination in 1920 and 1928 fell short.
Several readers, including former CCT editor Stephen D. Singer ’64, have asked why we did not provide more extensive coverage of this year’s campaign, and particularly Obama’s groundbreaking run for the Presidency.
I’d like to think we were ahead of the curve when it comes to Obama. We began working on a story about him when he was a state senator in Illinois, immediately after his memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Following his election to the Senate that fall, that profile became our January 2005 cover story, “Is This the New Face of the Democratic Party?” I guess the answer was a resounding yes. You can read that story here.
There are two reasons we have not done any major stories on Obama since then. One is that we are the College’s official magazine, and the University has a policy barring involvement in any political campaign. While I’m comfortable arguing that covering a campaign or a candidate does not represent involvement, the second reason could not be so readily refuted: I don’t believe we could have added anything worthwhile to the discussion. If I felt there was some unique insight we could have provided, I’d have jumped all over it and figured out a way to get it into the magazine. But to do the same Obama profile that now has run in hundreds of commercial publications seemed pointless.
Of course, there’s an obvious angle for us. I’d like nothing better than to run an article along the lines of “Barack Obama: The Columbia Years,” but Obama has said little about his time at Columbia, whether in interviews (including one in 2004 with CCT, when we asked him specifically about that topic several times) or in his autobiography. Obama has said he spent his two years here getting serious about his studies and getting his life in order, but has offered few details. Few classmates or faculty members have even vague recollections of him, and the only evidence of his campus presence I’ve seen is an article he wrote for a campus magazine called Sundial (see the ’83 Class Notes) that an alumnus sent in. He also wrote a nice letter to his 25th reunion class (see ’83 Class Notes, September/October) that was read at a reception in the spring, although he was unable to attend due to the campaign.
It’s not just us — The New York Times had a reporter on campus researching “Obama at Columbia” for several days with little success. The bottom line is that if a subject declines to discuss a topic and research turns up little, it becomes a very short story, or a non-story.
Nevertheless, we are continuing to pursue this angle in hopes that should Obama ever wish to fill in some details about that chapter of his remarkable story, he will do so in our pages.
Careful readers of this magazine will note several changes in our masthead on the facing page.
For the past two years, Rose Kernochan ’82 Barnard was our associate editor, coordinating Class Notes and overseeing several other departments of the magazine, including a revived Columbia Forum. Rose has moved on to pursue interests in the literary field, but we will continue to benefit from her expertise and contacts in her new role as our Forum editor. It was a pleasure having her on our staff, and we look forward to many years of her continued involvement with CCT.
In October we welcomed Ethan Rouen ’04J, who most recently was a crime reporter for the New York Daily News, as our new associate editor. Ethan will write for various sections of the magazine, oversee Class Notes and Bookshelf and also work to improve the online presence of CCT as well as that of the Alumni Office.
In addition, Joy Guo ’11, Grace Laidlaw ’11 and Gordon Chenoweth Sauer ’11 Arts have joined us as editorial assistants. Welcome to all.