Eric Moore

(Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

(Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

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    Coming of Age

    Let's talk about Occidental as a school. What's it like? What's it look like? What's it known for? What's its reputation?

    Occi is a beautiful private liberal arts school nestled in the hills of Los Angeles. It's a very alluring campus. I came because of the attractiveness of the school and sort of the typical California setting that it was in. It's a great academic school, very diverse student population, very stimulating environment, great people, great professors. Really enjoyed it. …

    What was the sort of the mix of the community?

    Occidental was a very small school. I think the student population was about 1,600 students at that time, a small portion of which were African American, maybe 5 or 7 percent. So I think there were 50 of us, 70 of us. And I met Barack, Barry Obama, on campus early on. I was a year ahead of him. But, you know, we became instant friends.

    We seemed to have certain life parallels to that point. And I had lived international; so had he. I was raised by a strong single mother at the time; so was he. And I had just come from an experience working in Kenya, coincidentally, in the Luo region of Kenya, which was the area of his father's birth and his own heritage. …

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    Obama's Core Nature
    From 'Barry' to 'Barack'

    The first time you meet him, where do you meet him? What's he look like? What's his attitude? What kind of guy is he?

    Barack was a great guy on campus. And, you know, I think I'd seen him from a distance for some time, maybe some months. … I had some superficial conversations with him initially. But then, when we connected, we kind of found that we had some things in common, some commonalities in our life. And so we became friends.

    But he was just very gregarious. He was open to intellectual interaction with anyone, you know. He was just a great conversationalist. He would engage you in conversation all the time.

    We had an early conversation when I was curious about where he was from, who he was. The name was intriguing to me. And I asked: "Barry Obama. What kind of name is that for a brother? Where are you from exactly?"

    And he said: "Well, I'm from Hawaii, but my father was Kenyan. And his name was Barack Obama. And I go by Barry so that I don't have to explain my name all the time and go into a long, you know, description or explanation of myself."

    And so I said: "Well, if your name is Barack Obama, I'm going to call you Barack Obama, because I like that name. And I've just spent the summer in Kenya, working in the Luo district, and I know where you're from, and I know what your cultural heritage is. So I'm very proud of that, as should you. And if you don't mind, I'll always call you Barack Obama," which I did.

    And I was one of the first to call him Barack Obama, and one of the only ones at that time, to call him Barack. He always went by Barry Obama on campus, which I believe his father had done as well. His father was, I think, a very distinguished gentleman from the Luo tribe, almost royalty. Having spent time there, I know the sociological structure in some of the societies and the tribes. His father was a village elder, or maybe a chief. I'm not sure. But he worked in the government. And so, you know, he was a prominent gentleman, I'm sure. …

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    When did Barry really become Barack?

    I think when he left Occidental, after two years. One day he told me he was transferring to Columbia. I think it was an established program that Columbia and Occi had, an ability to transfer. But he was going to Columbia after two years.

    And I tried to talk him out of it. I said: "You know, Occi is a great place. Why don't we finish out here?" But he had, I think, a need for more expansive environment, more stimulating urban environment to grow intellectually. So that was his choice. And he went.

    Why? Why do you think he needed that? I mean, some people said he felt kind of trapped in a small pond.

    Well, I equate it to my own experience at Occi. And Occi was a very small pond. And you can be a big fish in a small pond, you know. We were both athletes. I played football and rugby. He played basketball. You can meet everyone in a few months on campus, literally, and you can do the things that you do there. And, you know, the horizon, I think, is very achievable at Occi. And so I had a similar experience, and a lot of people considered transferring from the school, just simply because it's a smaller environment in a much broader world.

    But I think he had a notion that he wanted to move. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii myself, so I understand the concept of island fever. So I think he first of all wanted to get off of the island for that reason, come to L.A. The experience in L.A. was great. You know, we did a lot of things that were very stimulating.

    We had a lot of similar interests, you know -- sports, arts, festivals, cultural events. And we'd go out around town and experience those things together.

    We had a very interesting, diverse group of friends. It was a multicultural -- you know, kind of our own private U.N. I mean, we had friends that were Latino, black, Asian, South Asian, Israeli, French. And it all kind of fed into this cultural experience in a microcosm at Occi. It really enlivened my interest in the world and broadened my horizon and my understanding of people. And certainly that was the case for Barack. …

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    Growing Up Hawaiian
    'He was a surfer, had a big 'fro...'

    So who was the Barry you knew?

    He was a great guy. He was the most casual, unpretentious, nicest guy. I mean, my indelible image of him was always in a Hawaiian shirt and some OP shorts and flip-flops. I don't know that he had a long pair of pants during college. I mean he was such a great guy. …

    How did you know he was Hawaiian? What was the important thing about Hawaii, what his attitude about coming from Hawaii was?

    Well, he told me he had gone to Punahou High School, and there were several students at Occi from Punahou. It was kind of a feeder. I had several friends from Punahou, so I knew of the school. And Occi was, again, an excellent academic school. There's a lot of kids that come from prep school, and Punahou was one of the leading prep schools in Hawaii, but also a very expensive school. I think Obama was a scholarship student there.

    And he was very, I guess, unpretentious, not an elitist, not wealthy. So he didn't come with any of that sort of prep school baggage. But I knew he was more of a local guy in Hawaii. He was a surfer, had a big 'fro in those days, you know, very casual dresser.

    A Hawaiian attitude?

    A Hawaiian-style attitude. You know, just very, very low-key. …

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    Obama worked at the Cooler. The Cooler was a little snack bar on campus. And, I mean, he spent so much time there, I think I have an image of him, you know, carrying coffee cups at the Cooler.

    And it was a place that late night, you know, the only place on campus we could go and get a cup of coffee. And it was an intellectual hangout, sort of like I envision the beat era, where you had people just there to talk and converse and question their ideas and interact with students and professors. It was a great environment, and he spent a lot of time there.

    Why was he drawn to that? …

    I asked him. I said: "Yeah, why are you doing this? Why don't you get a white-collar part-time job?" … And he said: "I like this. I love it here. I love interacting with people." And he was an excellent conversationalist.

    But, you know, he had a very philosophical outlook on life. He was one of the few students you'd see that, along with the books under their arm that were in the syllabus, he always had another book, a novel or some other book that was off the required reading list.

    I just think he was a genius type. He was a true intellectual and just had a real curiosity about the world and people. And he just loved interacting with the diversity that was offered there on campus.

    What kind of conversation would take place at the Cooler? … Was it political discussions or discussions on poetry?

    No, often political. And it was a very charged era. Keep in mind, you know, we were 17,18 years old together, so we were just discovering ourselves, discovering the world. But it was a fairly turbulent time in America, where it was the early '80s. I think Reagan had just been elected. The draft was being reinstated. And it was a highly charged political environment. … And because you had a diverse milieu of people and academic ideas, I think a lot of those came to the fore in the Cooler. You know, that was the crucible of academic and intellectual discussion.

    But he was very progressive, very worldly. I think he had had a broad experience in life, so he was able to bring those ideas. And so did a lot of our friends. So, you know, that interaction was always lively.

    In a discussion, what was the role he played? Was he forceful in his arguments? Was he the moderator?

    Obama was very sensible, always very, I think, measured and able to see both sides of a discussion, which was great. I mean, if you've had a diverse experience in life and interacting with people, I think it gives you the ability to discern other ideas and to accept other ideas and accept a variety of ideas and make your own conclusions. But I recall him always to be a devil's advocate, you know, considering the other side of any question and presenting that to the fore, and, you know, maybe feeding into the discussion further. And he was excellent at that.

    Did he ever talk about his life, for instance, in Indonesia when he was a kid?

    Not much, no. No. I think, you know, our focus was that period in time, in the vacuum of our teenage or late teenage years. But no, we didn't talk so much about Indonesia or his life there. I really didn't know about it until I read his book later on. …

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    Connecting with Obama over his Kenyan heritage

    Did he ever talk about his family, his mom or his dad leaving early? Did any of that stuff ever come up?

    Not really. I knew that he was raised by his mother and not much discussion about his father, except the day that he told me he was Kenyan. And we connected there.

    I don't know that he knew much detail at that point. It was interesting, because he had not been to Kenya in those days. … And the time that I had been there, I mean, I was in the very village where his father -- in the region that he lived and was born around, the Lake Victoria region, Kisumu area of Western Kenya, near Uganda.

    So you start telling him about your trip when you realized that he had Kenyan heritage. And so what was that conversation like? Was he interested in that?

    Very. Oh, yeah.

    What kind of things was he interested in?

    He was excited to the extent that he knew, you know, it was coursing in his blood that he had Kenyan heritage. But he loved the idea that I had been there. So I think, you know, he was as excited as I was.

    And I told him, you know, all African Americans should go to Africa to understand an aspect of their heritage, you know, as if you were taking a pilgrimage to Israel if you were Jewish, or going to Asia if you were Japanese American. I mean, it's just culturally enriching. It's personally enriching. And it gives you -- contributing to that sense of identity. …

    Did he ever talk about his mom in any way, either positive or negative, about what she meant to him?

    Certainly not negatively. And I'm sure his mother was a huge influence in his life, because that compassion, the empathy that I think she preached to him came through. I mean, she was an Anglo woman from Kansas, I believe, but she lived that multicultural, international experience, which I think hones your core beliefs about people. I mean, if you can experience people in their own culture and their own environment, you're going to appreciate them and respect them, you know, naturally and genuinely and sincerely, without being patronizing about a culture. …

    And she exposed him to those things early on. And again, those create the formative values for anybody. …

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    When I met him, President Obama, he was more Hawaiian and Asian and international of his acculturation than certainly he was African American, because he hadn't had an urban African American experience at all. He was very open to, you know, the international cultural influences that were on campus at that time, as was I. And I think it was a very enriching experience.

    On the other side of it, did he have some problems dealing with the African Americans from urban America? … Were there problems, in some way, in connecting with that group on campus?

    Probably to an extent, because Occi was sort of stratified in terms of culture. You did have the cultural cliques, if you will. And there was that African American clique that would sit at a certain table in the cafeteria.

    I was able to straddle both worlds, because I think I had been on campus. I knew most of the people. I played sports. I had close friends in that core African American community as well as outside, and a lot of different circles.

    So it's hard to break into that world. Many local Los Angeles African Americans were not as receptive to the cultural diversity, perhaps. And so I was a link for Barack to that world.

    And we had the same friends. I introduced him to my friends that were sitting at that table, so to speak. So he was able to bridge that cultural gap, you know, the division in the cafeteria, by coming and sitting and meeting that group of friends as well.

    Was there some pushback? I mean, there have been some discussions by some people that … he wasn't black enough or whatever. Was that something that he was dealing with? …

    Well, and I think legitimately so. You are who you are, what you experience. You're a composite of the influences on you. And so it was a new experience for him. And, you know, he was probably a little isolated from that group until he made the attempt to bridge the gap. And yes, there was some pushback from certain individuals that weren't, again, as open-minded to the world who, no matter who you were.

    And so people were trying to figure out who Barack was, at the same time he was trying to figure out who he was. And, you know, once you were able to break down those barriers, he was completely embraced by that group of friends. And, I mean, he had no problem moving effortlessly through the various groups on campus.

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    Obama's search for a black identity

    Talk a little bit, if you could, about that search, though, what he's going through to try to figure out. He talks about it quite a bit, that he's trying to figure out what it means to be African American. Another friend of his said at one point that the only thing he knew about being black was what he saw on television when he lived in Hawaii. And during the period of time from Occidental into New York, he's reading books written by famous black authors. I know he's carrying The Invisible Man around with him a lot. Talk about that search, because I think everybody goes through it, to some extent, him probably more than most.

    Yeah. No, absolutely. And I did have a similar experience. And I think his grasping of the African American experience, or whether his cultural identity was primarily intellectual, in the sense of reading about it and understanding. We both grew up on Soul Train and American Bandstand and the imagery in the media, the very same things that drew us to California in the first place. So that's a once-removed kind of experience.

    But I think his own process of understanding an evolution came from interacting with the people around us and going out around Los Angeles. We would get our hair cut in South L.A., and you'd go to jazz concerts and events in the park.

    You'd see it. You'd ask yourself, what is the urban black experience? Much of it is, you know, both the negative and the positive. And it's a rich cultural experience that you have to experience firsthand.

    So Occidental was sort of an insular oasis in the city. But, you know, we'd have to go out around the city to experience firsthand what it was. …

    In the [David] Maraniss book, he writes to a girlfriend, Alex McNear, at some point when he's in New York -- but it's probably something he's experienced in Occidental as well -- that he's viewed as a black man because he's got black skin. But he felt, as he pointed at that point, as an imposter because he didn't quite fit the skin as of yet. Was that a struggle you saw in him?

    No. I mean, he did not make his personal struggles visible at all. I mean, he was so at ease and poised and mature. You know, he was not self-brooding in any way. But I'm sure that was an experience he was going through internally, to understand what the perception by outsiders were of him. But, you know, I think he was processing all that internally. He didn't have that social insecurity or angst or anything. …

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    What's your take of those photos taken by Lisa Jack?

    That was not Obama in the sense of that's not how he looked or dressed, or that was not in character. I think they were very staged. And they were great photos, I think technically, because she became a very great photographer.

    But it was interesting that years later, when they were released, everyone said, "Wow, President Obama walked around with a fedora on and smoking cigarettes?" So I thought they were a little campy and certainly artistic, but not natural in terms of who he was. I mean, he was the most low-key, unpretentious guy that I know. Again, he looked like a Hawaiian surfer right off the beach.

    The way they have been defined by some people is it was a part of his life where he was kind of trying on different roles. … Does that resonate, do you think?

    No, no. Those were not the roles he was trying for at all. It just so happened at that point, that second in time, he had that attire on.

    But those were very formative years for him. I think he was evolving and understanding and absorbing a lot of influences from people and the professors around us, and the cultural influences. I think he said years later that those years at Occi were very powerful, formative, influential times for him. …

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    Did you used to play basketball with him? And why was that important to him? And what does that say about the Barry that you knew?

    He's a great athlete. He's a good athlete. He played hoops. He was a skinny guy in those days. So I think that was probably the sport he picked up on early on, in high school or what have you. But he was competitive. He played at Punahou. And we had pickup games in the gym at Occidental. And, you know, he may have had what they call a "basketball jones"; he had a hankering for basketball. It was one of his passions. And I think it still is. I mean, he can play. …

    Did the way he played it say anything about him?

    Yeah. I think the way he played was very, very smart, very shrewd, intellectual, making the most of his own abilities -- not his physical, but adroit in other ways, to deal with bigger, taller, meaner, more aggressive opponents. He's got a great outside shot. And he's a leftie, you know. He's a southpaw. So he looked like an unorthodox shot, but it goes in. Yeah, he loved basketball. …

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    Obama's participation in an anti-apartheid protest

    He didn't seem to take on leadership roles over at the school at that point. Was he a guy who sort of seemed to stand up for political beliefs? Was that an important thing to him? Or was he just sort of finding out about himself at that point?

    He was very political, and we were all politically charged at that time, because there were some events going on around the country, on campus. …

    Was he political in the sense of running for office? I don't think he sought any sort of campus political office at all. He wasn't overtly political, trying to win votes or win favor with anyone. He was engaged; he was interested; he was informed. He knew what was going on in the broader world. …

    He took the mic and just had a tremendous presence and an impact in speaking out over the crowd. And I think he sensed from that that he had something to say. So maybe that was one of his first political gestalt moments. He just knew that there was a moment there where he could reach people, and they would listen. And they did. …

    How did that go? So you had talked just before him?

    Yeah, yeah. I spoke prior to him, as did several people. It was a big group, you know. You're public speaking across the campus. It was amplified. And then you had the president of the college and the trustees next to you in the boardroom. So it was a heady moment.

    So he walks up to the microphone. What does he do?

    He has a very compelling, booming voice, as he does today. I don't recall the text of what he said. …

    I'm kind of behind him, looking out, and saying, wow, people were really listening to what he was saying. But I think there was a bit of performance drama, performance play at that moment. And he said a few things. And then some guys in costume, as if they were apartheid policemen, came and drug him off the mic. And that sort of ended the rally then. …

    Did he talk about it beforehand? Did he practice to do this thing?

    No, no, it was all fully spontaneous. No, he didn't have a prepared speech, nor did I or anyone, you know. He just kind of spoke from the heart. And that's what he did.

    Afterward, did you guys talk about the effect at all? It's been written that he sort of felt, you know, in the end, he didn't think he'd accomplished much. It was kind of like childish antics, and he discounted it. Do you remember him talking about it afterward, or what effect he thought something like that had?

    I think it was one of those things that we did, and it was over. And I think we went on to our classes or what have you. And there wasn't a lot of feedback, I recall. You know, people milled around for a while, and then the crowd dispersed. So there was nothing beyond that.

    We thought it was an important thing to do. We had to make that statement. And it was one of several anti-apartheid shows of force by the students. I mean, it led to the divestiture of the college, so I think it worked in the end. They decided to divest. And it was a great thing. It was a great thing.

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    Obama's Core Nature

    So years later, listening to the 2004 speech, for instance, do you think back on these days, thinking, like, "Oh, my God, there was the beginning of what would be"?

    I have to look back and sort of piece together what happened and how we arrived at this point. It's all been very surreal and almost incredible to think that this man, you know, very everyman kind of guy -- I called him the ultimate Horatio Alger story, because he is a self-made guy, came up.

    I flipped on the Democratic National Convention, that speech in 2004, I believe, and I had no idea he'd be speaking. And suddenly, there he was. And I was amazed. And I remember, you know, feverishly calling friends and saying: "Hey, Barry Obama is speaking at the DNC right now. You've got to turn this on." And it was really, really incredible. And he gave an amazing speech, which I recall I frantically turned on my VCR to record it. I probably still have it somewhere. And yeah, it was incredible.

    And from that point back, I said, "Wow, that's my buddy from back in the day with OP shorts on and a Hawaiian shirt, working at the Cooler and smoking a cigarette." …

    And I just think back in that, you know, he didn't have any sort of agenda, no motive, no ulterior power trip. He was just sincere and compassionate. And he loved people. And he had an interest in people.

    I mean, he lives it. He lives it today. I mean, what you see is what you get with President Obama. He's just the guy that you see is truly who he is at his core, which is normal, affable, culturally embracing, you know, just understands people. He understands everyone, and he tries to advocate the interests of everyone. …

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    Have you had much contact with him over the years since?

    I had the pleasure of being with him at the DNC in Denver, which was where I grew up. And I was backstage with him after the speech, the acceptance speech, and in a room of our five or six Occidental friends, and about 40 other huge celebrities, and other senators. And he came to me and gave me a big hug. And I said: "Congratulations. Man, you're on your way."

    And he was just unchanged. He was the same guy I always knew. Everyone else was coming up to him and just, you know, kissing the ring, so to speak. And he was just this larger-than-life person. But the connection we had was as if we were still at Occi and 17, 18 years old together. And he's a truly sincere and genuine person, as he always has been. …

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