He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012. (40:36)
He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.
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Obama's transformation from 'lighthearted, fun-loving' to 'ponderous and dull and lecturing'
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Let's start with the first time you met this young, I guess he was still Barry Obama at that point. Or had he switched over to Barack Obama?
I was introduced to him as Barry.
Tell us about the first time you met him, what he was like.
He seemed very lighthearted, fun-loving. I was introduced to him in San Francisco at a New Year's Eve party, and he greeted me with "Kya haal hai set," which through his friends at Occidental he had picked up some Pakistani words, knew the words. It meant, "How are you, boss?" It was kind of like slang that you would say to each other.
Yeah, so that was at a party in San Francisco. I was visiting his roommate in Los Angeles, Hasan Chandoo, who was also going to Occidental College with him. And after New Year's Eve we drove back from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and I spent a couple of weeks there. It was all party fun, and there seemed to be some political awareness. I remember being taken to a meeting, a kind of a speech, an event with Dick Gregory, which Hasan Chandoo and Barry -- yes, Barry at that time -- who were my hosts. I was living with them at that place.
And other than that, a slightly serious occasion, it was just fun partying, and he seemed completely your stereotypical college kid. I never imagined him in the White House. ...
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- Obama's Search for Identity
Well, let's switch. Let's do a Manhattan thing for a second. In Manhattan, talk about the friends that he surrounded himself in Manhattan with.
In Manhattan it was a much smaller crowd and not as many as when they were students at Occidental. Barack, I guess is what I was calling him by now -- and yes, he did, if I may just go off on a slight tangent, I did notice at the point that he arrived in Manhattan, from then on he was Barack. I had seen him in Occidental, in Los Angeles some months back, and he was Barry, but he had to remind me a few times to call him Barack.
But it was a much smaller gathering at that time. For a while, I think, we really didn't know anyone but each other. Phil Boerner, yes, was going to Columbia. There was Andy Roth, an ex-Occidental kid who moved in just up the street from us. And it was no longer a circle or a crowd of fun and games, and it seemed like the serious business of getting down to life. And that's the time when I saw the transformation from the lighthearted, fun-loving kid to a more serious, ponderous, and in my view at that time -- I mean, most of us were in our early 20s and really not thinking much about benefiting the world, whereas this person was; Barack was. And at times I would find him ponderous and dull and lecturing.
... So when you look back at it, why do you say it does seem evident that he was involved in searching out his identity in some way?
Well, because in our early 20s, we were wanting to be called -- I mean, to hear somebody say, "Call me big man," or something, it wasn't too unusual, right? So when he said, "Call me Barack," it's like, "All right, Barack." You thought it would pass. I did at that time at least.
You thought it was a phase.
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So tell us about New York. I mean, the story as it's told is the first time, before you're roommates and everything else, the first night he shows up in New York he's going to be moving into an apartment with Phil, but he can't get into the apartment, so he spends the night on the street?
I believe it wasn't the apartment that he eventually ended up sharing with Phil. This was an apartment that he had made arrangements for from Los Angeles and sent his money up front. And he sent it to the tenant who was going to leave anyway is how I think I gathered it. He didn't talk about it too much, and I wasn't going to be asking him how he got ripped off. It wasn't polite. But I gathered that he sent his money to the wrong person who left, and when he arrived there he was knocking on locked doors, and nobody knew him or gave him the right to stay there.
And yeah, he phoned me I think from fairly early, 7:00 or 8:00 or something, by our standards of that age. It might have been earlier than that. And I just said, "How are you doing?" "I'm in New York." I was expecting him, because after spending a couple of weeks there in Los Angeles and when we said farewells, he asked for my number and said, "I might be showing up in New York," and I gave him my number. So I wasn't surprised to hear from him. And he arrived with his luggage and looking totally disheveled and didn't have a place to stay. And he crashed on my couch.
And then we started a series of kind of trying to find an apartment together. I was sharing a studio with another person. And so that was his arrival, yeah. We had breakfast. He described that very accurately in Dreams From My Father, just going to the coffee shop and the conversation we had and my asking him what he was going to do with the big education he sought.
What did he say?
Well, I'll tell you the truth. I think I was lecturing him, because I don't remember what he said, and I don't think he even responded, but I was telling him the fastest line means to find a business and make money.
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- Coming of AgeObama's Motivation
I was always on this team of, "You've got to make money; you've got to find a way to hit the big time," legally, of course. And he would say things which -- he would repeat things to me, crediting his grandmother. I think it was either "Find a better rat trap and build it," or "Find a niche and fill it," probably both. But he wasn't too interested in what I wanted to talk about, which is potential money-making schemes or the other interests of 20-year-olds.
Why not? I mean, what was he interested in?
I didn't probe. I didn't probe. It seemed to me he just -- I saw a transformation in the Barry I had met in Occidental. He got very serious and less lighthearted, and our conversations were more about serious things, and at that time and probably still, so I was not as deep as him. It seemed to me that he wanted to benefit the downtrodden. I would hear things like -- now we were living on East 94th Street, which at that time was like the borderline -- Harlem started at 96th. It's very different from the neighborhood looks like today.
And [then there were] filthy streets, and [during the] school day with kids, Latinos and blacks mainly, hanging on the corners, you would see little exchanges and probably transactions, and that would set him off. He would start lecturing, like, "There is no reason that --" I can't remember his exact words, but it amounted to something like, "The most powerful, the wealthiest nation in the world, and this is what kids are doing on a school day," something to that effect, that there is no reason that should be happening. And he seemed very troubled by it. And I was bored by the conversation.
So he would be lecturing you as you were walking down the street?
This conversation, I think, was on our fire escape, which was our balcony outside his bedroom window. We would get some sunshine there. But yeah, this was something that troubled him; I knew that. And other than wanting to study and be serious, I didn't probe further or ask him for any more reasons. I mean, he stopped going out more and more. I was always trying to get him down to the corner bar, etc., and after some point I gave up, and I didn't ask him, "Why not?" anymore. It's the same thing.
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Inside their 'dingy' New York City apartment
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So at some point you do become roommates. How does that come about?
He was couch-hopping. I wasn't too pleased with the setup I had, which was a tiny studio with someone whom I knew from the same school in Pakistan I wasn't really friends with. So we were both on the market for an apartment in Manhattan, and we were both completely priced out. I mean, we could raise maybe 500 bucks a month between the two of us, and there wasn't much there. But we did finally score this apartment on East 94th Street.
That's how it came about. We just happened to be two guys who knew each other in the same situation and looking for an apartment.
Describe the apartment.
Yes, it was a hovel. Scary street. He describes very well in Dreams From My Father. There used to be a gas station at the top -- I'm starting with the street and the approach to it. You would be intimidated right away as you entered the street, because on First Avenue and East 94th Street was a gas station. It was patrolled by this Doberman pinscher with a beer bottle in his mouth, and he would just -- and we would have to pass him daily.
And we would pass this dog to get to our apartment. The hallways were dingy. Everything was beat up and gray and dimly lit. The front door didn't quite lock completely. I mean, we were always looking around our shoulders approaching the building and even going up the stairs, six flights.
Once you got to the apartment, I'll describe it for you, you would enter through a kitchen, which would lead into a living room on one side and a bathroom on the other side. And you would squeeze through the cooking range, the stove, to make it through the living room. If you had any luggage you had to kind of drop it there and then squeeze it in. The floors were all warped. They were wooden floors with big gaps between the planks. I mean, people would think they were more drunk than they were at first, walking across the living room.
There was one tiny bedroom. It was really a closet with a window. And then there was a decent bedroom. Yes, I think we ran a race for that. I didn't know he could run like a deer, so he got the big room. What else? The heat. OK, there was never hot water when you wanted it. Weekday mornings, the entire -- we were on the sixth floor. Each floor had about four or five apartments, so the entire building was taking a shower, and we wouldn't get hot water.
Heat used to blast through the radiators. There was steam pipes, and the valves, the controls never worked. We told the management company, etc., but nothing happened. So it was such a waste of energy in those days. I guess we weren't that green or aware of carbon footprints, so we used to have our windows wide open, just to cool down from the heat. ...
And this is the apartment you had to lie on the lease to get?
So tell us the story and him refusing to lie.
All right. So we arrived there. I think we were answering an ad. And me and Barry at the time, we get up there, and first of all, we're the only non-white applicants, and the apartment is flooded with applicants, and they all have a clipboard in their hand, and they're all filling out the application. And I said to Barry, I said, "We ain't got a chance in hell of getting this apartment if you put the truth down, a student income, me looking for a job. So let's fudge it."
And he was like -- he just dismissed it, like ignored me. I fudged it, invented a catering company and gave my friends' phone numbers as references and co-workers and all that. And they didn't check, and they didn't call any of my references. I put down inflated income and got the call, "Yeah, you can have the apartment." But we had wanted to cosign the lease, Barry and me. They said: "You can have the apartment, but Obama cannot cosign it. We'll give the lease to you only." ...
I mean, I shouldn't gloat. I wasn't entirely honest. ...
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Tell me a little bit more about [how] you mocked his idealism a bit, you have stated in the past, and you thought he was what, a little bit naive? What was it? Or was it just boring?
I did think he was naive. In fact, yeah, I mean, when I asked him what he was going to do with a fancy education that he was going to get at Columbia University, and he answered, to me, "Look" -- and I'm probably not someone whose point of view is mainstream. I had just arrived in this country; I was pretty shell-shocked myself, and New York is the most intimidating place I had ever been in. And I was like: "What are you talking about, helping people? Look at them; they're shoving you out of the way. They're stepping on you, and they're pushing." I mean, so to me it was incredulous. I was like: "How can you talk about that? Look at where we are. I'm not sure where we're going to live or get a roof on our head," kind of deal.
... What's he thinking? Does he have that much confidence in his ability or the direction he's going?
No, but I just thought that he felt it was really wrong. And he had a compassion which was too early for his years, in my opinion, or at least none of my peers at that time had such compassion for the unfortunate. But no, he never said things like, "I'm going to fix it," or, "I'm going to do something about it." He just troubled over it. ...
So what was the general feeling and attitude of that period of time for the both of you?
I think it was complete intimidation by New York City, which seemed rougher and tougher and [more] uncivilized than any other place either of us had lived. So we were intimidated, I think, by the city. It was a time in Manhattan when -- Manhattan looks a lot better now and less scary, but there was, I mean, people on the streets; you saw many of them. You saw crack being sold. And I mean, I think there was a recession, and it was a really hard time to be there.
And both of us were probably questioning, "Why the heck did I come to this place?" It was scary. We had no resources. And to me, and I guess to him as well, something which kept us going is that if you can make it, you'll be ready for anything, which [seems] to be an effect everyone credits New York for.
Yeah. Lost and alienated is how I felt. He used to take long walks. And again, he had kind of gone into a bit of a shell and wasn't as talkative or outgoing as in his earlier days, so that's why I attributed it to alienation and lost.
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Did he ever talk about the fact that one of the reasons he might have come to New York was -- I mean, you're on the edge of Harlem where you were, the capital of black America in a lot of ways. Did that seem to draw him? Did he seem to be trying to figure out how to be black or something?
That's highly possible. I would say yes, but again, I'm just surmising here. But I thought so at the time that that's what drew him to Columbia, yes. ...
What did he think? I know you can't tell me what he thought, but what did you think that he thought?
I don't know what he thought, but I can tell you that I think that he decided at some point around that time that yes, he was black, or at least going to want to be black or represent himself as black.
And what were the signs that that was the case?
He took me to a Jesse Jackson rally. That gave me the first big clue. I was bouncing around different jobs at restaurants as a waiter. He never came to any of the other restaurants, but I landed a job, which is pretty close to where I was living down the street over at East Side, which was called Jewel, and it happened to be where, I guess, the elite black people went. It was an all-black Upper East Side establishment with affluent black patrons and great music and a great vibe and great atmosphere. And this was the only place where he used to come and sit and have a drink out of all the other places I had worked at, so that was a big clue, too.
Trying to absorb it all in?
I guess. I think you could ask what made me think that he is identifying with black people or decided that he wants identify with black people was the Jesse Jackson rally and that he used to come to the Jewel club. Other than that, black friends in New York? We had no friends. Yeah, the circle was -- it was minimal. No time for hanging out and doing what they did in the college days. Everyone was pursuing their own thing. ...
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You said at one time you sort of referred to yourselves as the odd couple. What did you mean?
Well, I mean, look at it. Here is a guy who is idealistic. There is a guy who is idealistic and compassionate and worried about the downtrodden, and I was wanting to, well, get laid and get drunk and make money. I mean, you couldn't get much odder or incompatible than that.
I mean, what happened to that Barry Obama who was the basketball player on the high school team and smoking dope and drinking and hanging out with his friends and having a good time? This is a very different Barry Obama than that. I mean, what do you think happened? And you saw some of the change from the Occidental years.
Now, what I think happened, I came to the conclusion in hindsight many years later after reading Dreams From My Father -- well, this should just give you an idea, Jim, of how little we kind of communicated each other's troubles or feelings or emotions to each other. We didn't. I mean, if I was upset about something, the last thing I wanted to do was burden my housemate with it, and I hoped that they felt the same way. I didn't want to know about their troubles. That was the kind of guy I was.
But his father passed while we were sharing that apartment in East 94th Street, and not a word from him. He might have mentioned that he passed, but not in any way as if it affected him, and just like, "It happened," something like that. I had no clue of what he was going through or his thoughts or emotions at the time, or even that his father represented such a serious figure to him.
You got the phone call.
I think I did. yes.
And you passed the phone to him.
I did. It was a German-sounding lady.
I probably went out somewhere and I didn't realize what a profound call it was. And actually if I did, I probably would even more deliberately leave the place to give him some privacy. That's kind of how we weren't into each other's business. I mean, guys don't do that.
At least not back in their 20s. Yes, now men are more sensitive, but back in the '80s, it was like --
... Had he already discounted his father, do you think? ...
I would have thought so, yes, that he had discounted his father. I never heard about his father from him. I would hear about his -- was Stanley the mom or the granddad? Anyway, I'd hear about his mom and his granddad and his grandmom, but never any anecdotes or mentions of his father, no, except when he got that phone call. Yes, he brought up his grandparents plenty, things that his grandmom would say, things his granddad would say, but not his father.
What was your take from that? What was his relationship with the grandparents?
It sounded like a very good one and that he really loved them. As I mentioned earlier, he used to, in terms of getting rich, he used to give me advice that his grandmother had given him. I remember one holiday season, one Christmas he received a care package from the grandparents, and he showed me. It was a wristband for joggers, to put your change in with a kind of sweatband underneath it and a zipper to put your money. And he said: "Look at this note from my granddad: 'If it doesn't fit your wrist, you know where to put it' or 'where to wear it'" or something like that.
So yeah, I would hear about his grandparents.
Did you think it odd? I mean, they were white. Did he ever sort of bring up the fact that this was an unusual situation to some extent?
And in his head do you think he was? Or was it just that's what it was?
I mean, I met him when he was in his early 20s, I think, and by his mid-20s there was a big transformation, and that's probably -- I mean, who cares about what race they belong to in their teens and early 20s?
I don't think it was until a few years later that that troubled -- I mean, obviously, from his book it seems, I mean, we're talking about early 1980s, like 40, 50 years ago, and I didn't keep no diaries or journals.
If you had known.
Exactly. If only I had known, I would have treated him with a lot more respect.
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So you guys live in this apartment. What type of music is he playing in the apartment?
He had a huge record collection, and even his stereo was shipped over from Hawaii or Los Angeles, I can't remember. So he provided the music in the house. Bob Marley was big, Stevie Wonder. But it was very wide. I mean, you couldn't tell by his records whether these belonged to a black man or a white man, because there was also plenty of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Talking Heads, and this group who I had never heard of before or since, but he had at least 12 of their albums, the most out of -- the second came Stevie and then Marley, but Ohio Players was -- and that pretty much sums up his collection.
And it all came from previously. I don't think he bought any more albums or records while he was in New York, or even played the stereo much. I did, and I bought some albums, but he didn't contribute further to the music. ...
He wrote that he confided in you at one point how misspent his youth was, and that now it was time to make amends. Is that true? And how did you take that?
I probably took it in one ear and out the other, because I didn't want to hear nonsense like that. Forgive me, but I was just a crass new immigrant with just "I, me, mine" on my head, and I had no time for lofty thoughts like he did, which is why we were the odd couple.
But yes, this is probably when I delivered the lecture about look after yourself first, and that we're in a hole, you're in a hole kind of thing, push and shove, and look out for number one. ...
You did have some good friends, and especially, I guess a little later on, after he's out of Columbia, when he's with Genevieve [Cook], I guess, and she would talk about the fact of how important the relationship with you, and I guess Hasan might have been back at that point, … what was that like?
Yes, in a later part of me and Barack's cohabitation in New York Hasan, our mutual friend, did move back. And then yes, then Hasan -- I've always described him as hypersocial. He's got to gather as many people as possible, and he's really responsible for everybody staying in touch; he always has been. I think they were married. He and Raazia had gotten married quite recently. They got an apartment in Brooklyn Heights or something. And yes, and then suddenly everyone -- suddenly we're going out more to dinners, movies, clubs, and seeing more of each other, and in fact probably me and Barack are seeing more of each other, too, because we're going to the same place, so we were very much doing our own thing otherwise.
And yeah, Barack was totally into gatherings like these. He was controlled and never really got loose or stupid or consumed too much, but he enjoyed the chat and the conversations.
And what kind of conversations? What was being talked about?
Hasan was very politically aware at that time. So was Barack. I think he may or may not have been in town, or he came and went. Laurent Delanney was there. And what was the chat about? Gosh, it was mainly about current events, international more than just domestic.
Middle East politics?
Yes, I remember once there was a massacre in some Israeli refugee camp. That was one conversation which everybody was really upset about -- things like that. What else? Nelson Mandela, apartheid. What were the others? Just the major current events of that time seemed to get these folks a lot more passionate than they did me, but that's what I heard in the chat around the table at the gatherings.
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How different was Obama to you than a lot of the other Americans that you met?
I didn't at that time consider him stereotypical or fit any of the image of any kind of American, neither the whites nor the blacks. The blacks I found tough, scary and intimidating, which the New York blacks very much were in those early '80s. Anyway, no, he didn't fit, Barack didn't fit into -- I didn't consider him American. I didn't have much knowledge of what is American either, except from my preconceived notions from living outside of the country. I had just arrived in the United States. But he seemed like an international individual.
And what did he get from these friends, these international friends, that he seemed to be so drawn to this crowd? Instead of hanging out with urban African Americans, he was hanging out with a lot of Pakistani guys and some Indian guys.
I have a feeling that the African Americans in New York probably didn't give him the time of day, because he wasn't tough enough. I'm sure they wouldn't have seen him like them. Barack was soft-spoken and gentle and clean language. I hope I'm not stereotyping black Americans, but from the point of view I had at that time, the only ones I had come into contact were in my neighborhood on the street, and they were intimidating and scary. But Barack didn't seem like one of them.
And you asked me why?
What was he getting from you guys? Why was he drawn to this group of people?
Just a common sensibility, a kind of a common worldview.
I mean, it's fascinating. I mean, you guys were all -- a lot of you were connected to the power elite in Pakistan, for instance.
The Bhuttos, yeah.
You were friends with the Bhuttos. In fact, one of the daughters came to visit you at some point.
For Barack Obama, what do you think he got from these friendships that makes up his knowledge base?
… I mean, it's just you gravitate toward people who talk about things that are of interest to you, right? None of these people were militant or violent or radical in any form. We were all, I guess, liberal, liberal and more, had a wider worldview.
I think one of the first things that struck me when I came to the United States is when you read the newspapers and you watch the news, even the world news, you're oblivious to what's going on around the planet; that the world is from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and that's it.
So I guess that was probably what drew him to the Frenchman, Laurent Delanney, and the Indian guy, Vinai [Thummalapally] and the Pakistani guy. It's just --
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At this point, his life, as he sort of defined it or other people define it, was running and writing. That seemed to be the whole of his life. Is that sort of true?
That's the picture of what I got. I mean, I stopped asking after a couple of years, asking, "Hey, what did you do today?" It was always the same answer. So he used to ask me, "What's the scoop?" in the beginning when we lived in every day, and the same boring -- yeah, I figured he is running or writing or taking long walks from East 94th Street down to probably Battery Park and back up. That's how I envisioned it. Or in the library studying. That's really what I thought he was up to all the time. …
Does he ever sort of define where he's going after Columbia? When does the idea of going to Chicago and working in the streets and organizing and stuff like that come about? Was that a surprise to you, or was that sort of a natural direction he was headed?
Actually, yeah. After he became the editor of the Harvard Law Review, I met him once or twice. He came back to New York in the early '90s or late '80s or something, and he did mention that. I think he mentioned that he was going to go to Chicago. We really didn't discuss into the whys or what his motivation was. And I'm not sure I even knew at that time that he was going to get involved in the grassroots organizing, to tell you the truth.
Were you surprised that that's a direction that he would have taken?
No, that didn't surprise me at all. I mean, here is somebody who wants to do good, so no, that didn't surprise me at all. ...
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He eventually moves out from your apartment, blames you for too much partying? What was the reason he moves out?
You know, we never discussed the reason. To me, it just seemed quite logical. We were living in a horrid place, and his new place was close by Columbia. It was cleaner and had a steady supply of hot water. And it was never discussed why. This partying nonsense, this guy, Associated Press reporter, Goldman, kind of, he put it that way as though my partying drove him out, but I think he just did that for the prose or to make his article readable.
But that wasn't the reason he moved out?
I don't think so. It's not as if I had great means to party and all of that, no. ...
- Ψ ShareObama came to New York 'to find himself or look for a direction'
So therefore, was the New York period of time a pretty important time in his life?
The first couple years that he was there was what I would describe as him being in a cocoon. Later on when Chandoo moved back to town, he was up and about, more jovial and more sociable, at least in my perspective. So I'd say yes, he did come to New York to -- I'd agree with this; I've probably heard it or read it -- to find himself or look for a direction. And yeah, his years in New York he did evolve a lot; he changed plenty. And I have no idea what he did in Chicago; I wasn't there.
I won’t ask you about that stuff. ... Anything else that we haven’t talked about that you find that helps define who this guy is, a guy who became the most powerful person, as they often say, in the world? Anything else that you remember that is sort of worth mentioning?
Nothing new which hasn’t been said already. Sorry.
... Did you like the guy?
Yes. Well, initially I liked him more, the fun-loving young guy, easygoing I met in Occidental. And he was like that for the first year, maybe year and a half in New York. But certainly by the later stages of our cohabiting, he had gotten increasingly dull, in my opinion.
Dull in what way?
Was too serious, wouldn't want to go around the bar, have a drink, was worried about poor people, didn't care about getting rich. I mean, that's my opinion of dull at that time.
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What do you think of him as president? Are you surprised that he's president? What do you think of him?
Well, was I surprised he became president? Yes. What do I think of him as president? Well, it has dispelled one notion I used to have about American politics and power and the power of the presidency, which was that presidents could make a lot happen and wield big change. But now I know there is somebody with their heart in the right place, and it's not -- previously I used to dismiss. I didn't know the president. Probably they were perhaps corrupt or didn't care about it or whatever, but in this case I think he's a great president. I think he wasted too much time trying to reach across the aisle his first term.
I think he needs to just assert himself and do what a lot of Republican presidents do: exercise vetoes and executive power.
… Do you think people view America any differently because Barack Obama is president of the United States?
They have to. I think America's image around the world, Pakistan or anywhere else on the planet, has to have been altered by Barack Obama's coming on the scene. I mean, which other country could a black boy from nowhere assume power like this? I mean, that's a uniquely American story. And I think in that respect, at least, the rest of the world should have a lot of respect for the United States.
Has he changed the view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the other radicals over there? Hell no. He's just a white-black boy or whatever. He's a stooge for the great Satan, United States. What else is there to say?
That's a fascinating point. I mean, it is interesting, because Americans, as you say, don't often look at the way the rest of the world is looking at us, or do we look at them as much as the rest of the world looks at itself. And yet this is a very distinct presidency in a lot of ways.
Barack Hussein Obama. I mean, who would have thought? And the fact that he attained power here says a lot for this nation. It couldn't happen anywhere else.