Obama's Core Nature

  1. Ψ Share

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (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.

    Read the full interview »

    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. …

  2. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Coming of Age

    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    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.

    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. ...

  3. Ψ Share

    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    How introspective was this guy? When you talked to him, did he always connect the dots in a much more three-dimensional way where he would -- his family life, his racial background, the work he was doing, history and civil rights? Did you get from him something different than most guys that you were hiring, how he looked at this work and his role in it?

    Barack was reflective. But the best organizers always are. He didn't distinguish himself, I think, in his degree of reflectiveness. But there are all kinds of distinguishing features about Barack.

    Well, let me describe what he had to do. When he first got to Chicago, his job was to learn to listen. And he's a naturally good listener. So he would go out with me and we'd do six or seven conversations a day. And he'd watch me, and then I'd watch him. And in those conversations, he'd be looking for narrative. And very quickly, he was out on his own, just talking to people, day after day. And then at the end of the day, or late in the evening, he'd come home and he'd take his notes -- and he wasn't taking a lot of notes, but little index cards maybe on each person -- and then just put it together. How do these things connect? How do these people connect to each other? Who are they? What are some of their aspirations? What are they facing in the community?

    So he's doing that for the people he's working with. And of course when you do that for other people, you naturally begin to do it for yourself in a very systematic way. So he was linking narrative to community, to power. That was his job. And in doing so, he naturally, whatever skills he learned doing that, he turned on himself. And I think that was a very healthy process. It was a very significant period of growth I think for him, his two years in Chicago.

  4. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Harvard Law School

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    So when do you first lay eyes on Barack Obama?

    It was one of the first few days of our law school experience. We met at the financial aid office at Harvard Law School, which is in Pound Hall, which is very, very centrally located on the campus. And we were going through the process of filling out a lot of paperwork that would make us significantly in debt to Harvard for years to come. And we just bonded over that experience. ...

    How was he? What was he like?

    You know, it's interesting. The Barack that I knew at the time is fundamentally the Barack that you see today, the candidate. He was incredibly mature. He had spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, so he came to law school without some of the angst I think that many of us had who were only a year or maybe less than a year away from college. He didn't have the angst. He was very mature, and he was very directed. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew that he wanted to get his law degree and learn as much as he possibly could and take that experience back to Chicago and work in the same communities that he had worked as an organizer, and use his legal skills to help people in those communities.

    And so, you know, it was one of those things that you got very early on. He was a very calm presence and someone who had a very good sense of himself and where he fit in, and a very good sense of what he wanted to do with his life.

  5. Ψ Share

    Laurence Tribe   Obama's Harvard Law professor

    (Text only) A longtime professor of constitutional law at Harvard, Tribe recounts the day "a tall, skinny kid" appeared in his office and said, "I'm Barack Obama. I'd like to talk to you about the Constitution." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 12, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    As time evolved for the next couple of years, or as your relationship evolved, is there a characteristic, a turn of mind, something about him that remains as the sort of dominant feature?

    I guess I would call it thoughtfulness, reflectiveness. He was never somebody to reach conclusions simply instinctively. He had fundamental beliefs about the human condition, I think, and about the importance of people working together to help one another. This idea of being one's brother's keeper is absolutely central, but it never translated into any very clear polarization on the political spectrum.

    I never thought of him particularly as a liberal or a conservative. I certainly knew that he had what I would call progressive impulses. He cared a lot about inequality, about injustice, about rectifying it, but the dominant quality that emerged was thoughtfulness, the insistence on weighing all sides, reflecting on the data on what would work and what wouldn't, and on I guess ultimately a sense of what was consistent with our deepest beliefs and what wasn't.

    There are a lot of things that fit on a bumper sticker in terms of either liberty or equality or progress that when made more concrete just don't pan out. And he was always interested in what would pan out, what would work, what made sense, and whether something was consistent with who we were as a country. And that made a big difference to me. I wasn't born here; I had come here as a little kid. Though he was born here, he had experienced a lot of things around the world. And both of us, I think, were grappling with the question of what it means to commit oneself to certain American ideals.

    So his combination of idealism and thoughtfulness made him quite distinctive from the very beginning.

  6. Ψ Share

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Where does that respect come from? How did he earn it?

    I think in part Barack earns respect by his willingness to listen. He was always somebody who one could talk to.

    For instance, when we were on the Harvard Law Review, there was a left, there was a center, and there was a right. The people on the right really liked Barack. They liked him personally; they liked him politically, even though they recognized him as a sort of liberal mainstream Democrat, because he is somebody who talked to them, and they felt like he would listen. Even if at the end of the day he disagreed, they thought that he treated them with respect, and they thought that many of the liberal and left students did not. And I think that was part of the source of the immense respect that there was for Barack on campus.

  7. Ψ Share

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    You said about him coming back to campus with Michelle that he wasn't head in the clouds, but that he did have his own moments when you could see he was excited about something. I just wonder what one of those moments were and if the Law Review, getting the presidency, or if there is a moment that you can reflect on.

    Barack was somebody who, when everybody else got excited about something, he wanted to be the adult in the room. He didn't want to be giddy about something. He wanted to be happy, but just say, "OK, there are reasons to be happy about this, and there are reasons not to overblow it." And I think he made a conscious effort to do that.

    Now, I don't know, getting elected president of the Harvard Law Review, he was clearly over the moon, but he was going to be temperate about it, because that's kind of who he was. And he also didn't want people to think that, OK, this is somehow going to change society or change Harvard as an institution. It was a symbolic thing, and he would be the first person to say that. And he didn't want people to kind of get ahead of the game and project more onto it than it deserved. But underneath it all he was giddy, and you knew it, even though he was [not] going to trip the light fantastic or do something kind of silly.

    So there were moments where he would let his hair down, but I think for the most part he really wanted to be the adult in the room, the one who wanted to say, "This particular thing, yeah, it's great, but let's not get ahead of ourselves." ...

  8. Ψ Share

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (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.

    Read the full interview »

    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. …

  9. Ψ Share

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    So let's talk a little bit about the thing you raised, because it's totally important to this, this idea that from now, this moment on, every room he enters, Barack Obama is--

    The center of the universe.

    Say it again?

    He's the center of the universe, for every room that he enters. Just a couple of stories: I remember early on in the process, when we were interviewing staff, that we wanted to grab some lunch, and so we walked from the Senate. Well, actually we walked from the Capitol, the Senate side of the Capitol, to Union Station.

    And we went down to the basement, which is the food court at Union Station, to grab some sushi. And no one came up to us. I think maybe people recognized Barack. But no one came up to us, and we grabbed some sushi and we ate, unmolested, at this table in the food court at Union Station.

    And you flash forward a couple of months, and he's in Washington, learning the ways of Washington, and he is the keynote speaker at one of the annual dinners for one of the civil rights organizations in town. And I hadn't seen him in a while, so I thought, I got an invitation; it would be nice just to go and say hello.

    So I go to this event, and Barack is -- he comes into the room, and he's like a force. He becomes the center of the universe, and everyone gravitates around him, to the point where it was impossible to say hello. And obviously, the longer he was in town, the more difficult it became. And so it was an appreciation that things had changed, dramatically, for him, and that he had an appeal that was beyond what I really appreciated at that time.

    You know, we all know politicians and movie stars and everybody else, who get in that bubble, and inside that bubble, they really do become the boy or the girl in the bubble. Very easy to lose perspective and to begin to believe things about yourself that may or may not be true. I know he has Michelle, but how does he keep his head on straight?

    He's got friends and family who help him on that front.

    You?

    He does, certainly. We chat as often as we can. One of the things that he complains about is that his friends don't call him enough, and I tell him that you're just, "You've got this little thing that you're doing; you're running for the presidency of the United States, and we want to be in touch, but we also appreciate that you're pretty busy." But he wants his friends to call. He wants to stay connected, which has been a challenge for him.

    And it's also Barack just has incredible perspective and that he appreciates that he's in the bubble, and he's trying very hard not to be in the bubble. I think one of the most challenging things for him in the presidential race was when he got the Secret Service detail, and that from that point on, he had people with him wherever he went. He was really in the bubble.

    And Barack has never been someone who had or needed an entourage. And I think that, to a certain extent, he is anti-entourage in personality, and that he wants the time where he can get away; when he was smoking, he could smoke a cigarette; where he could just find a point in the day where he could be reflective. And I think that that's been one of the most challenging things for him.

  10. Ψ Share

    Valerie Jarrett   White House senior adviser

    A close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama from their early years together in Chicago, Jarrett is now a senior adviser to the president. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 20, 2012.

    This is a guy you have known very closely for many, many years. ... How have you seen him evolve? How have you seen him change? Is he the same guy that you saw way back when?

    I think his core personal qualities, leadership qualities, are the same. His character, his integrity, his moral compass that points toward true north, his sense of decency, compassion, humor -- all of that I think is basically the same.

    He has grown, as everybody grows over the course of 21 years. He's matured. I think he is more confident in his decision making today, obviously, than he was even when he first took office.

    I think it has been a steady evolution, but consistent with those very important core values that come from how he was raised by his single mom, from watching her struggle during a big part of his childhood, living with his grandparents for a period of time, seeing his grandmother train men in the bank who then leapfrogged over her for promotions. I think that's why the very first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, in a sense a tribute to what his grandmother went through.

    So yes, he has grown. Yes, he has become more confident as everyone should be, but the basic, core values were embedded in him at a very early age, and that doesn't change.

  11. Ψ Share

    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    One of the things in [David] Maraniss' book [Barack Obama: The Story] is that President Obama's identity was always defined ... by the belief that he can transcend differences. ... Did his failures with the GOP affect that belief?

    No. And there's no doubt that David Maraniss was right when he said the president puts a premium on his ability to bridge divides. That was one of the first things I noticed about him when I started working with him as a politician, that he could go to deep southern Illinois, closer to Little Rock, [Ark.,] than Chicago, and be as comfortable and as well received as he would be in an inner-city church or a tony parlor in the suburbs.

    I realized very early on that probably because of the way he was raised and his background, that he felt comfortable with everyone. And he worked very hard to put himself in other people's shoes and try and understand their perspective and their point of view.

    He hasn't lost that quality. And one thing that I think he would tell you is that as he travels around this country, that despite all the vituperations, despite all the stuff that grabs headlines, his interactions with people are very positive. Even when they don't agree, they're very civil. And his belief is that America is not nearly as divided as Washington is.

    But some people describe him as insular, that there's not been a more insular president in a long time.

    The guy I know, and the guy I think who people see when he goes out and interacts with them, is a warm, unpretentious, empathetic, very feeling and caring person. What he isn't is a phony. He doesn't put on a performance to signify or kind of simulate a sense of connectedness. He is who he is.

    ... I watched him the other night in Colorado after that terrible tragedy, and sharing the stories of the people he had met. And that's the guy I know. That's how he would talk to me on the telephone. He really does put himself in other people's shoes.

    When that shooting happened, his first reaction was about his own daughters and how he would feel if they had been in that movie theater. And that's one of his great gifts, is his ability to look beyond himself and think about how other people are experiencing life.

403 Forbidden

Forbidden

You don't have permission to access /wgbh/pages/frontline/includes/sidebar_wide_bottom_wp.inc on this server.

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.