"The people that went to school with (Barack Obama), they never saw him, they don't know who he is."
Donald Trump on Thursday, February 10th, 2011 in a speech at the CPAC conference
Donald Trump says people who went to school with Obama never saw him
Donald Trump began a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 10, 2011, by announcing that he is "thinking about" running for president. Too often, Trump said, successful people don't run for president because they don't want to be "scrutinized or abused." As a result, he said, we get presidents like Barack Obama.
"Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere," Trump said. "In fact, I'll go a step further: the people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don't know who he is. It's crazy."
The line drew big applause from the conservative audience. We tried unsuccessfully to reach Trump to see if he was suggesting that Obama led an unremarkable life during his school years, or if it was a wink to the conservative legions who are not convinced that Obama is a natural-born American citizen.
In any case, Trump's comment harkens back to an attack line that dogged Obama throughout the 2008 presidential campaign -- that he had a shady background that didn't add up.
First, we'll set the stage with a brief outline of Obama's academic career. Obama began his schooling in Indonesia (where his mother and step-father had moved from Hawaii), attending Besuki Public School and St. Francis of Assisi School, both in Jakarta, from ages 6 to 10. Obama then returned to Honolulu, Hawaii, to live with his maternal grandparents and attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school, through high school. Obama began his college career at Occidental College in California in 1979. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where he studied political science and graduated with a B.A. in 1983. Obama later went to, and graduated from, Harvard Law School.
We'll start in the middle of Obama's post-secondary education, his two years at Columbia, because that has been the nexus of previous "None-of-his-classmates-knew-him" claims. As Snopes.com points out in an October 2009 article debunking the claim, it appears to have roots in two sources. The first is a 2008 Wall Street Journal editorial about "Obama's Lost Years" at Columbia which states, "Fox News contacted some 400 of his classmates and found no one who remembered him." About the same time, Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Wayne Allen Root -- who attended Columbia at the same time as Barack Obama -- told Reason: "I think the most dangerous thing you should know about Barack Obama is that I don't know a single person at Columbia that knows him, and they all know me. I don't have a classmate who ever knew Barack Obama at Columbia. Ever!"
In a 2005 interview in an alumni magazine, Columbia College Today, Obama said that while at Columbia he was somewhat involved with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-apartheid activities, but otherwise kept a fairly low profile.
"Mostly, my years at Columbia were an intense period of study," said Obama, who lived off campus. "When I transferred, I decided to buckle down and get serious. I spent a lot of time in the library. I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk."
So he wasn't BMOC. But he wasn't entirely invisible either.
A May 15, 2008, story by the Associated Press, "Old friends recall Obama's years in LA, NY," quotes the recollections of an old roommate of Obama's in New York, Sohale Siddiqi.
And former roommate and friend, Phil Boerner, has shared his recollections of Obama's time at Columbia with several reporters and is quoted in David Remnick's Obama's biography, The Bridge. The New York Times did an extensive interview with Boerner for a Jan. 20, 2009, story.
And Politico posted online an article Obama wrote for Columbia's weekly magazine, The Sundial, which ran under the headline, "Breaking the War Mentality" on March 10, 1983.
After FactCheck.org ran a story about the Columbia classmate's claim, another former classmate e-mailed to say she, too, remembered Obama.
So we called her.
Cathie Currie, who currently teaches social psychology at Adelphi University, recalled Obama joining her group occasionally to play pick-up soccer games on the lawn outside the library. She was a graduate student at the time, and Obama was an undergrad.
He was a good soccer player, she said, even though basketball was his primary athletic passion. Obama also made an impression with his maturity and wisdom, she said. He talked about things like government for all the people, she said. In fact, Currie assumed because of Obama's heady conversation that he was a graduate student as well.
Currie isn't surprised that he was not widely-remembered by fellow Columbia classmates. "My sense of it was that he was keeping a low profile," Currie said.
He seemed like someone who had made a decision to prioritize his studies, she said. "We'd ask him to go out with us for beers after soccer," she said. "He seemed like he wanted to, but then he'd step back and say, 'Sorry, I'm going to the library.'"
We're not going to spend too much time on Obama's time at Occidental and Harvard Law. Dozens of former classmates and teachers from those schools have publicly shared their recollections (and photos) of Obama. Obama was the president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review journal, for goodness sake.
But here's a few stories chock full of classmates' recollections:
New York Times, "In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice."
Boston Globe, "At Harvard Law, a unifying voice: Classmates recall Obama as even-handed leader."
The Weekly Standard, "The Real Obama." For this story, reporter Dean Barnett contacted dozens of Obama's classmates at Harvard Law School. "Also noteworthy is that virtually everyone seemed to know Obama," Bartnett wrote.
YouTube.com even has this video of classmate Hill Harper talking about Obama.
In fact, many of Obama's former classmates volunteered for his presidential campaign, and Politico ran a story about some 20 Harvard classmates who were members of his transition team. The story ran under the headline "School buds: 20 Harvard classmates advising Obama."
As for Occidental, lots of former classmates and teachers have come forward to talk about the Obama they remember from his two years on campus there. For example, see the Los Angeles Times' Jan. 29, 2007, story, "Occidental recalls 'Barry' Obama."
Trump casts a wide net with the statement "people that went to school with him." So we did a little digging to see whether there have been any classmates from elementary and high school who recall Obama.
A comprehensive story on Obama's childhood by the Chicago Tribune should put this to rest. By our count, it names -- and quotes -- more than a dozen former classmates and teachers from Obama's youth.
Among those quoted are two students from each of the two schools Obama attended in Indonesia, as well as several of Obama's grade school teachers. They related stories of how Obama was teased because of his race, how he struggled with learning the Indonesian language, how he drew cartoons and even wrote an essay about how he wanted to be president one day.
The story also quotes several classmates and teachers at Punahou School in Hawaii, a private school Obama attended in Hawaii through high school. Among them are some of Obama's closest childhood friends, as well as teachers. In his senior year, Obama's basketball team (he was not a starter) won a state championship in 1979. The Chicago Tribune notes that Obama was nicknamed "Barry O'Bomber" by teammates due to his accuracy on long jump shots.
David Remnick's Obama biography The Bridge is sprinkled with quotes from former classmates and teachers of Obama in elementary and high school.
We could get deeper into this but it seems like overkill. It's abundantly clear that there are lots and lots of former classmates who remember Obama at every level of school. It's true that Obama's two years at Columbia are relatively undocumented. And far fewer classmates have publicly shared recollections of Obama from that period, as opposed to other school years before and after. At Columbia, Obama was a transfer student, he lived off campus and by his and other accounts he buried himself in his studies and didn't socialize much. But even so, there are several students who recall Obama at Columbia.
In short, media accounts and biographies are filled with on-the-record, named classmates who remember Obama. Trump is certainly right that presidential candidates are heavily scrutinized. As even a basic online search confirms, Obama's school years were, too. Trump's claim that people who went to school with Obama "never saw him, they don't know who he is" is ridiculous. Or, to borrow Trump's phrase, it's crazy. We rule Trump's statement Pants on Fire.