Monday, September 22, 2008

What Does Anyone Know about Obama's Time in NY?

What Does Anyone Know about Obama’s Time in NY?
By LisaBclose
Author: LisaB
Name: Lisa B

One of the many things about Barack Obama that has not been well understood is his time at Columbia and working in NY. Surely the guy had friends or co-workers who could vouch for what he did, what a great guy he was, how they saw a shining future coming his way, how he was an immediate star at everything he did?

A story back in October 2007 in the NYT gave some background on Obama’s days in NY. One source for this article was Dan Armstrong, a coworker from Obama’s days at Business International.

Some say he [Obama] has taken some literary license in the telling of his story. Dan Armstrong, who worked with Mr. Obama at Business International Corporation in New York in 1984 and has deconstructed Mr. Obama’s account of the job on his blog,, wrote: “All of Barack’s embellishment serves a larger narrative purpose: to retell the story of the Christ’s temptation. The young, idealistic, would-be community organizer gets a nice suit, joins a consulting house, starts hanging out with investment bankers, and barely escapes moving into the big mansion with the white folks.”

In an interview, Mr. Armstrong added: “There may be some truth to that. But in order to make it a good story, it required a bit of exaggeration.”

Mr. Armstrong’s description of the firm, and those of other co-workers, differs at least in emphasis from Mr. Obama’s. It was a small newsletter-publishing and research firm, with about 250 employees worldwide, that helped companies with foreign operations (they could be called multinationals) understand overseas markets, they said. Far from a bastion of corporate conformity, they said, it was informal and staffed by young people making modest wages.

Employees called it “high school with ashtrays.”

Now, questions about Obama’s time in NY have resurfaced, both online and in print. Sweetnessandlight, features some comments from former coworkers. The blog’s story is based on a personal blog by Dan Anderson ( quotes from Obama’s book Dreams From My Father:

Eventually a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe. As far as I could tell I was the only black man in the company, a source of shame for me but a source of considerable pride for the company’s secretarial pool.

Then Armstrong tells his version:

First, it wasn’t a consulting house; it was a small company that published newsletters on international business. Like most newsletter publishers, it was a bit of a sweatshop. I’m sure we all wished that we were high-priced consultants to multinational corporations. But we also enjoyed coming in at ten, wearing jeans to work, flirting with our co-workers, partying when we stayed late, and bonding over the low salaries and heavy workload.

Barack worked on one of the company’s reference publications. Each month customers got a new set of pages on business conditions in a particular country, punched to fit into a three-ring binder. Barack’s job was to get copy from the country correspondents and edit it so that it fit into a standard outline. There was probably some research involved as well, since correspondents usually don’t send exactly what you ask for, and you can’t always decipher their copy. But essentially the job was copyediting.

It’s also not true that Barack was the only black man in the company. He was the only black professional man. Fred was an African-American who worked in the mailroom with his son. My boss and I used to join them on Friday afternoons to drink beer behind the stacks of office supplies. That’s not the kind of thing that Barack would do. Like I said, he was somewhat aloof.

Back to Obama’s version:

… as the months passed, I felt the idea of becoming an organizer slipping away from me. The company promoted me to the position of financial writer. I had my own office, my own secretary; money in the bank. Sometimes, coming out of an interview with Japanese financiers or German bond traders, I would catch my reflection in the elevator doors—see myself in a suit and tie, a briefcase in my hand—and for a split second I would imagine myself as a captain of industry, barking out orders, closing the deal, before I remembered who it was that I had told myself I wanted to be and felt pangs of guilt for my lack of resolve.

And what Armstrong described:

If Barack was promoted, his new job responsibilities were more of the same - rewriting other people’s copy. As far as I know, he always had a small office, and the idea that he had a secretary is laughable. Only the company president had a secretary. Barack never left the office, never wore a tie, and had neither reason nor opportunity to interview Japanese financiers or German bond traders.


Like I said, I’m a fan. His famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention moved me to tears. The Democrats - not to mention America - need a mixed-race spokesperson who can connect to both urban blacks and rural whites, who has the credibility to challenge the status quo on issues ranging from misogynistic rap to unfair school funding.

And yet I’m disappointed. Barack’s story may be true, but many of the facts are not. His larger narrative purpose requires him to embellish his role. I don’t buy it. . . . I can’t listen uncritically to Barack Obama now that I know he’s willing to bend the facts to his purpose.

Comments to Mr Armstrong’s piece included those from other former coworkers agreeing that Obama’s version was exaggerated across the board. (Sweetnessandlight features these, but you can also find them in Armstrong’s blog if you comb through all the responses.)

I worked with Dan and Barack at Business International. I too read Barack Obama’s account of his work at Business International and immediately thought this was not the same place I worked! It was not a high level consulting firm. As today’s NYT article states, it was hardly an upscale environment. And I laughed when I read in the book that he had his own secretary! The only one who had his in secretary in our group was the VP. There were some shared administrative resources, and I was one of them. I remember Barack as being quiet, bright, reserved, polite. He was indeed the only black male professional there, but it was hardly a swanky environment.


[another commentor] calls Barack self-assured? That’s putting a nice spin on it. I found him arrogant and condescending.

The thing is, I worked next to Barack nearly every day he was at Business International–on many days angling for possession of the best Wang word processing terminal.
I had MANY discussions with Barack.

I can tell you this: even though I was an assistant editor (big doings at this “consulting firm”) and he was, well, he was doing something there, he certainly treated me like something less than an equal. . .

But know what? I can forgive him for being immature–which is probably all that was at the time. Don’t we all believe we know everything at just around that age?

That said…he was a lot older when he wrote his book. Mature enough by this time to realize that his account of his time at Business International could be described as embellishment…
On Sept. 11, 2008, the WSJ did a necessarily short piece - given the paucity of information - about Obama’s time in NY,
Barack Obama makes his first campaign visit today to his alma mater, Columbia University. Just don’t ask the prolific self-diarist to talk about his undergraduate days in Morningside Heights.

The Columbia years are a hole in the sprawling Obama hagiography. In his two published memoirs, the 47-year-old Democratic nominee barely mentions his experience there. He refuses to answer questions about Columbia and New York — which, in this media age, serves only to raise more of them. Why not release his Columbia transcript? Why has his senior essay gone missing?


Voters and the media are now exercising due diligence before Election Day, and they are meeting resistance from Mr. Obama in checking his past. Earlier this year, the AP tracked down Mr. Obama’s New York-era roommate, “Sadik,” in Seattle after the campaign refused to reveal his name. Sohale Siddiqi, his real name, confirmed Mr. Obama’s account that he turned serious in New York and “stopped getting high.” “We were both very lost,” Mr. Siddiqi said. “We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay.” For some reason the Obama camp wanted this to stay out of public view.

Such caginess is grist for speculation. Some think his transcript, if released, would reveal Mr. Obama as a mediocre student who benefited from racial preference. Yet he later graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, so he knows how to get good grades. Others speculate about ties to the Black Students Organization, though students active then don’t seem to remember him.

sweetnessandlight also had something about Obama’s activities with Columbia’s BSO:
He said he was somewhat involved with the Black Student Organization and anti-apartheid activities, though, in recent interviews, several prominent student leaders said they did not remember his playing a role.

Ignoretalkingheads blog, having read the WSJ piece, notes:
Columbia University and Bank Street College are four blocks apart. See here. Obama attended Columbia from 1981 - 1984. See here. Ayers received a Master of Education Degree from Bank Street in 1984. See here. Doesn’t mean a thing…yet. But after reading the following in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal I smell a rat:

A rat? I don’t know. But Obama won’t talk about Ayers and he doesn’t talk or release documents about his time in NY. All we have to go on is his account in his autobiography, while even friendly former co-workers dispute his characterization of his work and his importance within the organization.

The confusion doesn’t stop there however. After Columbia but before moving to Chicago, Obama was working as a community organizer with the NY Public Interest Research Group.

Again, from the 2007 NYT:

After about a year, he was hired by the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes consumer, environmental and government reform. He became a full-time organizer at City College in Harlem, paid slightly less than $10,000 a year to mobilize student volunteers.

Mr. Obama says he spent three months “trying to convince minority students at City College about the importance of recycling” — a description that surprised some former colleagues. They said that more “bread-and-butter issues” like mass transit, higher education, tuition and financial aid were more likely the emphasis at City College.

I guess one of the reasons the Obama campaign won’t release information or records from his NY days is because of what will turn out to be inconsistencies with this autobiography. It is possible that if his descriptions of his work and activities don’t square with that of coworkers Obama would have to answer to whether his statements were merely exaggerations or outright lies (or maybe not, considering the media love fest).

When an entire campaign revolves around character and a personal story, having that story so easily disputed by friends and coworkers is a huge problem. Obama’s other problem is his autobiography itself - all these assertions about his past are what got him so much attention in the first place. He cannot afford to back off these or his book.

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