This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and military and diplomatic history specialist Meg McAleer.
The Manuscript Division recently acquired more than twenty Barack Obama letters, postcards, notes, photographs, and campaign ephemera. Most date from his senior year in college in 1983 and subsequent work as a community organizer in Chicago through 1988. They were donated by his Columbia University roommate, Philip S. Boerner. The two met as freshmen at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979 before transferring independently to Columbia as rising juniors in 1981. Columbia did not provide housing to transfer students, so Obama invited Boerner to share a sublet he found through a friend of his mother. However, due to the apartment’s notable lack of reliable heat and hot water, they eventually sought other accommodations, but remained friends. The most substantive and revealing Obama letters date from 1983 to 1986. Thereafter the notes become briefer, as familial and professional obligations mounted over time.
Anyone who saw Philip Boerner and his collection of Obama letters on Season 24, Episode 23 of Antiques Roadshow, which first aired on November 2, 2020, will know the incredible generosity of the Boerners in donating these letters to the Library of Congress and the American people.
The Manuscript Division’s presidential collections reveal a great deal about the humanity of presidents whom we select from our own citizenry. We hope, as voters, that their life experiences and skills will make them good leaders of our large and diverse nation. Later, we seek insights from their biographies to understand whether our hopes were well placed.
This collection also confirms my fascination with materials emanating from a person’s early professional life –a rich time of achievement and setback, exhilarating highs and chronic uncertainty, outward engagement and inner discovery, despite crushing workloads that seemingly leave little time for reflection. Often an individual’s early paper trail is disarmingly unmediated and candid, as the young(ish) person embarks professionally into the world. I have seen this in the papers of designers, journalists, scientists, military officers, diplomats, national security advisors, members of Congress, and U.S. presidents, and now again in this small collection of Barack Obama’s letters.
Barack Obama’s biography as the first African American president, with his lineage as the son of a Kenyan father, white American mother, and Indonesian stepfather, with a childhood divided between Hawaii and Indonesia, sets him apart from other Oval Office occupants, as does his late baby-boomer birth. His Ivy League educational pedigree—undergraduate degree from Columbia University and law degree from Harvard University—also distinguishes him, only less so. All of this unfolds in the letters.
The new collection also provides perspective on the efficacy of the four-year model for college, as Obama’s correspondence reveals both growing maturity and adolescent self-regard. Indeed, Obama wrote to Boerner that he felt “a growing competence and maturity” before adding somewhat cynically, “there isn’t much place for such qualities in this mediocre but amusing and occasionally lovable society.” Before you judge, consider similar comments you may have made to trusted friends as a pseudo-sophisticated college senior. This letter also suggests another point. After four long years, students outgrow the undergraduate environment. “[S]chool is just making the same motions,” Obama wrote, with “long stretches of numbness punctuated with occasional insight.” To put this letter in context, he was writing to a friend who had taken the semester off. Perhaps his intent was to reassure Boerner: Don’t worry – you are not missing out.
The summer after graduation is often a liminal time of uncertainty and drifting. It found Obama visiting his family in Indonesia, sitting on a “porch in my sarong, sipping strong coffee and drawing on a clove cigarette, watching the heavy dusk close over the paddy terraces of Java. Very kick back, so far from the madness.” Never discount the value of drift.
After a brief stint working in New York, Obama accepted a job as a community organizer with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago. If Obama’s letter during his last semester at Columbia reflected senior-year bravado, his letter to Boerner on November 20, 1985, as a community organizer, shows humility and growth. He is not the lone hero. The people themselves are fighting the fight: “I walk into a room and make promises I hope they can help me keep. They generally trust me, despite the fact that they’ve seen earnest young men pass through here before . . .” He is uncertain: “[Y]ou see a 43% drop out rate in the public schools and don’t know where to begin denting that figure.” He cares: “I’ve learned to care for them very much and want to do everything I can for them.” He perseveres through hard work. On October 21, 1986, he wrote: “I shoulder the responsibility of making something work that may not be able to work. The scope of the problems here—25% unemployment; 40% high school drop out rate; infant mortality on par with Haiti—are daunting, and I often feel impotent to initiate anything with major impact.” Obama is maturing.
Obama’s beautifully written letters will make you feel bad that you no longer write letters and even worse about the comparative quality of the letters you did write back when. Obama and Boerner shared a love of writing. We know from the letters that they exchanged short stories and that Obama disciplined himself to write most mornings. His letters are fully rendered, insightful, and descriptive. He wrote about race relations in Chicago, the toll of a devastated economy, the ups and downs of his community work, and what gave him hope— “a shy housewife standing up to a bumbling official.” In the November 20, 1985, letter, from which the above quote also comes, he described a key difference between New Yorkers and many Chicagoans—the lingering hint of the country: “The secretary in a skyscraper office still has the expression of a farm girl. The sound of crickets in a hot Southern night lies just below the surface of the young black girls [sic] words at a check-out counter.”
The last letters are increasingly brief. Both Boerner and Obama got married, and Boerner and his wife Karen had their first child, daughter Laura Alison. Obama confessed in April 1994: “I still have the nicotine habit, but Michelle has made me promise to quit, as soon as the book is done. Otherwise, no babies!” The book is, of course, Dreams from My Father. In 1999, Obama wrote: “Michelle and I have a beautiful baby daughter, Malia, one year old. I am running for Congress.” He lost that election – another lesson in resilience. Boerner and Obama had not seen each other since 1985 when they met again in the Oval Office in 2011. The passage of time was irrelevant. The friendship endured. The last letter from Obama is dated 2012, when Boerner’s father died.
One final note: Documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt interviewed Boerner for Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union (2021). The interview is available online and is well worth watching. It reveals Boerner’s own intelligence, humanity, and gift for friendship. It will make you envious that you were not part of his late-night college bull sessions with Obama debating philosophy, literature, social justice, politics, and current world events.
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