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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington
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Every time we meet, Obama remembers me less
Duluth News Tribune, Feb. 3, 2008
and The Daily Voice, Feb. 2008

Barack Obama finds me forgettable, but I won't take it personally. He is, after all, one of the most famous people on the planet, and I'm basically some guy who has met him all of three times in the past four years.

But I also knew him when he was . well, as nobody as me. That was in 1990, when he was a student at Harvard Law School and became the first black president of Harvard Law Review. I worked at Boston's WBZ-TV, and though we didn't break the story - one of the local newspapers did - I'm almost certain we were the first television crew to follow him around campus and interview him in the law review's little frame house.

I wish I could tell you what he said; in two books, he has written very little about that period of his life. I can't find a tape or transcript, but I remember we went long and he cut class to continue taping. And I remember we connected because of our shared biracial heritage. He also gave me props as a sort of big brother a few years his senior, though he had such a strong sense of self he didn't need me to teach him anything.

About a week later, I called him back to request a second interview, for Black Entertainment Television News. By then, the networks had picked up the story and I recall him saying, "I have bigger fish than you now." I took it in the humor in which it was offered.

Harvard Law was frequently in the news then, in particular for protests demanding the school hire a tenure-track woman of color (eventually, Lani Guiner was tapped). Obama wasn't among the handful of students leading the protests.

"He did participate in one," Keith Boykin, one of the protest leaders I covered who went on to work in the Clinton administration and now hosts his own BET show, said from New York.

"He spoke at one of our biggest events. It was after he had become president of law review. Just by his presence he communicated what we were trying to communicate by our actions," Boykin said.

Apparently, that presidency really was a big deal. But, Boykin said, "I never in a million years thought he was going to run for [U.S.] president."

Obama was clearly entertaining the idea the next time I saw him, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Sometime before his keynote speech, I found Obama, his former law professor, Charles Ogletree, and Al Sharpton standing together. Obama remembered me and I reminded him he had cut class to tape our show. Ogletree joked: "Well, we'll have to re-examine that grade!" Sharpton, notably left out of a conversation for the first time in his life, joined the laugh.

Two months later, I saw Obama at the National Conference of Editorial Writers meeting in Chicago. I started the same joke but this time, he more or less looked through me. When I greeted him last August at a meeting with columnists at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Las Vegas, his gaze was even weaker.

My bruised ego will get over it. The reality is he has shaken hands with about a million people since 1990. And as a media person, I know I can't remember the faces of everyone I've interviewed over 30 years. Why should he?

What brings all this to mind is a column by Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz last week wondering if Obama is "remote" to journalists. Online media critic Richard Prince picked up the theme, relating Obama's seeming brush-off of longtime Chicago journalist Monroe Anderson. By contrast, Michelle Obama gave Anderson a big hug.

"I'm pretty sure he does know me, but he's not warm and fuzzy with me," Anderson told me. "That may be because when he was approaching me [earlier in Obama's career], I wasn't warm and fuzzy with him."

In "Dreams from My Father," Obama writes of the public's longing for "that most elusive quality in our leaders - the quality of expectations, of being who you say you are, of possessing a truthfulness that goes beyond words."

That certainly would include being remembered, and many politicians seem to possess photographic memories of everyone they've ever known. Hubert Humphrey was most famous for it.

Ditto for President Clinton, said Boykin, who once was in a group greeting Air Force One. "Out of the blue, he immediately remembered my name. I hadn't worked for him in two years," Boykin said.

But, he added, "I think most politicians either have a trick to get around it or they have really good advisors to help them out. I get the impression that Barack wouldn't want to come off as fake, and so he won't want to pretend."

That's an interesting theory. I'm invited to an Obama event later this month. If I go, I'll ask him about it.

Whoever the heck I am.




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