Phi Beta Cons

Obama’s Thesis: Much Ado About Very Little

Candace de Russy has suggested that some hanky-panky may lie behind the “disappearance” of Barack Obama’s Columbia senior thesis on nuclear disarmament. I would be wary of pursuing that angle too far.

It’s important to understand that in Obama’s day (and I think this is still true), Columbia was not like Princeton, where every undergraduate was required to write a thesis, which would be bound and shelved in the university library for any visitor to read (except in special cases like that of Michelle Robinson Obama). Most majors at Columbia had no thesis requirement, and political science was one of them. Some students wrote a long paper in their senior year that was loosely referred to as a “thesis,” but no mechanism existed by which the university would keep these papers for posterity. Therefore, there is nothing irregular about the absence of Obama’s “thesis” from the university archives. If it had been kept somehow, that would be highly unusual.
As for Obama’s supposedly “losing” his copy, this avenue of criticism seems mighty shaky to me. I certainly didn’t save any of the papers I wrote at Columbia, and if a copy of one of them ever does turn up, I will pay large sums to keep it hidden. I would no more have kept a copy of a college paper than I would have kept the program from 1980 Columbia-Lafayette football game.
A classmate of Obama’s, who says he knew Obama slightly, writes:

I was a political science major and was not required to write a thesis. I believe history majors may have had such a requirement (because I thought about being a history major but I decided against for some reason and this may have been one reason, among many) but I am not certain about that.

Another political-science major from the same class says:

I will look into whether my thesis is filed anywhere. But I certainly did keep a copy. It provides proof that I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was talking about when it came to the effect of U.S.-West German diplomatic relations. Fortunately by the time the West German election had proven me wrong, I already had my degree.

Which brings up a larger point: Even if Obama did save a copy for some odd reason, and even if he managed to keep it with him through all his moves in the last 25 years, can you really blame him for not sharing it with the entire nation? Old college papers belong in the same category as old love letters: They should be considered private and shown only to the closest of friends. I’ll be the first to criticize Barack Obama when he deserves it, but here I think the case against him is weak at best.
(P.S. Although the only other Columbia College graduate to hold national office, Daniel Tompkins, vice president under Monroe, had his collegiate papers published more than a century after he died, and they’re actually quite well written.)


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