Remembering Barry

The Observer had the great idea of asking people who had known Barack Obama in earlier times for their recollections. Here’s Terry Link, who was a fellow State Senator with him in Illinois.

I don’t drink at all, Barack would have a beer once in a while, so we didn’t carouse the bars like lots of the others. You could say that we were both measured personalities. So I said: ‘Why don’t we have a card game?’ We called it the ‘Committee Meeting’ but there was no shop talk allowed. We had seven or eight Republicans and Democrats and it was a time to get to know one another out of the shadows of the Capitol. We’d take the suits and ties off, sit back and have a night of relaxing. It was low-stakes poker: a dollar stake, three dollar top raise. No one was going to lose their mortgage or house. Barack wore sweat pants and a baseball cap, drank a beer and would cadge a few cigarettes.

If his style of poker is like how he’ll run the White House I’ll sleep well at night. He is very conscious of the odds. If he thought he had a chance of winning he’d stay in the game; if he thought not he’d fold straight away. He read and played the field very well. He was serious at it.

There was another player, Larry Walsh, a relatively conservative Democrat. Barack trumped his four of a kind with a higher four of a kind to take the pot and Walsh threw his cards down. ‘Doggone it, Barack,’ he said. ‘If you were more liberal in your card playing and more conservative in your politics, we’d get along much better.’

There’s an interesting epistemological problem here, in that people’s memories of someone are inevitably coloured by what they know of his or her subsequent career. If Obama had turned out to be a moderately successful academic lawyer or a community organiser, would people have the same kinds of memories of him? I suspect not.

Another Observer correspondent was Larry Tribe, a law professor at Harvard. Here’s part of his reminiscence:

Barack came to see me during his first year at Harvard. It was 31 March 1989. I found my desk calendar and I’d written his name with an exclamation point. From the late 1960s, when I began teaching as a professor at Harvard Law School, until the present, there has been no other student whose name I’ve noted in that way.

He impressed me from the beginning as an extraordinary young man. He was obviously brilliant, driven and interested in pursuing ideas with a clear sense that his reasons for being in law school were not to climb some corporate ladder, nor simply to broaden his opportunities, but to go back to the community.

He had a combination of intellectual acumen, open-mindedness, resistance to stereotypical thinking and conventional presuppositions. He also had a willingness to change his mind when new evidence appeared, confidence in his own moral compass and a maturity that obviously came from some combination of his upbringing and earlier experience.


We used to take long walks on the Charles River in Boston. Our conversations were enormously wide-ranging and enjoyable, about life in general, not just about work. I had no doubt as I got to know him that he had an unlimited future. I didn’t have a clear sense of what direction it would take, but I thought it would be political and I thought the sky was the limit.

He had a personal quality which was transcendent and I continued to feel that way about him each time we met. And the quality he demonstrated that I’ve always been left with more than any other is authenticity. There isn’t a fibre of phoniness about this guy.