Midway through Senator John McCain’s interview at Columbia University Thursday night, the anticipation and energy that had coursed through the Morningside Heights campus, and into Harlem, all day started to dissipate.
Few of the thousands of students crowded on the steps of the Low Memorial Library even feigned interest in the Republican nominee broadcast on the jumbo screen above them. Those who were not tuned out or immersed in conversation squirmed and yawned impatiently. Others bundled up in hooded sweatshirts, looking uncomfortably cold. At around 8:40 a stream of people filed out of the main Columbia gate on West 116th Street like disappointed fans leaving an arena after a lackluster concert.
I approached two international students at the foot of the steps to get their reaction to Senator McCain’s belief in American exceptionalism.
"What did he say?" a girl parked just a few yards from the screen asked. "I stopped paying attention a few minutes ago."
Those seated a few flights up appeared equally uninterested. "I think we’re all pretty bored with this conversation," said first-year graduate student Vera Ryzhik.
"He’s not even saying anything particularly important," she said.
As if on cue, Barack Obama walked onto the stage and the crowd exploded into cheers. All the partisan spirit that students had dutifully subdued all day in honor of the forum’s public service theme erupted when they caught sight of Senator Obama. People jumped to their feet, threw their arms over their heads, arched their backs, and howled in adulation.
Senator McCain’s appearance was met with scattered, restrained applause from the audience. Senator Obama’s was greeted like a star quarterback returning home after making the winning pass at an away game, and managed to transform a one-hour interview into something like a limousine-liberal tailgate party.
"I have a bit of a homecourt advantage," Senator Obama said, cuing cheers from students with a rare mention of his undergraduate experience at Columbia. "This is my alma mater."
The senator then joked about his salad days in Morningside Heights nearly 30 years ago. "The neighborhood has changed," he said. "When I came here in 1980, you know, some of the apartments around here didn’t look quite what they look like now. And I could afford them then. I don’t think I can now.
SLIGHTLY NORTH FROM MORNINGSIDE Heights, in Harlem, residents are similarly enthusiastic about Senator Obama. Not a block on 125th Street goes by without at least one vendor selling Obama gear-from diamond encrusted, Jacob the Jeweler-style watches with his image on the face for $10 to plaques picturing the Obama family for $20; and of course, T-shirts, of the candidate alone, with African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr., and with his family.
Rick Pendleton, a wheelchair-bound, middle-aged Harlem resident, was among the throng of supporters on 124th Street, waiting to catch a glimpse of Senator Obama coming out of the back exit of Bill Clinton’s office after lunch on Thursday afternoon.
"You know, I have hope, because I was in the hospital with a spinal infection and they told me I wasn’t going to walk again," he said. "Then Obama got nominated and I started walking on crutches, so his hope is kind of my hope."
"You know what I really believe," Mr. Pendleton said. "I think he will make people believe in politics again, and make them become less cynical."
Donald Lanier, a social worker with the Childrens’ Aid Society, says Senator Obama is one of the only public figures the children he works with recognize.
"He’s a real role model," he said. "When I go through the paper with little boys, they don’t know who anyone is, even famous people, but they all know who Obama is."
NOT MANY PEOPLE AT Columbia between 1981 and 1983 seem to remember Senator Obama when he was a student.
In the past, Senator Obama has remained tight-lipped about his life in New York City. In his memoir, Dreams of My Father, Senator Obama wrote that he slept in an alley on 109th Street and Amsterdam the first night he arrived in New York City, and bathed in a fire hydrant next to a homeless man. Today, there is only one alley on the street, and it is gated.
Senator Obama claims to have spent most of his time in the library. He certainly left a light footprint at Columbia during his two years there from 1981 to 1983.
The former vice president of the Black Students Organization, senior Mark Attiah, was shocked to learn that Obama was even a member of the BSO.
"I knew that he graduated from Columbia, but he doesn’t talk about it that much, which I get," Mr. Attiah said. "If you’re running for president of the United States, you want to connect with the elusive common man, so you’re not going to talk about Harvard and Columbia because you might sound elitist."
Coincidentally, Mr. Attiah worked at the 25th reunion of the class of ’83 last year, and not surprisingly, reported that Senator Obama did not attend. "But I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Obama walked through the door right now,’" he said.
In fact, there is not a single picture of Senator Obama in any of the yearbooks from the period when he was a student–he is not even listed as absent in the BSO photo from 1983.
No one from the library in the School of International Public Affairs, the building he would have had most of his classes in as a political science major, remembered him. The chairman of the Political Science Department when Senator Obama was an undergraduate, Mark Chalmers, wrote in an e-mail that he did not remember him, and the two alumni I managed to reach from the class of ’83 refused to answer any questions about their old classmate.