Expert Opinions: Meet Roger Boesche, Who Knew ‘Barry Obama’ in Passing at Occidental

Ever since Obama declared his candidacy for president in early 2007, news organizations have been busy trying to piece together the significant moments in his life, especially those left unaddressed in Obama’s surprisingly candid autobiography, Dreams of My Father.

And so, the young Barack Obama has become a character in the campaign. And Roger Boesche, a professor of political philosophy at Occidental College who taught two classes to the young Barry Obama almost 30 years ago, is mystified at the sudden interest of political reporters in what he has to say.

"Do I know his private life?" Mr. Boesche rhetorically asked The Observer in a telephone interview. "No, I don’t know his private life, I don’t know about any student’s private life, unless they come into my office crying and tell me their life story."

Which, apparently, young Barry did not do with Professor Boesche.

Nevertheless, Mr. Boesche found his name in a Jan. 29, 2007 article, published in the Los Angeles Times, subtitled "Occidental recalls ‘Barry’ Obama."

In the article, the professor, who is described as "Obama’s intellectual mentor at Occidental," called the future senator "a very thoughtful student and a very curious student."

He’s been a minor media darling ever since—the kind of name that nobody remembers but that other reporters find and look up when it’s time for them to write about Senator Obama’s life.

Mr. Boesche said that some of the reporters who call him up for an interview are disappointed, to judge from the fact that his quotes don’t always make the grade.

He estimates that around 10 different reporters have contacted him looking for stories; he hasn’t appeared in all of them.

Mr. Boesche’s media credentials may have been artificially enhanced when former Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendall referred to him as an important influence in Obama’s life in his 2007 Obama biography From Promise to Power.

Professor Boesche disputes this characterization, and it raises the question of just how much a professor is able to remember about a student three decades after their last classroom meeting.

"He did associate himself with some of the students that I did know much better," Mr. Boesche says. "He was a smart kid, and he had a memorable name."

Mr. Boesche’s star may already be fading, for which he would be thankful. When he got a call from Serge F. Kovaleski, who was writing a page-one story in The New York Times about Senator Obama’s drug use as a young man, little of what he said made it into the piece. Mr. Boesche theorized that the reporter, "wanting a new angle," found that what he said "didn’t fit the thesis of the article." Expert Opinions: Meet Roger Boesche, Who Knew ‘Barry Obama’ in Passing at Occidental