Belmont Club

The Unusual Suspects

Seen on Twitter, Roger Simon writes “in the new world of the NSA, the only secret left is Barack Obama’s college grades.”

Somebody’s got to know what they are. But it’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. The records are sealed and nobody remembers. Haaretz writes “Obama’s Israeli Columbia classmates don’t recall the young president — U.S. President Barack Obama, due here for his first official visit next week, graduated college in 1983; yet, none of the 25 or so alumni of his class who are now living in Israel remember laying eyes on him.”


They’re scattered around the country, but Beit Shemesh and Ra’anana seem to be their preferred locales. Four live in Jerusalem and its outskirts, three in Tel Aviv, two are up north in Kfar Vradim, and two live over the Green Line in the settlement of Ginot Shomron.

But here’s the thing: Not one of us remembers Barack Obama – who transferred to Columbia after his sophomore year at Occidental College in California – from our undergrad years, nor do we know anyone else who does.

We have better luck among classmates from earlier days. Kirsten Caldwell, who was with the future president at Punahou was interviewed by PBS. She recalls as much more tantalizing Obama, a boy who still in the process of becoming,  who called himself the “son of an Indonesian king” and “Kenyan royalty” who would someday return to be a “ruler in Indonesia”.

My understanding is that Barry — and that’s what we called him, so I’m not meaning to be disrespectful, but I’m going likely to refer to him as Barry for the most part. My understanding is that Barry was on a scholarship. And a lot of times if you’re on scholarship you had to do some work at the school. You worked in the snack bar.

My father told me — and I didn’t know it at the time — that Barry did some work at the tennis courts. We all did work at the tennis courts, those of us who hung out there. So it wasn’t unusual when the tennis pro would ask me, “Go and walk courts 1 and 2,” and that sort of thing, because he would ask any of us to do that. So I wasn’t aware of that.

When I first met Barry, when he showed up I think it was the summer before fifth grade, he was hanging out at the tennis courts. And at the time that was the very Wimbledon-like, where everyone had to wear white clothes and white tennis shoes. Very careful about the soles of the shoes because you didn’t want to scuff up the courts, mark them up.

So yeah, I can picture him as this slightly — “chubby” is too strong, but rounded, short little guy, Barry Obama. And he told us that his father was an Indonesian king and that he was a prince, and after he finished school he was going to go back, and he would be a ruler in Indonesia. And I absolutely believed him.

I understand that he told his fifth-grade class that he was Kenyan royalty, but I never heard that story until years later. My sister and I remember very clearly that he was an Indonesian prince and that he would be going back there. So there was some reference to where he had come from, and the understanding was his family was there.

I didn’t know who he lived with at the time. I since know that it was his grandparents. I knew where he lived, because a lot of times if it rained, my dad would give him a ride home from the tennis courts, because we would hang out after school. In the summers we’d hang out at the tennis courts; after school we would hang out at the tennis courts. That’s what we did. And that’s what Barry did pretty much from fifth through eighth grade. And I think after he leaned up and grew and got into basketball, he shifted away from tennis.


There are in these recollections echoes of the fictional Great Gatsby. Who was Jay Gatsby? Everyone who has read the novel knows that Fitzgerald gives us hints, but never shows us the whole of his hero.  We see him as standing half in the light, half in the shadow.

“Who is he?” I demanded. “Do you know?”

“He’s just a man named Gatsby.”

“Where is he from, I mean? And what does he do?”

“Now you’re started on the subject,” she answered with a wan smile. “Well,–he told me once he was an Oxford man.”

A dim background started to take shape behind him but at her next remark it faded away.

“However, I don’t believe it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she insisted, “I just don’t think he went there.”

Something in her tone reminded me of the other girl’s “I think he killed a man,” and had the effect of stimulating my curiosity. I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the lower East Side of New York. That was comprehensible. But young men didn’t–at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn’t–drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound.

“Anyhow he gives large parties,” said Jordan, changing the subject with an urbane distaste for the concrete. “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”…

James Gatz–that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career–when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior. It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a row-boat, pulled out to the Tuolomee and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.

I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people–his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God–a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that–and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.


No, no that’s wrong. There never was a “James Gatz”. Or if there was, he faded away a long time ago. In the end all the world ever got to see was that man on the blue lawn, hands in his pockets, eyes on the Green Dock. The difference of course was that Gatsby was a fictional character while Barack — or Barry — Soetero or Obama is president of the United States.

What Obama was — is — doesn’t matter. What he knows does matter. Recently trial lawyers have hit upon the notion that since the NSA knows everything, then maybe they can force it to solve all crimes and mysteries past, present and future.

The National Security Agency has spent years demanding that companies turn over their data. Now, the spy agency finds the shoe is on the other foot. A defendant in a Florida murder trial says telephone records collected by the NSA as part of its surveillance programs hold evidence that would help prove his innocence, and his lawyer has demanded that prosecutors produce those records. On Wednesday, the federal government filed a motion saying it would refuse, citing national security. But experts say the novel legal argument could encourage other lawyers to fight for access to the newly disclosed NSA surveillance database.

So maybe they know.

Think of it. Omniscience at last. We could finally know who killed JFK (his 50th death anniversary happens later this year), where the alien cadaver is stored in Area 51 and what really sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is often said that we live in a profane age yet nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Hollywood got it right when Verbal Kint declared that  “Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.” But if Verbal were asked today he might say “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the NSA.”


Do you  believe in Barack Obama, Verbal?

“It’s all there. May I have a cigarette?”.

I don’t smoke.

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