LISTEN: Before Obama Was President, In His Own Words On NPR | KERA News

LISTEN: Before Obama Was President, In His Own Words On NPR

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 11, 2017 9:06 am

When Barack Obama makes his farewell address Tuesday night, it will be one of the last times we'll hear from the president, while he's still actually the president.

But before his political career, Obama was a community organizer in Chicago, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and the state director of Illinois Project Vote.

And it was back then — in the 1990s, when Obama was in his late 20s and early 30s — that he first appeared on NPR.

Here are highlights from some of those earliest appearances:

In 1990, Obama was still a student at Harvard Law School and had just become the Harvard Law Review's first black president when he was interviewed on Morning Edition.

Obama discusses changes he hoped to initiate:

At the time, Obama was 29 years old. He had worked for a few years as a community organizer in Chicago, before going to law school.

Obama discusses what his plans are after serving as president of the law review:

By the summer of 1992, Obama had gotten involved in politics. He was the state director of Illinois Project Vote. Bill Clinton was campaigning for president, with Hillary Clinton at his side.

Meanwhile, Obama was 30 years old, and working on voter registration.

Even in the 1990s, Obama was talking about something he references a lot now: getting people involved in politics and invested in institutions.

Here he is on NPR's Talk of The Nation in 1992:

Another theme in these appearances: Obama talking about issues of race. It's something he grappled with in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, and in this commentary on All Things Considered in October 1994.

In it, he criticizes the book The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. That book was controversial for the way it linked race, genetics and IQ — and Obama called it "dubious science."

Obama argued that the country needed to invest in public schools and good-paying jobs, and provide what he called "real opportunity" for black children.

Listen to Obama's commentary:

Exactly 14 years after that commentary aired, Obama was campaigning in Pennsylvania.

He was one week away from being elected the country's first black president.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Ahead of the president's farewell speech tonight, we decided to look in the stacks of CDs where we keep our archives to find some of the earliest times we heard the name Barack Obama on NPR.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As you'll hear, we found tape of Obama when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, like in this interview on Morning Edition in 1990. Back then, Obama was at Harvard Law School.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS, BYLINE: The Harvard Law Review has a new president who may initiate significant changes in the publication. Barack Obama is the organization's first black president, and he has some definite ideas he wants to try.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Law reviews are notoriously bad bedtime reading, so making the writing more accessible, making it more interesting is a primary goal.

MCEVERS: At the time, Obama was 29 years old. He had worked for a few years as a community organizer in Chicago before going to Harvard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

EDWARDS: Presidents of Harvard Law Review generally go on to serve as a clerk to a judge on a federal appeals court, then to a justice of the Supreme Court.

OBAMA: Right.

EDWARDS: That in your plans?

OBAMA: Well, you know, probably not, actually. I'm very interested in helping to rebuild inner city communities in the country. I'm very interested in figuring out ways to foster dialogue between the private sector and the public sector, between blacks and whites. Because of all those things, I think I'm more interested to go either back into community organizing or to go into government service or politics at some stage.

CORNISH: By the summer of 1992, Obama had gotten involved in politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN HOCKENBERRY, BYLINE: On the line with me from Chicago is Barack Obama, who's the state director of Illinois Project Vote. Mr. Obama, good afternoon.

OBAMA: Good afternoon. How are you?

MCEVERS: That's from NPR's Talk of the Nation ahead of the 1992 presidential election. Obama was 30 years old and working on voter registration.

CORNISH: Even in the '90s, Obama was talking about getting people involved in politics and said voting alone wasn't enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: At some point, you're going to have to have leadership. You're going to have to have organizations. You're going to have to have political leaders giving people some sense that the debates about the issues are real, that they touch their lives, that they have some means of accessing the debate so that by the time an election comes about and voting comes about, people are already plugged in. They already feel invested.

MCEVERS: Another theme in these old recordings? Obama talking about race, like in this commentary for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: It's time for all of us - and now I'm talking about the larger American community - to acknowledge that we've never even come close to providing equal opportunity to the majority of black children.

CORNISH: Obama was criticizing the book "The Bell Curve," co-authored by Charles Murray. That book was controversial for the way it linked race, genetics and IQ. And Obama called it dubious science.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it's artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell. It's easy to see the basis for Mr. Murray's calculations. After watching their incomes stagnate or decline over the past decade, the majority of Americans are in an ugly mood and deeply resent any advantages, real or perceived, that minorities may enjoy.

MCEVERS: Obama argued the country needed to invest in public schools and good paying jobs, and provide what he called real opportunity for black children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: That we fail to make this investment is just plain stupid. It's not the result of an intellectual deficit. It's the result of a moral deficit.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Barack Obama. He's a civil rights lawyer and writer. He lives in Chicago.

CORNISH: That was from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on October 28, 1994.

MCEVERS: After that, we heard from Obama more and more as he became a national figure. Exactly 14 years after that commentary aired, he was campaigning in Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: If we are - if we see this kind of dedication on Election Day, there is no way that we're not going to bring change to America.

MCEVERS: He was one week away from being elected America's first black president.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FISHERMAN THREE AND BEN FRIES SONG, "THE REIGN OF NIGHT IS FINALLY OVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.