During his commencement address at Wesleyan College this weekend, Barack Obama told the assembled graduates:
But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me –hard work, honesty, empathy – had resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself. I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa. I began following the debates in this country about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea – that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change.
I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.
And I said yes.
But Obama did not go from college to the “grassroots,” as his statement at Wesleyan would lead one to believe. Upon graduating from Columbia in 1983, he worked first at Business International Corporation and then at New York Public Interest Research Group, both in New York City. Obama didn’t take the community organizing job and move to Chicago until 1985. After three years in that capacity, he enrolled in law school.
Obama seems to consider the fact that he didn’t apply to law school or work on Wall Street until several years after graduating from college a sign of particular distinction. In fact, as those of us acquainted with recent college graduates and/or who interview law students for employment know, it is quite common for law school-bound college grads to work for a while first, and not on Wall Street. This work often consists of “public interest” activity and, in any event, typically pays quite modestly.
Obama may justifiably be proud of what he did between college and law school, but it is hardly the stuff of legends.
JOHN adds: At The Corner, Jim Manzi points out that Obama earned over $4 million last year, so the public service route has worked out pretty well for him. Manzi writes:
I’m pretty far from being a John McCain booster, but does Obama not get that he’s running against a guy who spent the directly analogous years of his life in a fetid jungle prison being hung upside down and beaten with sticks until his bones broke?
And I said yes. Cry me a river, pal.
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