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Obama's Senior Thesis

This (via Ben Smith) is very interesting:

Conservative provocateurs have been hunting for it. Investigative journalists have been on the prowl, too. Even a former professor has been searching through old boxes for his copy of it. But today Barack Obama made it official: He doesn’t have and can’t release any copies of the thesis-length paper he wrote 25 years ago while a senior at Columbia University.

“We do not have a copy of the course paper you requested and neither does Columbia University,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt told NBC News. ...

So we turned for answers to the former professor who graded the now-elusive paper. His former professor, Michael Baron, recalled in an interview with NBC News that Obama easily aced the year-long class. Baron described the paper as a “thesis” or “senior thesis” in several interviews, and said that Obama spent a year working on it. Baron recalls that the topic was nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union.

“My recollection is that the paper was an analysis of the evolution of the arms reduction negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Baron said in an e-mail. “At that time, a hot topic in foreign policy circles was finding a way in which each country could safely reduce the large arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at the other … For U.S. policy makers in both political parties, the aim was not disarmament, but achieving deep reductions in the Soviet nuclear arsenal and keeping a substantial and permanent American advantage. As I remember it, the paper was about those negotiations, their tactics and chances for success. Barack got an A.”

Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama’s critics. “The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made,” he said. “None of the papers in the class were controversial.”

For what it's worth, I also had a semi-strange experience involving the Obama thesis back in February. An aide happened to mention that Obama had written his thesis on nuclear deterrence. When I went back to verify it in a subsequent conversation, the aide told me he'd have to double-check. He subsequently e-mailed to say Obama couldn't remember whether it was his actual thesis or just a paper for a class, so it was probably best to drop the reference altogether. It wasn't a particularly big deal either way--just a minor detail in the context of a much larger piece--but it did leave me scratching my head a bit. I mean, who doesn't remember their senior thesis? Anyway, I hadn't really given it a second thought until just now. (Though we did call Columbia in search of a copy...)

Update: Alright, alright. Point taken, commenters. I agree that this is an exceedingly small deal. I'm not suggesting there's something sinister lurking in those pages. And I can understand why the campaign would be loath to produce the thesis even if it's completely benign, which I suspect is the case. The right-wingers are obviously poised to mine any Obama document for statements that can be taken out of context and distorted, and even the most sober-minded senior thesis is vulnerable to that treatment.

Still, your default posture as a journalist, rather than a partisan or an operative, is that you always want more insight into the person your covering. I don't think it's at all unreasonable for us to push to see a project that Obama labored on for a year.

--Noam Scheiber