We Knew Them When...

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Barack Obama

Barack Obama, shortly after being named president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. Joe Wrinn/Harvard University hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Wrinn/Harvard University

"If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
— Alice Roosevelt Longworth

I bet many of you think all reporters feel that way, but we don't. We really don't. We're gossips and snoops (of course) but that doesn't mean we're nasty about it (all the time). Which brings me to the presidential race. Can you believe how early this thing has started? We are up to something like 18 candidates — it seems like half the Senate is running, along with the former "somethings." How to keep track? How to figure out who's who and what's what?

Everybody has his or her own yardstick. When people ask me why we write about one thing or another, I always say that the voter registration card doesn't come with instructions. You use it any way you want: to support a policy, a character attribute, a religious preference. Whatever anybody else may think of the way you cast your vote, that's your business. As reporters we are often guessing about the kinds of things that may become relevant to the candidate's job, very often taking cues from the kinds of things voters say they want to know.

And what a lot of people say is that they really want to know what makes a candidate tick, because positions and issues change. But big-time politics is so managed, so scripted these days, it's hard to catch those moments that make you feel like you know the person behind the image.

That's why we thought it would be fun to begin talking to people who knew the candidates before they became the big cheeses they are today. We plan to cover every declared candidate, hopefully more than once. It won't escape your attention that the first group of people to put their hands up are those who really like these guys (and gals).

We start with Cassandra Butts, who was a law school classmate of Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois and now a presidential contender.

Did this conversation offer new insights into the candidate? Which candidate would you like to hear about next? And certainly, if you have ideas for good guests, do tell.



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I think this is an outstanding idea! I look forward to hearing more.

Sent by Dave | 12:52 PM | 2-22-2007

I don't know much about Obama, but I find him very charismatic. I turned in to learn more about his background but this interview turned me off quickly. Cassandra Butts didn't seem to know Obama any better than any other lawschool classmate. She has no real stories of her friendship with him. Her observations about his rusty Toyota and dingy turtlenecks are just that -- observations. I'd have real stories with details of time spent with my good friends. Her "stories" had no meat. Butts also seemed to be too-carefully rehearsed - like a campaigner pressing sound bites - for ex - her repeated mention of his "willingness to hear other opinions" and downplaying his ambition (how he was "happy to be in the background but was thrust into the limelight. It all seemed just a little too pat. My advice - get a little more meat in the pre-interview.

Sent by nlbW75 | 1:29 PM | 2-22-2007

There wasn't anything Earth-shattering or really eye openning, but I like the idea of hearing from friends from when these candidates were nobodies.

I hope we get to hear about all candidates equally. For example, Dennis Kucinich suffered in 2004 because most of the media didn't consider him "winnable". That doesn't mean we shouldn't hear about him, though.

Sent by Scott K | 1:46 PM | 2-22-2007

Great idea! It is very important to learn about political candidates in a way that is not tarnished by overtly positive or negative versions of their life stories.

This should make us all realize how important it is for us to treat everyone with respect. Who knows? Someday we may raise to fame and have to sweat about what other people from our past will say about us.

Sent by Steve Petersen | 3:02 PM | 2-22-2007

Oh yeah, I found it interesting to hear how Ms. Butts thinks Barack Obama feels about his racial identity. I wonder how Muslims -- both secular and religious -- feel about strong ties to his African American half than his Muslim heritage. Is this even an important issue since Obama has never practiced the Islamic religion? Further, why has it even gained traction since even his virtually lifelong estranged father became an atheist?

Sent by Steve Petersen | 3:28 PM | 2-22-2007

I enjoyed the program very much. In the future, I'd like to hear from people that have less of a current connection to the public figure. While Ms. Butts' interview was interesting, it seemed very... carefully worded. A candid interview with someone less politically inclined would be so much more interesting.

Sent by sanam | 4:50 PM | 2-22-2007

nlbW75, interesting observation. As Sanam pointed out, it could have very well been that her choice of words was just very deliberate. Hey, it's political season. Who knows?

We still think she helped us learn more, if only a modest amount, about the the Senator's personality...and for that, it was worth it.

Good posts so far. Keep 'em coming...

Sent by Lee with Rough Cuts | 6:45 PM | 2-22-2007

I really enjoyed hearing from Mrs. Butts she didnt seem like she was viewing him from afar more like she was choosing her words carefully.

Keep Rough Cuts around I really enjoy all of the shows.

Sent by LadyKD | 7:47 PM | 2-22-2007

Yes, this is a good idea. It shouldn't be considered a fault that Butts is a careful speaker; she's a professional and is a good communicator. What she said about his maturity is important: Barak is not a person who chose to indulge himself as a college student.

Look forward to hearing about all the other candidates.

Sent by Chris Maciel | 8:57 PM | 2-22-2007

This is a GREAT idea! As a college student it was so interesting to hear the perspective of a law school friend of Barack Obama. It really made him seem human. In general i think Rough Cuts is off to a wonderful start! Every segment i've listened to has been fascinating. Keep up the good work!!

Sent by Roxy | 9:07 PM | 2-22-2007

I enjoyed the interview with Ms. Butts, but I agree it would be good to hear from someone less politically committed. How about a Yale Law classmate of Mrs. Clinton, who knew her before Bill. Or perhaps Mrs. Hill (Grant Hill's mother) who was, if memory serves, her undergraduate roommate?

Sent by Steve Marcum | 10:02 PM | 2-22-2007

Listening to the interview reminded me of the bible story of Jacob wrestling with the angel for a blessing. You did your best, Michel, but I'm not sure how interesting the interviews will be since the only folks likely to come forward are ardent supporters who will leave the most interesting stories untold. For a good reason: they love their candidate and want to protect and support him/her. We all know how unforgiving the media can be and no one wants to jeopordize their man/woman. Ya gotta get some crazy old aunt to tell the story about the first time little Hillary or Barack got their first ass whuppin. Or the family barber who tells how he schooled pimple-faced Mitt on the birds and the bees. Otherwise the folks interviewed will likely sound like it's Sunday morning and they're on Face the Nation though I hope I'm wrong about that. Keep wrasslin.

Sent by Stanley | 9:54 AM | 2-23-2007

This is a great angle. Please continue, I know I'll look forward to future interviews--the good, the bad and the ugly.

Sent by Ricky | 11:33 AM | 2-23-2007

to Stanley--know any aunts? We need some aunts!!! You know, no disrespect to Cassandra (because, who knows? she could be on the Supreme Court one day and we all need to kiss Butts--get it?) AND she does speak with precision--she''s a lawyer. BUT I have noticed that it's getting harder and harder to get people to talk to us like regular people. this is something I noticed when I started covering political conventions. It seems that the talking points memo started going out in junior high school--and by the time you actually get to the top tier everything is super polished (Hey! Unscripted--that could be a show name!)I don't know how to get around that--we should value people who speak well..on the other hand, we love crazy aunts! thanks for writing....

Sent by Michel Martin and the rough cuts team | 2:31 PM | 2-23-2007

I agree with Stanley that talking to supporters of candidates inevitably leads to ardent support that might lack some critical insight, though I'm not sure that I want to listen to someone on the periphery, like Hillary's "crazy aunt." I don't want interesting just because it is interesting. I want to know more about what makes a candidate who they are. That is the gist of what I am getting out of the blogs so far, which is why some people have asked for fewer "carefully worded" friends and more rawness. Still, I tend to disagree a bit, in that most of us don???t want to know about the little things that make up a person; we want to hear from the person who was there during an important event in a candidate???s life: challenging divorce, lost loved-one, successful law school. I enjoyed very much Cassandra Butts's thoughts: they were careful, but they were honest. If you have a childhood friend of Mitt Romney's come on, I don't know if I'll enjoy very much learning about how he saved a whale once stranded on the beach of the Great Salt Lake. If he knows Mitt's development as as a thinker, as a human, I would appreciate the insight. Keep up the good work.

Sent by Scott | 2:44 PM | 2-23-2007

What I found most valuable about this interview was not any new information about Senator Obama - these are all things I've heard about him as his constituent over the last six years, and as a resident of his Chicago neighborhood - but rather that he has been remarkably consistent in his values and behaviors. Ms. Butts didn't give us any earth-shattering information, but instead confirmed that Senator Obama has not put on a radically different public persona solely for the purposes of electability.

This is the kind of information one rarely hears during public campaigns, and I hope future interviews in this series can continue in this vein.

Sent by Suzanne | 2:18 AM | 2-24-2007

I think the segment was interesting. I would like to know how you found this person. Were you directed to her by Obama's campaign? Did she volunteer? Did you seek her out?

Sent by Kim | 12:49 PM | 2-25-2007

This is a great idea. I really like the idea of hearing about the candidates from people who know them. There are a few things which would make the interview(s) better. One--I would like to hear from 2-3 people, giving a more rounded picture of the person. Second, I would like to know a bit more about the affiliation between them. In this particular case, a counterpoint from a conservative who knew him at law school could give us a different view of Obama.
I have to agree with the other posters that there wasn't anything really new or earthshattering, but a confirmation and a bit of a deepening of the understanding of the man. Thanks, keep up the good work.

Sent by Bryan | 2:19 PM | 2-26-2007

A very insightful story that sets it apart from any other story because it is so tangible. Keep up the good work.

Sent by Art | 5:15 PM | 2-26-2007

I think this is a great idea, and I've really enjoyed all of the programs I've heard so far. Please consider doing another segment on Senator Obama with maybe a classmate from high school or undergrad. I'd like to learn more about his personal side. I look forward to similar segments on the other candidates.

Sent by Donna | 6:26 PM | 2-27-2007

Just another compliment about how much I enjoy and respect Michel Martin's show. I think she possesses a great skill at being able to talk about sensitve issues without alienating her audience. Hearing stories about injustices that have occurred to African Americans in history is helpful and necessary to progress as society. Being a white person from the south, I often find myself in denial of the painful history of our region. I focus on people who were not racist and made efforts to bring about change and racial equality in the south. People tend to assume that black and white people in the south do not get along, when in fact, I find the rest of the country has the potential to be more segregated. Because bring up painful history tends "rock the boat" in the south, many people unaware of many of these injustices. I appreciate Michel Martin's ability to talk about real and sensitive issues without making me feel threatened, accused, or alienated. It is great to be able to have a forum to talk about these racial issues and injustices that often are not addressed because people are too sensitve. Thanks, Michel, for faciliting awareness.

Sent by Laura Smith | 12:39 PM | 3-16-2007

great idea, need to maybe break the scripted cycle with sharper oblique questions like have you ever seen him(her) in tough situations? The story may be scripted but your follow-up could be a brilliant move away from the standard line. Good work!!

Sent by martin harris | 4:21 PM | 3-16-2007