By disclosing to the media last year that he had “a B-plus” GPA at Occidental College and “a 3.7” GPA at Columbia College, President Obama has put himself in a situation comparable to then-Senator Biden during his 1987 campaign for the presidency. In that campaign, Biden’s disclosures about his academic performance led to the media demanding that he release his academic records. Biden capitulated, saying that such records were “legitimate questions of press inquiry.”
During his 1987 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden falsely claimed that he had “graduated with three degrees from college” (he had one degree), was “the outstanding student in the political science department” (he was in the bottom 26% of his class), had gone to law school “on a full academic scholarship” (he had no academic scholarship), and had graduated in the top half of his law school class (he was in the bottom 12%). Biden self-contradictorily defended himself by saying, “I’ve never gone around telling people things that aren’t true about me.” At the time, Johnny Carson joked that Biden had violated the first rule of politics: always lie about the future, but never the past.
Biden’s academic records also revealed that he had flunked a course for plagiarizing five pages from a Fordham Law Review article for a 15-page law school paper. In his defense, Biden rhetorically asked, “If I had intended to cheat, would I have been so stupid?”
The discrepancies between Biden’s public statements and academic records led to his withdrawal from the race, proving that academic records can be relevant and material to a presidential campaign. Biden withdrew not because his transcripts revealed his poor grades in the 1960s, but because his transcripts revealed his poor truthfulness in 1987. As Biden said in August 2008, after Obama selected him to be Obama’s running mate, “Campaigns for presidents [sic] are a test of character and leadership.” In 1987, Biden flunked his own test.
By disclosing his college GPAs during a November 2011 interview with author and reporter David Maraniss, Obama has put himself in a comparable position to Biden in 1987. That is, Obama has publicly disclosed during a presidential campaign important elements of his academic record, knowing that there were questions among the voters about his academic performance.
Before Obama chose to disclose his grades to the media, Obama’s grades were unquestionably private and confidential. If he was truthful about his college GPAs, then they are now unquestionably public and non-confidential. Having voluntarily chosen to disclose his GPAs, there is no reason for him now to object to independent verification of those claims unless he knows that his grades differ from what he told the media.
Although all presidential candidates deserve a presumption of truthfulness, there are legitimate questions about President Obama’s GPA claims, as set forth in detail in my book Barack O’Liberal: The Education of President Obama. For example, with respect to his GPA at Occidental College, Obama said he was “goofing off for the first two years of college” and had a “lackadaisical approach to his [Occidental] studies.” One of his Occidental professors said Obama “wasn’t a very serious student” and another said that Obama “wasn’t working hard enough.” One of Obama’s law school recommenders said, “I think [Obama] didn’t do too well in college.” If Obama had a 3.7 GPA at Columbia, then why did he graduate without honors? Why is there no public evidence that he made Columbia’s Dean’s List, which required only a 3.33 GPA in any semester? Why hasn’t Obama sought to collect (at least for charity) the million-dollar bet from his classmate, Wayne Allyn Root, that Obama had a sub-3.5 GPA at Columbia?
So far, Obama has refused independent verification of his academic record. The New York Times said that Obama “declined repeated requests to talk about his New York years, release his Columbia transcript or identify even a single fellow student, coworker, roommate or friend from those years.” When Salon asked for Obama’s LSAT score, the request was refused. Valerie Jarrett called the requests for Obama’s transcripts “nonsense” and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called such requests “preposterous.”
Some have claimed that the issue is uniquely related to Obama being our first African American president. This claim is refuted by the fact that the media have published Biden’s law school and college grades, Bradley’s SAT score, Bush’s college grades and SAT score, Gore’s SAT score and college grades, Kerry’s college grades, McCain’s class rank, Perry’s college grades, and JFK’s high school grades and test scores. The media have even disclosed Romney’s ninth-grade transcript, GPA at BYU (3.97 GPA), rank at Harvard Business School (top 5%), and honors at Harvard Law School (cum laude). What makes President Obama unique among presidential candidates is not the public’s interest in his academic records but the media’s lack of interest in them.
Some have claimed that Obama’s grades are ancient history, notwithstanding that the media have not hesitated to publish countless stories about his childhood. In fact, Obama’s academic records are not so ancient given that he had the shortest period from the end of his schooling until the presidency of any president in our history: 16 years. Even now, it has been only 21 years since his graduation.
In any event, even if his grades in the 1980s were ancient history, Obama’s public comments about them within the last year are not. Just like Biden in 1987, Obama has changed the issue from his past grades to his present veracity. Although the GNP under Obama is far more important than his GPA, his truthfulness about his academic record is as relevant now as it was for the man he has chosen to be one heartbeat away from the presidency.
Given that the truthfulness of a presidential candidate’s statements during a campaign is always a legitimate issue, there is now a legitimate campaign issue: Did Obama, like Biden, make false statements about his academic record during a presidential campaign? Hopefully, he did not. If he did speak falsely, then he should follow the words he wrote inDreams from My Father: “Truth is usually the best corrective.”
Alan R. Lockwood is the author of Barack O’Liberal: The Education of President Obama.