Watching the rise of Barak Obama, I am reminded of no one so much as Stuart Garcia. A year apart at Columbia in the early 80s, they were early-form good government, activist types during a decidedly non-activist period on Morningside Heights. Stuart believed in student government and took a very active, public role. Obama was involved in the anti-Apartheid movement, which provided the only truly active political moments during my four years there.
I knew Stuart Garcia, but didn't run into Barak Obama. Stuart was my class year, Obama the year before, and he was a transfer student. Not that I looked, mind you; too many brain cells were busy meeting their wonderful ends.
But I thought of Stuart a lot as I digested all the recent Barak hoopla, and I thought: there but for the killer virus goes my former psych lab partner, fellow freshman orientation carouser, and friend.
Stuart Garcia was one of the early casualties of AIDS, dying only two years after graduation, in 1986. He was a natural politician, had the common touch. Short, friendly, with a shock of thick straight hair that levitated when he walked. There is no doubt in my mind that he'd be a figure in politics had he lived, either in his native Texas or somewhere else. He was open, not shy, a friend to all - my opposite, in those years, really. And he was 23 when he died. Steve Waldman, who was a close friend, summed it up well in his recent BeliefNet column:
It seemed especially cruel because Stuart was one of those people who seemed destined to do something important. I met him in college when he was the president of the student body and I was the editor of the school newspaper. He had that rare combination of talent, earnestness, and ambition that makes for great men and women.
Sounds like Obama's current press to me. A couple of Stuart memories: being hypnotized together during freshman orientation in front of hundreds of mocking classmates; taking Stuart to Max's Kansas City and introducing the kid from Texas to the New York music scene (and finding that we shared a common love for Joe "King" Carrasco, who was then the rage in the downtown clubs); locking each other in refrigerator-sized isolation booths to gauge our reaction to various stimuli in Skinner psychology; chatting briefly with Jesse Jackson, he as the big student government dude, me as the accidental tourist on the way to pick up pizza for a Stratomatic marathon. He was the activist. I was, er, something else entirely.
Barak Obama has a ton of hype to live up to, and he may well do it. I like what I hear, and I like how he goes about it, the respect he shows for all audiences. He's a Columbia guy from the early 80s who still lives his early activism at a higher level. And there are whispers of Stuart Garcia when he talks.