Roger Boesche, Occidental's Arthur G. Coons Distinguished Professor in the History of Ideas, was given the rare privilege of a "drop-in" visit with President Barack Obama '83 -- his old student -- in the White House's Oval Office on August 13.
They hadn't seen each other since 1981, when Obama was preparing to transfer to Columbia University, and had kept in touch sporadically by email. Still, Obama has called Boesche one of his most influential teachers. Boesche's wife Mandy and daughter Kelsey accompanied him to the Oval Office.
The visit had been in the works for weeks, arranged with the help of Janette Sadik-Khan '82, New York City's transportation commissioner. "We were enchanted, we were very happy," Boesche said. "My wife and daughter were just thrilled to be able to see the president. And me, too."
According to Boesche, Obama greeted him by saying, "Professor Boesche! It's good to see you after all these years," and gave his old teacher a warm smile and firm handshake. "The last time I saw you I called you by a much less formal title," Boesche said he told the president, who laughed and said, "Oh, you still can!" In an email to friends about the visit, Mandy remarked on Obama's "clear delight" at seeing his former professor, and "their easy and charming rapport with one another."
"When he was my student I knew him as Barry Obama," Boesche said. "And he had a moderate Afro. But I guess I've seen him so many times now on TV that he looked just like what you would expect."
Boesche continued: "Obama announced to the room that 'Professor Boesche taught me everything I know about politics.' And then he added with a laugh, 'But he gave a me a 'B' on a paper!'" Obama took two courses with Boesche: American Political Thought during his freshman year and European Political Thought: Nietzsche to Foucault as a sophomore.
The pair chatted and reminisced for about 10 minutes, touching on the president's healthcare reform proposal and Machiavelli, among other things. "I thanked him for working so passionately on healthcare, and I referred to my own experience, since I've had rheumatoid arthritis since I was a teenager," Boesche, 61, said. "And I said I've always worried about losing my health insurance. That was a serious moment and he took it seriously. Then I told him I thought he was the greatest American orator since William Jennings Bryan and that he could push through this healthcare bill."
Boesche presented Obama with a personally inscribed copy of his book Theories of Tyranny. In turn, Obama gave Boesche a pair of presidential cufflinks and presidential pins to his wife and daughter before posing for photos.
In parting, Obama shook Boesche's hand again and said, "You're a great teacher and an inspiration," Boesche said.
"The aide who walked us out said, 'I don't think you quite realize how rare this kind of meeting is,'" Boesche recalled. "So the president obviously wanted to see us. He was warm, charming, funny, witty, sincere and friendly." Boesche's feeling after the visit? "Absolute exhilaration."
Boesche teaches the history of European and American political thought. He has twice won the Loftsgordon Award, bestowed by Occidental's senior class on outstanding teachers, the Sterling Award given by his faculty colleagues for teaching, publication, and service to the College, and the new Linda and Tod White Teaching Prize. He has published numerous articles and five books, including Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society (1985); The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville (1987); Theories of Tyranny: From Plato to Arendt (1996); and Tocqueville's Road Map: Methodology, Liberalism, Revolution, and Despotism (2006). Several years of research on political thought in ancient India and China resulted in The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra (2002).