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Obama Smoking Picture: Andrea Mitchell Investigates (VIDEO)

First Posted: 01/17/09 05:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:55 PM ET

Obama Smokes

So, in the least surprising news of the day, Time Magazine named Barack Obama its Person of the Year for 2008. Because, duh. Despite all the pageantry and pretense, no one in their right mind should have expected anything different. Sarah Palin makes America angry and Henry Paulson's face is the terrifying visage of our financial apocalypse. Besides, Time's Managing Editor Rick Stengel is no dummy. He understands that the only way to backstop the slow decline of print media is to employ what Ana Marie Cox calls the "Franklin Mint model." Ask Rick about the all-new revision Shepard Fairey did of his famous Obama poster, exclusively for Time, why not?

But that's not to say that Time hasn't got some content, surprising and new, to go along with the most obvious POTY choice ever. Check out these funky pictures of a young Obama that Time's billing as "the long, lost college photos." What's he smoking? Why's he dressed like that? Stengel took up the matter with Andrea Mitchell today on MSNBC:

MITCHELL: An interesting 1980s photo shoot in your magazine. Let me share with our viewers some of the pictures that were taken, extraordinary pictures when Obama was at Occidental college. Now, tell me, Richard, what's he smoking?


STENGEL: No! He's smoking a cigarette there. The photographer is a woman who was a student also at Occidental when Obama was there. Obama was a freshman. I think she was a little bit older. She was an aspiring photographer. She was taking portraits of people at Occidental and somebody said to her, hey, there's this really interesting freshman who you might want to take a picture of. She got in touch with him and he agreed to come and pose over at her dorm room. She said he came with a Panama hat and a leather jacket and a pack of cigarettes.

I think this says a lot about the way Occidental College was in the 1980s, that a freshman who smoked and dressed like a member of a local dinner theatre company could attract the campus-wide attention of aspiring photographers. Stengel continues:

STENGEL: The pictures really are quite amazing. It gives insight into a time that he writes about in his own memoir, where he's trying to find himself, trying to figure out his own identity as an African-American, as a mixed-race American. I think the pictures in a funny way give you insight into that young man and what he was aspiring to in those days.

My own insights into the world of college freshmen informs me that, in all likelihood, Obama was "aspiring" to maybe score with some upperclasswomen. I mean, he wore his best Panama hat!

Apparently, these photos rattled around in the basement of photographer Lisa Jack for three decades until this year, when she retrieved the negatives and began to wonder what she might do with them. As Stengel relates, "She contacted us. She contacted some others news organizations." Stengel added, "She also contacted the Obama campaign as well."

Which is probably where this press-ready origin story of the 'fascinating freshman' came from!

[WATCH.]

MITCHELL: An interesting 1980s photo shoot in your magazine. Let me share with our viewers some of the pictures that were taken, extraordinary pictures when Obama was at Occidental college. Now, tell me, Richard, what's he smoking?


STENGEL: No! He's smoking a cigarette there. The photographer is a woman who was a student also at Occidental when Obama was there. Obama was a freshman. I think she was a little bit older. She was an aspiring photographer. She was taking portraits of people at Occidental and somebody said to her, hey, there's this really interesting freshman who you might want to take a picture of. She got in touch with him and he agreed to come and pose over at her dorm room. She said he came with a Panama hat and a leather jacket and a pack of cigarettes. The pictures really are quite amazing. It gives insight into a time that he writes about in his own memoir, where he's trying to find himself, trying to figure out his own identity as an African-American, as a mixed-race American. I think the pictures in a funny way give you insight into that young man and what he was aspiring to in those days.

MITCHELL: They sure do. They're extraordinary.

STENGEL: Yeah, they are extraordinary. And it was -- sitting in her basement for 30 years. In fact --

MITCHELL: That's more extraordinary. This was an eureka moment, was it not, for this photographer?

STENGEL: Well, what happened was she said she was talking with somebody during the campaign and she said she used to be friendly and know Barack Obama and the person said, I don't believe you. She went down and got the negatives from her basement. She said, maybe I should do something with them. She contacted us. She contacted some others news organizations. She also contacted the Obama campaign as well.

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