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Barack Obama's classmate giving public lecture at UC

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Fuseworks Media
Barack Obama's classmate giving public lecture at UC

The University of Canterbury (UC) historian Peter Field, who was a classmate of US President Barack Obama, will give a public lecture on campus this week about the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln.

Associate Professor Peter Field was in the same class as Obama at Columbia University in the 1980s.

He was neither a New Yorker nor super prepared for university. Columbia was a very high-powered academic environment and Barry (Barack Obama’s nickname) knew that he did not fit in that well,’’ Professor Field said.

I sometimes joke ‘what if I were President now?’, Barry would somewhere be answering questions about what Peter Field was like back in our Morningside Heights days. And they were great days.

I guess he was just beginning his amazing climb. He was very far left politically, very critical, as many of us were, of the powers that be. He took a role in challenging Columbia to divest in all companies doing business with South Africa in a series of protests in 1982 and 1983. We even occupied the administration building.

It’s incredible he is so young to be president. It is fair to say that no one, and certainly not I, would have thought that of all our classmates, that Barry Obama would go on to become US president. He was a very unassuming guy, who did not stand out but for being the tall silent type. He went on to Harvard and I went to Princeton. Obama is a huge fan of Lincoln and has written as much in several places.’’

Meanwhile, some historians have said that the Lincoln film, which is wowing critics, gives the 16th President far too much credit for his role in ending slavery. Professor Field said there were pluses and minsues to President Abraham Lincoln.

Ending slavery and keeping the Union together in a time of great crisis proved so challenging on so many levels that there is extensive credit to go around. Lincoln cannot be praised too much, even if - as I will discuss in the lecture - he was hardly alone or even leading the charge at times.

The movie is very accurate, although I will point out several places where there are errors. More than that, in most ways the film gets the feel right. Spielberg gets a lot about Lincoln, the man, spot on.

Lincoln was a man and leader of great complexity. The film is a bit one-dimensional. Still, Hollywood can get things very wrong; in the case of Lincoln it gets a lot right.

We should expect a whole lot on Lincoln, from 2009 which was the bicentennial of his birth to 2011 the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War to this year, to remember the Emancipation Proclamation. Library shelves already groan under the weight of Lincoln studies, he being second only to Napoleon in biographies.

Some people may find the film too long and a bit boring. So many hours without anything on the war and on Lincoln’s great rise to fame from poverty and obscurity strikes me as odd.

Still, Daniel Day-Lewis pulls off a cinematic achievement of the highest order, offering a magnificent portrait of a great president. Yet, what if Lincoln had not freed the slaves, which was a distinct possibility? He would have gone down in history a butcher of men for no good reason. Perhaps even Obama would have considered Lincoln the worst president in US history,’’ Professor Field said.

Professor Field’s public lecture will be held on campus on Wednesday. For further details see: http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/wiw/

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