Early Obama and Romney letters reveal presidential ambition

Sarah Childress and Jason Breslow, FRONTLINE

Over the past few weeks, FRONTLINE has been rolling out our "Artifacts of Character" series, a collection of rarely seen objects that illustrate and illuminate key moments in the lives of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Tuesday, Oct. 9 on PBS, we will air The Choice 2012, our hotly anticipated dual biography of the candidates. (Check local listings.) View a preview at the bottom of this article.

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In 1985, Barack Obama was living in Chicago, working as a community organizer. But he kept in touch with Phil Boerner, a close friend who had the dorm room across the hall as freshmen at Occidental College in California and later transferred with Obama to Columbia University in New York. As juniors at Columbia, they shared a dismal apartment with little heat or hot water. So they spilled out into the city, visiting art galleries and museums, or dropping in on bands playing at the West End, a divey Columbia student bar.

"New York was in-your-face," Boerner told FRONTLINE. "There was the crime, the grit, the dirt, the intellectual ferment; all of that is right there at your doorstep, and it was wonderful for us to be able to just delve right into that."

But after a few years, Obama moved on to the community organizing job in Chicago. "I think the history that Chicago has with its black neighborhoods and its civil rights history was probably an attraction for him at that point," Boerner recalled. "...[H]e wanted to be in a large city with a strong black neighborhood and a strong black history that he could merge himself into, and be a part of."

From Chicago, Obama kept in touch with Boerner by mail. In this never-before-published letter, Obama is still very much the writer, scribbling eloquent descriptions of his new hometown on yellow legal paper, and enclosing a short story — now lost to time — that he asked Boerner to critique.

Obama observes in the letter that racial divisions are more intense in Chicago, "separate and unequal," he writes, describing a gap he would later work hard to bridge. A young idealist working to organize the downtrodden, Obama writes of tiny triumphs amid the exhausting work of local activism:

...about 5% of the time, you see something happen -- a shy housewife standing up to a bumbling official, or the sudden sound of hope in the voice of a grizzled old man -- that gives a hint of the possibilities, of people taking hold of their lives, working together to bring about a small justice. And its [sic] that possibility that keeps you going through all the trenchwork.

At the same time, Obama was also developing a greater sense of self. After wandering for so many years, Obama would find a home in this city, and in himself as a black American.

"I think it put an end to his restlessness, being in Chicago, choosing his identity, finding Michelle and settling down and having a family," Boerner recalled.

"I really feel like he became the person he became, he is today, in Chicago."

Mitt Romney on a mission

At age 19, Mitt Romney set out for France to begin 30 months of missionary work for the Mormon church. Each day, he would wake at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, study his bible, and then go door-to-door searching for converts.

His task wasn't easy. In a mainly Catholic country, particularly one that prides itself on its wine, few were eager to embrace Mormonism's strict prohibitions, including its rules against alcohol. Rejection came so often that George Romney would write to his son with words of encouragement. In a fragment from a February 1967 letter, George quoted Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, counseling Mitt to "Despair not, but if you despair, work on in your despair."

Romney emerged as a standout missionary. In the "Conversion Diary," a newsletter published by the mission, he is often found outperforming his peers in stats like time spent proselytizing and the number of Mormon bibles distributed.

The experience was pivotal for Romney, who has said, "I came to know my faith a great deal better by virtue of my two-and-a-half years in France."

The growing importance of that faith comes through in a letter back to his father in which Romney describes his work to spread Mormonism through "singing," "basketball exhibitions," and even venturing into bars with "a message of great happiness and joy." It is, he wrote, "Amazing how that builds ones [sic] courage!"

With that courage came leadership skills that would later propel Romney to success in business and politics. When the mission president left France following his wife's death in a car accident -- a crash that nearly killed Romney as well -- the mission was left leaderless. Romney responded by embracing an expanded role, helping the mission to reach a goal of 200 new recruits.

The experience "allowed that which was naturally in him to then come to the fore," Dane McBride, who served alongside Romney in France, told FRONTLINE. "He went from being an exuberant young man to being a seasoned leader who had been through a world of experiences, and had accomplished some great things, not by himself, but by his leadership," said McBride.

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