Saguaro Seminar Stays with Obama
If he wasn't the most obscure person in the room, Barack Obama was close: a young, first-term state senator with few connections outside of Chicago.
"When people went around the room and said who they were, you could probably figure out why they were there," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive preacher and activist.
Among those seated at the table were former Clinton White House aide George Stephanopoulos, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed.
And when it got to Obama, people thought, "Yeah, OK, why are you here?" Wallis recalled with a laugh.
It was a Harvard seminar in 1997 on social capital—the human equivalent of greenbacks. Compared to the 32 others in the room, Obama was pretty broke in that regard; the seminar helped turn his little pile into a fortune.
Though the Saguaro Seminar, which met every few months from 1997 to 2000, remains an unfamiliar chapter in Obama's well-thumbed biography, over the last decade, he has continually built on relationships, ideas and political skills gleaned from or reinforced by those meetings.
Obama has hired fellow Saguaro alumni for top White House posts; solicited two more, including Wallis, to be close spiritual advisers; and implemented a host of ideas kicked around those tables 10 years ago. In ways large and small—from extending an olive branch to Muslims overseas to revamping the White House faith-based office to seeking common ground on abortion, Obama has echoed themes straight from the Saguaro playbook.
"There's a lot of resonance between what we talked about in this group and what he's saying now," said Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who convened the Saguaro Seminar. "But I would never claim there's a causal link, because maybe that's why he showed up." After all, Obama had already been a community organizer for three years, probably the last occupation that needs a lecture on civic engagement.
Still, Xavier de Souza Briggs, an expert on social capital who met Obama at the seminar, said the president's commitment to public service "was reinforced and enriched by the Saguaro experience." Earlier this year, Obama hired Briggs to be associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
"More than anything, I'd say that Saguaro deepened my understanding of why and how people participate in public life," Briggs said in a recent interview, "why they give back, create community connections—or choose not to."
Putnam argues that too many American have chosen the latter option, declining to join clubs, volunteer, vote, or generally look after each other as much as in decades past. Without those connections, society has become balkanized into small, self-interested camps, with harmful effects for the health of the country, he says.
In 1997, Putnam decided to gather a diverse group of "the most interesting" pastors, politicians, pundits, artists, academics and community organizers he could find. The plan was to meet every few months for three years "to talk about how we can begin to reweave the fabric of American community," Putnam said in a recent interview.
Obama was invited because of his background as a community organizer, and because they wanted a diversity of ages, races, regions and occupations, Putnam said. Obama was one of the few black men in the group; another was the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Houston megachurch pastor who was a spiritual adviser to former President George W. Bush and now plays a similar role with Obama. Oddly, Caldwell said through a spokesman that he doesn't recall meeting Obama at the seminar.