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Old friends from Punahou provide sanctuary for Obama

By Jackie Calmes


WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama has called Hawaii his refuge, and so it has been throughout his political life. In 2006, Obama used the family Christmas holiday there to decide whether to run for president. For the past two weeks, he has been recharging on Oahu after an unpleasant year in the job.

As is usual when on the island, the president has been far from political advisers and hangers-on, and has instead spent time with the high school friends who have come to be known collectively, if inaccurately, as the "Choom Gang."

For a reputed loner, Obama has remained remarkably close to a trio he met as a teenager at Punahou School -- boys of Hawaii's year-round summer with whom he played basketball, bodysurfed, drank beer and, like so many other young islanders in the 1970s, smoked marijuana, the "choom" of that long-ago nickname.

Now they mainly just golf -- more than 30 hours in six outings this vacation -- and trash-talk, just like in the old days.

After years during which the friends grew apart, Obama reconnected with Mike Ramos, Bobby Titcomb and Greg Orme a decade ago. They agreed to rendezvous in Hawaii every year for the holidays, and their reunions became regular even as Obama was busy climbing to senator and president, a path none of them imagined nearly four decades ago and 5,000 miles from Washington.

The annual gatherings perhaps speak to Obama's greater need for their connection now that he has what is called the loneliest job in the world.

"For the president to be able to be with a group where he can be absolutely relaxed -- a group that knows him from his youth on, and who he knows are friends with him not because of what he became, but because of who he is -- is a really comforting and warm thing," said David Axelrod, Obama's longtime strategist.

Not many presidents retained friendships from as far back as high school, although George W. Bush had close friends from his prep school days at Andover. John F. Kennedy had his band of brothers from wartime. Some, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, counted later acquaintances among political donors as friends.

But generally, said presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, "It does seem like these presidents need to find a sanctuary -- whether it's a place or a group of people -- where they can just be themselves and feel the connection from the present to the past." High school friends who predate adulthood and professional attainments often know each other's siblings, parents, even grandparents -- and know each other in a way that later friends often cannot.

"I brood," Obama's friend Ramos said a few years ago. "He's not like that."

Ramos was a year ahead of Obama's Punahou Class of '79 but played with him on the basketball team. Like Obama, he was of mixed parentage -- the son of a Filipino father and a Czech mother -- and his parents were divorced. He knew the "really small apartment" that Obama lived in with his grandparents and what a talker "Gramps" was.

Although the Choom Gang has come to define Obama's high school circle -- owing partly to the president's memoir, "Dreams from My Father," and a notation that Obama made in his senior yearbook thanking the Choom Gang for good times -- Ramos said in an interview after leaving Oahu this week that the phrase does not describe their circle. He said only Orme, another Punahou hoops player, was in the gang that Obama described.

But while they did enjoy marijuana, Ramos acknowledged, "We played a lot more basketball than we smoked pot."

Get-togethers in the decades after high school were rare as the men built careers and families, although Ramos, Titcomb and Orme attended the Obamas' Chicago wedding in 1992. Only Titcomb stayed in Hawaii. Obama and the others often would visit family members there at Christmas, and on occasion the men would meet, but it was not until 2004 that they agreed to gather annually.

That first year, Ramos said, "I remember coming home from a golf outing and literally starting to cry," so emotional was the contrast he felt between their friendships and the "transactional" ones he said he had since formed as a businessman.

"For me it's the unconditional love, it's the nontransactional nature of the relationship -- that enduring quality. That is something that I really value," he said.

Likewise for Obama, it seems. The Hawaii holidays became "more and more appealing," he said in an interview just after he began his run for president.

"Hawaii is a remarkable place," he said. "It remains a refuge for me when I travel there during the winter, my family and I, and see friends from high school."

In December 2006, as Obama decided on his first presidential campaign, the friends talked about how the race would complicate their next getaway. The Obamas did skip Hawaii in 2007, and instead the friends joined Obama in wintry Iowa for the January 2008 presidential caucuses. But twice that year the group gathered in Hawaii -- in August before the Democratic National Convention and in December after Obama's election.

In April 2011, Titcomb was arrested on a charge of soliciting prostitution in a Honolulu sting operation, but the reunions with the president never stopped. Obama's concern, Axelrod said, was for Titcomb, whose arrest was international news because he "happened to be Barack Obama's friend."

Titcomb was golfing with the president within hours of the Obamas' Dec. 21 arrival on Oahu. He attended a college basketball game with the first family the next day, and this week he and his wife hosted their annual barbecue for the other families, including those of the Obamas' Chicago friends, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt.

Orme was unable to travel to Hawaii for the recent holiday, but the others called him twice. They marked the 10th year of their rendezvous by looking through old photos, Ramos said, "of when the kids were young and the dads had dark hair." And of course, he said, they all -- the president included -- reflected on the past year.

But, said Ramos, who is in the process of a divorce, "We probably spent more time talking about my situation than we did about his."

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