Harvard Experiences Sculpt Obama Appeal
Friday, January 26, 2007; 2:10 PM
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The hair, now closely cropped, was a short Afro. He dressed in a leather coat and high-ankle boots, not the conservative business suits and power ties that fill his wardrobe today.
And dinner, most nights, was at the C'est Bon sandwich shop in Harvard Square, not the rubber-chicken circuit in Washington.
Yet as a student at Harvard Law School from 1988 to 1991, Sen. Barack Obama displayed the traits _ and attracted the same kind of following and accolades _ that have made him a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
And for anyone who doubts whether a senator little more than two years removed from the Illinois Legislature can win the presidency, let alone become the first black chief executive, some of those around this high temple of legal thought believe they have already seen the future.
In 1990, Obama became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a position that usually falls to the student with the sharpest elbows. Obama won by convincing liberals and conservatives alike of the strength of his intellect, the soundness of his judgment and the merit of his vision.
"I can't pretend that I had any idea then that he would be a serious presidential candidate _ that would have been a crazy thing for anyone to project at that stage of a career _ but he was certainly the most all-around impressive student I had seen in decades," said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard for whom Obama served as a research assistant.
Obama analyzed and integrated Einstein's theory of relativity, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, as well as the concept of curved space as an alternative to gravity, for a Law Review article that Tribe wrote titled, "The Curvature of Constitutional Space."
Charles Ogletree _ a professor who has served as a mentor to countless black students at Harvard Law, including Obama _ said, "He was really a moderating influence on the campus by being mature, very much open to a variety of perspectives, but trusted by everyone to reach the right conclusions without some strong ideological link."
Obama, now 45, came to Harvard in 1988 after graduating from Columbia University and spending four years as a community organizer in Chicago. While most of the 550 students admitted each fall are on a trajectory toward high-paying corporate law firms or the judicial bench, Obama aimed for public-interest law from the outset.
"You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet," he told an interviewer in 1990. "That's what a Harvard education should buy: enough confidence and security to pursue your dreams and give something back."
Christina Bryan, a Houston attorney who shared first year classes with Obama and considered herself a conservative at the time, said, "I felt that he always took the time to listen to opposing points of view and address it in a thoughtful way. That's not always the case in that setting."
At the end of his first year, Obama was selected to be one of 80 editors on the Law Review, a student-run journal of legal research and opinion.
Midway through his second year, Obama was elected president, the top editing job. He beat out 17 others, including four fellow black students.
"Conservatives marveled at his use of language and metaphors that resonated with their core beliefs," Kenneth Mack, a Harvard Law professor who was an Obama classmate and fellow candidate for the Law Review presidency, later wrote in an essay about the competition. "Liberals and progressives believed that the rise to prominence of a self-identified African-American with impeccable civil rights credentials represented a triumph for their own core agenda."
Obama, however, did not want the achievement to be misperceived.
"The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," Obama told The New York Times at the time. "But it's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is OK for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance."
The eight issues that Obama presided over included articles on Martin Luther King Jr., and gender and racial discrimination in retail car negotiations, as well as an anonymous, student-written "Note" arguing the legal system had not provided adequate protections against discrimination for those who are both black and men.
Fellow students and Senate aides say Obama was not the author of the Note, but as president, he gave each article the final substantive edit.
For all his success, Obama did suffer one defeat at the Law School: He was rejected by a screening committee of female students for a pinup calendar of black students created as both a fundraiser and a source of black pride.