Memories of Barack Obama — After Harvard Law School
No one heard of Obama before 2004! Where are the cases he worked on as a lawyer? Where are the students he taught? What about the courses he taught? The professors he worked with? Who was the Best Man at his wedding? Everything has been sealed! It’s as if he burst on the scene with no past. The only people that knew him were a couple of people with stories of how evil he was.
Like everything else Birther, this meme is easily debunked. Here are pictures, videos, interviews, links, and other resources.
NOTE: Barack Obama’ career developed via multiple simultaneous volunteer and professional positions. As such, this section is not as linear as the other sections have been.
Chicago: Building a Career
Practicing AttorneyDavis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland (1992-2004)University of Chicago Law School (1992-2004)Philanthropy and Community Projects UNDER CONSTRUCTIONCook County Project Vote (1992)Public Allies Chicago (1992, Founding Member of the Board of Directors)The Woods Fund of Chicago (Board Member, 1994-2004)Joyce Foundation (1994-2002)Chicago Annenberg Challenge (Board of Directors 1995-2002, Chairman and Founding President, 1995-1999)Lugenia Burns Hope Center (Board of Directors)Center for Neighborhood Technology (Board of Directors)Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Board of Directors)Cook County Bar Association Community Law ProjectPublished Author (1995 and 2006) UNDER CONSTRUCTIONPolitician UNDER CONSTRUCTIONIllinois State Senate UNDER CONSTRUCTIONIllinois US Representative Campaign UNDER CONSTRUCTION2004 Democratic National Convention UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Admitted to practice in Illinois, December 17, 1991
(Voluntarily retired 2002)
- Illinois Supreme Court
- United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois
- United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit
Attorney Judson Miner called Harvard to offer a job to a graduating student named Barack Obama and didn’t expect to be showered with gratitude. Still, he wasn’t expecting the reception he got. “You can leave your name and take a number,” the woman who answered the phone at the Harvard Law Review said breezily. “You’re No. 647.”
As the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama had his pick of top law firms. He chose Miner’s Chicago civil rights firm, where he represented community organizers, discrimination victims and black voters trying to force a redrawing of city ward boundaries. Obama had offers from more prestigious, higher-paying firms. But he chose to work for Miner — former Mayor Harold Washington’s counsel — because of his firm’s focus on civil rights litigation and community redevelopment.
“Barack was a young kid when he came here,” Miner said. “Senior lawyers are not going to be very deferential to Barack. He was not ‘THE Barack Obama’ yet.” Obama was 32 in 1993, having entered law school at 27. “He wrote lots of substantial memos, but he didn’t try any cases,” said Judson Miner, a partner in the firm who was Obama’s boss.
During Obama’s three years working as a full-time associate at Miner’s firm, Miner noticed some of the qualities that have become known as his strengths and weaknesses on the campaign trail: “As smart as he is, he is very quick to appreciate all kinds of nuances with legal issues,” Miner said. “He finds it very hard to shoot back a real quick, simple answer. His instinct was to better understand what the nuances were.”
His practice was confined mainly to federal court in Chicago, where he made formal appearances in only five district court cases and another five in cases before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — a total of 10 cases in his legal career. He was on the winning side of just about all those cases. Miner said there were 30 cases to which Obama contributed in some way.
Obama admits he played a mostly behind-the-scenes role at his law firm. He researched the law, drafted motions, prepared for depositions and did other less glamorous work during his three years full-time and eight years “of counsel” to the firm. Many trial lawyers spend their time similarly, part of a trend over the last 20 years of settling a greater percentage of cases before trial.
A review of the cases Obama worked on during his brief legal career shows he played the “strong, silent type” in court, introducing himself and his client, then stepping aside to let other lawyers do the talking.
Only once did Obama appear before the prestigious 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where Judge Richard Posner is legendary for tearing into inexperienced lawyers. But Posner knew Obama as a fellow senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and kept his grilling polite. Obama never lost his cool, and he won the case.
After three years doing “first-rate” work as an associate, Obama was elected to the state Senate, and Miner offered to keep him on salary and let him open a Springfield branch of the firm…. Obama became “of counsel,” working out of the office during the Legislature’s summer breaks until he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Robert Kriss, Fay Clayton and every other co-counsel and opposing counsel interviewed for this story praised Obama’s legal ability, temperament and everything about his courtroom demeanor, even though, they agree, he didn’t say much in the courtroom. Many are now donors to his campaign.
“It’s a real do-good firm,” says Fay Clayton, lead counsel for the National Organization for Women in a landmark lawsuit aimed at stopping abortion clinic violence. “Barack and that firm were a perfect fit. He wasn’t going to make as much money there as he would at a LaSalle Street firm or in New York, but money was never Barack’s first priority anyway.”
Motor Voter Case: In 1995, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar refused to implement the federal “Motor Voter” law, which Republicans argued could invite fraud and which some Republicans feared could swell the ranks of Democratic voters. The law mandated people be allowed to register to vote in government offices such as driver’s license renewal centers. Obama sued on behalf of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The League of Women Voters and other public-interest groups joined in.
“He and his client were the ones who filed the original case — they blazed the trail,” said Paul Mollica, who represented the League. Transcripts show that at court hearings, Obama identified himself, then let Mollica begin speaking. Maria Valdez of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund sometimes spoke. The U.S. Justice Department joined in. Letting the heavy-hitters at the Justice Department make the arguments appears to have been a sound strategy — Obama’s side won, even without him talking.
“Obama was involved to some extent in the legal work, but he was not the leader in actually litigating the thing — Paul [Mollica] probably was the leader of the coalition and did most of the legal work,” said David Melton, who represented Cook County Clerk David Orr. “Obama did have some expertise in certain constitutional aspects of the case.”
After Obama’s side won in court, Edgar appealed. Obama’s side won again — without Obama talking. The lawyers then gathered in a small room in the courthouse to decide how to push the state to fix the problems. “We had a raucous meeting shortly after the remand, and Barack was a very adamant spokesman for taking a very aggressive stance to try to repair the damage,” Mollica said. “He’s the one who put a charge in us that it was time to move and hold the state accountable.”
Entry at Civil Rights Litigation Clearing House.
Entries at Google Scholar:
Redlining Case: Obama represented Calvin Roberson in a 1994 lawsuit against Citibank, charging the bank systematically denied mortgages to African-American applicants and others from minority neighborhoods.
“I don’t recall him ever standing up and giving an impassioned speech — it was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff,” said Fay Clayton, the lead lawyer on the case.
“He was the very junior lawyer in that case,” said attorney Robert Kriss. “He had just graduated from law school. I don’t recall him being in court at any time I was there. I was the lead lawyer for Citibank and he was not very visible to me.”
Entry at Civil Rights Legislation Clearing House.
Whistleblower Case: In 1994, Obama went before the 7th Circuit to defend Ahmad Baravati, a trader blackballed by his bosses after he reported them for fraud. An arbitrator awarded Baravati $60,000 in damages plus $120,000 in punitive damages against the former bosses. They appealed, saying arbitrators don’t have the power to award punitive damages.
Obama had a tough job because the same court had ruled a week earlier that an arbitrator could not award punitive damages. But Obama convinced them this case was different.
“You’re suggesting that there’s a federal common law that likes punitive damages, but this could be preempted by a state law that says ‘no punitive damages,'” Posner told Obama.
“I don’t think I’m saying there’s a federal law that ‘likes punitive damages,’” Obama responded, not dropping his tone of respect. “I think what I’m saying is that there’s a federal law that likes the notion that the same remedies that will be available in court will be available in arbitration.”
Obama won, and Baravati got to keep the extra $120,000. He still is grateful. “I found he’s a very smart, innovative, skilled, relentless advocate for his client,” Baravati said.
Obama also wrote a major portion of an appeals brief on behalf of a whistleblower who exposed waste and corruption in a research project involving Cook County Hospital and the Hektoen Institute for Medical Research and alleged that she was fired in retaliation. The case was settled out of court. The county agreed to pay the federal government $5 million, part of which went to the whistleblower, Dr. Janet Chandler. Hektoen agreed to pay $500,000 to the government plus $170,000 to Chandler for wrongful termination.
Psychologist Janet Chandler brought a successful False Claims Act lawsuit against Cook County Hospital for forging data and failing to comply with federal human research regulations in a federally funded drug abuse study. As a young attorney, President Obama worked on Dr. Chandler’s case. The Supreme Court upheld Dr. Chandler’s lawsuit.
And Obama was part of a team of lawyers representing black voters and aldermen that forced Chicago to redraw ward boundaries that the City Council drew up after the 1990 census. They said the boundaries were discriminatory. After an appeals court ruled the map violated the federal Voting Rights Act, attorneys for both sides drew up a new set of ward boundaries.
University of Chicago Law School
University of Chicago Law School — Ideas & Action. UCLS Promotional video showing professors, students. 2002
Current Issues in Racism and the Law Spring Term 1994. Syllabus
Constitutional Law III:
University of Chicago Law School Website
Barack Obama taught at the Law School from 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. During those years, he brought a dynamic teaching presence to his courses, which included “Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection,” “Voting Rights and the Democratic Process,” and a seminar entitled “Current Issues in Racism and the Law.”
The entire Law School community applauds President-Elect Obama on his victory and wishes him well during his term of office.
The Law School has received many media requests about Barack Obama, especially about his status as “Senior Lecturer.”
From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers has high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.
A Sun-Times review of student evaluations from Obama’s 10 years of teaching part-time at the University of Chicago Law School shows that students almost always rated Obama as one of their top instructors — except for one quarter in 1997.
While a state senator, Obama held classes early on Monday and late on Friday during legislative sessions, running right through the school’s popular Friday evening wine-and-cheese hour. Obama was so popular, students signed up for his class anyway.
“We’d be in class and get messages that he would come in 45 minutes late and everyone would wait for him,” said former student Andrew Janis, now a New York lawyer.
“I loved teaching,” Obama told the Sun-Times. “But when the opportunity came [to run for U.S. Senate] I took it. I think some of the public speaking skills I developed in the classroom — stay on your toes; don’t make my answers too long — I’m using on the campaign trail.”
The student evaluations of Obama that remain at the school library (some are missing) are overwhelmingly positive. A reporter was unable to find the four students who said they would not recommend Obama’s class to another student.
The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process (University Casebooks), Foundation Press. Samuel Issacharoff (Author), Pamela S. Karlan (Author), Richard H. Pildes (Author), 1998.
Preface to the First Edition, page x:
For reading or teaching sections of the manuscript and commenting, we would like to thank … Barack Obama…
Craig Cunningham, ’93, one of the President’s first students and a supporter of his teacher’s political ambitions, felt that Obama was brilliant, talented, and had the potential to be a great leader. But Cunningham was also concerned about Obama’s political future.
“I did expect him to run for office, because I would hang around after class and we would talk about the state senate,” Cunningham explains. “But after he lost the congressional race to Bobby Rush I thought he was moving too fast, that he should slow down and not run for a different office for a while because he was trying to do too much at one time. And Chicago politics were not going to allow him to do that. I was worried. And I was really surprised when he told me he was going to run for U.S. Senate.”
“We African American students were very aware of him because at the time there really weren’t a lot of minority professors at the Law School,” Cunningham explains, “and we really wanted him to be a strong representation for the African American students. We wanted him to live up to the pressures and reach out to other ethnic minorities. And we were also very excited about possibly having an African American tenure-track professor at the Law School.”
“In Con Law III we study equal process and due process. He was incredibly charismatic, funny, really willing to listen to student viewpoints—which I thought was very special at Chicago,” says Elysia Solomon, ’99. “There were so many diverse views in the class and people didn’t feel insecure about voicing their opinions. I thought that he did a really good job of balancing viewpoints.”
“I knew he was ambitious, but at that point in time at the Law School there were so many people on the faculty that you knew weren’t going to be professors for the rest of their lives,” Solomon explains. “We had [Judge] Abner Mikva and Elena Kagan and Judge Wood and Judge Posner. There is a very active intellectual life at the Law School and this melding of the spheres of academics and the real world is very cool. It’s what attracts teachers and students to the school.”
“When I walked into class the first day I remember that we—meaning the students I knew—thought we were going to get a very left-leaning perspective on the law,” explains Jesse Ruiz, ’95.
“We assumed that because he was a minority professor in a class he designed. But he was very middle-of-the-road. In his class we were very cognizant that we were dealing with a difficult topic, but what we really got out of that class was that he taught us to think like lawyers about those hard topics even when we had
issues about those topics.”
Unsurprisingly, though, he was of greater interest to the minority students on campus. “I don’t think most people know his history,” Ruiz says, “but when he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review it was a national story. I remembering reading the story and thinking I gotta go to law school!”
In 1996, Obama ran for, and won, the Thirteenth District of Illinois state senate seat, which then spanned Chicago South Side neighborhoods from Hyde Park–Kenwood to South Shore and west to Chicago Lawn. Then in 2000 he ran for, and lost, the Democratic nomination for Bobby Rush’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He was very demoralized at that point and would not have recommended a career in public service to anyone,” Ruiz says.
“He had suffered a setback, he was facing a lot of struggles in Springfield, and it was a hard lifestyle traveling back and forth to Springfield. We sat at lunch and he talked about how if he had joined a big firm when he graduated he could have been a partner. We did a lot of what if. But then he decided to run for U.S. Senate. And the rest is history.”
Over time, Obama developed a reputation for teaching from a nonbiased point of view. He was also noted for widening the legal views of his students.
“I liked that he included both jurisprudence and real politics in the class discussions,” says Dan Johnson-Weinberger, ’00.
“Lots of classes in law school tend to be judge-centric and he had as much a focus on the legislative branch as the judicial branch. That was refreshing.”
“I was into state politics while I was at the Law School, so I am one of the few alums who knew the President as both a legislator and as a teacher,” notes Johnson-Weinberger. “I thought he would continue as a successful politician. But I never would have guessed that he would be our President.”
“Most students were not that focused on Barack during the years I was there,” says Joe Khan, ’00. “For example, every year the professors would donate their time or belongings to the law school charity auction. Professor Obama’s donation was to let two students spend the day with him in Springfield, where he’d show them around the state senate and introduce them to the other senators. People now raise thousands of dollars to be in a room with the man, but my friend and I won the bid for a few hundred bucks.”
In his voting rights course, Obama taught Lani Guinier’s proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation. Opponents attacked those suggestions when Guinier was nominated as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993, costing her the post.
“I think he thought they were good and worth trying,” said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago. But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Obama would not say so directly. “He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier’s proposals with total neutrality and equanimity,” Franklin said. “He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth.”
Kenworthey Bilz, UCLS
“Anybody who’s thinking they want to go into academia, conservative or liberal, kind of knows they have to take equal protection,” says Kenworthey Bilz, who took equal protection from Obama in 1997 and is now a professor at Northwestern Law School. “I can very confidently say he didn’t strike me as liberal or conservative.”
“He was not an ivory tower academic,” said former student Kenworthey Bilz, who had him for the low-ranked 1997 Constitutional Law class. “The class was not his first love. He was basically in the trenches. These were real problems to him. That kind of on-the-street realism was really refreshing.”
“He was very engaging, approachable and human,” recalls Patrick Jasperse, now a Justice Department trial attorney based in Washington.
While a state senator, Obama held classes early on Monday and late on Friday during legislative sessions, running right through the school’s popular Friday evening wine-and-cheese hour. Obama was so popular, students signed up for his class anyway.
“We’d be in class and get messages that he would come in 45 minutes late and everyone would wait for him,” said former student Andrew Janis, now a New York lawyer.
“Some professors are just kind of going through the motions with you,” Janis said. “He actually seemed to take everyone’s point of view seriously.”
It was 1996, and there I was, in a seminar room with maybe fifteen students, not knowing that I was learning from the man who might be the next President of the United States.
Spring quarter of my second year, I took Voting Rights and Election Law as a seminar with Professor Obama. Now, let’s be clear: in a school with a lot of Somebodies – Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Cass Sunstein and David Currie – he was a relative nobody, and even compared with other younger faculty, it was Larry Lessig and Elena Kagan who had more of the hype. But Obama was teaching a course in a subject I wanted to study – at a point when I realized that law school was too short to be spent in classes that felt obligatory – and that made it an easy decision.
And he was … different. For one thing, better dressed. Sleek sweaters and blazers as opposed to ill-fitting, coffee-stained suits with mismatched ties. But he was also less formal, more relaxed – he never taught the class as though he knew the answers to all the questions he was posing and was just hiding the ball from us until we could find them. Confident, sure, but never cocky.
What’s more, he taught Voting Rights in a different way than others do. He didn’t use a textbook, for starters, but rather had us each purchase an eight-inch high multilith of cases, law review articles and statutes that he had personally compiled. And they weren’t all the “big” cases either – no, our class started by reviewing some early-19th century cases about the denial of the franchise, so that as the course moved forward we saw “voting rights” not as some static thing to be analyzed, but a constantly- and still-evolving process to be affected. Over the course of a few months, we studied changes in the franchise, changes in the rights of political parties, campaign finance law and redistricting, among other topics. We learned the law, but we also learned it on the level of real-world impact: based on a whites-only party primary, how many people would be denied a voice? What kind of policies would result from such a legislature?
Much in the Chicago tradition, he wanted all voices to be heard in the classroom, and when there a viewpoint that wasn’t being expressed or students were too complacent in their liberal views, he’d push the contrary view himself. These classes were conversations.
And the conversations extended outside the classroom. I spent plenty of time in Prof. Obama’s office, talking to him about the paper I was working on. Just the two of us, one on one, with him always provoking me to think deeper, work harder …
A favorite theme, said Salil Mehra, now a law professor at Temple University, were the values and cultural touchstones that Americans share. Mr. Obama’s case in point: his wife, Michelle, a black woman, loved “The Brady Bunch” so much that she could identify every episode by its opening shots.
“Are there legal remedies that alleviate not just existing racism, but racism from the past?” Adam Gross, now a public interest lawyer in Chicago, wrote in his class notes in April 1994.
But the liberal students did not necessarily find reassurance. “For people who thought they were getting a doctrinal, rah-rah experience, it wasn’t that kind of class,” said D. Daniel Sokol, a former student who now teaches law at the University of Florida at Gainesville.
He wanted his charges to try arguing that life was better under segregation, that black people were better athletes than white ones. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re offending my liberal instincts,’ ” Mary Ellen Callahan, now a privacy lawyer in Washington, recalled.
In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”
In his voting rights course, Mr. Obama taught Lani Guinier’s proposals for structuring elections differently to increase minority representation.
“I think he thought they were good and worth trying,” said David Franklin, who now teaches law at DePaul University in Chicago.
But whether out of professorial reserve or budding political caution, Mr. Obama would not say so directly. “He surfaced all the competing points of view on Guinier’s proposals with total neutrality and equanimity,” Mr. Franklin said. “He just let the class debate the merits of them back and forth.”
Now, watching the news, it is dawning on Mr. Obama’s former students that he was mining material for his political future even as he taught them. Byron Rodriguez, a real estate lawyer in San Francisco, recalls his professor’s admiration for the soaring but plainspoken speeches of Frederick Douglass.
“No one speaks this way anymore,” Mr. Obama told his class, wondering aloud what had happened to the art of political oratory. In particular, Mr. Obama admired Douglass’s use of a collective voice that embraced black and white concerns, one that Mr. Obama has now adopted himself.
“When you hear him talking about issues, it’s at a level so much simpler than the one he’s capable of,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He was a lot more fun to listen to back then.”
“Many of us thought he would be a terrific addition to the faculty, but we understood that he had other plans,” explains David Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor. “Although I don’t think any of us imagined that things would work out the way they did.”
During his tenure in the state senate, Obama continued to teach at the Law School, some nights traveling straight up from evening sessions at the State House to his classroom.
“But the students never thought of him as a part-timer,” Strauss adds. “They just thought of him as a really good teacher.”
Professor David Strauss, the only teacher with higher ratings than Obama in his last year at the school, said, “The students thought he was great. He thought about things in unconventional ways.”
Douglas Baird, Colleague
Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former Dean, shared Cunningham’s concern that winning the seat was a long shot for Obama. “I remember having a cup of coffee with him when he said he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate, and I looked at him straight in the eye and said, ‘Don’t do it, you’re not going to win.’”
[Baird] remembers once asking Obama to assess potential candidates for governor. “First of all, I’m not running for governor,” Obama told him. “But if I did, I would expect you to support me.”
Standing in his favorite classroom in the austere main building, sharp-witted students looming above him, Obama refined his public speaking style, his debating abilities, his beliefs. “He tested his ideas in classrooms,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a colleague. Every seminar hour brought a new round of “Is affirmative action justified? Under what circumstances?” as Hutchinson put it.
Richard Epstein, Colleague
“I don’t think anything that went on in these chambers affected him,” said Richard Epstein, a libertarian colleague who says he longed for Obama to venture beyond his ideological and topical comfort zones. “His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner, but he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.”
Nor could his views be gleaned from scholarship; Obama has never published any. He was too busy, but also, Epstein believes, he was unwilling to put his name to anything that could haunt him politically, as Guinier’s writings had hurt her. “He figured out, you lay low,” Epstein said.
Epstein, who once almost sold his Hyde Park home to Obama and would buttonhole him to talk about things like state mandates for health insurance, offers one reason why: “He was always a terrific listener. He’d sit there and cock his head, take it all in.”
Of course, as Epstein points out, Obama’s willingness to listen didn’t necessarily mean he was willing to be convinced. “What you don’t get, alas and alack, out of all this is a change in point of view,” Epstein says. “If you ask me whether I had any influence on his intellectual or moral development, I’d say no, not even a little.”
Obama had other business on his mind, embarking on five political races during his 12 years at the school. Teaching gave him satisfaction, along with a perch and a paycheck, but he was impatient with academic debates over “whether to drop a footnote or not drop a footnote,” said Abner Mikva, a mentor whose own career has spanned Congress, the federal court system and the same law school.
“Those are tremendous ratings, especially for someone who had a day job,” Professor Cass Sunstein said. “We wanted him to join the faculty full-time at various different junctures. That’s not a trivial fact. . . . If we want to hire someone, the faculty has to think they’re tremendous. But he liked political life.”
In the spring of 2000, not long after Barack Obama was trounced in the Democratic primary for a South Side Chicago congressional seat, Daniel Fischel staged an intervention. Meeting with Obama in the main lounge at the University of Chicago Law School, where Fischel was then dean and Obama was a part-time senior lecturer, Fischel offered Obama some unsolicited advice. “I told him that it was obvious his political career was going nowhere,” Fischel recalls, “and that he really ought to think about doing something else.”
The particular “something else” Fischel had in mind was a full-time tenured professorship; to sweeten the offer, Fischel said the law school would even hire Obama’s wife, Michelle, to run its legal clinic. Although the move would require Obama to give up his state Senate seat, Fischel tried to convince his junior colleague that Chicago professor might be a more natural role than Chicago politician for a cerebral guy like him. “I mentioned people who’d been faculty members like [Antonin] Scalia and [Richard] Posner and [Frank] Easterbrook and many others who had gone on to very distinguished careers outside of academia or in combination with academia,” Fischel says. “I told him he could be a faculty member as well as a public intellectual.”
Obama declined Fischel’s overture, saying that he wanted to give elected politics another shot.
“What I know from my dealings with him at the law school is that he does really attempt to understand the points of view of other people who look at the world or a particular issue differently than he does,” says Fischel. “He’s much more intellectual, much more thoughtful, much more interested in discussion, debate, and dialogue than the typical politician. And that gives me some confidence about him, even though from my perspective he’s much too liberal. I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my entire life. He’s the first one I might vote for.”
Saul Levmore, the school’s current dean, whose politics are hard to characterize but generally right-leaning, says, “We were intensely interested in him. We were looking for him to say, ‘I’m giving up politics, I want to be an academic.’ We were always in recruiting mode with him.”
PHILANTHROPY AND COMMUNITY PROJECTS
Cook County Project Vote
The most effective minority voter registration drive in memory was the result of careful handiwork by Project Vote!, the local chapter of a not-for-profit national organization. “It was the most efficient campaign I have seen in my 20 years in politics,” says Sam Burrell, alderman of the West Side’s 29th Ward and a veteran of many registration drives.
At the head of this effort was a little-known 31-year-old African-American lawyer, community organizer, and writer: Barack Obama….
“Project Vote! is nonpartisan, strictly nonpartisan. But we do focus our efforts on minority voters, and on states where we can explain to them why their vote will matter. [Carol Moseley] Braun made that easier in Illinois.” So [SandyNewman, founder of Project Vote] decided to open a Cook County Project Vote! office and went looking for someone to head it.
The name Barack Obama surfaced. “I was asking around among community activists in Chicago and around the country, and they kept mentioning him,” Newman says. Obama by then was working with church and community leaders on the West Side, and he was writing a book that the publisher Simon & Schuster had contracted for while he was editor of the law review. He was 30 years old.
When Newman called, Obama agreed to put his other work aside. “I’m still not quite sure why,” Newman says. ”This was not glamorous, high-paying work. But I am certainly grateful. He did one hell of a job.”
… Within a few months, Obama, a tall, affable workaholic, had recruited staff and volunteers from black churches, community groups, and politicians. He helped train 700 deputy registrars, out of a total of 11,000 citywide. And he began a saturation media campaign with the help of black-owned Brainstorm Communications. (The company’s president, Terri Gardner, is the sister of Gary Gardner, president of Soft Sheen Products, Inc., which donated thousands of dollars to Project Voters efforts.) The group’s slogan-“It’s a Power Thing”-was ubiquitous in African-American neighborhoods. Posters were put up. Black-oriented radio stations aired the group’s ads and announced where people could go to register. Minority owners of McDonald’s restaurants allowed registrars on site and donated paid radio time to Project Vote! Labor unions provided funding, as, in late fall, did the Clinton/Gore campaign, whose national voter-registration drive was being directed by Chicago alderman Bobby Rush.
“It was overwhelming,” says Joseph Gardner, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the director of the steering committee for Project Vote! “The black community in this city had not been so energized and so single-minded since Harold [Washington]died.”
…The success of the voter-registration drive has marked [Obama] as the political star the Mayor should perhaps be watching for. “The sky’s the limit for Barack,” says Burrell.
Some of Daley’s closest advisers are similarly impressed. “In its technical demands, a voter-registration drive is not unlike a mini-political campaign,” says John Schmidt, chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and a fundraiser for Project Vote! “Barack ran this superbly. I have no doubt he could run an equally good political campaign if that’s what he decided to do next.”
The Woods Fund, Board of Directors
Jean Rudd, executive director of the Woods Fund, is another person on guard against self-appointed, self-promoting community leaders. She admires not only Obama’s intelligence but his honesty. “He is one of the most articulate people I have ever met, but he doesn’t use his gift with language to promote himself. He uses it to clarify the difficult job before him and before all of us. He’s not a promoter; from the very beginning, he always makes it clear what his difficulties are. His honesty is refreshing.”
Woods was the first foundation to underwrite Obama’s work with [Developing Communities Project]. Now that he’s on the Woods board, Rudd says, “He is among the most hard-nosed board members in wanting to see results. He wants to see our grants make change happen—not just pay salaries.”
Illinois State Senate
April 2003 Videotape interrogations. Senate Bill 15 (Obama, D-Chicago) is a bill that requires videotaping of interrogations in homicide investigations. Although it is a work-in-progress, there appears to be a consensus that something close to Senate Amendment No. 1 will be passed by the General Assembly. Senator Obama deserves much credit for closing this deal.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Published July 18th 1995
In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father–a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man–has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey–first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.
Grammy Award for best spoken word album, 2005, for Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
British Book Awards, Biography of the Year 2009
Grammy Award for best spoken word album (includes poetry, audio books, and storytelling), 2007, for The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
British Book Awards, nominated 2009
Chicago Reader: December 07, 1995
Lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author Barack Obama doesn’t need another career. But he’s entering politics to getback to his true passion—community organization
When Barack Obama returned to Chicago in 1991 after three brilliant years at Harvard Law School, he didn’t like what he saw. The former community activist, then 30, had come fresh from a term as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a position he was the first African-American to hold. Now he was ready to continue his battle to organize Chicago’s black neighborhoods. But the state of the city muted his exuberance….
Today, after three years of law practice and civic activism, Obama has decided to dive into electoral politics. He is running for the Illinois Senate, he says, because he wants to help create jobs and a decent future for those embittered youth. But when he met with some veteran politicians to tell them of his plans, the only jobs he says they wanted to talk about were theirs and his. Obama got all sorts of advice. Some of it perplexed him; most of it annoyed him. One African-American elected official suggested that Obama change his name, which he’d inherited from his late Kenyan father. Another told him to put a picture of his light-bronze, boyish face on all his campaign materials, “so people don’t see your name and think you’re some big dark guy….
Chicago Reader: November 13, 1997
Letter to the Editor: Endorsing the IVI-IPO
In the article appearing recently in the Chicago Reader on the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization [“Fighting Over Scraps,” November 7], there were a number of quotes attributed to me that I feel need to be placed in the proper context….Barack Obama State Senator 13th Legislative District
Chicago Reader: March 16, 2000
Two formidable opponents in the race for his congressional seat are banking on it.
… Was this stomping a sign that voters are ready to end Rush’s career in Washington? State senators Barack Obama and Donne Trotter think so. Both men are anxious to move up to Congress, and they think 2000 is the year for the coup that will get them there. They’re working hard to finish off the politically wounded incumbent.
“Congressman Rush exemplifies a politics that is reactive, that waits for crises to happen then holds a press conference, and hasn’t been particularly effective at building broad-based coalitions,” says Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who promises to be more effective in cooperating with whites and Latinos.
I had established a presence in the classroom and in other activities during my first year of law school serving as an editor on the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review, assisting several professors on their scholarly work, and campaigning actively on issues of diversity in faculty hiring. As a result, I think my peers and professors knew that I took my work at the law school seriously and were less likely to question my qualifications for a spot on the Review. Moreover, by the time I was elected to the presidency of the Review, the peers who voted for me had worked with me in close quarters for over a year and were pretty familiar with my accomplishments… I have no way of knowing whether I was a beneficiary of affirmative action either in my admission to Harvard or my initial election to the Review. If I was, then I certainly am not ashamed of the fact, for I would argue that affirmative action is important precisely because those who benefit typically rise to the challenge when given an opportunity. Persons outside Harvard may have perceived my election to the presidency of the Review as a consequence of affirmative action, since they did not know me personally. At least one white friend of mine mentioned that a federal appellate court judge asked him during his clerkship whether I had been elected on the merits. And the issue did come up among those who were making the hiring decisions at the [University of Chicago] law school — something that might not have even been raised with respect to a white former president of the Review.