New York, Chicago and Harvard

Mem­o­ries of Barack Oba­ma: First Jobs and Har­vard Law School

No one knows what Oba­ma did after Colum­bia. No one at Har­vard remem­bers him. There’s no record that he ever grad­u­at­ed from law school. Where is his the­sis? Where are his pub­li­ca­tions? Where are his pro­fes­sors? His friends? Why does­n’t any­one say they worked with him? Where are his land­lords? It’s as if he burst on the scene with no past.

Like every­thing else Birther, this meme is eas­i­ly debunked. After Barack Oba­ma grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia he worked at a few places, moved to Chica­go to take a job in his field, then ulti­mate­ly decid­ed that a law degree would help him reach his goals. Much of this was actu­al­ly in the pub­lic eye. 

Chica­go: Start­ing a Career
Cam­bridge: Har­vard Law School
Har­vard Civ­il Rights Law Review
Sum­mer Intern­ships:
Hop­kins & Sut­ter  
Sid­ley Austin 

Pre­vi­ous Page: Occi­den­tal Col­lege and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty                                                   Next Page: After Har­vard



Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Corp, New York, NY


Financ­ing For­eign Oper­a­tions [Year­book]”, Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Corp, New York, NY 

Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Mon­ey Report”, Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Corp, New York, NY 

The Job:

Barack Oba­ma rarely talks about his year spent with­in the arcane sphere of glob­al finance as a junior edi­tor for Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Corp., a pub­lish­er based in New York…unlike many of his peers, Oba­ma did not spend his senior year mak­ing plans to attend grad­u­ate or pro­fes­sion­al school. Oba­ma took charge of updat­ing Financ­ing For­eign Oper­a­tions, a year­book (annu­al sub­scrip­tion: $900) for which he edit­ed man­u­scripts from cor­re­spon­dents in 40 coun­tries. Oba­ma also wrote for Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al Mon­ey Report, a newslet­ter cov­er­ing cur­ren­cy issues and mon­e­tary pol­i­cy. 

The flag­ship pub­li­ca­tion had an activist bent, as an ear­ly cham­pi­on of cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty. A 1983 “call for action” encour­aged multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies to push not only for low­er cor­po­rate tax­es in the coun­tries in which they oper­at­ed but also reduced weapons spend­ing, as a means to pro­mote “peace through greater glob­al under­stand­ing and eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion.” But the pub­li­ca­tions for which Oba­ma worked had far nar­row­er inter­ests. Writ­ten for bankers and finan­cial exec­u­tives, Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al’s mon­ey report deliv­ered prac­ti­cal, if often rar­efied, advice for elud­ing for­eign-exchange rules that often lim­it­ed the abil­i­ty of investors to effi­cient­ly con­trol their assets.


Cathy Lazere, Super­vi­sor 

Cathy Lazere, his super­vi­sor at Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al, described him as self-assured and bright. “He was very mature and more world­ly than oth­er peo­ple — on the sur­face kind of laid back, but kind of in con­trol,” she said. “He had a good sense of him­self, which I think a lot of kids at that age don’t.” 

I thought that he was going to be a nov­el­ist or some­thing like that. He seemed like the type of per­son who was observ­ing the world and tak­ing it in.”

Lou Celi, Vice Pres­i­dent

It was not work­ing for Gen­er­al Foods or Chase Man­hat­tan, that’s for sure,” said Louis Celi, a vice pres­i­dent at the com­pa­ny, which was lat­er tak­en over by the Econ­o­mist Intel­li­gence Unit. “And it was not a con­sult­ing firm by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion.” 

He had a good pro­file for Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al: bright, artic­u­late, a good writer, and a knowl­edge of world issues and affairs,” said Lou Celi, an edi­tor of Oba­ma’s.

He always seemed aloof, a lit­tle bit of a stray cat,” added Celi.

After about a year at Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al, Oba­ma found a job as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er in Chica­go. “I remem­ber telling him he was mak­ing a big mis­take,” said Celi, who con­duct­ed Oba­ma’s exit inter­view. “He let me know he had big­ger fish to fry.”

Beth Noymer Levine, Col­league

We def­i­nite­ly learned our ABCs of the finan­cial mar­kets,” said Beth Noymer Levine. She was hired short­ly before Oba­ma and report­ed to the same boss. “I like to say Michelle Oba­ma will be first lady, but I will always be first col­league.”

Levine and Oba­ma worked on a vari­ety of newslet­ters for com­pa­nies doing busi­ness over­seas. The newslet­ters were aimed at senior exec­u­tives and had arcane titles like “Financ­ing For­eign Oper­a­tions” or “Invest­ing, Licens­ing, and Trad­ing Con­di­tions Abroad.” Even in a com­pa­ny filled with smart peo­ple, Oba­ma made an impres­sion.

I always say, he was very smooth and smart and togeth­er, and I was 23,” Levine joked. “I felt like a human train wreck next to him.”

Oba­ma was even younger. But col­leagues say he was mature beyond his years. True to its name, Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al had a glob­al fla­vor. It was locat­ed near the Unit­ed Nations, and many of the staffers, like Oba­ma, had degrees in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions rather than MBAs. It was the kind of place where a young per­son could take on a lot of respon­si­bil­i­ty, and you quick­ly learned to speak the lan­guage of the finan­cial pro­fes­sion­als for whom you were writ­ing.

Most news accounts of Oba­ma’s career omit the New York chap­ter alto­geth­er. Levine says she under­stands that.

I can see why CNN would skip over it,” Levine said. “I mean, a lot of peo­ple had stops along the way in their careers that don’t exact­ly fit the rest of the sto­ry. And maybe it was enough of an expo­sure for him to the cor­po­rate world to be like, ‘OK, that’s not exact­ly what I want.’ ”

We were sort of thrown in. But when I reflect on it, we were all smart enough, and we had to learn by the seat of our pants,” she said.

Susan Arter­ian Chang, Col­league

None of us were hob­nob­bing with multi­na­tion­al cor­po­rate exec­u­tives,” said Susan Arter­ian Chang, a writer who worked along­side Oba­ma. “They were boost­ers for multi­na­tion­als and they thought glob­al­ism was the way we should be going,” Chang said.

He was all busi­ness; he did­n’t chat and gos­sip,” said Chang. 

William Mil­lar, Col­league

…Still, a belief in the pri­ma­cy of mar­kets as engines for both the cre­ation of wealth and social progress pre­vailed at the com­pa­ny — as became evi­dent in an office debate between Oba­ma and a col­league over whether to trade with South Africa dur­ing apartheid.

Oba­ma “made some com­ment like there should be a boy­cott of any com­pa­ny doing busi­ness there,” recalled William Mil­lar, a writer for the mon­ey report. “I said he need­ed to real­ize that it’s the non-South African com­pa­nies who were hir­ing blacks and giv­ing them posi­tions of author­i­ty with decent pay. That’s what accel­er­ates change — not iso­la­tion.” 

Such dis­cus­sions were rare for Oba­ma, described by peers as a dis­tant pres­ence in the office: dili­gent about his work but rarely engaged by it, unin­ter­est­ed in after-work drinks with col­leagues.  

Dan Arm­strong, Col­league

It was a small newslet­ter-pub­lish­ing and research firm, with about 250 employ­ees world­wide, that helped com­pa­nies with for­eign oper­a­tions (they could be called multi­na­tion­als) under­stand over­seas mar­kets, they said. Far from a bas­tion of cor­po­rate con­for­mi­ty, they said, it was infor­mal and staffed by young peo­ple mak­ing mod­est wages. Employ­ees called it “high school with ash­trays.” 

You were thrown in the deep end, and you learned a lot, and you had to pre­tend to be more of an expert than you were,” said Dan Arm­strong, who super­vised one of the newslet­ters.

Arm­strong said Oba­ma’s book exag­ger­ates just how respectable Busi­ness Inter­na­tion­al was, with its descrip­tion of suits and ties and meet­ings with Ger­man bond traders. There was no dress code, Arm­strong said. And there was noth­ing cor­po­rate about it.

It was a com­pa­ny full of low-paid, hard-work­ing, fun-lov­ing young peo­ple,” Arm­strong said. “It was­n’t part of a high-pow­ered con­sult­ing or finance world. It was a lit­tle sweat­shop.”

Arm­strong was shocked when Oba­ma quit after a year, with­out even hav­ing anoth­er job lined up. 


New York Pub­lic Inter­est Research Group (NYPIRG)

VIDEO: Oba­ma and NYPIRG, Good Day, NY: Inter­views with for­mer col­leagues 

Barack Obama’s envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion began in Jan­u­ary of 1984, a year after he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, when he took an $800-a-month posi­tion run­ning a chap­ter of the Nad­er-inspired New York Pub­lic Inter­est Research Group (NYPIRG) on the cam­pus of Harlem’s City Col­lege. 

Oba­ma spent hours with stu­dents in the trail­er that served as the group’s office just below 140th Street and Con­vent Avenue, giv­ing lessons on how to orga­nize ral­lies and let­ter-writ­ing cam­paigns, how to speak to leg­is­la­tors and lob­by for change in pub­lic pol­i­cy.  

For­mer col­leagues recall a “fab­u­lous­ly intel­li­gent” and con­fi­dent young man who was intense­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of cre­at­ing polit­i­cal change from the ground up, an idea that would resur­face years lat­er in his mete­oric polit­i­cal rise. He stood apart from some of the more rad­i­cal stu­dents on cam­pus, they said, and believed strong­ly in work­ing with­in the sys­tem. 

Oba­ma worked that spring semes­ter, from Feb­ru­ary through late May, on sev­er­al NYPIRG projects, includ­ing the Straphang­ers Cam­paign. 


Eileen Her­shen­ov, Super­vi­sor

When 23-year-old Barack Oba­ma, then a recent Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate, walked into the office of the New York Pub­lic Inter­est Research Group in 1985 after answer­ing an ad for a job, his super­vi­sor had a warn­ing for him.  “I told him he would make less than $10,000 a year,” said Eileen Her­shen­ov, who was the down­state cam­pus coor­di­na­tor for NYPIRG. “He laughed and told me that was a step up for him.”

You need­ed some­body — and here was where Barack was a star — who could make the case to stu­dents across the polit­i­cal spec­trum,” said [Her­shen­ov]. The job required win­ning over stu­dents on the polit­i­cal left, who would nor­mal­ly dis­dain a group inspired by Ralph Nad­er as insuf­fi­cient­ly rad­i­cal, as well as stu­dents on the right and those who were not active at all. 

When he told Her­shen­ov he was leav­ing, she lit­er­al­ly got down on her knees and begged him to stay, she said.  “I want­ed him to stay because he could appeal to so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” Her­shen­ov said. “Peo­ple who were very inter­est­ed in iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, peo­ple who were apo­lit­i­cal and peo­ple on the left and the right. He appealed to stu­dents across a polit­i­cal spec­trum.”

 Chris Mey­er, Super­vi­sor

Oba­ma’s for­mer super­vi­sors recall hir­ing him to orga­nize on the Harlem cam­pus of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York as part of their cam­paign against the city’s reliance on incin­er­a­tors. “He was fright­en­ing­ly coher­ent,” said Chris Mey­er, now a Con­sumer Union offi­cial, who inter­viewed him for the NYPIRG job. “I remem­ber him inter­view­ing with a pres­ence and an assur­ance you just don’t see in your aver­age recent col­lege grad.”

We were knee deep in sol­id waste,” Mey­er said. “We were one of the groups that was focus­ing on try­ing to change New York City’s recy­cling poli­cies and the way we were doing that had to do with try­ing to get NYC weened away from incin­er­a­tion and try­ing to look at waste alter­na­tives.”

Tom Wathen, Super­vi­sor

He was some­body that every­body took notice of,” said Tom Wathen anoth­er for­mer NYPIRG offi­cial now at the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Trust. “He did a very good job,” said Wathen. “He revi­tal­ized the chap­ter, drew a lot of new stu­dents into it. Barack stood out because he had a cer­tain amount of charis­ma that was kind of obvi­ous.”  


Neal Rosen­stein, Col­league

Envi­ron­men­tal­ism was a core val­ue at NYPIRG in the mid-80s, say for­mer employ­ees, and was, then as now, a peren­ni­al hot-but­ton top­ic for cam­pus activists. “You couldn’t have avoid­ed it in this orga­ni­za­tion,” says Neal Rosen­stein, who was work­ing as a NYPIRG orga­niz­er at Stony­brook when Oba­ma joined City Col­lege. “Work­ing for NYPIRG was an edu­ca­tion in and of itself — you were exposed to a huge amount of envi­ron­men­tal issues.” But if Oba­ma came to envi­ron­men­tal­ism almost by acci­dent, he nonethe­less showed a remark­able zeal for orga­niz­ing stu­dents around the issue; over time, he devel­oped such a rep­u­ta­tion for his envi­ron­men­tal cam­paign work that stu­dents would tease him that he should quit smok­ing cig­a­rettes because it was “an envi­ron­men­tal issue”. (“We all have flaws,” Oba­ma would sigh as he puffed away.) 

Diana Mit­su Klos, Col­league

He had a seri­ous­ness of pur­pose,” recalled Diana Mit­su Klos, then a school orga­niz­er work­ing out of the CCNY office. “His tenure was brief, but any­one who met him received a strong and last­ing impres­sion.”

Ali­son Kel­ley, Col­league 

He’d arrived at NYPIRG’s cam­pus office—a cramped trail­er parked on a patch of grass next to the sci­ence building—determined to change the world, but unclear about where to begin. “He didn’t seem unsure of him­self, but he seemed unsure of where he belonged,” says Ali­son Kel­ley, who was a fresh­man at City Col­lege when Oba­ma came to the cam­pus. “You could tell he was dri­ven, but he wasn’t sure what he was dri­ven by.”

[Kel­ly] remem­bers work­ing with Oba­ma to improve the City Col­lege sub­way sta­tion at 137th Street and Broad­way, which was dirty and had poor light­ing. She said he was among the ear­ly lead­ers in the suc­cess­ful push to get CUNY to divest itself of hold­ings in apartheid South Africa. He also led vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves and cam­paigns to keep tuition down at CUNY

We had oth­er orga­niz­ers who were com­pe­tent peo­ple, but he real­ly stood out,” Kel­ley said. “Every­one knew that he was going to do some­thing remark­able.” 

Instead of focus­ing on envi­ron­men­tal issues in iso­la­tion, Oba­ma sought to join the dots, draw­ing stu­dents into ener­getic con­ver­sa­tions about the way that air and water pol­lu­tion was impact­ing on the health of the neighborhood’s low-income res­i­dents, or about the eco­nom­ic forces that under­pinned the prob­lems the stu­dents want­ed to tack­le. “I don’t think he’d have called him­self an envi­ron­men­tal­ist per se,” says Kel­ley. “He used to say that it was too nar­row to look at things that way, because if you do you can’t see the whole pic­ture — and if you can’t see the whole pic­ture, you can’t bring about real change.”

But it was clear that Oba­ma quick­ly came to sense the lim­its of such approach­es. “He talked about being frus­trat­ed, that he wasn’t mov­ing fast enough,” recalls Kel­ley. “I don’t think he real­ly saw the effect he was hav­ing, so he got antsy.” He read wide­ly, and would hold forth about dif­fer­ent the­o­ries and mod­els of orga­niz­ing, about bet­ter ways to bring change and to get the job done. In the end, col­leagues say, Oba­ma decid­ed that he would not be able to effect real change sim­ply through cam­pus orga­niz­ing. At the end of the semes­ter… Oba­ma quit his job and moved on.

Chica­go: Start­ing a Career

Book Cover


Oba­ma, Barack. “Why orga­nize? Prob­lems and promise in the inner city.” Illi­nois Issues. August/September 1988

Oba­ma, Barack. “Why orga­nize? Prob­lems and promise in the inner city.” After Alin­sky: Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing in Illi­nois. Ed. Peg Knoepfle Illi­nois Issues, 1990. Print

Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project 

DCP logo

Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project (DCP) was orga­nized in 1984 as a branch of the Calumet Com­mu­ni­ty Reli­gious Con­fer­ence (CCRC) that sought to impact the mas­sive lay-offs and man­u­fac­tur­ing plant clos­ings in South­east Chica­go in the 1970’s and 1980’s. As an arm of CCRC, DCP ini­ti­at­ed local action cam­paigns to improve the qual­i­ty of life for res­i­dents in Greater Rose­land. In 1986, DCP was incor­po­rat­ed as a not-for-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion under the lead­er­ship of its first exec­u­tive direc­tor, then com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er and now Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, Barack Oba­ma. DCP remained church-based with the mis­sion to serve as a vehi­cle for grass­roots lead­ers to impact deci­sion-mak­ing around issues that affect their lives.

Did Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma once work for DCP?

Yes. He was the first exec­u­tive direc­tor when DCP became inde­pen­dent­ly incor­po­rat­ed. 


Becom­ing Barack: Evo­lu­tion of a Leader (Trail­er) 1993 Inter­view, John­nie Owens, Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project 

Con­tempora­ne­ous Sources

Chicago Reader: 1992

A confederacy of churches: far south siders trade economic development for airport quiet 

… “Like most com­mu­ni­ties, we have prob­lems of gangs, crimes, and drugs,” says the Rev­erend Alvin Love, pas­tor of the Lily­dale First Bap­tist Church and vice pres­i­dent of the [Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties] pro­jec­t’s board. “It breaks my heart to say this, but there are times when I can look out the win­dow of my church and see drug deals going on at the high school across the street.”

In 1984 mem­bers of sev­er­al local con­gre­ga­tions decid­ed to unite to fight such prob­lems. “As church peo­ple you see the need, but you can only address the prob­lems on a small scale,” says June Nichol­son, a lay leader with the Wes­ley Unit­ed Methodist Church, one of the pro­jec­t’s affil­i­ates. “You can oper­ate a church cloth­ing pantry or a food pantry, but that only goes so far and you feel almost pow­er­less. You get frus­trat­ed and over­whelmed.”

A group of people–the pro­jec­t’s found­ing pres­i­dent, Loret­ta Augus­tine; its for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor, Barack Oba­ma; the present asso­ciate direc­tor, Cas­san­dra Lowe; and John­nie Owens–got togeth­er and decid­ed on the strat­e­gy of recruit­ing church­es.

The idea, of course, was not com­plete­ly orig­i­nal. Saul Alin­sky, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go-trained soci­ol­o­gist who wrote the book on com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, pio­neered that tac­tic more than 50 years ago in the slaugh­ter­house neigh­bor­hood known as Back of the Yards. Since then the church-based mod­el has been repli­cat­ed in white and His­pan­ic neigh­bor­hoods through­out the city.

How­ev­er, with the excep­tion of the Wood­lawn Orga­ni­za­tion, few Alin­sky-style groups have tak­en root in all- black neigh­bor­hoods. One rea­son, Owens and oth­ers spec­u­late, is that black church­es tend to be much more inde­pen­dent. And orga­niz­ing for the project was made more chal­leng­ing by sev­er­al high-pro­file and dynam­ic church lead­ers, includ­ing Love and the rev­erends Albert Shears of Maple Park Unit­ed Methodist Church and James T. Meeks of the Salem Bap­tist Church.…

Ger­ald Kell­man, Pro­gram Orga­niz­er

Barack had been very inspired by the civ­il-rights move­ment,” [Ger­ald] Kell­man, the orga­niz­er who hired Oba­ma, told
me recent­ly. “I felt that he want­ed to work in the civ­il-rights move­ment, but he was ten years too late, and this was the clos­est he could find to it at the time.” Oba­ma, in his mem­oir, put it more sim­ply when he said he went to Chica­go to “orga­nize black folks.”

Obama meeting
But at first Kell­man wasn’t sure Oba­ma was right for the job. “My wife was Japan­ese-Amer­i­can,” Kell­man recalled. “I showed her the résumé, with the back­ground in Hawaii. The name’s Oba­ma, so I asked, ‘Could this be Japan­ese?’ She said, ‘Sure, it could be.’” It was only when Kell­man talked to Oba­ma on the phone, and Oba­ma “expressed inter­est in some­thing African-Amer­i­can cul­tur­al­ly,” that a relieved Kell­man offered Oba­ma the job.

He had no trou­ble chal­leng­ing pow­er and chal­leng­ing peo­ple on issues,” Kell­man says. “When it came to face-to-face sit­u­a­tions, he val­ued civil­i­ty a great deal. … When it came to nego­ti­at­ing con­flict, he was very good at that.”

He liked hear­ing peo­ple’s sto­ries, and he liked writ­ing them up, said Kell­man and orga­niz­er Mike Krug­lik, who also worked with Oba­ma. Oba­ma would turn in field reports that read like sto­ries. At the time, he also was writ­ing fic­tion in his free time and was weigh­ing a future as a writer. “Under­stand­ing sto­ry nar­ra­tives was very key,” Kell­man said. “He was already inclined to nar­ra­tives, so he was very good at that.” 

He either had to fail or suc­ceed in order to leave” the job, said Jer­ry Kell­man, who hired him. “And he suc­ceed­ed pret­ty well.” 

Towards the end of the ’80s, Kell­man and Oba­ma went to a con­fer­ence on the role of the black church, held at Har­vard Divin­i­ty School. The church was at the heart of most African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in Amer­i­ca, and Oba­ma him­self had worked with­in it and now found faith and a home at the Trin­i­ty Unit­ed Church, whose con­tro­ver­sial pas­tor, Jere­mi­ah Wright, would mar­ry Oba­ma to Michelle in 1992. Kell­man thinks it like­ly that Oba­ma him­self had con­sid­ered a min­istry — a career in the church — at some stage of his life. 

It was dur­ing their con­fer­ence at Har­vard that Oba­ma told Kell­man of his fears about end­ing up like his father, a polit­i­cal out­cast and fail­ure. He said he had decid­ed to go to law school, and it was clear to Kell­man that this was a step towards a polit­i­cal career. Kell­man believes that Oba­ma had seen the poten­tial in grass­roots organ­is­ing for gal­vanis­ing a mass move­ment — some­thing he would put to good use lat­er. “This isn’t a cam­paign, it’s a move­ment!” was a chant I would hear at Oba­ma ral­lies in Hawaii in 2008. 

 Loret­ta Augus­tine-Her­ron, Found­ing Mem­ber, Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project 

Jer­ry intro­duces Barack, and Barack is so young, it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’” Loret­ta Augus­tine-Her­ron remem­bered. Oba­ma was obvi­ous­ly smart, and he want­ed to be an orga­niz­er, but he was, in fact, quite young (24) and he didn’t actu­al­ly know much about the job. Despite those draw­backs, he seemed to work some sort of mag­ic on the lead­ers. “He had a sen­si­tiv­i­ty I have nev­er seen in any­body else to this day,” Augus­tine-Her­ron told me. “He under­stood.” … “He didn’t have expe­ri­ence,” Augus­tine-Her­ron said. “But he had a sen­si­tiv­i­ty that allowed us to believe that he could do the job.” So Oba­ma it was. 

This kid was so bright — I should­n’t say kid, this man was so bright, but he did­n’t hit you over the head with it,” recalls Loret­ta Augus­tine-Her­ron, a found­ing mem­ber of the com­mu­ni­ties project. “He explained things so nobody would be offend­ed.” The women nick­named him “baby-face Oba­ma.” They chid­ed him when he would eat just a spinach sal­ad for lunch, laughed when he showed off his dance moves and joked about his seri­ous­ness. 

Loret­ta Augus­tine-Her­ron recalled sit­ting at her kitchen table with Mr. Oba­ma for sev­er­al hours one after­noon at her home near a hous­ing project.  “He was not in a hur­ry, and I told him about what I did work­ing with Girl Scouts and vol­un­teer­ing at school as a room moth­er and for block clubs in the neigh­bor­hood,” she said. “He want­ed to know what made me tick, what my goals were and how things impact­ed the sta­bil­i­ty of my fam­i­ly.” Ms. Augus­tine-Her­ron said that long after­ward, Mr. Oba­ma recalled details of their talk, like her old­est daughter’s ser­vice in the Air Force.

Gre­go­ry Gal­luz­zo, Super­vi­sor

If you’d asked his views on the envi­ron­ment he’d have spo­ken as pro­gres­sive­ly as any­one would have spo­ken at that time,” says Gre­go­ry Gal­luz­zo, a vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er who trained Oba­ma dur­ing his ear­ly years in Chica­go. In fact, the bggest prob­lem was beat­ing the ide­ol­o­gy out of Oba­ma and mak­ing him focus on the task at hand. “I’d tell him, God damn it, I don’t want you to talk about envi­ron­men­tal­ism,” recalls Gal­luz­zo, now direc­tor of the Gamaliel Foun­da­tion. “I want you to use your ears and not your mouth — get out there and find out what peo­ple want, and then we’ll decide what we’re going to do about it.” 

John McK­night, Train­er

… [A] meet­ing with the [Chica­go Hous­ing Author­i­ty] direc­tor end­ed in dis­as­ter, when angry res­i­dents shout­ed down the offi­cial and drove him from the meet­ing. Work­men did begin to seal off asbestos in the Alt­geld com­plex, but progress stalled when the fed­er­al Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment agency denied the CHA’s request for fund­ing for asbestos removal and basic repairs. “You can have the asbestos removed. Or you can have new plumb­ing and roof­ing where it’s need­ed. But you can’t have both,” a HUD offi­cial told Oba­ma when he protest­ed the deci­sion. “These are the bud­get pri­or­i­ties com­ing out of Wash­ing­ton these days. I’m sor­ry.” For Oba­ma, it was a les­son in the lim­its of grass­roots activism: a sign that pow­er — real pow­er, pow­er that could be used to effect change — lay fur­ther on and fur­ther up the lad­der. “He could see that the impact would­n’t reach beyond the neigh­bor­hood,” for­mer orga­niz­er John McK­night, who helped train Oba­ma, told The New Repub­lic ear­li­er this year. “The change he was seek­ing was big­ger.”

Mike Krug­lik, Col­league

He was a stranger but he made his way,” says Mike Krug­lik, who worked with Oba­ma as an orga­niz­er. “He could see him­self in oth­er peo­ple.” 

 Oba­ma also was hon­ing his writ­ing skills, craft­ing vivid short sto­ries inspired by his Chica­go expe­ri­ences. He showed them to fel­low orga­niz­er Krug­lik, who was impressed by how he had cap­tured the feel of the streets. “I could­n’t fig­ure out how he had the time and ener­gy to do it,” he says.

Daniel Lee, Col­league

In his view, fig­ur­ing out who you are and then get­ting that per­son to think about what he or she is going to do with it is the first step toward empow­er­ment,” Daniel Lee, a fel­low orga­niz­er, recalled. “He told me this was an exten­sion of his own jour­ney in strug­gling to find his iden­ti­ty.”

Harold Lucas, Col­league

When vet­er­an orga­niz­er Harold Lucas heard there was a new [com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er], he fig­ured he had bet­ter check him out. Lucas weaved through hun­dreds of peo­ple who had gath­ered at the Lily­dale First Bap­tist Church to pres­sure gov­ern­ment offi­cials to clean pol­lut­ed local water. Lucas sidled up to the skin­ny kid with big ears who was por­ing over a clip­board.

Lucas did­n’t say a word, but peered at the young man’s clip­board. On it he saw speak­ers’ names, stick-fig­ure draw­ings, scripts of speech­es and back­up speak­ers and scripts in case peo­ple froze.

He was lit­er­al­ly orches­trat­ing the meet­ing from a clip­board in the back of the room,” said Lucas, 65, who now runs a preser­va­tion tourism busi­ness in a his­toric down­town area called Bronzeville. “I said to myself: Either I don’t know noth­ing about com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, or this kid is bril­liant.” 

Lin­da Ran­dle, Col­league

Anoth­er activist, Lin­da Ran­dle, remem­bers the begin­nings of the cam­paign to get asbestos removed from homes in Alt­geld and else­where. The hous­es had exposed pipes run­ning through the rooms and they had been lagged with asbestos. Though it was not until after he had left for Har­vard that the asbestos was final­ly removed, Oba­ma and his col­leagues played a cen­tral role in the cam­paign. The Alt­geld homes were in a poor state of repair, but Ran­dle recalls the hous­ing author­i­ty telling them that they had to make a choice — repairs or asbestos removal — as there was­n’t the mon­ey for both. 

She recalls Oba­ma as “well groomed and skin­ny”, always eat­ing sal­ads and always try­ing to include every­one in the meet­ings and cam­paigns, often in the face of hos­tile resis­tance. Ran­dle had gone to a meet­ing once at Alt­geld about the asbestos and been told how dare she come there to talk about it and take the cred­it, as if they had been first with asbestos; it had been their idea. It does­n’t mat­ter who was first, Ran­dle told them, we all need to work togeth­er — just as Oba­ma was always say­ing. 

John­nie Owens, Col­league

As exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project, [Oba­ma] had attempt­ed to per­suade the res­i­dents of Alt­geld Gar­dens to become more involved in their com­mu­ni­ty. Oba­ma worked for the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project for four years.

I’ll nev­er for­get the amount of feel­ing he showed,” recalled John­nie Owens, who became the group’s direc­tor when Oba­ma left for law school in 1988. “He hon­est­ly eval­u­at­ed his per­for­mance and made up his mind to do bet­ter.”

Chica­go Read­er, 1995: Oba­ma’s work on the south side has won him the friend­ship and respect of many activists. One of them, John­nie Owens, left the city­wide advo­ca­cy group Friends of the Parks to join Oba­ma at the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project. He lat­er replaced Oba­ma as its exec­u­tive direc­tor.

What I liked about Barack imme­di­ate­ly is that he brought a cer­tain lev­el of sophis­ti­ca­tion and intel­li­gence to com­mu­ni­ty work,” Owens says. “He had a rea­son­able, focused approach that I had­n’t seen much of. A lot of orga­niz­ers you meet these days are these self-anoint­ed lead­ers with this strange, way-out approach and unre­al­is­tic, eccen­tric way of pur­su­ing things from the very begin­ning. Not Barack. He’s not about call­ing atten­tion to him­self. He’s con­cerned with the work. It’s as if it’s his mis­sion in life, his call­ing, to work for social jus­tice.

Any­one who knows me knows that I’m one of the most cyn­i­cal peo­ple you want to see, always look­ing for some­body’s angle or per­son­al inter­est,” Owens added. “I’ve lived in Chica­go all my life. I’ve known some of the most ruth­less and biggest bull­shit­ters out there, but I see noth­ing but integri­ty in this guy.”

Of course, despite the long hours and the hard work, Oba­ma did have a per­son­al life. He formed a close friend­ship with John Owens, who even­tu­al­ly took over his role at the DCP, hav­ing been trained and encour­aged by Oba­ma in prepa­ra­tion. 

Owens had his own organ­is­ing job before they met, but was imme­di­ate­ly aware that his friend was dif­fer­ent from the usu­al kind of per­son he encoun­tered, and took plea­sure in shar­ing the broad range of Oba­ma’s inter­ests. They went to a Carti­er-Bres­son pho­to­graph­ic exhi­bi­tion at the art insti­tute and some­times lis­tened to jazz at a club in Hyde Park, not far from Oba­ma’s apart­ment. 

They went togeth­er to LA for two weeks of lead­er­ship train­ing and Owens saw how Oba­ma kept to a strict sched­ule of work and fit­ness, swim­ming and work­ing out in the gym. “This guy was like a machine,” he says. When Owens went to order dessert at din­ner, Oba­ma would cau­tion him — “Are you sure you deserve that?” — ask­ing him to think twice about whether he had “earned” the pud­ding with exer­cise. He was still keen on bas­ket­ball and played to win, giv­ing no quar­ter to Owens, even when it quick­ly became appar­ent that Oba­ma was by far the bet­ter play­er and a good five years younger. 

It amused Owens, too, that Oba­ma showed oth­er sophis­ti­ca­tions: keep­ing a bot­tle of wine and two glass­es ready on the side at home and invit­ing his friend around for “chick­en papri­ka”. When Owens asked what it was (it was not your typ­i­cal African-Amer­i­can fare), Oba­ma made a joke of the dish’s sim­plic­i­ty: “Well, you know, it’s chick­en thighs with the skin off and papri­ka on it — and baked.” His apart­ment was some­what bare, but heav­i­ly laden with books and music. The music was clas­si­cal and jazz, and the books were phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry, mod­ern clas­sics of black lit­er­a­ture such as James Bald­win, and some works on rev­o­lu­tion, too.

Oba­ma dat­ed a young Chica­go State Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent for a cou­ple of years and even­tu­al­ly moved in with her at her home, which was also in Hyde Park. Owens then took over the lease on Oba­ma’s apart­ment. He remem­bers the woman as white, though oth­ers thought she was of mixed white and Asian her­itage. She was def­i­nite­ly not black and, Jer­ry Kell­man recalls, there was some issue around her being threat­ened or dis­con­cert­ed by Oba­ma’s involve­ment with black cul­ture. Owens knew the woman and nev­er sensed she was awk­ward around him. She was slight­ly built, with close-cropped hair. Lin­da Ran­dle met her a few times too, when she went to see Oba­ma in Hyde Park for one of their reg­u­lar meet­ings at Val­ois, the local restau­rant. 

The rela­tion­ship end­ed just about the time Oba­ma went off to Har­vard. Owens recalls the woman being hurt “pret­ty bad­ly” by the break-up and ask­ing after Oba­ma when Owens bumped into her in a store. But, accord­ing to Kell­man, she too was going off in a new direc­tion in her life, and the rela­tion­ship had nev­er looked like becom­ing per­ma­nent. The woman was not men­tioned at all in Oba­ma’s book — unless she is heav­i­ly dis­guised, as he does write about a woman from New York whom he loved but end­ed up argu­ing with over race. 

Rev. Michael Evans

Alt­geld iGar­dens s the wildest place you had ever seen,” said the Rev. Michael Evans, who helped run the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project, right after Oba­ma left. “But Oba­ma came out there and said, ‘No, this is good. We can do some­thing with this.’ ”

Rev. Alvin Love, Lily­dale First Bap­tist Church

Many of the parish­es were in pre­dom­i­nant­ly African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, and I think all of the priests were non-African-Amer­i­can,” Rev. Alvin Love, head of the Lily­dale First Bap­tist Church on 113th Street, told me. “Barack came to me and want­ed to try to con­nect with the whole com­mu­ni­ty.”

He was inter­est­ed in find­ing out what I thought could be done in the com­mu­ni­ty about issues like pub­lic safe­ty and employ­ment, rather than giv­ing me some long-wind­ed spiel,” said the Rev. Alvin Love “We were look­ing for ways to get involved, and Barack gave us a mech­a­nism to do that.”

Mr. Oba­ma asked him to attend a meet­ing with oth­er min­is­ters. “Fif­teen church­es were rep­re­sent­ed there, and we start­ed mak­ing plans to mobi­lize around issues like drugs, vio­lence and job train­ing,” Mr. Love said.

Try­ing to con­struct a wide-rang­ing alliance of church­es, Oba­ma suc­ceed­ed with Love and a few oth­er min­is­ters, but he was ham­pered by the fact that he didn’t go to church him­self. “I said, ‘If you go to a pas­tor, and you ask him to come get involved in a com­mu­ni­ty effort, and you say you have a group of church­es, and that pas­tor asks you what church you belong to, and you say none — then it’s hard to get that pas­tor on board,’” Love recalled telling Oba­ma. “He said, ‘I know, I under­stand, I’m work­ing on it.’ He said, ‘I believe, I’m just wait­ing for the right spot, the right place, the right time.’”

Auma Oba­ma, Half-sis­ter

I had decid­ed to vis­it Barack as his guest in Chica­go. I was ner­vous. I was very close to my dad and Barack was a piece of him that I had­n’t known. What if we did not get along? Well, I was­n’t dis­ap­point­ed. We just got into the car, his lit­tle car, and start­ed talk­ing and nev­er stopped. It was a very intense 10 days togeth­er.

Barack was a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er. He was just a small per­son, a nobody, but he had the same inten­si­ty he has today. He was dis­turbed by the sta­tus quo and was work­ing at the grass­roots to see what was going wrong. I was very active in polit­i­cal aware­ness work in Ger­many and I saw that he had the same ener­gy and pas­sion to make a dif­fer­ence and to change peo­ple’s lives. 



Offi­cial Sources

HLS Yearbook pic Yearbook page With books


Recent Cas­esHar­vard Law Review Vol.103, p.823–828 (1990)


About the arti­cle

Arti­cle text

Review Pres­i­dent Explains Affir­ma­tive Action Pol­i­cy

  Har­vard Law Record. Vol­ume 91, Num­ber 7 (Novem­ber 16, 1990) 


1991 TBS Black His­to­ry Minute  

BBC Amer­i­ca: Har­vard’s influ­ence on Oba­ma’s team

1990 Oba­ma intro­duc­ing Der­rick Bell Har­vard Demon­stra­tion: March 7, 2009 PBS Sto­ry with WGBH Archive Video

PBSPres­i­dent Oba­ma: The Har­vard Years


Har­vard Law School Alum­ni list­ings

Alumni Directory

HLS Alum 1993 CoverHLS Alum guide 1993

Har­vard Pub­li­ca­tions

The Har­vard Crim­son, 2007

The pres­i­den­tial hope­ful grad­u­at­ed magna cum laude from the Law School in 1991; his wife earned the degree three years ear­li­er.

Har­vard Law Bul­letin, 2008

A Com­man­der in Chief

 In law school, Barack Oba­ma ’91 already looked—and led—like a future pres­i­dent

Har­vard Law School Alum­ni Spot­light, 2009

Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma ’91 is the recip­i­ent of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Cit­ed for “his extra­or­di­nary efforts to strength­en inter­na­tion­al diplo­ma­cy and co-oper­a­tion between peo­ples,” Oba­ma becomes the third sit­ting U.S. pres­i­dent to receive the award, along with Theodore Roo­sevelt and Woodrow Wil­son.

Har­vard Gazette

When sworn in on Jan. 20, Barack Oba­ma will become the eighth U.S. pres­i­dent to have grad­u­at­ed from Har­vard. Pres­i­dent-elect Oba­ma is a 1991 grad­u­ate of Har­vard Law School. He joins cur­rent Pres­i­dent George W. Bush (M.B.A. ’75) and Pres­i­dents John Adams, John Quin­cy Adams, Ruther­ford B. Hayes, Theodore Roo­sevelt, Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, and John F. Kennedy as Har­vard grad­u­ates cho­sen to serve as the nation’s chief exec­u­tive.

Barack Oba­ma, 1961-  
J.D. mcl ’91

Har­vard Law School: Spot­light at Har­vard Law School, Alum­ni Pur­suits

Barack Oba­ma ’91 has won elec­tion to the pres­i­den­cy of the Unit­ed States. Michelle Oba­ma ’88 will become the first HLS alum­na to serve as First Lady.

On this his­toric day, the Har­vard Law School com­mu­ni­ty is proud of its extra­or­di­nary alum­nus, Pres­i­dent-elect Barack Oba­ma ’91,” said HLS Dean Ele­na Kagan ’86. “We feel priv­i­leged that this law school played a part in his life, and we look for­ward to his ful­fill­ing all the poten­tial for great­ness that so many here saw even when he was a stu­dent. We also salute Michelle Robin­son Oba­ma ’88 for her sig­nif­i­cant role in this cam­paign and for the tal­ent and grace she will bring to her posi­tion as First Lady.” 

Oba­ma arrived at the law school in 1988 at the age of 28, after sev­er­al years as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er in Chica­go. Two years lat­er, he made his­to­ry at HLS when he was elect­ed the first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review.  


News Reports

The New York Times, Feb. 6, 1990

The Har­vard Law Review, gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered the most pres­ti­gious in the coun­try, elect­ed the first black pres­i­dent in its 104-year his­to­ry today. The job is con­sid­ered the high­est stu­dent posi­tion at Har­vard Law School.

The new pres­i­dent of the Review is Barack Oba­ma, a 28-year-old grad­u­ate of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty who spent four years head­ing a com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment pro­gram for poor blacks on Chicago’s South Side before enrolling in law school. His late father, Barack Oba­ma, was a finance min­is­ter in Kenya and his moth­er, Ann Dun­ham, is an Amer­i­can anthro­pol­o­gist now doing field­work in Indone­sia. Mr. Oba­ma was born in Hawaii. 

The Boston Globe, Feb­ru­ary 15, 1990

Barack Oba­ma became the first black pres­i­dent of the influ­en­tial Har­vard Law Review last week, after a marathonObama books boston 17-hour selec­tion process that pit­ted him against 18 oth­er can­di­dates. But he says he felt the full sig­nif­i­cance of the hon­or only after a rival can­di­date, also black, embraced him.

He held onto me for a long time,” said Oba­ma, 28, a sec­ond-year stu­dent at Har­vard Law School. “It was an impor­tant moment for me, because with that embrace I real­ized my elec­tion was not about me, but it was about us, about what we could do and what we could accom­plish.”

Chica­go Tri­bune, Feb­ru­ary 07, 1990

Activist In Chicago Now Heads Harvard Law Review

Just a few years ago, Barack Oba­ma was help­ing res­i­dents of the Alt­geld Gar­dens hous­ing devel­op­ment chal­lenge the Chica­go Hous­ing Author­i­ty over asbestos in their apart­ments.

On Mon­day, the 28-year-old Oba­ma was named pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review, the nation‘s most pres­ti­gious stu­dent legal jour­nal. Oba­ma is the first black elect­ed to the post in its 104-year his­to­ry.

ColumnsThe Review is con­sid­ered one of the most author­i­ta­tive of the law school reviews and is a forum for judges and schol­ars. It is also a high-pow­ered spring­board for aspir­ing lawyers. Its pres­i­dents usu­al­ly go on serve as a clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for a year and then as a clerk for an asso­ciate jus­tice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

It took 91 years to elect a woman, and it wasn‘t until last year that an Asian was elect­ed by his fel­low edi­tors to the posi­tion. For Oba­ma, it‘s anoth­er vic­to­ry in the fight against “pow­er­less­ness.“

Peo­ple don‘t feel that they can have much impact,“ he said in a phone inter­view from the Review‘s offices. “I want to get peo­ple involved in hav­ing a say in how their lives are run. More and more of that needs to be done…“

Born in Hawaii to the late Barack Oba­ma, once a finance min­is­ter in Kenya, and Ann Dun­ham, an Amer­i­can anthro­pol­o­gist, Oba­ma went to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty before mov­ing to Chica­go to work as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er.

LA Times, March 19, 1990

Barack Oba­ma’s Law Per­son­al­i­ty: Har­vard Law Review’s first black pres­i­dent plans a life of pub­lic ser­vice. His mul­ti­cul­tur­al back­ground gives him unique per­spec­tive.

Barack Oba­ma stares silent­ly at a wall of fad­ing black-and-white pho­tographs in the mug­gy sec­ond-floor offices of the Har­vard Law Review. He lingers over one row of solemn faces, his pre­de­ces­sors of 40 years ago. All are men. All are dressed in dark-col­ored suits and ties. All are white. It is a sober­ing moment for Oba­ma, 28, who in Feb­ru­ary became the first black to be elect­ed pres­i­dent in the 102-year his­to­ry of the pres­ti­gious stu­dent-run law jour­nal.  

The post, con­sid­ered the high­est hon­or a stu­dent can attain at Har­vard Law School, almost always leads to a cov­et­ed clerk­ship with the U.S. Supreme Court after grad­u­a­tion and a lucra­tive offer from the law firm of one’s choice. 

Yet Oba­ma, who has gone deep into debt to meet the $25,000-a-year cost of a Har­vard Law School edu­ca­tion, has left many in dis­be­lief by assert­ing that he wants nei­ther. 

One of the lux­u­ries of going to Har­vard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life,” Oba­ma said recent­ly. “You can try to do things to improve soci­ety and still land on your feet. That’s what a Har­vard edu­ca­tion should buy-enough con­fi­dence and secu­ri­ty to pur­sue your dreams and give some­thing back.”  

Vanity Fair

Van­i­ty Fair, June 1990

The new pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review was some­what tak­en aback by the del­uge of media cov­er­age that fol­lowed hard on the heels of his elec­tion. The New York Times ran a “First Black” head­line, which prob­a­bly won’t be the last time that label is affixed to Barack Oba­ma. The twen­ty-eight-year-old law stu­dent says he wasn’t going to run for the office until a black friend talked him into it. “There’s a door to kick down,” the friend argued, “and you’re in a posi­tion to kick it down.” The job does give him a great forum, but there’s a trade-off. “I like to read nov­els, lis­ten to Miles Davis,” he says. “I don’t get to do that any­more. I don’t get dates any­more.” Still, he’s philo­soph­i­cal, even briskly cheer­ful, about his lost leisure. And that’s because Barack Oba­ma has a game plan: he wants to tack­le the quag­mire of America’s inner cities. Fed­er­al mon­ey alone won’t do it, he argues. The deep­er prob­lem is that “those com­mu­ni­ties are unor­ga­nized. We need to get more peo­ple plan­ning.” For prepa­ra­tion, Har­vard Law School is a “per­fect place to exam­ine how the pow­er struc­ture works. It gives you a cer­tain lan­guage.” When he’s flu­ent, he’ll be able to trans­late the lan­guage of the streets (“which I can speak”) into the lan­guage of the Estab­lish­ment, and vice ver­sa.  

Oth­er Pub­li­ca­tions

Tribe, Lau­rence H. “The Cur­va­ture of Con­sti­tu­tion­al Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Mod­ern Physics,” 103Har­vard Review 1 (1989). (reprint­ed in Quan­tum Pol­i­tics: apply­ing Quan­tum The­o­ry to Polit­i­cal Phe­nom­e­na(Theodore L. Beck­er, Edi­tor) (Praeger Press 1991)) 

I am grate­ful to Rob Fish­er, Michael Dorf, Ken­neth Chese­bro, Gene Sper­ling, and Barack Oba­ma for their ana­lyt­ic and research assis­tance and to Pro­fes­sor Ger­ald Holton (Har­vard Physics Depart­ment) for his help­ful com­ments.”

Tribe, Lau­rence H. & Michael DorfOn Read­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion (Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press 1991).

On reading the Constitution


 We are grate­ful for the out­stand­ing efforts of sev­er­al very tal­ent­ed peo­ple… Robert Fish­er and Bar­rack [sic] Oba­ma have influ­enced our think­ing on vir­tu­al­ly every sub­ject dis­cussed in these pages.  

Chap­ter 2 Struc­tur­ing Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ver­sa­tions 

[Foot­note] 1. We are grate­ful to Richard Fish­er and and Barack Oba­ma for the metaphor of con­sti­tu­tion­al inter­pre­ta­tion as con­ver­sa­tion. 

Tribe, Lau­rence HAbor­tion, the clash of absolutes. W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, 1992.

Abortion Book


Sev­er­al of my cur­rent stu­dents at Har­vard Law School should be sin­gled out for thanks; their ener­getic ant thouough research, their intel­li­gent edit­ing sug­ges­tions, and their care­ful proof­read­ing all made a great dif­fer­ence. Those stu­dents are … and espe­cial­ly Ellen M. Bublick, Michael C. Dorf, Barack H. Oba­ma, Ashar Qureshi, Jer­ri-Lynn Scofield, and Lisa B. Shelkrot. 

Lau­rence H. Tribe
Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts
Feb­ru­ary 1990 


  HLR Masthead  Adv pageHKR Cover


Con­trib­u­tors, Har­vard Law Review

Robin West, Con­trib­u­tor, Har­vard Law Review
 Fore­word: Tak­ing Free­dom Seri­ous­ly; West, Robin. 104 Harv. L. Rev. 43 (1990–1991)

And when, in an unusu­al move, he select­ed a young woman from a non-Ivy League law school to fill one of the Review’s most pres­ti­gious slots, she pro­duced an essay focused on indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ties as much as on lib­er­ties, which crit­i­cized both con­ser­v­a­tive judges and fem­i­nist schol­ars. 

I was very sur­prised and hon­ored to receive the invi­ta­tion, of course, as I was teach­ing at Mary­land Law School at the time, and the For­ward typ­i­cal­ly is extend­ed to more estab­lished schol­ars at ‘top’ law schools,” wrote Robin West, now a pro­fes­sor and asso­ciate dean at George­town Law Cen­ter, in an e‑mail to Politi­co. While oth­er arti­cles are select­ed by the Review’s edi­tors as a group, the For­ward is solicit­ed by a small­er band led by the Review pres­i­dent. 

West worked close­ly with Oba­ma on her piece, she said, recall­ing him as gra­cious and help­ful, if a bit polite, even for­mal: “He would always ask first about my baby,” she recalled.

Oba­ma “clear­ly agreed with me at the time that a shift in con­sti­tu­tion­al think­ing from a rights-based dis­course to one that cen­tered [on] respon­si­bil­i­ty and duties … would be a good thing,” West told Politi­co. “Part­ly because of those con­ver­sa­tions, I don’t find it sur­pris­ing at all that Sen. Oba­ma’s speech­es are often marked by calls to spark a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty, rather than a sense of griev­ance.” 

Fed­er­al Judge Michael W. McConnell, Con­trib­u­tor, Har­vard Law Review
Arti­cle: The ori­gins and his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing of free exer­cise of reli­gionMcConnell, Michael W. 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1409 (1989–1990)

Once a piece is set, the pres­i­dent also sends a let­ter or fax and makes a fol­low-up phone call to each author. Fed­er­al Judge Michael W. McConnell, who was nom­i­nat­ed by George W. Bush and has fre­quent­ly been men­tioned as one of Bush’s poten­tial Supreme Court nom­i­nees, recalls receiv­ing one such let­ter and call in ear­ly 1990 for his arti­cle “The Ori­gins and His­tor­i­cal Under­stand­ing of Free Exer­cise of Reli­gion.”  

McConnell told Politi­co, “A fre­quent prob­lem with stu­dent edi­tors is that they try to turn an arti­cle into some­thing they want it to be. It was strik­ing that Oba­ma did­n’t do that. He tried to make it bet­ter from my point of view.” McConnell was impressed enough to urge the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Law School to seek Oba­ma out as an aca­d­e­m­ic prospect.  

Vic­ki Schultz, Con­trib­u­tor, Har­vard Law Review
Telling Sto­ries about Women and Work: Judi­cial Inter­pre­ta­tions of Sex Seg­re­ga­tion in the Work­place in Title VII Cas­es Rais­ing the Lack of Inter­est Argu­ment; Schultz, Vic­ki. 103 Harv. L. Rev. 1749 (1989–1990) 
Yale pro­fes­sor Vic­ki Schultz, then an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin law school, wrote a lengthy arti­cle for the June 1990 issue titled “Telling Sto­ries About Women and Work” that com­pared how the courts han­dled sex­u­al and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es. She was con­cerned that “some African-Amer­i­can schol­ars might be offend­ed by the com­par­i­son,” but says Oba­ma was “incred­i­bly reas­sur­ing and smart and non­ide­o­log­i­cal” about the way he approached the piece. 



Cas­san­dra Butts ’91, Class­mate, Law Review

Most remark­able, giv­en his com­plex iden­ti­ty, was how com­fort­able Oba­ma seemed with him­self. “Barack’s iden­ti­ty, his sense of self, was so set­tled,” recalled Cas­san­dra Butts ’91, who met him in line at the finan­cial aid office, in an inter­view with PBS’s “Front­line.” “He didn’t strike us in law school as some­one who was search­ing for him­self.”

It was one of the first few days of our law school expe­ri­ence. We met at the finan­cial aid office at Har­vard Law School. We were going through the process of fill­ing out a lot of paper­work that would make us sig­nif­i­cant­ly in debt to Har­vard for years to come. We bond­ed over that expe­ri­ence.

The Barack that I knew at the time is fun­da­men­tal­ly the Barack that you see today, the can­di­date. He was incred­i­bly mature. He had spent three years as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er in Chica­go, so he came to law school with­out some of the angst I think that many of us had who were only a year, or maybe less than a year, away from col­lege. He was very mature, and he was very direct­ed. He knew what he want­ed to do: get his law degree and learn as much as he pos­si­bly could and take that expe­ri­ence back to Chica­go and work in the same com­mu­ni­ties that he had worked as an orga­niz­er.

He was a very calm pres­ence and some­one who had a very good sense of him­self, where he fit in, and what he want­ed to do with his life.

I was as close to Barack as any­one in law school. He’d nev­er expressed an inter­est in being pres­i­dent of the Law Review. It was­n’t some­thing that he talked about. Frankly, he was draft­ed by his col­leagues on the Law Reviewto run. They made the case why he should run and why they thought that he could lead the Law Review. And they thought that he would be able to bring togeth­er the fac­tions that had devel­oped as a result of the divi­sions, the ide­o­log­i­cal divi­sions on the Law Review, on the left and the right. …

Barack, from the start, had a lead­er­ship style that was very embrac­ing. He was clear­ly seen as a leader, but at the same time, he did­n’t put him­self out as a leader. We had a lot of peo­ple who were pret­ty ambi­tious at the law school, peo­ple who had polit­i­cal ambi­tion. They were not qui­et in their polit­i­cal ambi­tion and putting them­selves out as lead­ers. That was­n’t Barack.

A stu­dent meet­ing was held to dis­cuss anoth­er burn­ing mat­ter of the day: What was the appro­pri­ate terminology—black or African-Amer­i­can? “For him, it was a false choice,” Butts says. “It wasn’t that he was try­ing to appease one side or the oth­er but that he was refus­ing to accept that it was an either-or. And, in fact, we use black and African-Amer­i­can inter­change­ably now.” Butts adds that Oba­ma saw the whole debate as “a very elite dis­cus­sion. It wasn’t some­thing peo­ple were talk­ing about on the South Side of Chica­go.”

Brad­ford Beren­son, ’91, Class­mate, Law Review

The debates and dis­cus­sions of the law and of cas­es fre­quent­ly pit con­ser­v­a­tives in our class against lib­er­als in our class, and the dis­cus­sions often got quite heat­ed. I would say the envi­ron­ment at Har­vard Law School back then was polit­i­cal in a bor­der­line unhealthy way. It was quite intense.

You don’t become pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review, no mat­ter how polit­i­cal, or how lib­er­al the place is, byObama at law schoolvirtue of affir­ma­tive action, or by virtue of not being at the very top of your class in terms of legal abil­i­ty. Barack was at the very top of his class in terms of legal abil­i­ty. He had a first-class legal mind and, in my view, was select­ed to be pres­i­dent of the Reviewentire­ly on his mer­its.

…the con­ser­v­a­tives were eager to have some­body who would treat them fair­ly, who would lis­ten to what they had to say, who would not abuse the pow­ers of the office to favor his ide­o­log­i­cal soul mates and pun­ish those who had dif­fer­ent views. Some­body who would basi­cal­ly play it straight, I think was real­ly what we were look­ing for. 

… And ulti­mate­ly, the con­ser­v­a­tives on the Review sup­port­ed Barack as pres­i­dent in the final rounds of bal­lot­ing because he fit that bill far bet­ter than the oth­er peo­ple who were run­ning. …

We had all worked with him over the course of a year. And we had all spent count­less hours in the pres­ence of Barack, as well as oth­ers of our col­leagues who were run­ning, in Gan­nett House [the Law Review offices], and so you get a pret­ty good sense of peo­ple over the course of a year of late nights work­ing on the Review. You know who the rab­ble-rousers are. You know who the peo­ple are who are blind­ed by their pol­i­tics. And you know who the peo­ple are who, despite their pol­i­tics, can reach across and be friend­ly to and make friends with folks who have dif­fer­ent views. And Barack very much fell into the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry. …

[After Oba­ma is select­ed,] he does a very able job as pres­i­dent. Puts out what I think was a very good vol­ume of the Review. Does a great job man­ag­ing the dif­fi­cult and com­pli­cat­ed inter­per­son­al dynam­ics on the Review. And man­ages some­how, in an extreme­ly frac­tious group, to keep every­body almost hap­py.

He tend­ed not to enter these debates and dis­putes but rather bring peo­ple togeth­er and forge com­pro­mis­es,” says Brad­ford Beren­son ’91, who was among the rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of con­ser­v­a­tives on the Law Review staff.

Even though he was clear­ly a lib­er­al, he did­n’t appear to the con­ser­v­a­tives in the review to be tak­ing sides in the trib­al war­fare,” said Brad­ford A. Beren­son, a for­mer Bush admin­is­tra­tion lawyer who was an edi­tor at the review.

The pol­i­tics of the Har­vard Law Review were incred­i­bly pet­ty and incred­i­bly vicious,” Beren­son said. “The edi­tors of the review were con­stant­ly at each oth­er’s throats. And Barack tend­ed to treat those dis­putes with a cer­tain air of detach­ment and amuse­ment. The feel­ing was almost, come on kids, can’t we just behave here?”

Image: Barack Oba­ma at his fel­low stu­dent Brad­ford Berenson’s apart­ment, where he watched the 1990 mid-term elec­tion returns.

Chris­tine Spurell, ’91, Class­mate, Law Review

Hon­est­ly, we were just very polar­ized on the Law Review, we real­ly were. It’s like you go to a col­lege cam­pus, and the black stu­dents were all sit­ting togeth­er. It was the same thing with the Law Review; the black stu­dents were all sit­ting togeth­er. Barack was the one who was tru­ly able to move between the dif­fer­ent groups and have cred­i­bil­i­ty with all of them. 

…I don’t know what he’s like now with con­ser­v­a­tives, but I don’t know why at the time he was able to com­mu­ni­cate so well with them, even spend social time with them, which was not some­thing I would ever have done. …

Michael Fro­man ’91, Class­mate and Law Review

Oba­ma dis­played oth­er traits, besides elo­quence, that would define his suc­cess as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

You could see many of his attrib­ut­es, his approach to pol­i­tics and his abil­i­ty to bring peo­ple togeth­er back then,” says Michael Fro­man ’91, who worked with Oba­ma on the Law Review. As a cam­pus leader, he suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ed the frac­tious polit­i­cal dis­putes rag­ing on cam­pus.

Ken­neth Mack ’91, Class­mate and Law Review

Barack was one of the first peo­ple I met near­ly 20 years ago at Har­vard, when I began my first extend­ed sojourn out­side of my native cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia. We were in the same first-year sec­tion and became good friends dur­ing that year and the next two, when we served togeth­er on the edi­to­r­i­al staff of the Har­vard Law Review.

In those days, the law school was a con­tentious place, nick­named “Beirut-on-the-Charles” (the Charles Riv­er flows through cam­pus) by its detrac­tors for the school’s pitched ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tles among pro­fes­sors and, lat­er, stu­dents.

A good bit of that rep­u­ta­tion was exag­ger­at­ed, but it remained a dis­con­cert­ing place for some­one like myself, raised in a state whose pecu­liar demo­graph­ics so often seemed to pro­duce politi­cians who con­found­ed par­ty and ide­o­log­i­cal labels. 

From the begin­ning, Barack struck me as a per­son who con­found­ed labels of every sort. He was only three years old­er than me and many of the oth­er stu­dents, but he eas­i­ly seemed a decade old­er. Most of us knew that he had been a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er in Chica­go. Many peo­ple expect­ed him to be inter­est­ed main­ly in urban pol­i­tics, but the first impres­sion he made was that of a world­ly wise per­son who could talk as eas­i­ly about nation­al secu­ri­ty and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions as he could about tax relief and edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, one of his clos­est friends that year was some­one who was much old­er than most of us and who had been an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor before com­ing to law school. Among an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly bright and deep group of stu­dents, Barack was per­haps the bright­est and the deep­est, but he wore his knowl­edge light­ly and gave an impres­sion of warmth and com­pas­sion that made him one of the most well-liked peo­ple in our class.

One of my most vivid mem­o­ries of the law review elec­tion process was of one stu­dent who strong­ly dis­agreed with much of Barack­’s pol­i­tics, but still pledged his firm sup­port behind him. Indeed, it is a mea­sure of his abil­i­ty to bring us togeth­er that things fell apart only one year after Barack­’s pres­i­den­cy end­ed, with polit­i­cal bick­er­ing reach­ing such heights that the law review was the sub­ject of a well-known expose in a book on the school’s trou­bles.

When I think back on my law school friend­ship with Barack Oba­ma, in many ways I feel as though I’ve come full cir­cle. Last week, I had the hon­or of get­ting to know my home­town all over again when I returned to give a lec­ture in front of old friends and new.

Even in his first year, stu­dents saw Oba­ma as a peace­mak­er. When his class need­ed some­one to present an end-of-the-year gift to one stuffy con­tracts pro­fes­sor, the stu­dents chose Oba­ma, who deliv­ered a brief, gra­cious trib­ute. “It was a moment of dif­fused ten­sion and lev­i­ty,” said Ken­neth W. Mack, a Har­vard Law School pro­fes­sor who was in Oba­ma’s class. “He pulled it off.” 

… [At] a din­ner at Oba­ma’s apart­ment, an old­er black stu­dent chal­lenged Oba­ma and oth­er black stu­dents to com­pete for the [Law Review Pres­i­dent] job. “And I do remem­ber Barack say­ing that was the moment he final­ly decid­ed, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” said Mack.

Rad­hi­ka Rao ’90, Law Review

One of Oba­ma’s most dif­fi­cult tasks as edi­tor in chief is keep­ing the peace amid the clash­ing egos of writ­ers and edi­tors. 

He is very, very diplo­mat­ic,” said Rad­hi­ka Rao, 24, a third-year law stu­dent from Lex­ing­ton, Ind. “He is very out­go­ing and has a lot of expe­ri­ence in han­dling peo­ple, which stands him in good stead.”

Tina Ulrich ’90, Law Review

Tina Ulrich, 24, a third-year stu­dent, wrote an arti­cle for the review that went through sev­er­al edi­tors before her final draft land­ed on Oba­ma’s desk. 

When he sent it back, it had lots of tiny print all over it and I was just furi­ous,” she said. “My heart just sank. But it was accom­pa­nied by spe­cif­ic exam­ples of how parts could be made bet­ter. He wound up get­ting an enthu­si­as­tic response from a very tired writer.”  

Crys­tal Nix Hines ’90, Law Review: Super­vis­ing Edi­tor and Man­ag­ing Board Mem­ber

A lot of peo­ple at the time were just talk­ing past each oth­er, very com­mit­ted to their opin­ions, their point of view, and not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in what oth­er peo­ple had to say,” said Crys­tal Nix Hines, a class­mate who is now a tele­vi­sion writer. “Barack tran­scend­ed that.”

In Feb­ru­ary 1990, when the time came to elect a new pres­i­dent of the law review, Oba­ma was ini­tial­ly reluc­tant, said Nix Hines. The pres­i­den­cy seemed bet­ter suit­ed for careerist types who were aim­ing for posi­tions at top-flight law firms, Oba­ma told her at the time. The son of a black Kenyan father and a white moth­er from Kansas, he want­ed to return to his work in Chica­go as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er.

I was sur­prised because I knew he was very pop­u­lar and well-regard­ed and obvi­ous­ly had the abil­i­ty to do the job,” Nix Hines said.

Jonathan Molot ’92, Law Review

I’ve nev­er in my life encoun­tered any­one else about whom I said, ‘This per­son should be pres­i­dent,’” Molot says. So many alum­ni attend­ed that 2007 fundrais­er at Molot’s home that Oba­ma quipped, “I feel like I’m at a law school reunion.”

Thomas J. Per­rel­li ’91, Class­mate, Man­ag­ing Edi­tor Law Review

If any­body had walked by, they would have assumed he was a pro­fes­sor,” said Thomas J. Per­rel­li, a class­mate and for­mer coun­sel to Attor­ney Gen­er­al Janet Reno. “He was lead­ing the dis­cus­sion but he was­n’t try­ing to impose his own per­spec­tive on it. He was much more medi­at­ing.”

At Har­vard, [Cas­san­dra] Butts was moot court part­ners with Tom Per­rel­li, who first met Oba­ma at the din­ner par­ty and served as his man­ag­ing edi­tor on the Har­vard Law Review.… “We have all been friends togeth­er and we found a com­mon enter­prise through Barack,” Per­rel­li said. 

Per­rel­li occu­pied seat 151 of Pro­fes­sor Lau­rence Tribe’s con­sti­tu­tion­al law class in the fall 1989 semes­ter – just a few feet away from Oba­ma (seat 26), and two oth­ers who would prove vital to his ambi­tions: Julius Gena­chows­ki (93) and Michael Fro­man (103).

Julius Gena­chows­ki ’91, Class­mate and Law Review 

He wasn’t a real righty or a real lefty, so if you cared about the insti­tu­tion and didn’t want to spend the next year dis­tract­ed by infight­ing, you were com­fort­able with him,” says his friend Julius Gena­chows­ki, who was on the law review at the time. “The oth­er thing is that, because he was so dif­fer­ent, it didn’t dimin­ish any­one to sup­port him.” 

The law review was a pow­der keg,” says Gena­chows­ki. “That it didn’t explode when we were there—that it ran pro­fes­sion­al­ly, despite all the tensions—was not a coin­ci­dence. It says some­thing about Barack, and the kind of pres­i­dent he’d be.”

Nan­cy L. McCul­lough ’92, Law Review

Oba­ma was so even­hand­ed and solic­i­tous in his inter­ac­tions that fel­low stu­dents would do impres­sions of his Socrat­ic chin-stroking approach to every­thing, even seek­ing a con­sen­sus on pop­corn pref­er­ences at the movies. “Do you want salt on your pop­corn?” one class­mate, Nan­cy L. McCul­lough, recalled, mim­ic­k­ing his sen­si­tive bass voice. “Do you even want pop­corn?”

Rob Fish­er ’91, Class­mate and Law Review

He skipped most par­ties and made his friends in class, includ­ing one good bud­dy, Rob Fish­er, a first-year stu­dent from Mary­land, whom he met on the first day of class­es. Oba­ma called Fish­er, who is white, “broth­er,” and teased him about his raggedy clothes. They watched Bulls games . Both idol­ized Michael Jor­dan.

At the end of his first year, Oba­ma joined the Law Review. He near­ly missed the dead­line to apply when his 1984 Toy­ota Ter­cel broke down, and begged Fish­er for a ride and sweet — talk ed his way to the front of a line at the post office to have his enve­lope post­marked before noon.

That’s the one mod­est con­tri­bu­tion I’ve made to his suc­cess,” Fish­er, now a Wash­ing­ton lawyer, said in a recent inter­view. 

Chris­tine Lee ’91, Class­mate and Law Review 

March 1990: “He’s will­ing to talk to [the con­ser­v­a­tives] and he has a grasp of where they are com­ing from, which is some­thing a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have,” Chris­tine Lee, a sec­ond-year law stu­dent who is black.


Andrew Schapiro ’91, Class­mate

In the win­ter of 1990, the mid­dle of his sec­ond year, with the review prepar­ing to hold the elec­tion for its next pres­i­dent, Oba­ma threw his hat in the ring, sur­pris­ing every­one. “There were peo­ple on the review, we used to call them gun­ners,” says Andrew Schapiro, one of Obama’s con­tem­po­raries there, “because you knew from the minute they walked in to Gan­nett House that they want­ed to be pres­i­dent. But that was not the sense you ever got from Barack.”

That becom­ing the first black pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review would be a nice bio­graph­i­cal asset in any such race would nev­er have escaped a mind as sharp as Obama’s. Schapiro recalls his famil­iar­i­ty with two up-and-com­ing black politi­cians, both Rhodes schol­ars: Mel Reynolds, who would be elect­ed to Con­gress in 1992, and Kurt Schmoke, who became may­or of Bal­ti­more in 1987. “It struck me that me that Barack might have the same mod­el in mind,” Schapiro says. “I got the sense he thought, I’m Barack, I can do that!

David Dante Troutt ’91, Class­mate 

David Dante Troutt, a pro­fes­sor at the Rut­gers School of Law-Newark, met Oba­ma dur­ing their first year at Har­vard, where they shared the same class sec­tion and cig­a­rette breaks. “We were both skin­ny and cold and full of tobac­co out­side the build­ings dur­ing the Cam­bridge win­ters,” he said.

When you’re an anx­ious first-year black stu­dent, speak­ing up in class in that envi­ron­ment was incred­i­bly intim­i­dat­ing,” observes David Troutt, one of Obama’s class­mates and now a pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers. “Because your right to be there was being ques­tioned by some of your white peers. A lot of peo­ple were con­tent to feel they’d done well by speak­ing up at all, but being a race per­son wasn’t what they signed up for. They cer­tain­ly weren’t going to raise their hand to speak about an issue that direct­ly reflect­ed their con­cerns as a black per­son: to show why the pro­fes­sor was wrong or chal­lenge a com­ment by a class­mate that they thought was racist. They’d sim­mer about it in their seat, but only a few peo­ple would say some­thing. Barack was one of them—we could always count on Barack.”

One time, Trout recalls, the dis­cus­sion turned to a mat­ter of crim­i­nal pro­ce­dure and con­sti­tu­tion­al rights. “We were talk­ing about an excep­tion in the law allow­ing police to enter a dwelling under ‘exi­gent cir­cum­stances,’ which could be pret­ty broad,” he says. “Barack began, as he often did, say­ing, ‘It’s my sense…’ And he calm­ly went on to put the issues in con­text in a way that affirmed the lives of even appar­ent­ly flee­ing black sus­pects, the dig­ni­ty of even a mod­est home, and the way exces­sive state pow­er can do harm to both. It was very mov­ing, yet sen­si­ble. I’m not sure there was a response.”

Hill Harp­er ’91, Class­mate (Dr. Shel­don Hawkes on the CBS dra­ma tele­vi­sion series CSI: NY) 

Bas­ket­ball was his out­let. He played often at Hemen­way, the law school gym­na­si­um, just off Har­vard Square. Hill Harp­er, a class­mate and fre­quent defend­er, said Oba­ma, who stands about 6 feet 1 inch tall, had a quick first step and could eas­i­ly sink midrange jump shots. “If there was any knock against Barack, he pulled his socks up a lit­tle too high and his shorts were a lit­tle too small,” Harp­er said, laugh­ing. “We were just at the begin­ning of the Michael Jor­dan era. He more harkened back to the Julius Erv­ing era.”

Actor Hill Harp­er is best known for his role on the CBS dra­ma “CSI: NY,” where he plays Dr. Shel­don Hawkes, among oth­er film and tele­vi­sion roles. But right now, Harp­er has tak­en on anoth­er role: par­lay­ing his celebri­ty sta­tus into a cam­paign for pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Barack Oba­ma.

What sets Harp­er apart from oth­er high-pro­file Oba­ma endorsers is a 20-year friend­ship with the can­di­date, dat­ing back to their years at Har­vard Law School. Here, talks to the actor about his pub­lic sup­port for Oba­ma, the effect of celebri­ty endorse­ments and the man behind the pub­lic fig­ure.

Q. You’ve known Barack Oba­ma since your time at Har­vard Law School. Why, besides friend­ship, do you sup­port Oba­ma?

I’ve known him for almost 20 years — I met him the first week of class. I looked up to him, and not just because he’s taller than I am!

He went to law school know­ing why he was going. I went straight from under­grad to grad school. He had a sense of grav­i­tas and judg­ment. I looked up him then and I look up to him now. He gets it right. He’s extreme­ly intel­li­gent, extreme­ly prag­mat­ic. That’s the kind of lead­er­ship we need now. Every­thing that was great about him at Har­vard Law School is still great about him now. Any­one who meets him under­stands how won­der­ful a leader he is. [If he gets elect­ed, I believe] he will go down as one of the great­est pres­i­dents in his­to­ry.

Q. How has Oba­ma changed since his Har­vard days? What qual­i­ties remain the same?

A: He’s become more intel­li­gent, more com­mit­ted to help­ing peo­ple on a larg­er and larg­er scale. But he’s still the same per­son. He called me on my birth­day right when he was about to speak to 65,000 peo­ple, before the Ore­gon pri­ma­ry. He’s a good, gen­uine per­son, a good father and hus­band. What peo­ple often don’t see is that he has a great sense of humor, a great smile, a great laugh. He loves sports, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, golf. He loves ESPN Sports­Cen­ter — although he does­n’t get to watch it much!

CNN Video Inter­view

Kei­th Boykin ’92, cam­pus diver­si­ty move­ment 

There were ral­lies, sit-ins, overnight occu­pa­tions of the dean’s office, even a stu­dent-prop­a­gat­ed dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit; the promi­nent pro­fes­sor and crit­i­cal race the­o­rist Der­rick Bell resigned over the issue. But Oba­ma was a miss­ing per­son in these pitched con­tretemps. “His absence from the lead­er­ship was con­spic­u­ous,” Kei­th Boykin, one of the prime movers of the cam­paign, says. “We want­ed him to be front and cen­ter, because he rep­re­sent­ed a lot of the points that we were mak­ing. But nobody was par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­prised that he wasn’t more involve

Jim Chen, Law Review

I remem­ber Barack Oba­ma as a very strong edi­tor-in-chief of the Har­vard Law Review.… He moti­vat­ed a large group of edi­tors, who were tal­ent­ed, head­strong, and often con­tentious, to pro­duce what we sin­cere­ly believed to be the Unit­ed States’ best schol­ar­ly jour­nal in law. His great­est skill lay in defus­ing con­flicts and in encour­ag­ing col­leagues of his to coop­er­ate with one anoth­er, or at least to com­pro­mise… Was Barack con­sid­ered an ‘affir­ma­tive action baby’ by white stu­dents or fac­ul­ty mem­bers? It nev­er occurred to me to think of Barack as any­thing besides the pres­i­dent of the Review, and (as I have said) a very strong one at that. Even back in those days he plain­ly aspired to a high-pro­file polit­i­cal career, and the rest of us respect­ed, even admired, him for his ambi­tions.

FACULTYCharles Ogle­tree ’78, Pro­fes­sor

Pro­fes­sor Ogle­tree taught Michelle Oba­ma ’88 in an advo­ca­cy work­shop and lat­er also got to know Barack Oba­ma when he was a stu­dent. 

I mar­veled at Barack Oba­ma’s abil­i­ty to mul­ti-task even as a young man. He was not only ask­ing prob­ing ques­tions in the class­room, but also eager to chal­lenge big­ger, stronger and quick­er play­ers in the gym­na­si­um in very com­pet­i­tive games of bas­ket­ball. It was this abil­i­ty to nav­i­gate the chal­lenges of the class­room and the chaos of the bas­ket­ball court that caused him to stand alone as a mature, bright, friend­ly and opti­mistic young law stu­dent.

Martha Minow, Pro­fes­sor

Pro­fes­sor Minow taught Barack Oba­ma in a course on law and soci­ety at Har­vard Law School and served with him on a nation­al pan­el exam­in­ing civic engage­ment when he served as a state sen­a­tor. She served as an advi­sor to his cam­paign on legal issues and edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy. 

He had a kind of elo­quence and respect from his peers that was real­ly quite remark­able.” When he spoke in her class on law and soci­ety, “every­one became very atten­tive and very qui­et.”

Minow, who’d come to con­sid­er Oba­ma a friend rather than just a for­mer stu­dent, wound up serv­ing with the then state sen­a­tor on a nation­al pan­el exam­in­ing civic engage­ment in the late 1990s.

Oba­ma proved just as engag­ing among the group of 33 dis­tin­guished and diverse pan­elists as he was in her class, Minow recalls.

After lis­ten­ing to him ably sum­ma­rize everyone’s views at one meet­ing, Minow joined a group of pan­elists who went up to Oba­ma and asked when he might run for pres­i­dent. He laughed at the idea, prompt­ing many in the group to start call­ing him “gov­er­nor.” 

Obama’s self-con­fi­dence and self-pos­ses­sion were imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. “When he spoke, every­one got qui­et and lis­tened, and it was very unusu­al for that kind of hush to fall,” says Martha Minow, a pro­fes­sor of his. “He was a lit­tle bit above the con­ver­sa­tion. He had a syn­thet­ic mind and a capac­i­ty to sum­ma­rize what peo­ple said so that they would come out feel­ing like, Yeah, I was fair­ly treat­ed.”

 David Wilkins ’80, Pro­fes­sor

Pro­fes­sor Wilkins taught Michele Oba­ma and also knew Barack Oba­ma as a stu­dent – and has sup­port­ed his polit­i­cal career ever since. Pro­fes­sor Wilkins has served on var­i­ous com­mit­tees dur­ing the cam­paign and co-host­ed sev­er­al fundrais­ers, as well as speak­ing for the cam­paign in Penn­syl­va­nia, Vir­ginia, Illi­nois and Mass­a­chu­setts.

But the sen­a­tor was still out­stand­ing in his own right—“brilliant, charis­mat­ic, and focused,” said Wilkins, the Kirk­land and Ellis pro­fes­sor of law. The two forged a rela­tion­ship after Oba­ma became the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review. 

He talked about how the tim­ing was not exact­ly what he him­self expect­ed, but with a tremen­dous response from the nation, that this is an impor­tant moment and a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to step for­ward,” Wilkins said. 

He said he advised Oba­ma to become a Supreme Court clerk. Oba­ma rec­og­nized the hon­or in pur­su­ing that post, Wilkins said, but quick­ly added that he wasn’t inter­est­ed. 

He said that he want­ed to write a book about his life and his father, go back to Chica­go, get back into the com­mu­ni­ty, and run for office there. He knew exact­ly what he want­ed and went about get­ting it done,” Wilkins said. “He was the kind of per­son who you knew was des­tined for great­ness.” 

Lau­rence Tribe, Pro­fes­sor and Super­vi­sor 

March 1990: “He’s very unusu­al, in the sense that oth­er stu­dents who might have some­thing approx­i­mat­ing his degree of insight are very intim­i­dat­ing to oth­er stu­dents or incon­sid­er­ate and thought­less,” said Lau­rence Tribe, a con­sti­tu­tion­al law pro­fes­sor. “He’s able to build upon what oth­er stu­dents say and see what’s valu­able in their com­ments with­out belit­tling them.” 

But what tru­ly dis­tin­guish­es Oba­ma from oth­er bright stu­dents at Har­vard Law, Tribe said, is his abil­i­ty to make sense of com­plex legal argu­ments and trans­late them into cur­rent social con­cerns. For exam­ple, Tribe said, Oba­ma wrote an insight­ful research arti­cle show­ing how con­trast­ing views in the abor­tion debate are a direct result of cul­tur­al and soci­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. 

Octo­ber 2008: Barack came to see me dur­ing his first year at Har­vard. It was 31 March 1989. I found my desk cal­en­dar and I’d writ­ten his name with an excla­ma­tion point. From the late 1960s, when I began teach­ing as a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Law School, until the present, there has been no oth­er stu­dent whose name I’ve not­ed in that way.

He impressed me from the begin­ning as an extra­or­di­nary young man. He was obvi­ous­ly bril­liant, dri­ven and inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing ideas with a clear sense that his rea­sons for being in law school were not to climb some cor­po­rate lad­der, nor sim­ply to broad­en his oppor­tu­ni­ties, but to go back to the com­mu­ni­ty.

He had a com­bi­na­tion of intel­lec­tu­al acu­men, open-mind­ed­ness, resis­tance to stereo­typ­i­cal think­ing and con­ven­tion­al pre­sup­po­si­tions. He also had a will­ing­ness to change his mind when new evi­dence appeared, con­fi­dence in his own moral com­pass and a matu­ri­ty that obvi­ous­ly came from some com­bi­na­tion of his upbring­ing and ear­li­er expe­ri­ence.

I asked him to be my research assis­tant, a role he filled for a year and a half. We had a much more vibrant dia­logue than one typ­i­cal­ly has with a research assis­tant. He was wit­ty, he had a light­heart­ed touch and even though we were deal­ing with some pret­ty grave and weighty sub­jects, it was always a breezy thing to talk to him.

He had a charis­mat­ic qual­i­ty and was very engag­ing. Oth­er stu­dents grav­i­tat­ed towards him and liked him rather than envy­ing him or want­i­ng to com­pete with him.

Typ­i­cal­ly in a place as com­pet­i­tive as Har­vard or Yale, one stu­dent will make a com­ment and anoth­er stu­dent will try and one-up him by say­ing some­thing clev­er­er or wit­ti­er. But Barack would nev­er put any­one else down. If a stu­dent expressed a view he did­n’t agree with, he nev­er­the­less saw the val­ue in it and built on it.

He found points of com­mu­nal­i­ty and gave peo­ple the sense that he could see where they were com­ing from, and what their core beliefs were, and why they were wor­thy of respect. It was real­ly a pre­cur­sor to the way he engages in dia­logue across ide­o­log­i­cal and par­ti­san divi­sions.

In his sec­ond year, he became the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Review [one of the lead­ing law jour­nals in the world]. It was a posi­tion which rep­re­sent­ed the judg­ment of his peers about his intel­lec­tu­al acu­men and his lead­er­ship capac­i­ties. He emerged with the enthu­si­as­tic back­ing of oth­er stu­dents. In no sense was this some kind of affir­ma­tive action; he was cho­sen as the best per­son peo­ple could find.

We used to take long walks on the Charles Riv­er in Boston. Our con­ver­sa­tions were enor­mous­ly wide-rang­ing and enjoy­able, about life in gen­er­al, not just about work. I had no doubt as I got to know him that he had an unlim­it­ed future. I did­n’t have a clear sense of what direc­tion it would take, but I thought it would be polit­i­cal and I thought the sky was the lim­it.

He had a per­son­al qual­i­ty which was tran­scen­dent and I con­tin­ued to feel that way about him each time we met. And the qual­i­ty he demon­strat­ed that I’ve always been left with more than any oth­er is authen­tic­i­ty. There isn’t a fibre of phoni­ness about this guy.

Jan­u­ary 2007: Loeb Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Lau­rence H. Tribe HC ’62, who taught Oba­ma and employed him as a research assis­tant, remem­bers him as a “bril­liant, per­son­able, and obvi­ous­ly unique” per­son. Tribe said that Obama’s the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive on apply­ing mod­ern physics to law was “very impres­sive.” 

He is obvi­ous­ly a seri­ous intel­lec­tu­al as well as a fan­tas­tic cam­paign­er who can reach across bound­aries,” Tribe said. “He will make an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly fine pres­i­dent.” 

Fall 2007: In the spring of his first year at law school, Oba­ma stopped by the office of Pro­fes­sor Lau­rence Tribe HLS ’66 inquir­ing about becom­ing a research assis­tant. Tribe rarely hired first-year stu­dents but recalls being struck by Obama’s unusu­al com­bi­na­tion of intel­li­gence, curios­i­ty and matu­ri­ty.

He was so impressed, in fact, that he hired Oba­ma on the spot—and wrote his name and phone num­ber on his cal­en­dar that day—March 31, 1989—for pos­ter­i­ty.

Oba­ma helped research a com­pli­cat­ed arti­cle Tribe wrote mak­ing con­nec­tions between physics and con­sti­tu­tion­al law, as well as a book about abor­tion. The fol­low­ing year, Oba­ma enrolled in Tribe’s con­sti­tu­tion­al law course.

Tribe likes to say he had taught about 4,000 stu­dents before Oba­ma and has taught anoth­er 4,000 since, yet none has impressed him more.


Artur Davis ’93, Stu­dent

Artur Davis ’93 still vivid­ly recalls how much Oba­ma inspired him with a speech he gave dur­ing ori­en­ta­tion week on striv­ing for excel­lence and mas­tery.

Davis, now a Unit­ed States con­gress­man from Alaba­ma, insists he left that speech by Oba­ma con­vinced he’d just heard a future Supreme Court justice—or pres­i­dent.

Ran­dall L. Kennedy 

Some stu­dents got their first glimpse of Oba­ma, the ora­tor, in the spring of 1991, when the Black Law Stu­dents Asso­ci­a­tion broke with tra­di­tion and asked him, rather than a renowned judge or pro­fes­sor, to deliv­er the keynote address at the asso­ci­a­tion’s annu­al con­fer­ence. Stand­ing before hun­dreds , Oba­ma gave what class­mates recall as a stir­ring call to action. 

It was a clar­i­on call,” recalled Ran­dall L. Kennedy, a law school pro­fes­sor who attend­ed the con­fer­ence. “We’ve got­ten this edu­ca­tion, we’ve got­ten this great halo, this great career-enhanc­ing ben­e­fit. Let’s not just feath­er our nests. Let’s go for­ward and address the many ills that con­front our soci­ety.”

John K. Holmes, Land­lord

Oba­ma, who declined to be inter­viewed for this sto­ry, lived all three years in the same base­ment apart­ment on
365 Somerville
Broad­way in Somerville, near Win­ter Hill. He kept the place spot­less and dec­o­rat­ed it with sec­ond hand fur­ni­ture.

He was a mod­el ten­ant,” said John K. Holmes of Arling­ton, his land­lord. “I can remem­ber when he told me he was leav­ing, I can remem­ber being dis­ap­point­ed.” 

Thomas Jef­fer­son had Mon­ti­cel­lo. John F. Kennedy had Hyan­nis. 
Barack Oba­ma, on the oth­er hand, had the base­ment of 365 Broad­way in Somerville, which the

future pres­i­dent rent­ed for $900 a month while attend­ing Har­vard Law School from 1988 to 1991.

As the Globe report­ed in a 2007 pro­file, Oba­ma lived for all three years of law school in the build­ing near Win­ter Hill,Obama's apartment dri­ving his 1984 Toy­ota Ter­cel to class (and pick­ing up the occa­sion­al park­ing tick­et).

The 1889 brick row­house, mean­while, is pri­vate­ly owned, and Oba­ma’s for­mer land­lord, John K. Holmes, said he is also plan­ning to put up a mark­er at some point.

He was a very good ten­ant. He was no trou­ble. There were no girls or wild par­ties,” Holmes said. “He was very indus­tri­ous. He had an agen­da. He want­ed to be suc­cess­ful.”

Holmes, who has owned the build­ing since the mid-1970s, said he met Oba­ma after the future pres­i­dent respond­ed to a clas­si­fied ad in the Globe.

Blair Under­wood, Actor

A prankster post­ed a cast list for a movie ver­sion of his life, star­ring Blair Under­wood. When Mr. Under­wood vis­it­ed the school, he ques­tioned Mr. Oba­ma for mate­r­i­al for “L.A. Law.”

Peo­ple were always ask­ing me, do young black attor­neys real­ly exist like that?” Mr. Under­wood said in a recent inter­view. “I would refer to Barack.” 


Blair Under­wood Sup­ports Oba­ma

 CNN Inter­view

Har­vard Law Revue (April 1990)

The Law Review staff’s annu­al par­o­dy edi­tion, dis­trib­uted at the annu­al gala ban­quet mark­ing the tran­si­tion to the new year’s ros­ter of edi­tors. Typ­i­cal­ly writ­ten by a small group of HLR edi­tors, the Revue is filled with with inside jokes and sat­i­rizes the year’s authors, arti­cles, edi­tors, and pro­fes­sors of the Har­vard Law Review. 
HL Revue 1990 coverHL Revue 1990 ArticleHL Revue, back page

Entire Issue, in larg­er for­mat

Har­vard Black Law Stu­dents Asso­ci­a­tion Annu­al Con­fer­ence

In the spring of 1991, Oba­ma was invit­ed by the Har­vard Black Law Stu­dents Asso­ci­a­tion to address its annu­al con­fer­ence. The invi­ta­tion marked a depar­ture from tra­di­tion; nor­mal­ly, it was extend­ed to a heavy­weight judge or legal schol­ar. But Oba­ma was already hurtling down the path to promi­nence. His appoint­ment as law review pres­i­dent had cre­at­ed a wel­ter of nation­al media atten­tion. Now, at the con­fer­ence, Oba­ma deliv­ered a speech whose themes echoed W.E.B. Du Bois, call­ing on his audi­ence to be ever-mind­ful of where they came from and the oblig­a­tions to their com­mu­ni­ties that a Har­vard edu­ca­tion entailed. Again and again, his voice ris­ing, Oba­ma repeat­ed one refrain: “Don’t let Har­vard change you!”

Sum­mer Intern­ships:

Sid­ley & Austin, 1989

1989 — sum­mer asso­ciate, Sid­ley & Austin — After his first year of law school Oba­ma was a sum­mer asso­ciate for one of the world’s old­est and largest law firms, where he met Michelle Robin­son, his future wife.

We con­grat­u­late our for­mer col­leagues, Barack and Michelle Oba­ma, on the Sen­a­tor’s elec­tion as Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.  We also con­grat­u­late Sen­a­tor McCain for his well-fought cam­paign and are inspired by his decades of ser­vice to his coun­try.  The Pres­i­dent-elect received the sup­port of many indi­vid­u­als at our firm — as did Sen­a­tor McCain.  We wish Pres­i­dent-elect Oba­ma all the best as he begins the tran­si­tion and takes the reins of gov­ern­ment in these chal­leng­ing times.”


Hop­kins & Sut­ter, 1990 (Now Foley and Lard­ner): 

1990 — sum­mer asso­ciate. Oba­ma held this job the sum­mer between his sec­ond and third years of law school.

The Chica­go Reporter: Issue 221; July, 1990

Law Firms Still Lag in Minority Hiring

It’s com­mon knowl­edge that a lot of lawyers are unhap­py with their pro­fes­sion,” said Barack Oba­ma, a sum­mer asso­ciate at Hop­kins & Sut­ter and the first black to head the Har­vard Law Review. “The dif­fi­cul­ties end up, inevitably, being mag­ni­fied for young minori­ties, either because they don’t have sup­port net­works or because their abil­i­ties may be ques­tioned due to racism. They feel under the gun.”

The Chica­go Reporter: Issue 221; July, 1990

Top Stu­dent: What Kind of Minori­ties Do Firms Want?Top Student

The last thing that Barack Oba­ma will have to wor­ry about next year when he grad­u­ates is job offers. Oba­ma fin­ished his sec­ond year at Har­vard Law School this spring and has been elect­ed to lead the Har­vard Law Review, a pres­ti­gious posi­tion tra­di­tion­al­ly reserved for a top stu­dent.

It’s a great time to be a young black law school grad­u­ate — if you’re from Har­vard and in the top quar­ter of your class,” said Oba­ma. “But the point is that there are a lot of tal­ent­ed young minori­ties who may not have been able to go to the top schools. For exam­ple, a lot of minori­ties go to state schools due to finan­cial con­straints.

Until the minori­ties who are going to the good but not the most pres­ti­gious schools, those who are doing a good job, who are high­ly com­pe­tent and have the intel­li­gence and the ener­gy to do ter­rif­ic work — until those peo­ple are looked at and hired in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers — I think you are going to con­tin­ue to have seri­ous recruit­ment and reten­tion prob­lems.”

Before going to law school, Oba­ma spent four years in Chica­go, work­ing at the Devel­op­ing Com­mu­ni­ties Project on the South Side. Cur­rent­ly, he is a sum­mer asso­ciate at the firm of Hop­kins & Sut­ter in Chica­go. Last sum­mer he worked at Sid­ley & Austin.

Cer­tain­ly, a lot of large firms are inter­est­ed in hir­ing more minori­ties,” he said. “The issue you con­front is: What kind of minori­ties are the firms look­ing for? I cer­tain­ly wouldn’t have a hard time find­ing a job in Chica­go. I have all the right cre­den­tials.”

Even firms that are mak­ing an effort to recruit minori­ties — and there still are not many of them, Oba­ma said — are reluc­tant to take a chance on stu­dents who do not have the top cre­den­tials. It has been said, Oba­ma not­ed, that it may be time to ask if minori­ties are get­ting the same right to be “mediocre” as white males.


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