Obama’s previous gig as president

By now we all know that Barack Obama went to Harvard Law school and was the first African American President of the Law Review in 1990 when he was 28 years old. His tenure in that position might give us some clues as to who this man is and how he will lead. I’ve been doing some reading about that time in his life and find it pretty instructive.

For example, the LA Times reprinted an article by Tammerlin Drummond from back in March of 1990 not long after Obama was elected to the position. She starts off with this interesting information.

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.”


I find that a rather interesting take on the value of a Harvard education. But The Review was in turmoil when he was elected. Here’s a take on that from Bradford Berenson, Harvard Law, class of ’91 and associate White House counsel for George W. Bush on Frontline.

The law school generally at that time was riven ideologically, and not just in terms of Republican/Democrat partisan politics, but there were contending schools of legal thought at the time, represented on the faculty, that really polarized both the faculty and the student body…

That doesn’t mean that, day to day, people weren’t friendly to one another, but the classroom was very politicized. 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.

… Interestingly, race was at the forefront of the agenda. There were intense debates over affirmative action that sometimes got expressed through fights over tenure decisions relating to junior faculty at the law school.

How did Obama deal with this tension? Here’s a bit from The Boston Globe.

Right from the start, when he arrived in the fall of 1988 at the age of 27, Obama seemed different. With his leather bomber jacket, tattered jeans, and pack of cigarettes, he was older and appeared less starchy than many of his fresh-faced classmates newly arrived from the Ivy League. He was also one of the small minority of black students on the campus of about 1,500 of the nation’s most ambitious future lawyers, judges, and corporate executives.

Beyond his appearance, what set him apart was his approach to argument, the lifeblood of the law school and the constant occupation of the young lawyers-in-training. While other students were determined to prove the merits of their beliefs through logic and determination, Obama preferred to listen, seek others’ views, and find a middle way.

Some of the African American students on The Review were not happy with him. Here’s more from the Frontline piece by Christine Spurell, Harvard Law, class of ’91.

Now, as you may know, I had personal hopes for my own future on the Law Review. I was kind of hoping to get a masthead position, and I did not get a masthead position. So we went from the high of having Barack elected — now, this is just me speaking, as at the time I was a very narrow-minded, almost radical student. I was 22 years old at this point, so I kind of saw everything in terms of race. I try not to do that anymore.

So I did assume I would get the position that I thought I had coming. I [did] think I had earned it as far as the quality of my work. But I’ll tell you now, I had not earned it as far as the quality of my diplomacy with the other students. … He did know I was a hard worker, that he did know. That’s why I felt betrayed, because I worked so hard. I pulled so many all-nighters, I thought I should be rewarded. But he put the good of the Law Review ahead of my agenda. That’s what makes him such a great leader.

Here’s another quote from Berenson.

I think Barack took 10 times as much grief from those on the left on the Review as from those of us on the right. And the reason was, I think there was an expectation among those editors on the left that he would affirmatively use the modest powers of his position to advance the cause, whatever that was. They thought, you know, finally there’s an African American president of the Harvard Law Review; it’s our turn, and he should aggressively use this position, and his authority and his bully pulpit to advance the political or philosophical causes that we all believe in.

And Barack was reluctant to do that. It’s not that he was out of sympathy with their views, but his first and foremost goal, it always seemed to me, was to put out a first-rate publication. And he was not going to let politics or ideology get in the way of doing that.

Jeffrey Ressner and Ben Smith summarized the work of The Law Review during Obama’s tenure as president this way in an article at Politico.

The eight dense volumes produced during his time in charge there – 2,083 pages in all – show the Review to have been a decidedly liberal institution, albeit one in transition as its focus on race and gender was contested by liberals and conservatives alike. Under his tenure, the Review published calls to expand the powers of women, African-Americans and the elderly to sue for discrimination.

But Obama, who this March referred to “identity politics” as “an enormous distraction,” was not so easily pinned down. He published a searing attack on affirmative action, written by a former Reagan administration official. 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 as much on individual responsibilities as on liberties, criticizing both conservative judges and feminist scholars…

Under Obama’s guidance, the Review underwent a period of relative peace after the turbulent 1970s and ’80s, when the publication – like the institution itself – attempted to balance its inherent elitism with some semblance of openness and multiculturalism.

So, if we’re looking for something other than a pragmatist in our next President, I think we’ll be sorely disappointed. This history of Obama’s seems to be pretty instructive of what we will see from him in the future. But we also get the guy who said this in the LA Times article back in 1990 after that previous election.

“For every one of me, there are thousands of young black kids with the same energies, enthusiasm and talent that I have who have not gotten the opportunity because of crime, drugs and poverty,” he said. “I think my election does symbolize progress but I don’t want people to forget that there is still a lot of work to be done.”



Skip to comment form

  1. I was struck by how similar that situation was to what we’re seeing today.

    • kj on November 29, 2008 at 17:20

    “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.

    read it aloud to jbk.  

    • Edger on November 29, 2008 at 17:34

    David Sirota wrote an article with also some very interesting “takes” on this subject published at yesterdays The Smirking Chimp, and at DKos, as well as various other places titled…

    ‘The Pitfalls and Possibilities of Orwellian “Pragmatism”‘:

    …politicians and the chattering class may be portraying “pragmatism” as substitute for ideology, but any honest look indicates that “pragmatism” is mostly being used in the political debate as a euphemism for conservative ideology – and not some new and reformed conservative ideology, but the same stultified and rigid one that was just resoundingly rejected by the electorate.


    We’re facing a potential depression that is a direct result of conservative’s ideological and decidedly un-pragmatic policies. Our own history during the Great Depression indicates that the pragmatic way to deal with such a massive crisis is through some good old fashioned ideological progressivism.

    Obama, I think, knows this, and is doing something of a dance – one that doesn’t seek to challenge or change the Orwellian shenanigans, but to manipulate them for his own – and likely progressive – ends. It could be really brilliant (as long as what he’s doing isn’t the opposite – an attempt to sell policies crafted by conservatives with a marketing team made up of progressives – I don’t think it is, but we can’t be totally sure just yet).

    As I told Rachel Maddow this week, his initial moves suggest a president who hired ideological free-market conservatives, and who will order them to push ideologically progressive policies – all under the mantra of “pragmatism.” And doing that is certainly very pragmatic. Assessing the Washington landscape and the economic situation, Obama – in a very pragmatic way – seems to have determined that the practical thing to do is pass progressive legislation, and that the most practical way to do that is to have that legislation carried by free-marketeers whose conservatism gets them painted by pundits as “pragmatists.”

    Indeed, if Obama can and does do that, he would be both the most pragmatic and progressive president in contemporary history – proving once and for all that “pragmatism” is no substitute for progressive ideology, but in these tough times, a synonym for it.

    It may be wishful thinking on Sirota’s part, trying to read something into Obama’s statements and actions so far… but then again it could possibly be just good analysis.

  2. who exercises control over my life.  I like to remain as  a self sufficient self determining “free” person but such things are difficult in the ever changing left vs right mechanics of political and societal norms.

    Do I want to continue fighting Islamic terrorism?  Nah, there is this corporate sponsored job applicant tracking system and politically correct resume, you didn’t get a job because you used Times New Roman instead of the politcally correct Arial 12 font and didn’t include your cell phone number(I don’t have a cell phone because I don’t endorse sticking my head inside a microwave oven) and or you didn’t present yourself as a slave to the corporate interests prevalent in the current society.

    Yea, I too have a degree.  It has cost my family over four semesters of Harvard in the bullshit manipulations of America’s financial system.  I am the street prophet of elite assholian bullshit and like Abraham Lincoln’s quote I am not fooled, not one bit.

    Do you all want my suburban roadkill recipies cookbook?

    Canadian goose dumplings?

    Or Wild turkey stew.

    How about squirrel pie.

Comments have been disabled.