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When They Were Young

At law school during tumultuous times, Barack and Hillary negotiated the compromises between their ideals, ambitions, and the American Establishment that underlie their candidacies.

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Barack in 1990 and Hillary in 1969.  

Up on the third floor of Griswold Hall on the Harvard Law School campus, you can find the handbill-festooned office of Professor Duncan Kennedy. In all the coverage you will read of the 2008 presidential election, the likelihood of your running across his name—other than right now, that is—is vanishingly small. Kennedy is a leftist whose disregard for conventional politics is severe. But he is also a link, strangely enough, between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In 1971, Kennedy, a recent Yale Law School graduate, published an article in The Yale Review of Law and Social Action, of which Clinton was then an editor. The article was called “How the Law School Fails: A Polemic” and advocated a creed that Kennedy dubbed “legal hippieism.” In later years, Kennedy, a founder of the avant-garde Critical Legal Studies movement, would recommend that, in order to turn Harvard Law into a “counterhegemonic enclave,” it should admit students by lottery. Even later, he would be among the prime instigators of a campaign for faculty diversity that would consume the campus in the late eighties and early nineties, with students occupying the dean’s office, raising holy hell. Among the students sucked into that mêlée (though not into the dean’s office) was a young Obama.

One hundred and thirty-four miles separate the Harvard and Yale law schools, but on the mental map of American liberalism, they are next-door neighbors. Established in 1817 and 1843, respectively, the schools have long been ground zero for the inculcation of left-leaning politics and policy—and the places where countless aspiring Democratic pols have gone to punch their tickets. They have also been the scenes of some of the most bitter and convulsive conflagrations that the academy has ever seen.

Two decades apart, Clinton and Obama attended these two august institutions. And not just attended them: took them by storm, and were, in turn, transformed by them. Their stints in New Haven and Cambridge both took place in times of upheaval, when extremism and pragmatism came crashing together, when the foundations of liberalism were violently shaken, its future thrown up for grabs.

Neither Clinton (YLS ’73) nor Obama (HLS ’91) highlights law school in the narratives they’re peddling on the campaign trail. For Obama, who scarcely mentions Harvard in his memoir Dreams From My Father, dropping the H-bomb would risk exacerbating the most dire electoral problem he faces: his inability to gain traction with any demo beyond the wealthy, the well educated, and the young. For Clinton, the fear is that speaking about her lawyerly past will lead to the exhumation of her years as a partner of the Rose Law Firm, a nightmare topic that she is none too eager to revisit.

But Clinton’s and Obama’s paper-chase years matter, because law school was for each of them a seminal moment in the formation of their political selves. The battles raging all around them were fierce: over Vietnam and black power for Hillary, over diversity and the conservative judicial counterreformation for Barack. And their involvement in, and responses to, those fights are telling. They reveal just how much Obama and Clinton have in common in terms of temperament and political orientation. They also illuminate the real and profound differences between them then, and also now.

Those differences, naturally, are generationally rooted, for both Clinton and Obama are nothing if not children of their respective epochs. But here, too, the candidates are more alike than they may seem. Both came of political age at moments when something was ending: when the features that defined, the passions that animated, and the strategies that guided left-liberal politics reached a kind of apogee—and then collapsed with a sickening thud.

Now, Clinton and Obama are attempting to reanimate progressivism and restore it to what they see as its rightful place of power. To understand their prospects for success in that project requires understanding them. And that requires examining the portions of their biographies that run in parallel.

Hillary Rodham arrived at Yale in the fall of 1969 with her reputation preceding her. As one of only 27 women in a class of 235, she would have stood out anyway. But the prior spring, she had delivered her famous commencement speech at Wellesley, where she’d been student-body president, upbraiding the Republican senator Edward Brooke—a speech that made her, in the eyes of the media, a de facto spokeswoman for her generation and landed her picture in Life magazine. “Hillary Rodham was a star,” the film pundit Michael Medved, a law-school classmate of hers, has written. “Everyone knew about her speech and talked in reverential tones about the extraordinary wisdom and eloquence that her address had displayed.”


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