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When They Were Young

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Becoming Barack  

By the time Obama turned up at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1988, the grand designs and grander illusions of Clinton’s time at Yale seemed as distant to most students as the New Deal—or maybe the Magna Carta. On campus, Vietnam and civil rights had been replaced by multiculturalism and identity politics as the causes célèbres du jour. The ossification of traditional liberalism was vividly on display.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere at Harvard was exceptionally nasty—polarized and poisonous. Against the backdrop of the rightward tilt on the Supreme Court, the rise of the Federalist Society, and the challenging of affirmative action in all its guises, the faculty was riven by a series of highly charged, often racially tinged debates. Some of these debates were doctrinal, relating to the Critical Legal Studies movement, which presented a radical challenge to the notion that the law is objective and neutral, hence to the legitimacy of the law school itself. Some involved the hiring and tenure (or lack thereof) of minority professors. The eminent constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe recalls, “The disagreements were not pursued through very civil discourse partly because the most vocal and passionate proponents were also, er, diplomatically challenged.” Or as another professor put it, Harvard had become “the Beirut of legal education.”

Unlike Clinton, Obama arrived at law school unheralded by the media, unencumbered by preconceptions. But at 27, having spent the previous four years working as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago, having been raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, having traveled to Africa, he was more worldly, more fully baked, than Clinton was at Yale. And although he embraced, as she had, an instrumentalist view of the law—that it was a tool to be employed in the service of social betterment—his goals were less extravagant than hers: helping out the folks on the Windy City’s South Side, as opposed to transfiguring the world.

Hillary’s hand was always in the air, remembers Robert Reich. Bill didn’t go to class, and Clarence Thomas sat silently in back.

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.”

But Obama was more than an adroit synthesist. He was outspoken about cases and policies tangled up with race and class. And this left a lasting impression on the black students who witnessed it.

“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.”


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