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When They Were Young

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Obama's and Clinton's inner law students explain much.   

And yet, outside the classroom, Obama at first achieved little notoriety. He kept largely to himself, hanging out with a small circle of friends, shooting hoops and playing poker. (On the court, he was known for throwing sharp elbows; at the table, for being “competitive, aggressive,” one friend says, “whether he had the best hand or not.”) Although press reports now claim that Obama was a member of the Black Law Students Association, none of the leaders of the group whom I spoke to could remember him attending a meeting.

Most notable was Obama’s absence from the burgeoning campaign for faculty diversity. “The battle to hire a woman of color had engaged the political consciousness of black students at Harvard Law School unlike any issue in decades,” Troutt says. The administration insisted it had no intention of lowering its standards, or of capitulating to political correctness. The other side claimed those standards were arbitrary, discriminatory, or both. 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 involved.”

Some say that Obama—who, at the end of his first year, won a place on the Harvard Law Review—was simply too busy for campus politics. But that seems far too pat. A Kansan-Kenyan, Obama had struggled with his own racial identity. Although he favored affirmative action, he was no dashiki-clad Afrocentrist. And though he venerated the giants of the civil-rights movement, he was reflexively anti-oppositional. “I think his point of view was, like Rodney King said, ‘Can’t we all just get along?’” says one of his friends. “He thought it was a little immature, all this fist-in-the-air stuff. He had already been out helping real people with real problems, so I think he saw that a lot of these fights were really about nothing.”

Cassandra Butts, another of Obama’s classmates and a current adviser to his campaign, remembers an episode that supports this interpretation. 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.”

Obama’s intention to return to the South Side fed his propensity for keeping things real. In Dreams From My Father, he explains thus his motives for going to Harvard: “I would learn about interest rates, corporate mergers, the legislative process; about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed. I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail … [and] bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Obama would certainly learn all of that in his time at Harvard. But his plans for what to do with that knowledge would undergo substantial revision—when his election as the first black president of the law review shot his political star into orbit.

Two days after the May Day 1970 protest in New Haven, the National Guard shot four students dead on the campus of Kent State. Three days later, Hillary, donning a black armband, gave a speech at the 50th-anniversary convention of the League of Women Voters, in which she decried the U.S. incursion into Cambodia as “the unconscionable expansion of a war that should never have been waged.”

The keynote speaker at the league convention was the woman for whom Hillary would be working that summer: Marian Wright Edelman, who was in the process of germinating the Children’s Defense Fund. In Edelman, the daughter of a Baptist minister, a Yale Law School graduate, and the first black woman to be admitted to the Mississippi bar, Clinton found her first, and arguably only, female mentor. She would later call her time with Edelman that summer, delving into issues of migrant children’s health and education, a “personal turning point.” She realized, as she put it soon thereafter, “I want to be a voice for America’s children.”


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