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When They Were Young

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Gannett House sits on the western edge of the Harvard Law School campus, overlooking Cambridge Common. It’s a fine nineteenth-century Greek Revival building, with handsome columns out in front, standing three stories high. The bottom floor housed the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Since 1929, the top two have been occupied by the Harvard Law Review.

Practically speaking, Gannett House was Obama’s home during his second and third years at Harvard. Based on his high grades and a writing competition, he earned on spot on the review, where he spent countless hours poring over the manuscripts that came in from law professors from around the country. 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.”

Indeed, the standard line among Obama’s pals is that he was reluctant to run, that, in effect, he was drafted into the race. “I can’t stress this more: It was not his ambition,” Cassandra Butts says. “But his colleagues approached him [because] there were a lot of divisions on the law review between liberals and conservatives, and people felt Barack could bring people together.”

The truth is more complicated. The night before the review editors would need to declare if they were entering the race, a handful of Obama’s friends had dinner at his apartment in Somerville. Among them was Kenneth Mack, now a professor at the law school, and an older student named Vince Eagan. Among blacks on the law review there had been a concerted effort to attain positions as officers. After dinner, Obama mentioned to Eagan that he was considering seeking the presidency. You should go for it, Eagan said. “I think you should kick that door in.” According to Mack, “That was when Barack decided.”

But Obama was surely driven more by personal ambition than by identity politics. All around him were people who believed he had nearly unlimited political upside. Tribe, who taught Obama constitutional law and was so impressed that he hired him as a research assistant, says, “I thought, This guy is so unusual, so charismatic, so interesting, so mature; his talents are such that there’s no ceiling to what he could achieve—and that included becoming president of the United States. It wasn’t something I ever said to him, because it seemed like a crazy thing. But I talked to my wife about it. He’s the only student about whom I’ve ever had that thought.”

Obama made no secret that, increasingly, he was contemplating a future run for public office. Butts, among others, had heard him talk about becoming mayor of Chicago. And Craig Robinson, the brother of his wife-to-be, Michelle, remembers him saying that “at some point he’d like to run for the U.S. Senate. And then he said, ‘Possibly even run for president at some point.’ ”

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!

Obama’s election came at the end of a grueling, seventeen-hour marathon process of winnowing down from nineteen candidates. The review was as ideologically divided as the rest of the law school, and much has been made subsequently of the fact that, in the end, Obama secured the backing of the review’s Federalist Society faction by convincing them that he would “listen fair-mindedly to the perspective of the conservatives and treat them even-handedly,” as their leader, Brad Berenson, a former associate White House counsel to George W. Bush, puts it. Yet, as Mack points out, “Barack was going to win regardless of the conservative vote. It seemed clear as the balloting went on that he had overwhelming support.”

What made Obama so attractive? “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.”

More impressive than Obama’s election, however, was his style of governance, the way that he held the review together at a time of terrific strain. No one watching carefully would have had any doubt as to where his political sympathies lay. When a minor controversy over affirmative action within the review spilled into public—with one of its conservative editors writing a letter to the Harvard Law Record expressing a predictably negative view—Obama fired back with a forceful statement of the magazine’s official view to the contrary. He even, at long last, took part in a faculty-diversity rally, much to the delight of Keith Boykin. “When the time came to pull out our trump card, he was ready to step forward,” Boykin says.


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