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When They Were Young


But Berenson and the conservatives were correct in their assessment of Obama. He appointed members of the right-leaning caucus to high positions. “He genuinely cared what conservatives had to say and what they thought,” says Berenson. He also injected a dose of humility into a pathologically self-serious environment. One editor recalls, “When people would have debates over nitpicky things, he would say, ‘Just remember, folks, nobody reads it.’ ”

Not everyone was entirely pleased with Obama’s tenure. Among those on the left, there was anger over his conservative appointments. “He’s willing to talk to [the conservatives] and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have,” Christine Lee, a black editor, told the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1990. “His election was significant at the time, but now it’s meaningless because he’s becoming just like all the others.”

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it’s clear that Obama saved the law review from descending into self-destructive factionalism and fury. The year after Obama and his classmates graduated, some of its editors circulated a parody mocking the work of a recently murdered feminist professor, entitled “He-Manifesto of Post-Modern Feminism” by the “Rigor Mortis Professor of Law.” The politics of polarization, already in evidence at Harvard Law and in the country more broadly, blew the place apart.

“The law review was a powder keg,” says Genachowski. “That it didn’t explode when we were there—that it ran professionally, despite all the tensions—was not a coincidence. It says something about Barack, and the kind of president he’d be.”

In the spring of 1991, Obama was invited by the Harvard Black Law Students Association to address its annual conference. The invitation marked a departure from tradition; normally, it was extended to a heavyweight judge or legal scholar. But Obama was already hurtling down the path to prominence. His appointment as law review president had created a welter of national media attention. Now, at the conference, Obama delivered a speech whose themes echoed W.E.B. Du Bois, calling on his audience to be ever-mindful of where they came from and the obligations to their communities that a Harvard education entailed. Again and again, his voice rising, Obama repeated one refrain: “Don’t let Harvard change you!”

But Harvard did change Obama, just as Yale changed Clinton. Obama had arrived in law school a community organizer, an activist, an exited a politician. Clinton traveled in the reverse direction: She came into law school an embryonic pol and came out an activist—and a soon-to-be political spouse.

The imprints left on them by their law-school adventures were deeper than that, however. What Yale taught Clinton was the limits of radicalism, the necessity of working inside the system, the legitimacy of seeking and wielding power. The experience hardened her, disabused her of the lure of utopianism, made her conscious of the inevitability of compromise—both personal and political. But it also fired her ambition and enflamed her hubris. She left Yale more dedicated than ever to the cause of societal change, and confident of her own ability to direct it. For Obama, Harvard had almost precisely the opposite effect. It deepened his sense of skepticism and already considerable self-containment, and buttressed his almost Burkean view that institutions are only changed very slowly. (For all the furor over faculty diversity at Harvard Law School, it would be years before tenure would be extended to a woman of color: Lani Guinier, an old friend of Hillary’s, later discarded, from Yale.) His wariness toward identity politics was reinforced. And so was his belief that the old ideological divisions and polarities were irrelevant and counterproductive. That progress would require dealing with, not demonizing, conservatives. That conciliation isn’t tantamount to mealymouthed accommodation—it’s the highest of civic virtues.

These generational differences between Clinton and Obama have played out again and again. The health-care imbroglio that Hillary engineered during her husband’s first term bore the hallmarks of all the worst things she took away from Yale: the self-certainty, the maternalism, the grandiosity. And her work on behalf of children throughout her career represented the best: the earnest idealism, the concern for the most vulnerable. As for Obama, the tendency to seek common ground, to find a win-win, that emerged at Harvard was central to his most dextrous political achievement as an Illinois state legislator: the passage of a law mandating the videotaping of police interviews with suspects arrested for capital crimes. “Left and right couldn’t agree, until he said, let’s do this,” Martha Minow remarks. “It was good for law enforcement, it was good for civil rights—he found the area of convergence.”

But the divergences of style have also marked their performance as candidates, and here it is Obama who has suffered by comparison. At Yale, Clinton learned that politics is a fight, not a mediation or a seminar or a campfire sing-along of “Kumbaya.” And this seems to be a rudimentary insight that Obama has yet to grok. The historian John Milton Cooper once described the campaign that pitted Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as a contest between a warrior and a priest—and this dichotomy has recurred all throughout the history of Democratic primaries, as the journalist Ron Brownstein has argued. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey was the warrior, Eugene McCarthy the priest. In 1984, Walter Mondale was the soldier, Gary Hart the prelate. And now Clinton and Obama are enacting these archetypes all over again, with the former promising to fight on behalf of America’s “invisibles,” offering strength and battle-testedness more than eloquence, and the latter remaining detached and professorial, offering vaguely to change our politics but failing to explain how.

All of which puts a fine point on the essential difference between Clinton and Obama, one that springs directly from the eras that forged their identities. Obama’s ideology, as his classmate suggested, is Rodney King–ism writ large: He wants us all to get along. Clinton’s ideology is, well, Clintonian: What she wants is to win.

Additional reporting by Michelle Dubert


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