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.”
The Yale that greeted Hillary, in her bell-bottoms and sandals and clunky square-framed glasses, was awash in the tumult of the era. Every fad and faction of anti-Establishmentarianism was in full flower: hippies and Yippies, New Left and old, antiwar protesters and black-power agitators, silent-springers and draft dodgers. The main quadrangle, which had been declared a “liberated zone,” was blanketed with the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and the scent of Humboldt County. At the federal courthouse in downtown New Haven, the Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale and seven of his cohorts were set to go on trial the following spring for the murder of a fellow Panther. A massive student “uprising” was planned for May Day to demand that the charges against the Panthers be dropped because of the inherent unfairness of the “white man’s justice system.”
Hillary thrust herself squarely into the hurly-burly. She made fast friends with Medved and other antiwar activists in their class. Rather than joining the mainstream Yale Law Journal, she became an editor of a new alternative publication, The Yale Review of Law and Social Action, which was sympathetic to the Panthers. (To accompany pieces about the trial, it ran artwork depicting policemen as rifle-toting pigs, with thought bubbles over their heads that read “Niggers, niggers, niggers.”) She was among the student-observers who attended the trial to monitor it for civil-rights abuses and report back to the ACLU. There she met the radical lawyer Robert Treuhaft, for whom she would spend a summer working in Northern California. Hillary wanted “to work for a left-wing movement law firm,” Treuhaft later explained. “Anyone who went to college or law school would have known our law firm was a communist law firm.”
Many years after, conservatives would seize on all this as proof that Hillary was a pedal-to-the-metal radical at Yale. And Clinton’s lack of forthrightness about this slice of her history has only lent credence to the caricature. In her autobiography, Living History, she mentions the Panther trial only en passant and has maintained total silence about it elsewhere. Meanwhile, her description of Treuhaft’s militant outfit is comically innocuous: “a small law firm in Oakland.”
The truth is that Clinton, who had grown up the daughter of rock-ribbed Republicans in suburban Chicago, had moved steadily leftward during her time at Wellesley. The former Goldwater Girl who worked one summer for the conservative congressman (and future Nixon defense secretary) Melvin Laird had, by 1968, become a canvasser for Eugene McCarthy and a booster of John Lindsay. She had written her senior thesis on the rabble-rousing organizer Saul Alinsky and considered taking a job with him, and even 30 years later still spoke warmly of the writings of the Marxist theoretician and Students for a Democratic Society head Carl Oglesby.
But if Clinton’s moral sympathies were with the radicals, she adamantly eschewed their tactics. A bone-deep pragmatist, she would often say, in the midst of heated political debates, “You can’t accomplish anything in government unless you win!” She believed in the system; she “advocated engagement, not disruption or ‘revolution,’ ” as she later put it. When she’d told Alinsky that she was heading to law school, he huffed, “Well, that’s no way to change anything.” With great self-assurance, she told him that he was just plain wrong.
The utopian woolymindedness of the far left drove her fairly batty, too. As an editor on the Review, she read a draft of an article arguing that members of the counterculture, rather than taking up arms, should migrate in large numbers to a single state and take it over, allowing them to experiment with new lifestyles, marital rules, and modes of democracy. “This is mental masturbation,” she snapped at one of its authors. “Get down to earth.”
Being a stout Methodist, she also quailed at the moral relativism she encountered frequently in her law-school courses. She would later recount an example that today has particular resonance. “A hypothetical was being discussed about terrorists,” she told journalist Michael Kelly in 1993. “I remember sitting there listening to the conversation as so many people tried to explain away or rationalize their behavior. And I remember saying, ‘You know, there is another alternative. And the other alternative is that they are evil. I mean, you know? There are evil people in the world.’ ”
Thus did Hillary find herself stuck awkwardly in the middle at Yale, not so much between warring cadres as between her own inclinations. The tension she felt was hardly unique. “Few, if any, Yale law students thought of themselves as true revolutionaries or even modest rebels,” said Robert Reich, the former secretary of Labor and a law-school friend of the Clintons. “But we didn’t want to think of ourselves as part of the Establishment, either. Yet here we were at Yale, studying to be, well, lawyers. There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in play.”
Clinton dealt with that dissonance by embracing the center, throwing herself into the midst of the conflicts that arose, assuming the role of mediator. In the last week of April 1970, an arsonist set fire to the International Law Library. Hillary, horrified, rushed to join the bucket brigade that put out the blaze. A few days later, with the May Day student strike close at hand, a fractious assembly took place in the law school’s biggest lecture hall. The place was packed with protesters, professors, and administrators. Perched on a table in the front of the room, swinging one leg back and forth, Clinton took control of the meeting and calmed the angry crowd.
“It was almost like [she was] being a translator,” her classmate Kristine Olson recalled. “Somebody would say something in the typical rhetoric of the time. She would say, ‘I hear you saying this.’ Or, ‘If you could be in a room with Professor So-and-so, is this what you would say?’ Hillary did what nowadays would be called international summitry—flying back and forth between both sides … She’s always been one who sees the need for balance.”
Clinton’s own sense of balance was fragile, however. Before heading to Yale, she had written a letter to her youth-group minister back home in Illinois, asking plaintively, “Can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?” At the end of her 1-L year at Yale, the answer still eluded her. But in the next months, Hillary’s life would be would changed forever by two people—a man and a woman who would help her achieve, in her own mind, at least, the synthesis that she’d been so fervently seeking.
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.”
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.”
Returning to Yale, Hillary found that the paroxysms of her first year were a thing of the past. A weird calm had fallen over the place—with Kent State, the sixties had ended. And so Hillary turned herself to her new cause with energy and determination. She audited classes at the medical school dealing with children’s health. She spent time at the Yale Child Study Center, observing clinical sessions. She worked as a researcher for the authors of the landmark book Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. Soon she published papers of her own on the legal rights of children—papers that would later earn her derision on the right, which accused her, laughably, of contending that “12-year-olds should have the right to sue their parents.” (Thank you, Pat Buchanan.) Indeed, surveying this and her later work in the field, the historian Garry Wills would deem her “one of the more important scholar-activists of the last two decades.”
Hillary’s immersion in child advocacy consumed much of the rest of her time at Yale. Not that she stopped going to, or preparing for, class. “Her hand was always in the air, and her answers were usually cogent, thoughtful, and direct,” Reich remembers. “Bill, on the other hand, didn’t attend most classes, and when he did, he’d rarely read the cases. And Clarence Thomas sat in the back of the class with a skullcap on and didn’t say a word.”
Bill, of course, was Bill Clinton, whom Hillary started dating in the spring of 1971. “They were funny together, very lively,” one of Clinton’s roommates told the author David Maraniss. “Hillary would not take any of Bill’s soft stories, his southern-boy stuff.” Others could never quite figure out what Hillary saw in him. “The bottom line is, she’s much nicer than he is,” says one friend from that time. “He had no real idea of how to engage people in conversation. He would just tell them stories and try to entertain them. He was always looking for applause. But she was, and is, more grounded.”
Yet Hillary believed Bill had depths that escaped the notice of others. She also found attractive his political ambition, which was unabashed and apparently unlimited. “He talked to anyone who would listen about his plans to run for office, and there was a certain amount of humor in that,” according to Medved. “You really only had to know the guy for a very brief amount of time before the conversation turned to his political future.”
“I thought,” says Tribe, “his talents are such that there’s no ceiling to what he could achieve, and that included becoming president.”
No one ever doubted that Hillary was a match for Bill intellectually. What was surprising, however, was that she quickly demonstrated an aptitude for the political game that rivaled his. When they spent the summer of 1972 in Texas on the McGovern campaign, Hillary’s electoral savvy was apparent. “She got to the point,” one organizer, Sara Ehrman, recalled years later. “ ‘Where’s the Anglo vote? Where’s the Hispanic vote? Where’s the liberal vote?’ She was no novice in any respect.”
What Bill had that Hillary did not was a raw, all-consuming hunger for the validation that comes from elective politics. Hillary’s classmates had long assumed that she had political aspirations of her own. But, perceptive as she was, she could hardly have missed that he was a natural, while she was … not. (In high school she had been nicknamed Sister Frigidaire.) She decided to extend her studies at Yale an extra year in order to stay close to Bill, who had started at Yale a year after she had. But when he asked her to marry him after they graduated in the spring of 1973, she said no. “I never doubted my love for him, but I knew he was going to build his life in Arkansas,” she later said. “I couldn’t envision what my life would be like in a place where I had no family or friends.”
That summer, Hillary moved up to Cambridge to work for Edelman at the newly founded CDF. Bill, who admitted that marriage to him would be “a high-wire operation,” kept begging her to come to Arkansas, yet Hillary continued to resist—though her sense of loneliness was growing. At the end of the year, she was offered a chance to work on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation of Nixon. She snapped it up.
When Nixon resigned in August 1974, Hillary faced a choice: return to the CDF or finally accede to Bill’s blandishments. It was not an easy call. With the guidance of Edelman, she was on a beeline to a career in activism. On the other hand, there was Bill, who by then had announced that he was running for Congress.
Among many of Clinton’s friends and classmates, the decision she made seemed a sign of early onset dementia. “Are you out of your mind?” exclaimed Ehrman. “Why on earth would you want to throw away your future?” To others, it seemed a kind of betrayal. “It’s hard to think of a sadder example of a person who couldn’t quite give up the old ideas,” Carl Bernstein, in his recent Hillary biography, quotes a Wellesley alumna as remarking. “Her way of moving towards electoral politics was to marry someone who was going to run … It just seems wildly tragic that we know she could have been president if she had just not even married him.”
The motivations behind Hillary’s choice would be the source of endless speculation. The idea that she made a pact with the devil, abjuring her own dreams and aspirations, for a man whom she somehow knew would wind up in the White House is absurd. But that doesn’t mean she hadn’t been seduced—both by Bill and by the promise, however uncertain, of political power. “It was clear that she wasn’t just going to be a governor’s wife,” one law-school friend says. “They were going to be a partnership, a team, and a powerful one.”
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.
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