Obama Left Mark on HLS

Profs fondly recall Law School alum as he launches presidential bid

Days before he launched his campaign for the presidency, Barack H. Obama gave Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 a heads up: one of the professor’s favorite students might be heading to the White House.

But that favorite student wouldn’t be Barack. It’d be Michelle R. Obama, his wife.

The presidential hopeful graduated magna cum laude from the Law School in 1991; his wife earned the degree three years earlier.

But the senator was still outstanding in his own right—“brilliant, charismatic, and focused,” said Wilkins, the Kirkland and Ellis professor of law. The two forged a relationship after Obama became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review.

Obama announced the creation of an exploratory committee Tuesday, effectively launching his bid for the presidency, but he revealed his decision to his closest supporters in a conference call days earlier.

“He talked about how the timing was not exactly what he himself expected, but with a tremendous response from the nation, that this is an important moment and a great opportunity to step forward,” Wilkins said.

Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, who taught Obama and employed him as a research assistant, remembers him as a “brilliant, personable, and obviously unique” person. Tribe said that Obama’s theoretical perspective on applying modern physics to law was “very impressive.”

“He is obviously a serious intellectual as well as a fantastic campaigner who can reach across boundaries,” Tribe said. “He will make an extraordinarily fine president.”

Wilkins, too, vows to be “supportive of him in any way possible” and said that he is a “terrific candidate offering a fresh perspective that is desperately needed in American politics.”

He said he advised Obama to become a Supreme Court clerk. Obama recognized the honor in pursuing that post, Wilkins said, but quickly added that he wasn’t interested.

“He said that he wanted to write a book about his life and his father, go back to Chicago, get back into the community, and run for office there. He knew exactly what he wanted and went about getting it done,” Wilkins said. “He was the kind of person who you knew was destined for greatness.”

Obama announced his presidential ambitions in a video on his Web site earlier this week, saying “I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in this position a year ago. But...I’ve been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics.”

The announcement had been expected for weeks, shocking few.

“It wasn’t much of a surprise,” said the president of the Harvard College Democrats, Brigit M. Helgen ’08. “His intent has been pretty clear, for example, with his trips to New Hampshire.”

Support, at least within the Dems, seems to be divided.

“There is a strong ‘Students for Obama’ group, but at this point, I would say it’s pretty even between Obama and Hillary [R. Clinton],” Helgen said.

The newly formed “Students for Obama” plans to get in touch with the campaign as soon as it can and initiate trips to New Hampshire in the spring, according to group member Nathaniel J. Lubin ’09.

Obama is expected to formally throw his hat into the ring Feb. 10.

—Staff writer Marie C. Kodama can be reached at mckodama@fas.harvard.edu.