Obama's Quiet Harvard Roots

Brad A. Berenson’s memories from his time at Harvard Law School are cloudy, but the former classmate of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama still vividly recalls one evening in the fall of 1990.

“We watched the midterm election returns in his apartment, and Barack was rooting very hard for Harvey Gantt, an African-American Senate candidate in North Carolina running against Jesse Helms,” Berenson said. “I remember that [Barack] was wearing a Harvey Gantt T-shirt in his apartment that night, and he was dismayed in a good-natured way when Gantt went down in defeat.”

But the above-the-fray approach that was evident in the future senator belied an intensity and a brilliance that would put him on the path to stardom, former professors and classmates said. Known as a tireless worker with a gift for seeing both sides of an issue, Obama became a favorite of prominent faculty members and rose to lead the prestigious Harvard Law Review, accomplishments that would serve him as he left Cambridge and returned to Chicago.

“There were certainly students at Harvard who were not taking advantage of everything it had to offer, but that was not Barack,” said Trent H. Norris, who worked with Obama on the Harvard Law Review. “He never treated it as an entitlement.”

Since leaving Harvard, Obama has made little mention of his alma mater, something that his constitutional law professor, Laurence H. Tribe ’62, said was a consummate politician realizing that “it could be off-putting for him to underscore the elite institutions that helped propel him on his path.”

“Harvard was, for Barack, a place to reflect, to learn,” Tribe said, “and to reinforce his already very considerable skills and insights.”

HIS (FIRST) 15 MINUTES

Despite its absence from his public pronouncements, the Law School represented Obama’s first glimpse of the national limelight. As the first black president of the Law Review, Obama was heralded by the national press—an experience some colleagues say may have helped lay the groundwork for his later career.

“I remember The New York Times coming to Gannett House,” said Marisa Chun, a former classmate of Obama’s, referring to the site of the Law Review’s offices. “I think that what he got out of Harvard was enhanced credibility in terms of his gravitas, his qualifications. All of us that go to Harvard benefit from that, but for him, it was extra special given everything he had accomplished.”

And though he was decades away from a campaign in which both sides have accused the other of lies and misrepresentations, the media attention also gave him a taste of how the media whirlpool can stretch facts.

Judson H. Miner, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who hired Obama out of law school, recalled his first encounter with the future senator.

“I had a little trouble re-entering the practice of law,” Miner said of the time after he left his position as the head of Chicago’s legal department. “So I was reading every newspaper that came near me, and I saw an article about this black dude—this all turned out to be completely wrong factually—born in the ghettos of Chicago, raised in the slums, who got to Harvard Law School, became president of the Harvard Law Review, and was coming to Chicago to join a silk-stocking law firm.”

CONNECTIONS AND CREDENTIALS

In addition to the media exposure, the contacts that the eventual presidential candidate cultivated in Cambridge have aided him in his later political career.

“Another thing he got out of Harvard were mentors and friends who have continued to help him and support him,” said Chun, the former Law Review colleague who now serves as an Obama fundraiser and surrogate. “In subsequent years, I think that a number of his campaign supporters and fundraisers have been professors and classmates of his, across the nation and across the globe.”

Classmates were not the only resource that would later be useful.

Tribe, who says Obama was the most impressive student he has seen in his four decades on the faculty, remains an Obama advisor. And Newton N. Minow, a prominent and well-connected Chicago lawyer who had led the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy ’40, proved to be an invaluable mentor for Obama during his early political runs.

“My daughter Martha called to say that one of her best students, Barack Obama, wanted to spend the summer as a law firm associate in Chicago,” said Minow, referring to his daughter, law professor Martha L. Minow. “I called our partner John Levi, who heads our recruiting for the firm, and suggested this; John laughed and told me that he had already heard about Barack and had already hired him.”

Minow added that his family has since become good friends with the Obama family, and has “supported him in his various campaigns, introduced him to friends, and invited the Obamas to local events.”

While his Law School connections may have helped, some say Obama’s reputation got to Chicago before he did.

“The truth of the matter is that, this fellow is incredibly talented and he’s like a magnet,” Miner said. “When he landed in Chicago, there were lots of people that wanted to meet him.”

TELLTALE SIGNS

While the Obama of today is a highly polished, and at times guarded, politician, colleagues noted that the qualities that would help him rise to presidential candidacy were already apparent during less scrutinized days on the Law Review.

Many cited Obama’s exceptional dedication to the publication, and agreed that it meant more to him than just another line on his resume.

“He didn’t seek the limelight, he wasn’t just enjoying his 15 minutes of fame,” Norris said. “He’d be there late at night at the law review, and because he was a smoker, he’d be outdoors on the stoop, having a cigarette, working late. It’s a pretty solitary existence there, not a lot of glamor.”

With the next president set to take office in what many have styled as trying times, colleagues noted that Obama’s Harvard days came in the midst of a tumultuous period for both the Law School and the Law Review, with frequent disagreements erupting over ideologies, faculty appointments, and the law.

“The point is that on Barack’s watch, the ship sailed smoothly, and the next year it didn’t,” said Eric M. Reifschneider, another of Obama’s Law Review colleagues. “[The Law Review] wasn’t just something you could leave on autopilot.”

Obama’s ability to generate stability and consensus earned him the near universal support and respect of his fellow editors on the Law Review—including conservatives like Berenson.

“There were other editors on the review where it was impossible to have a civilized political discussion without turning into a screaming match,” said Berenson. “He was one of the liberal editors of the review that I had the best relationship with. He had a little bit of world-wise sense to him that allowed him to stay above the fray.”

Sometimes Obama’s accommodating nature even upset his own supporters—Norris said that he would sometimes anger liberals by not being “dismissive of arguments that should have been dismissed.”

But colleagues said it was obvious even then that Obama’s conciliatory streak might one day have political applications.

“I don’t think any of us would say that we were shocked that he is where he is today,” said Berenson, recalling a parody issue of the Law Review that spoofed Obama’s semi-celebrity status and alluded to a possible political future.

But Obama, Norris said, was “not the political junkie type that was definitely going into politics”—making his present position just enough of a surprise to arouse some good-natured rivalry among former colleagues.

“I was reminiscing with classmates the other day—and it’s kind of a thing only Harvard alums would talk about,” Norris said. “If Barack gets himself elected, we’re all going to look like losers.”

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow contributed to the writing of this story.
—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.