Conversations: Charles J. Ogletree

Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree first befriended President Barack Obama while he was a student at Harvard Law School in the late eighties. Ogletree spoke with FM last week about the president’s time at Harvard, the impending election, and Harvard’s place in the presidency.

Fifteen Minutes: You taught President Obama when he was student here, correct?

Charles J. Ogletree: I actually met Michelle Robinson Obama first when she arrived at Harvard in 1985 and graduated in 1988. Barack did not come to Harvard until the fall of 1988, so they never met here at Harvard, but I saw him regularly and he would attend a special class that I taught in the late eighties called “Saturday School,” which was a precatory class for students to understand how to brief cases, how to articulate ideas in class, how to prepare to take exams, and how to become good students. And of course he was one of the top students.

FM: What was President Obama like as a student in particular? What do you think characterized his approach to the classroom and to learning?

CJO: He was a dominating feature in the classroom in that he was well prepared, but he also was someone who, every time he answered a question, shared the reward of getting it right with other students in the class. He was someone who would answer a question but within it also recognize—which is very unusual for a student to do—that Alberto and Carol and Jack and Sarah and John and Melissa also had good points they had stated earlier and how they all were part of a comprehensive answer. So he was as much a teaching assistant as he was a student, and I think that is a character that he still holds today. He always wants to make sure that those who are in the room are a part of the conversation and not just the objects of it.

FM: There have been those who have said that as a student President Obama was not interested in debating, that he was more conciliatory. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

CJO: I would expand on it because I think it gives the wrong impression. He was someone who wanted faculty and other students to see that other people in the classroom had good and interesting and provocative ideas. He was not someone who was pushing for airtime just for the sake of time, and he wasn’t making a comment to show how smart he was. He was, in a sense, letting instructors and other students know that there are a lot of building blocks necessary to construct a strong legal argument, and those building blocks were presented one by one by students who would not otherwise be known as have grasped some of the intricacies of the law. And these other students were male and female, black and white, Republican and Democrat, married and single, and I think that’s what made all of this so rich...that he could, in a sense, see the qualities of people.

But he also had another side. He was a very good basketball player and a trash talker. People who worked with him on the Law Review said that he never held political views against anyone who knew how to crack an article or edit an article. He picked the best person, not necessarily the one who agreed with his views. I think that’s why he has such a strong following of people who are of different political persuasions.

FM: What do you make of those who say that the President is not good at working with those who disagree with him?

CJO: I think it’s just not true if you look at the facts. I mean, the people who were on the Law Review had diametrically opposing political views on a host of issues, but they respected his judgment and his fairness. If you think of the economic crisis that we had more than a year ago, he did reach across the aisle and was able to give some important concessions....

In order to achieve his success early in his term with the $787 billion stimulus package and then the Affordable Care Act, those are issues that required reaching across the aisle.

FM: There seems to be less excitement about his candidacy and his campaign this time around compared to 2008. What is your feeling on this election?

CJO: I’m pretty confidant that he will be successful in being re-elected on Nov. 6. That’s because of the numbers of people who are registered to vote on the Democratic side are a lot higher than they were before and the latest figures show an incredibly strong support that he has in women. It’s made an enormous difference.... He still has a very strong base in both the African American and the Latino communities among women and men. So, I think that sense of where things stand, whether or not you take a look at them objectively.

FM: Obviously both President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney spent formative years at Harvard. Do you think there’s any significance in that?

CJO: I’m teaching a reading group for first year students and there’s 12 of them and it’s about Harvard’s graduates run for the White House, and I have randomly assigned six of them to articulate Romney’s positions on a number of issues and six of them to talk about Obama’s issues. I’m not looking for got-you moments or the most-striking position talking in a debate, but I want law students to be able to articulate what they see as the strong points made by their candidate....

So I see it as a teachable moment and if Romney’s elected president, I’ll be teaching a class in 2014 about Romney’s presidency, the same sense about what he did that made people go his way.... I think the fact that they are Harvard graduates says a lot about their ambition toward public service, which is good thing. And I think that they would each bring something strong and different, but significant, to the way we’re run as a country and are viewed by the world as a nation.

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