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Illinois Democrat, Harvard Law School graduate becomes nation's first black president

President-elect Barack Obama, the Harvard Law School graduate and presidential candidate, arrived at the Cambridge home of Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 for a $2,300-a-plate fundraiser in March 2007.
President-elect Barack Obama, the Harvard Law School graduate and presidential candidate, arrived at the Cambridge home of Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 for a $2,300-a-plate fundraiser in March 2007.
By Athena Y. Jiang, Crimson Staff Writer

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama claimed victory in the 2008 presidential election last night, sweeping past Republican candidate John McCain on a wave of calls for change from voters across the country and securing his place in history as the country’s first black president.

At press time, Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, had secured 334 electoral votes, surpassing the 270-vote threshold needed to be elected by carrying key swing states including Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado.

In his victory speech, Obama thanked the 100,000-strong crowd gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park for their outpouring of support and their belief in the unity of the nation.

“We know the challenges tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime. The road ahead will be long, our climb will be steep, we may not get there in one year or in one term,” Obama said, “but as an American I have never been more hopeful that we will get there.”

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, made history 16 years after appearing in the national spotlight as the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Obama’s win capped off a meteoric rise which saw him ascend from the Illinois State Senate to the White House in less than five years. On his way to the Oval Office, Obama shattered fundraising records, defeated one-time Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, and convinced a country to focus on his message of change, not his relatively thin resumé.

Obama’s victory over McCain, an Arizona senator and a decorated Vietnam veteran, also represents a transition between political epochs, from the generation defined by that war and its aftermath to a younger generation that largely escaped its scars.

Emotional at times as he conceded the election shortly after 11 p.m., McCain pledged to throw his weight behind an Obama presidency, even as he consoled his supporters at the Biltmore Hotel in Arizona.

“We fought as hard as we could, and though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours,” McCain said.

Speculation about Obama’s political career began even before he graduated magna cum laude in 1991 from the Law School, where he made history as the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Despite suggestions from his professors that he apply for a federal clerkship, by his second year Obama had already made clear his intention to pursue a career in grassroots organizing and civil rights litigation. Obama also became a lecturer on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

Obama’s rise has surprised many Washington insiders, but days before announcing that he would run for president, he had already called Law School professors to tell them that he had his sights set on the White House.

Over the course of the campaign, Obama became one of Harvard’s favorite sons, stirring up excitement among student groups and faculty members alike. Professors who remembered Obama as a “brilliant” and “unique” student rallied behind him in droves, and other professors held fond memories of his wife Michelle, who graduated from the Law School three years before him.

Among Obama’s guests at the election night rally in Grant park was Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62, who said he was “ecstatic” at his former student’s victory.

“I couldn’t be more excited—for him, for the country for the world,” said Tribe just after a conversation with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. “I think this is a great moment in American history, and a new chapter is about to begin.”

Charles J. Ogletree, who taught both Obama and his wife, called them his “two kids” and said that it was gratifying to see their journey from Harvard to the White House.

“It is a wonderful, embracing moment of how great this country is, and how great they will be as leaders,” he said.

Obama tapped his professors’ support throughout his bid for the presidency for money, connections, and advice. A top-dollar fundraiser held at the Cambridge home of Professor David B. Wilkins ’77 in early 2007 not only reunited him with old classmates and Law School professors, but also allowed him to rub elbows with influential Massachusetts Democrats.

By the end of the election cycle, Harvard academics had contributed over $200,000 to the Obama campaign in direct donations, and two of Harvard’s most distinguished law professors—Tribe and Cass R. Sunstein ’75, Obama’s erstwhile colleague at the University of Chicago—emerged as staunch backers of his presidential campaign.

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at

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