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On an afternoon in the early 1990s, a gaggle of basketball players from Harvard Law School travelled an hour outside of Cambridge to a high-security prison in Walpole.
After depositing their keys, phones, and jewelry with security guards upstairs, the group descended into a monitored, basement room to face off against a team of inmates.
One imposing Walpole inmate sauntered across the room toward a skinny student who stood at the front of the group—current president Barack Obama.
Obama leaned in for a traditional handshake and hug, nonchalantly asking the inmate why he had been incarcerated.
“Double murder,” the inmate replied.
Yet, according to Charles J. Ogletree Jr., an Obama mentor and Harvard Law School professor, Obama maintained his aggressive playing style—a fearlessness and aggressiveness that many critics have argued Obama has lost since his election in 2008.
“He’s competitive and that was reflected on the basketball court,” classmate Jason B. Adkins said.
Today, Obama remains locked in an intense struggle for the White House as election season hurdles toward its finish next Tuesday.
Although Obama generally refrains from discussing his time at Harvard Law School, the president blossomed into a leader and teacher during his three years in Cambridge.
“Harvard was, for Barack, a place to reflect, to learn and to reinforce his already very considerable skills and insights,” Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 said during the presidential campaign four years ago.
While at the Law School, Obama pioneered a new brand of activism for students who hoped to ensure that Harvard adhered to a standard of diversity and equality.
“He was definitely one of the leaders and shining lights in our year,” Adkins said.
“He knew exactly what he wanted and went about getting it done,” Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77 said during Obama’s first campaign for president. “He was the kind of person who you knew was destined for greatness.”
When Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988, he had already spent three years working as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago, and at age 27, he was relatively older than his peers.
“He was a little older, seasoned,” Adkins said. “People looked up to him.”
Obama emerged as an activist during his second year at Harvard after controversy broke out surrounding the new dean, Robert C. Clark.
Clark had proposed to eliminate a branch of the advising program designed to help students find careers as public interest lawyers after graduation. Clark’s comments about these “guilt alleviating” programs drew national media attention.
Students, Obama among them, protested, organizing rallies and initiating a letter writing campaign to garner support from students and faculty members.
Obama gave several inspirational speeches that effectively galvanized students, according to Adkins.
He spoke with a distinctive style that reverberates in his speeches today. “He had a similar cadence, similar passion,” Adkins said. “It’s both passionate and analytical.”
After a period of student protests, Clark finally caved to student demands, reinstating public interest advising in 1990.
Although the controversy had died down, Obama remained active in the movement to improve the diversity of Harvard’s faculty.
“He was obviously attuned to the public issues of the day,” Adkins said.
THE SECOND TEACHER
Adkins describes Obama as a bright, engaged student with impressive intellectual ability.
During an introductory constitutional law class taught by professor Kathleen M. Sullivan, who now teaches at Stanford, Obama would consistently engage Sullivan with clear, pointed questions that challenged her interpretations.
Students, therefore, dubbed the course “the Obama-Sullivan Debate Class,” Adkins said.
“He was a dominating feature in the classroom,” Ogletree said.
Yet, Judson H. Miner, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who hired Obama immediately after he graduated, describes Obama as “self-assured but not at all cocky.”
“He was clearly an enormously bright fellow, who wasn’t arrogant,” Miner said.
In fact, Obama was eager to share recognition with his fellow students and strove to include his fellow students in dialogue, instead of merely showing off his superior knowledge.
Obama “wanted faculty and other students to see that other people in the classroom had good and interesting and provocative ideas,” Ogletree said.
Obama felt that other students contributed to a collective answer, formulated from the layered input of all the class members.
“He was as much a teaching assistant as he was a student,” Ogletree said.
Obama could have pursued an career in academia had he not chosen to dive into politics, Olgetree said.
Although Ogletree describes Obama as a “terrific teacher,” pundits have said that Obama has struggled to effectively harness his ability to translate his platform to the American public in a simple and relatable form during the last four years.
“There’s no better salesman than Barack, but there was a period when somehow his voice got muffled,” Miner said of Obama’s first term. “He followed bad advice and lost his voice.”
In 1990, Obama became the first African-American to pass through the grueling election process and win the much-coveted position of Harvard Law Review president.
According to Ogletree, Obama expressed some “reluctance and anxiety” about running.
“He had to be chosen by a cross-section of people who all were smart and gifted and who were different races, genders, political persuasions and even classes,” Ogletree said.
Obama “was pleasantly surprised to see the wealth of support and enthusiastic endorsement of him as the president,” Ogletree said.
At the time, Randall Kennedy, a professor of law, told the Crimson that Obama’s selection proved that “talent can be recognized regardless of race.”
According to Ogletree, Obama wanted to open doors for future students who would follow in his footsteps as leaders of the Law Review. Soon after his election, Obama said that he was happy to be the first African-American elected,
but did not want to be the last.
Although people on the Law Review held diametrically opposed political views, Obama managed to reconcile their differences because his peers respected his judgment and his fairness.
Ogletree said that Obama crafted a team of strong writers from across the political spectrum, refusing to discriminate against those who held political views that ran couner to his own.
Instead of relying on tired partisan arguments, Obama consistently approached any problem with the same thoughtfulness and precision that he applies to work in the Oval Office, Miner said.
Obama’s experience reconciling differences may have aided his navigating of the Washington poliical scene, but pundits have virulently criticized the president for the increasingly partisan tenor of Washington during the last four years.
Despite what some critics have said, Ogletree believes that Obama has successfully reached across the aisle time and again on issues that are important to the American people—particularly health care and the economic stimulus package.
And, if elected to office again, Obama—who shaped and was shaped, like many Harvard students, by his experience in Cambridge—will continue to draw upon his years at HLS, Olgetree said.
—Staff writer Laura K. Reston can be reached at email@example.com.
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