BY CHRIS SZABLA
With the election less than a month away, friends and former professors of Barack Obama ’91 gathered last Friday for a rally to support his run for the presidency. Among the speakers were Professors Randall Kennedy, Martha Minow, and David Wilkins ’80. Professor Kenneth Mack ’91, who was in the same 1L section as Obama, also spoke. Conspicuously absent was one of Obama’s closest mentors at Harvard, constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe ’66. Tribe has called Obama his “best student.” He also spared him much of the rote, non-substantive work typically dealt out to students who serve as professors’ research assistants.
In the absence of Tribe’s testimony, many of the speakers stepped back, offering few specifics about the law student life or character of Barack Obama. Wilkins began the evening with a bit of a stump speech, railing against, among other things, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. “I was actually in Wasilla this summer,” he said. “Having seen it, you definitely wouldn’t want anyone elected from there, for sure.”
Wilkins continued by asserting that the Obama campaign’s greatest danger was now complacency. After the Illinois senator’s stunning win in the Iowa primary, he said, some already began to believe in the inevitability of an Obama presidency – “America’s racial nightmare is over,” he mocked the headlines of the period. Wilkins believes Obama will prevail nonetheless. The situation of the economy, he said, was too bad for the culture wars to remain a serious distraction. Obama’s good ground game would also help carry him on election day. Finally, Wilkins claimed, the election had become about, more than anything else, generational change, and McCain was forced to count on the lack of youth turnout. For all these factors, Wilkins worried that an Obama win would still not be by enough of a margin to help pass his substantial domestic agenda.
Turning back to the candidate himself, Wilkins said he had not really known Barack when he attended the law school. He had, however, known Michelle Obama (then Robinson) ’88. Michelle is “part of the team,” he said, possessing much of the “integrity and calm” that Barack had himself. In class, he said, she did not speak much, but, when she did, she was listened to: she had a “courage of convictions that would bring people in.”
Kennedy noted that many people “thought they’d never live to see the day” that a campaign like Obama’s emerged, but that the polls were still “too close for comfort” in an election season “filled with hairpin turns.” Kennedy knew both Michelle and Barack Obama, but was much closer to Michelle, who served as his research assistant. She was “quiet and determined” and “very well organized,” he said, although he added that he had “no idea she would develop the poise” she has on the campaign trail.
Kennedy remembered Barack’s frequent speeches at school assemblies. Indeed, Obama had been at HLS during its tumultuous “Beirut on the Charles” period of political impasse, and such gatherings were always held to address controversial campus issues. Kennedy also recalled that, while still a student, Obama was invited to be the keynote speaker at the annual spring Black Law Students’ Association dinner – an honor usually reserved for a celebrity justice or lawyer. Barack’s speech, he said, was about staying true to where one came from.
Mack had been Obama’s first year classmate, and recalled that “there [seemed to be] more to Obama that met the eye” because of his age (which had been slightly higher than most law students) and his background (Mack had initially thought Obama was just from Chicago, and had no idea about his worldly upbringing). When Barack spoke in class, Mack said, people listened, especially because “much of what [Obama] said related to the practical application” of the law. Nevertheless, when Obama chose to run for president of the Harvard Law Review, according to Mack, it was because he recognized the symbolic importance of the move for other black law students.
Mack said he believed Obama’s electoral success was a direct extension of his experience as a community organizer. This, he continued, is what produced the senator’s ground game, which had helped him win in heavily-white Iowa. Obama, he claimed, had “transformed organizing” in American politics, principally by training many people in the art. Still, he was concerned that “naked divisiveness” could still prevail in this election, as it had in 1988. Mack urged students to do all they could to help the Obama’s efforts, saying he still regrets not having worked on Michael Dukakis ’60’s campaign.
Minow heaped continued praise on Obama. “I would go anywhere to talk about Barack Obama,” she offered, “and I have been in some weird places.” Minow emphasized two of Obama’s best known qualities – his calmness and his ability to accommodate many different viewpoints. On the first, she joked that “he’s Barack steady,” repeating the story about how he rejected calls to go on to a clerkship in favor of returning to practice civil rights law in Chicago.
The combination of these traits – his ability to be forthrightly objective and to empathized – served Barack well in a variety of contexts, she asserted. Minow noted that Bradford Berenson ’91, a conservative student who went on to work in the Bush White House, supported Obama for Law Review president because he was the only candidate conservatives felt they could trust.
Minow also recalled Obama’s work with her and sociologist Robert Putnam. With a group of other contentious scholars, the trio flew across the country, assessing levels of community involvement. Obama was able to collect and summarize others’ views so well, Minow said, that they asked him when he would run for president. When, out of modesty, he demurred, Obama earned the nickname “governor.”
Obama combined this ability to “get inside people’s heads” with one “to inspire people to participate” without failing to “tell them hard truths,” Minow concluded. She left off with two examples illustrating these last two points. First, she said, Obama has shirked many in his own party by supporting faith-based initiatives – but has refused to accept discrimination within them. Second, she concluded, Obama demonstrated his tenacity and command of detail when, in the midst of his campaign, Professor Cass Sunstein ’78 – a supporter and friend – called to ask why Obama voted in favor of amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which eased restrictions and oversight on wiretapping for international phone calls. The two argued abut the issue for over twenty minutes.