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Barack Obama and the Harvard Years: The Interesting Information We Found That You May Not Have Heard


"It means white conservatives can trust me, and it means I can stake out my positions and be myself.”

Obama during his Harvard years. (Photo: Harvard University News Office)

This article is a special contribution by freelance writer Charles C. Johnson.


Obama during his Harvard years. (Photo: Harvard University News Office)

By now, it is not news that Barack Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review in the early 90s. But what has gone largely ignored is what happened after that took place. What motivated the young Obama? What was his focus during his tenure? Does that time reveal anything about who he is?

In that spirit, TheBlaze went digging. What we found is worth noting, and reveals that the Obama of old was someone quite interested in race, especially in a newly-uncovered school newspaper interview he gave. Additionally, he may have not been as popular with conservatives as you've been told.

Obama and Race at Harvard

After his election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, Barack Obama told the Harvard Law Record -- the student newspaper of Harvard Law School --  that “he is especially interested in Constitutional law, noting the ways in which issues of race relations and resource allocation ‘are often played out in Constitutional terms,’” according to archives recently viewed by TheBlaze.

“His work as a community organizer has given him an appreciation for business law as well," the article, published after Obama's Harvard election by Paul Tarrr and John Thornton, says.

“Those interested in public policy have to think about how the private sector can be harnessed to promote urban development,” he told the paper.

And while Obama owed his election to the Harvard Law School presidency to conservatives, he nonetheless thanked controversial black professors. “My election is a positive sign in that it shows people are ready to put in leadership positions black folks who have strong concerns about black issues,” he said.

The founder of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, “said a member of the Review called him at home at 12:50 a.m. Monday, minutes after Obama’s election,” according to the Record. (The debates had begun at 8:30 a.m. the previous morning.) “I’m very pleased,” Bell told the Record. “I guess I tend to be one who stays in a state of constant pessimistic despair about chances of America ever doing the right thing as far as race is concerned. Well, I grasp these little indications as a sign that maybe it might work after all.”

Obama repaid the compliment. “I’m walking through doors other folks broke down,” he told the Record. “A whole bunch of people worked real hard to allow me to be in this position—folks at BLSA, Prof. Bell, Edley, Ogletree and a lot of others. They are the groundbreakers.”

Obama “emphasized that HLS has a long way to go to attract a more diverse faculty and student body, but he attributes his election partly to strides the law school already has made in these areas. He said he enrolled in HLS because there was a core group of professors examining legal issues of concern to minorities,” the Record wrote.

Obama was doubtlessly referring to the critical race theorists of whom Edley and Bell were practitioners. Critical race theory is the controversial idea that all of law is simply the enshrinement of white privilege, rather than justice. Obama identified with these professors.

“The fact there were diverse viewpoints on the faculty was important to me, and the fact there was an active black students organization was important to me," he said in the article." It also helped that there were a lot of students interested in public interest law.”

“I believe all this stuff helped pave the way for my being elected because it creates an atmosphere that allows a person of my interests and perspective to be in the mainstream. It means white conservatives can trust me, and it means I can stake out my positions and be myself.”

Obama said it is “vital” that HLS “start thinking about its relationship to the larger society and about the kind of commitment the school should make to assure kids like me get in these positions again.” Though Obama said he was only the “first among equals,” he saw “his new position as an opportunity to broaden and sharpen the scholarly orientation of the Review, making it more inclusive of minority and ‘alternative’ perspectives,” according to the Record. Obama had told the Harvard Law Record that he was “personally interested in pushing a strong minority perspective,” on the law review.

Those alternative perspectives included awarding the honorary foreword position to Robin West, a law professor at University of Maryland “at the time and an expert on feminist legal theory,” according to David Remnick, author of "The Bridge."

Still, he didn't want to read too much into his own election.

"It's important to note that stories like mine aren't used to say everything is O.K. for blacks," he told the Record. "You have to remember that for every one of me there are hundreds of thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance... ."

Was Obama Really Popular With Conservatives?

One of the enduring myths of Barack Obama’s time at Harvard is that he reached out to conservatives. In fact, he was just the lesser of two evils, at least as far as the conservatives on the Harvard Law Review were concerned. Brad Berenson, class of ’91, and the rest of the conservative bloc threw their support to Obama over David Goldberg because they saw Obama as more conciliatory and less strident in his liberalism. The thinking was that Obama, who was a good three years older than most of the editors would proceed in better faith.

“Obama was not a uniter. To portray him as someone who brought everyone together wouldn’t be accurate,” Berenson told  TheBlaze, “but he was a non-combatant. He was mature and held himself above the fray. He was courteous, decent, and respectful," says Berenson, even toward conservatives, who were a distinct minority on the law review staff.

To the more politically left-wing members of the Harvard Law Review, this was too much, says Berenson, and Obama clashed with them on occasion. The first skirmish between Obama and the far left members of the Law Review started early. Several of the more left-wing members of the Harvard Law Review wanted Obama to appoint them to positions on the coveted masthead, but Obama, says Berenson, played it straight and appointed people to positions based on merit. “I’m as conservative as they come—I didn’t vote for him in ’08 and won’t be voting for him in ’12—but Obama always treated me well. I liked and respected him.”

But whether or not Obama was a rigorous editor remains to be seen. “Obama was friendly and outgoing, but the class succeeding him wanted a tougher editor to lead them. [David] Ellen, quiet and fair-haired, had graduated summa cum laude in history and science from Harvard College in 1987. He had worked at "The New Republic" in 1989, the summer before starting law school, and was seen as someone who would be a more rigorous blue-penciler,” wrote Eleanor Kerlow in "Poisoned Ivy: How Egos, Ideology, and Power Politics Almost Ruinted Harvard Law School."

Obama never wrote a bylined piece as editor of the law review, perhaps because his interests extended beyond. “I don’t think Barack sees this as a steppingstone to the academic aspects of the law,” Rob Fischer, a close friend of Obama back at Harvard, told the Record at the time.

“But whatever he does, he is extraordinarily committed to making a contribution to the resolution of social problems in this country.”

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