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At Harvard Law, a unifying voice

Classmates recall Obama as even-handed leader

In 1990, Barack Obama was elected Harvard Law Review president over 18 others.
In 1990, Barack Obama was elected Harvard Law Review president over 18 others. (Joe Wrinn/ Harvard University News/ File)

CAMBRIDGE -- It was just a five-on-five game between some law students at a Harvard gym, until someone jabbed a hard foul. An argument broke out, and pretty soon players were in one another's faces.

To the players who were on the court that day, it seemed punches were about to be thrown.

Then a skinny, soft-spoken forward with tight shorts and high socks named Barack Obama raced out from the sideline and put himself between two of the warring players.

"He said, 'Guys, this is not serious -- it's just a pickup game,' " recalled one of the players, Earl Martin Phalen, Harvard Law Class of 1993. Laughing, he added: "There was all this testosterone exploding, and he just kind of had perspective. . . . We ended up chilling it out."

These days, Obama is the hot new candidate for the White House, trying to end the warring in Washington with a warm message of unity and optimism. But years before taking that message to the national political stage, he was defusing battles large and small from the sharp-elbowed basketball games to the cutthroat classrooms at Harvard Law School.

Standing apart from others
Right from the start, when he arrived in the fall of 1988 at the age of 27, Obama seemed different. With his leather bomber jacket, tattered jeans, and pack of cigarettes, he was older and appeared less starchy than many of his fresh-faced classmates newly arrived from the Ivy League. He was also one of the small minority of black students on the campus of about 1,500 of the nation's most ambitious future lawyers, judges, and corporate executives.

Beyond his appearance, what set him apart was his approach to argument, the lifeblood of the law school and the constant occupation of the young lawyers-in-training. While other students were determined to prove the merits of their beliefs through logic and determination, Obama preferred to listen, seek others' views, and find a middle way.

"A lot of people at the time were just talking past each other, very committed to their opinions, their point of view, and not particularly interested in what other people had to say," said Crystal Nix Hines, a classmate who is now a television writer. "Barack transcended that."

He confronted his most charged debates as president of the Harvard Law Review, the exclusive club of 80 student editors and future Supreme Court justices who publish a regular journal of legal writings. Classmates recall an especially emotional debate in the spring of 1990 over affirmative action, which conservative students wanted to abolish.

Presiding over an assembly of 60 mostly white editors in a law school classroom, Obama listened to impassioned pleas and pressed conservatives to explain their reasoning and liberals to sharpen their thinking. But he never spoke about his own point of view or mentioned that he believed he had benefit ed from affirmative action.

"If anybody had walked by, they would have assumed he was a professor," said Thomas J. Perrelli, a classmate and former counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. "He was leading the discussion but he wasn't trying to impose his own perspective on it. He was much more mediating."

Obama was so evenhanded and solicitous in his interactions that fellow students would do impressions of his Socratic chin-stroking approach to everything, even seeking a consensus on popcorn preferences at the movies. "Do you want salt on your popcorn?" one classmate, Nancy L. McCullough, recalled, mimicking his sensitive bass voice. "Do you even want popcorn?"

Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this story, lived all three years in the same basement apartment on Broadway in Somerville, near Winter Hill. He kept the place spotless and decorated it with second hand furniture.

"He was a model tenant," said John K. Holmes of Arlington, his landlord. "I can remember when he told me he was leaving, I can remember being disappointed."

He skipped most parties and made his friends in class, including one good buddy, Rob Fisher, a first-year student from Maryland, whom he met on the first day of classes. Obama called Fisher, who is white, "brother," and teased him about his raggedy clothes. They watched Bulls games . Both idolized Michael Jordan.

Even in his first year, students saw Obama as a peacemaker. When his class needed someone to present an end-of-the-year gift to one stuffy contracts professor, the students chose Obama, who delivered a brief, gracious tribute.

"It was a moment of diffused tension and levity," said Kenneth W. Mack, a Harvard Law School professor who was in Obama's class. "He pulled it off."

At the end of his first year, Obama joined the Law Review. He nearly missed the deadline to apply when his 1984 Toyota Tercel broke down, and beg ged Fisher for a ride and sweet - talk ed his way to the front of a line at the post office to have his envelope postmarked before noon.

"That's the one modest contribution I've made to his success," Fisher, now a Washington lawyer, said in a recent interview.

Obama won a slot on the review. He was growing more serious in his personal life, too. After casually dating women at the law school, he flew back to Chicago after his first year and met Michelle Robinson, a 1988 Harvard Law graduate, whom he later married.

Law review prestige
In the fall of 1989, when Obama returned to campus for his second year, students were protesting the lack of minority law school faculty. They staged sit-ins in the law library, camped outside the office of Dean Robert C. Clark, and carried signs that read "Diversity Now" and "Homogeneity Feeds Hatred." The tensions continued the following spring, reaching a high when Derrick A. Bell Jr., the first tenured black professor at the school, resigned in protest. Obama was a member of the Black Law Students Association, which organized many demonstrations that spring. But he was less confrontational than some of his peers.

"Barack was a stabilizing influence in that he would absolutely support those efforts, but was also someone who could discuss and debate them with students or faculty who had different views," said Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who became Harvard's seventh tenured black professor in 1993.

In February 1990, when the time came to elect a new president of the law review, Obama was initially reluctant, said Nix Hines. The presidency seemed better suited for careerist types who were aiming for positions at top-flight law firms, Obama told her at the time. The son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, he wanted to return to his work in Chicago as a community organizer.

"I was surprised because I knew he was very popular and well-regarded and obviously had the ability to do the job," Nix Hines said.

But at a dinner at Obama's apartment, an older black student challenged Obama and other black students to compete for the job. "And I do remember Barack saying that was the moment he finally decided, 'I'm going to do this,' " said Mack.

The law review president's election is a fussy affair, part intellectual debate, part frat house ritual. Obama was one of 19 candidates. As the 61 editors not running for the job debated the merits of the candidates behind closed doors on a Sunday morning in late February, the hopefuls cooked them breakfast, lunch, and dinner . Every few hours, the editors winnowed the list further, until just after midnight, when only Obama and a 24-year-old Harvard graduate named David Goldberg remained contenders .

At about 12:30 a.m., the editors called Obama into the room, told him he had won, and broke into applause. Mack, another black editor, pulled Obama in for a hug.

"It was a hard hug, and it lasted a while," Obama told the Harvard Law Record, the school newspaper, at the time. "At that point, I realized this was not just an individual thing. . . but something much bigger."

Obama gained instant fame, was profiled glowingly in newspapers across the country, and landed a contract for a book that would become "Dreams from My Father," his best-selling memoir.

There was buzz on campus, too. Blair Underwood, the actor who played a black lawyer on L.A. Law, one of the campus' s favorite shows, came to visit Obama at the Law Review and took him out for a Chinese food banquet. People who had helped pave the way were also moved.

"You should not underestimate the significance of him being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review because that was and remains a very elite group," said Bell, now a law professor at New York University. "These were some tough folks. . . . It's almost as impressive that he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review as him being elected senator of Illinois."

As editor for two semesters, Obama spent 50 to 60 hours a week holed up in a second-floor office of Gannett House, a 19th century building overlooking Cambridge Common. He reviewed hundreds of articles, on topics ranging from corporate law to racial bias in auto pricing, and presided over long, heated debates in the cluttered first-floor lounge.

"Even though he was clearly a liberal, he didn't appear to the conservatives in the review to be taking sides in the tribal warfare," said Bradford A. Berenson, a former Bush administration lawyer who was an editor at the review.

"The politics of the Harvard Law Review were incredibly petty and incredibly vicious," Berenson said. "The editors of the review were constantly at each other's throats. And Barack tended to treat those disputes with a certain air of detachment and amusement. The feeling was almost, come on kids, can't we just behave here?"

A polished leader
Sometimes he sounded like he was already running for public office, giving studied, measured responses in interviews with The Harvard Law Record. Asked in 1991 if he could do one thing differently in his last year at the Review, Obama said, "I don't know that it was possible to do it any other way than I did it, but I would have liked to have had the luxury of being more strategic about my tenure."

Basketball was his outlet. He played often at Hemenway, the law school gymnasium, just off Harvard Square. Hill Harper, a classmate and frequent defender, said Obama, who stands about 6 feet 1 inch tall, had a quick first step and could easily sink midrange jump shots. "If there was any knock against Barack, he pulled his socks up a little too high and his shorts were a little too small," Harper said, laughing. "We were just at the beginning of the Michael Jordan era. He more harkened back to the Julius Erving era."

Some students got their first glimpse of Obama, the orator, in the spring of 1991, when the Black Law Students Association broke with tradition and asked him, rather than a renowned judge or professor, to deliver the keynote address at the association's annual conference. Standing before hundreds , Obama gave what classmates recall as a stirring call to action.

"It was a clarion call," recalled Randall L. Kennedy, a law school professor who attended the conference. "We've gotten this education, we've gotten this great halo, this great career-enhancing benefit. Let's not just feather our nests. Let's go forward and address the many ills that confront our society."

Now that he's traveling the country as a full-fledged presidential candidate, Obama is clearly proud of his training at Harvard, and he is remembered proudly here.

From the landlord who showed him his $700 a month apartment to the learned professors who mentored him, everyone seems to recall him as an exceptionally conscientious young man.

But in some ways, he was just a typical, forgetful grad uate student. Records from Somerville show that he still owes the city $72.63 in excise taxes and $45 in late penalties on two parking violations.

The bright, young law student parked illegally in a bus stop in 1990 and illegally in a street-sweeping zone in 1991.

"I kind of kidded with the mayor and said, "If he comes to Somerville, he might get booted,' " said Walter Pero, a city alderman.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe, Jonathan Saltzman at