Harvard Law School

  1. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama's Ambition

    Gerald Kellman   Hired Obama as a community organizer

    He is the community activist who gave Obama his first job in Chicago, organizing black neighborhoods to push for local change. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 24, 2008 for The Choice 2008

    Why the law degree? Why did he think he needed the law degree from Harvard?

    Barack was part of a world that most people running for president never impart, a very grassroots world, the world of the streets, so he understood that part of the world. But you also as president have to deal with the wealthy and powerful. I mean, most people only have that experience. I mean, I think probably George Bush was given the card, the Skull and Bones at Yale, probably when he was baptized.

    Barack didn't have that experience. He had the grassroots experience. He had the experience of being an outsider. He didn't have the experience of connectedness to the levels of public policy and academia and government that other people might have had. And to do that, he needed to connect with one of the major universities.

    And law school made a lot of sense to him. If he had a hero as a president, it would have been Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. Lincoln was a lawyer, and certainly many of the great figures in the Democratic Party, Roosevelt, Kennedy, you know, they had been attorneys. It was the logical choice for him to make. ...

    You said that his dad's legacy comes into play big time on his decision to go to Harvard. What did you mean by that?

    Well, the second reason that he gave me when he told me he was leaving -- and understand, we're at Harvard at the time. We're attending a conference on the black church, which is sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School, and we're walking around the campus. He was just getting to know his father's biography in a more detailed way. I mean, his mom really wasn't in touch with his father; there was nobody giving that information. But his half-brother and half-sibs were beginning to come over to the States and to Europe to go to -- and then to the States to visit, to go to graduate school from Kenya, and so he's getting the story.

    And the story as he understood it was that his dad had been overly idealistic and not practical. They had fallen on the outside of the government in Kenya. And not only had he been ineffective at dealing with his own ideals, but he ended up impractical and destitute financially.

    And although Barack didn't have much interest in wealth, he had a strong interest in having a secure income to marry and raise a family. He did not want to follow in his father's footsteps. He wanted to be more practical in his choices and more practical in terms of how he might bring change to the country. And so his perception of who his father was figured in that.

  2. Ψ Share

    Laurence Tribe   Obama's Harvard Law professor

    (Text only) A longtime professor of constitutional law at Harvard, Tribe recounts the day "a tall, skinny kid" appeared in his office and said, "I'm Barack Obama. I'd like to talk to you about the Constitution." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 12, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    The young man who comes to your office at Harvard Law School, how did he present? What was his aspect? What were your thoughts?

    Well, of course I had never heard of him or seen him before. He was just this tall skinny kid, sweatshirt, jeans. Comes in and says, "You're Professor Tribe?" And I said, "Yes." "I'm Barack Obama. I'd like to talk to you about the Constitution." I said, "Sure." And so he sits down, and we sit talking, and it's a remarkable conversation.

    It was in late March of 1989. I know because I made a special calendar entry. I thought at the end of this conversation, "This is an extraordinary person."

    As we spoke, he explained he had read some of my work; he had thought a good bit about the Constitution. It was clear that he was historically very literate, very sophisticated. He knew a lot. He had lots of curiosity. I didn't recall at that time ever meeting someone who had just come to Harvard Law School who was nearly as impressive.

    And by the end of that several-hour meeting, which was completely unscheduled, he asked if he could be my research assistant, and I said, "Absolutely." And I hired him then and there as my principal research assistant, which lasted for a couple of years. He was amazing.

    I had never before, and I don't think I've ever since, gotten a research assistant who hadn't yet even taken a course in constitutional law in law school, and it was wonderful. It was a wonderful ride. ...

  3. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama's Ambition

    Laurence Tribe   Obama's Harvard Law professor

    (Text only) A longtime professor of constitutional law at Harvard, Tribe recounts the day "a tall, skinny kid" appeared in his office and said, "I'm Barack Obama. I'd like to talk to you about the Constitution." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 12, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Was there a goal? Could you sense from him that it was more than just academic? Was he formulating something? Was he getting a plan together or a worldview together? Did you have a sense of a practical ambition at the end of this?

    Oh, yeah. I mean, it was not an ambition that at least from my perspective was focused on a specific office or a specific path to power, but it was an ambition to make a difference.

    I meet all kinds of law students, very talented ones usually. Some of them have ambitions to do well in the world, to earn a lot of money, to exert some influence. They often try to hide those ambitions in more palatable terms in terms of doing good.

    This kid was not hiding anything. He clearly was at Harvard Law School to get a better sense of how things worked so that he could fold those ideas, that information into kind of an ongoing project of improving the human condition. ...

    The better he did at Harvard Law School and the more he impressed people, the more obvious it became that he could have had anything. But it was clear that he wanted to make a difference to people, to communities. How he would best make that difference, I don't know if it was clear to him. It wasn't clear to me. But it was clear that he was there with kind of a burning sense of obligation and ambition. And that made him quite distinctive. ...

  4. Ψ Share

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Describe Harvard Law School at that time. ...

    It was sort of the big league. A lot of us had come from various colleges and careers. Some people had gone to Harvard College. I certainly hadn't; Obama hadn't.

    And this was someplace different. You met these people from all over the country. They were extremely bright, extremely ambitious, extremely smart. And it was a place to try to get your mind around and try to make an impression and try to chart your future. It was a place unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I think that was probably true for Obama as well.

    And what was happening there then?

    In the late 1980s when I started at law school, Harvard Law School was a place of big contending ideas, big arguments among the faculty, among the students. Everyone was organized; everyone argued; everyone fought over things. And that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It was a place where you got involved in things, and you had to take a position, and you got bombarded with ideas from various parts of the political spectrum. And that was sometimes uncomfortable, but often a lot of fun.

    What kind of things?

    Well, there was a big left/right argument going on at Harvard at that time. It's been stereotyped a little bit, but the left were the Critical Legal Studies and later Critical Race Theory, which was just getting going as an organized thing when I was in law school, which had a very unorthodox view of law and what law was doing in American life. The Crits [sic] thought that law was an instrument of oppression, and that's not what you learned in the mainstream law school curriculum.

    There were the liberals who were sort of fighting a kind of rearguard action, and then there were the conservatives who were articulate, small in number, but very much influenced by what was going on in the Reagan administration, influenced by people like [then-Attorney General] Edwin Meese.

    So you had these groups that were arguing about what was the nature of law and what was the nature of American society. Was American society, American law fundamentally unfair? Was it a system of oppression? Was it a system that was neutral? Was it a system that was fair and was creating wealth for everyone? We were arguing about that very intensely.

    And where were you?

    I was undecided, I think. I mean, I was probably on the liberal part of the spectrum, the left liberal part of the spectrum. I found what the Crits were saying to be really interesting. I found what the conservatives were saying to be really interesting. I had gone to engineering school before I came to Harvard, so I hadn't heard any of this, so it was just all a lot of fun.

    Where was Barack?

    Barack was I'd say a mainstream liberal, a mainstream Democrat, certainly was no Crit, but like a lot of people he was interested in what everybody had to say. He thought he could learn something from everybody, even people he disagreed with. And I think he was soaking it all up and trying to figure out where he stood on all of it, but I'd say he was a mainstream liberal.

  5. Ψ Share

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Was it important? Did it increasingly become important over the three years to pick a side, to finally be identified with somebody? Or could you live like you did and he did in kind of in-between land?

    It was important to pick a side in law school. I think that the politics got very polarized. They were polarized among the student body. They were polarized on the Harvard Law Review when Barack and I were editors. And there was immense pressure to pick a side, to be involved in one side or another. Everyone wanted to put you into a camp. Were you on the left? Were you a liberal? Were you a conservative? And sometimes it was hard to stay out of the camps, because people constantly wanted to put you in them.

    How did the pressure work?

    Well, people argued, and they wanted to know where you stood. And if you didn't fit into one of the categories, people sort of discounted you a little bit. They really wanted you to fit. It was hard not to fit.

    And it was a place where you had to take your own counsel. I mean, people who you would respect immensely would identify with a particular political faction, and you would say: "This person is very bright, and certainly not an intellectually dishonest person, and that's what they believe. And I respect them, and I've got to take what they say seriously." ...

    And were there faculty members involved in these discussions, arguments, sides as well?

    The faculty members had their own discussions which were parallel to those taking place among the student body. The faculty was very divided at Harvard in that period, and there had been a well-publicized tenure denial of a Crit I think the year before we arrived. And the faculty was not happy with one another over what was happening, so their arguments, I think, were probably more intense than our arguments, because for them the perceived stakes were a lot higher.

  6. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama's Core Nature

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    So when do you first lay eyes on Barack Obama?

    It was one of the first few days of our law school experience. We met at the financial aid office at Harvard Law School, which is in Pound Hall, which is very, very centrally located on the campus. And we were going through the process of filling out a lot of paperwork that would make us significantly in debt to Harvard for years to come. And we just bonded over that experience. ...

    How was he? What was he like?

    You know, it's interesting. The Barack that I knew at the time is fundamentally the Barack that you see today, the candidate. He was incredibly mature. He had spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, so he came to law school without some of the angst I think that many of us had who were only a year or maybe less than a year away from college. He didn't have the angst. He was very mature, and he was very directed. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew that he wanted to get his law degree and learn as much as he possibly could and take that experience back to Chicago and work in the same communities that he had worked as an organizer, and use his legal skills to help people in those communities.

    And so, you know, it was one of those things that you got very early on. He was a very calm presence and someone who had a very good sense of himself and where he fit in, and a very good sense of what he wanted to do with his life.

  7. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama and Race

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    ... What did you think when he won the presidency of the Law Review? And what did you think the implications of that were for the Law Review?

    I thought it was a big breakthrough. For a lack of a better word, Harvard Law School, the Harvard Law Review, these were very hierarchical institutions at the time. They changed very slowly. They were not that responsive to let's say new inputs. There had not been very many black editors of the Harvard Law Review. There were kind of a few every year who made it. There had only been a few black officers of the Law Review.

    And for an institution that changed so slowly, it was so representative of the long traditions of the law school to have an African American president. That was just this immensely powerful symbolic breakthrough. I thought that the stakes were very high. It was all about what message is the Harvard Law Review or the Harvard Law School sending out to the rest of the world or to the student body about its inclusiveness, about who belongs and who doesn't belong?

    Did he feel that?

    Yeah, I think he felt the immense symbolism of being elected president of the Harvard Law Review. I mean, I think it was both great and sometimes uncomfortable.

    People would project all these things on to him. People would write him letters from all over the country about this moment and about how meaningful it was to him. And sometimes it was maybe a little bit too much.

    But I think he also understood how important it was symbolically to many, many people, even outside the bounds of Harvard or outside the bounds of the Ivy League who just took this as a symbol that the country could change.

    I talked to Brad Berenson about what it meant to be on the Review with him and how he was appointed and I think surprised that he and some of the other Federalist Society guys were picked. Were you surprised that they were picked?

    No, I wasn't surprised that there were a number of Federalists as officers of the Harvard Law Review after Barack became president. Now, the selection process for officers was very complicated, so some people were elected directly and then other people were sort of elected, but then Barack had some discretion to choose. So part of it was just kind of how the process shook itself out without regard to Barack's input.

    But I think I wasn't surprised. I mean, I think Barack was always very inclusive in the way he thought about the world. He would want input from conservatives into the Law Review's policy. He would want to be talking to them. And he would want everybody to feel like that they were part of the institution and that everybody had a stake. So no, I don't think I was surprised at that. ...

    One of the things that we wrestle with when we try to think about how to think about him in this film is if you think about that period where there is a lot of integration of himself and his past, and all the things -- Grandma or Grandpa, everybody, Kansas, Kenya. By the time he gets there, I think he realized, especially through Chicago, from the stories people tell us, he begins to realize that he is a bit of a person people project their own aspirations onto.

    If you're African American you may say, "He's one of us." If you're a certain other kind of person you may, you say: "Hey, he's going to carry our water for us. Hey, he believes this. Hey, he believes that." It appears he begins to form a kind of idea that if he can figure out the world and he can figure out who he is in a very complicated world set of circumstances that he grew up in, the world can be sort of bipartisan or everybody can kind of get along or everybody can sort things out, because if he can sort out his complicated past, we can all sort out our institutional problems and all kinds of other things. ...

    Did you see any of that happening? And do you agree with the proposition?

    Yeah, I think mostly.

  8. Ψ Share

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    When he takes over at the Law Review, how important is that, that Barack wins?

    It was pretty significant. He obviously, as you know, was the first African American president of the Law Review. And the symbolism of it was very, very powerful. It was an African American ascending to what was the highest, most coveted position for a student at the law school, being president of the Law Review. And it was someone who we could identify with. So it was pretty significant.

    And for him personally, what does it mean? Ordinarily, it means Supreme Court clerkships and all of those things.

    Well, it was interesting, because, you know, I was as close to Barack as anyone in law school. He'd never expressed an interest in being president of the Law Review. It wasn't something that he talked about. And frankly, he was drafted by his colleagues on the Law Review to run. They made the case why he should run and why they thought that he could lead the Law Review. And they thought that he would be able to bring together the factions that had developed as a result of the divisions, the ideological divisions on the Law Review, on the left and the right. And they thought that he could bring people together.

    Why? What was it about him that they read that?

    Barack, from the start, had a leadership style that was very embracing. He was clearly seen as a leader, but at the same time, he didn't put himself out as a leader. We had a lot of people who were pretty ambitious at the law school. And you knew people who had political ambition. They were not quiet in their political ambition and putting themselves out as leaders.

    That wasn't Barack. He had a very quiet, yet very calm presence. And his leadership style was such that people were drawn to him and they embraced him as a leader, and they put him forward as a leader. And I think that what happened with the Law Review is a good example of that. And I think it's personality.

    But it's also a function of his experience as a community organizer, and that as a community organizer, you are not the person who's out in front. You want the community to be out in front. You want the community to be the ones who are voicing the concerns and who are the leaders. And you're the person in the background.

    So I think it was both a function of personality, but also a function of his community-organizing experience. So his colleagues on the Law Review came to him and asked him to run. He thought it through and decided that it's something that he wanted to do. ...

  9. Ψ Share

    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    And problems for him? Did he ever talk about the things, about all of that that were problematic, that were challenging?

    I think expectations, what people expected of him, how people expected him to identify or not -- and again, it wasn't something that he talked a lot about. Once you knew the narrative, you definitely appreciated that that was a challenge. And he would talk a little about it, but not in any detail.

    Yeah, I think that some of the expectations that people had of how he should identify or how he shouldn't identify, the positions that he should have on issues and the positions that he ultimately had on issues, you know, Barack was not and is not predictable. He's thoughtful. He'll tell you what he believes, but it isn't always what you expect.

    So that hence, when I interview Berenson, and he says: "I love the guy. I really didn't expect to. We’re all the guys that run the Bush administration." ... And that he thought Obama handled the really supercharged issues like affirmative action and other things really right down the middle. Am I answering your question for you?

    I think that Brad is right in that regard. It wasn't without controversy in that there was an expectation, as I indicated, that he would be in one place just in terms of his ideological approach is to the left. And there was an expectation that as the president of the Law Review that he would side -- well, there was an expectation on the part of his more progressive colleagues at the Law Review that he would side with them on issues.

    But he recognized that his role was such that he had to bring both sides together. And in order to publish the Law Review and to be productive in his term as president, he had to figure out how to make it work and how to make both sides work together, which meant that he wasn't always going to side with his progressive colleagues, that he had to take the interests and the ideas of the people on the right into account.

    And it's not to suggest that where he was on the issue was being reflected in the decision that he made. But it did reflect what he needed to do as a leader in order to produce the Law Review.

    Did he ever tell you that was hard?

    Oh, it was certainly hard, you know, having people criticize him publicly, which, in fact, happened on a couple of occasions was very difficult. And I think that what was particularly hard for him was the lack of recognition on the people who publicly criticized him, what he was trying to do and what he needed to do as the president, as the leader of the group, and that they didn't understand that he couldn't be with them; that while personally he agreed with them, that in order to get the Law Review out and to reflect the positions of the entire group, that he had to come to a more centrist position. And I think that that bothered him that his critics didn't recognize what he was trying to accomplish.

    For sure. And you, Cassandra, have seen him over 20 years carry that attitude into many other things, yes? ...

    You know, I don't know if it's that. I don't know if he was that conscious. It was an approach that worked on the Law Review. And just thinking about his public experience or his experience as a public official in the Senate in Illinois, you know, it is Barack's natural inclination to reach across the aisle. It's [his] personality. And it's also just his intellect. He has a very engaging intellect. He's not interested necessarily in dominating the conversation. He wants to bring people into the conversation. He wants to understand different points of view. And understanding those different points of view informs the way he thinks about issues.

    It isn't necessarily that it's going to change his opinion, but it will make him more thoughtful as he approaches an issue. And I think that that is what has informed his experience in public life, what informed his experience on the Law Review, and what's informed his experience as a public official.

  10. Ψ Share
    Related topics:
    Obama and Race

    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Tell me about the Derrick Bell issue. What was the matter?

    In the late 1980s there were a lot of protests about faculty diversity, not only at Harvard Law School but all over the country. I mean, students were demanding that faculties become more diverse, and they weren't.

    Harvard, like many universities, hired its faculty through a kind of time, tried-and-true method, and maybe a little bit of an old-boy network, although the faculty didn't call it that way. And a lot of people found themselves excluded from that. And Derrick Bell was one of the people who began to say this very forcefully at Harvard Law School and to get some people to begin to listen. And the students were very energized about the topic.

    Derrick Bell was a faculty member. Tell me who Derrick Bell was.

    Derrick Bell was the first African American professor to be hired and tenured at Harvard Law School, and he was an outsider. And even in 1988 when I arrived and he had been on the faculty almost two decades, he was still an outsider. He had gone to the University of Pittsburgh, which you didn't go to if you were going to be hired on the Harvard Law School faculty. He had been a civil rights lawyer, which again, you didn't do. He had done very, very well in law school, but he hadn't clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court. And he was doing this scholarship that was different, that was different in its style, that was different in its conclusions. He was very much an outsider, but students liked him.

    He was a kind of in-your-face guy. He was just very strongly principled and kind of quietly in overtime kept pushing an issue and pushing an issue until he was heard.

    And was there anything at stake for him personally in the Derrick Bell issue? ...

    I think two things. Derrick Bell wasn't just arguing about faculty diversity. He was arguing about how should we hire faculty members, what particular skills are valued among a faculty member, what does one have to do to get hired at Harvard Law School? And at the time when I started law school, it was still the case that to become a professor at Harvard, you usually had to go to Harvard or perhaps Yale, and you had to get good grades, and you clerked for the Supreme Court, and you were friends with some faculty members, and at some point you were brought back.

    But there was no evidence that you would be a good scholar. You had been a good student, but if you wanted to be hired by the economics department, you had to show that you could do some economics scholarship. So one of Derrick's arguments was that we were hiring faculty actually not based on method but through this sort of old-boy network that excluded many minorities and women from the hiring process, and that in order to hire more minorities and women, we had to think about how we hired faculty members.

    And I can just well imagine what a subtle and powerful assault that was on the conventional wisdom among the faculty.

    Yeah. In many ways, the faculty has moved not so much in terms of diversity, a little bit, but certainly in terms of hiring in the direction that Derrick Bell wanted. I mean, now you cannot get a job at Harvard Law School or any of the top law schools unless you have already produced scholarship. That wasn't the case 20 years ago. And that was Derrick's position that there were a number of minorities and women of color out there who were producing good scholarship, but couldn't get hired at a place like Harvard Law School, because they hadn't gone through the particular networks that resulted in you getting a job at Harvard.

    Was it a sort of polarizing issue among the students? ...

    I think when Derrick Bell started to push it, it wasn't so polarizing. People agreed, people disagreed, but in the late '80s it was a national issue.

    There were protests. There was a protest in the spring of 1989. There was a protest in the spring of 1990. Every spring there would be a protest about faculty diversity. And it was perceived among the student body that the faculty were not listening.

    So we had a new dean at the law school at the time, the dean was a conservative, so the students who were pushing the diversity issue were somewhat distrustful of the new dean and his commitment to faculty diversity.

    So I think over the course of the three years I was in law school, it didn't begin as a sort of polarizing thing, but it became that very, very quickly.

    And how did Barack navigate that?

    Like me, he was on the Law Review, so neither of us were at the center of the faculty diversity protests. My second year in law school, you worked 40 hours a week as an editor of the Harvard Law Review, then you've got to do your schoolwork, and then if you had any time maybe you would try to rest.

    So Barack wasn't really at the center of it, but I think no one really expected him to be. I mean, he was on the Law Review. He was elected president of the Law Review, and that in and of itself people thought was a statement about diversity.

    So he wasn't at the center of it, but everyone understood him to be someone who felt that the faculty should diversify itself a bit more, that he agreed with the objectives if not always the tactics of the diversity protesters. ...

    Does it mean anything that [Obama] spoke at the rally? Would it mean anything to other students that he spoke at the rally? I mean, did it have a kind of independent power of its own, or was he just another guy who grabbed the mic?

    No, I think it meant a great deal to the students and the diversity movement, and the students who were not in the movement who may sympathize with the objectives but maybe not with the tactics, that Barack spoke at the diversity rally.

    It meant that this was an issue that should be taken seriously, that we should find a way to move forward on it; we should find some kind of common ground. He was somebody for whom there was immense respect in the campus at that time, this respect that really crossed political lines. So it meant a great deal that he spoke at the rally.

403 Forbidden

Forbidden

You don't have permission to access /wgbh/pages/frontline/includes/sidebar_wide_bottom_wp.inc on this server.

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.