Laurence Tribe

(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.

(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.

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    Harvard Law School
    On meeting Obama: 'This is an extraordinary person'

    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. ...

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    Obama's Core Nature
    'I never thought of him particularly as a liberal or a conservative'

    As time evolved for the next couple of years, or as your relationship evolved, is there a characteristic, a turn of mind, something about him that remains as the sort of dominant feature?

    I guess I would call it thoughtfulness, reflectiveness. He was never somebody to reach conclusions simply instinctively. He had fundamental beliefs about the human condition, I think, and about the importance of people working together to help one another. This idea of being one's brother's keeper is absolutely central, but it never translated into any very clear polarization on the political spectrum.

    I never thought of him particularly as a liberal or a conservative. I certainly knew that he had what I would call progressive impulses. He cared a lot about inequality, about injustice, about rectifying it, but the dominant quality that emerged was thoughtfulness, the insistence on weighing all sides, reflecting on the data on what would work and what wouldn't, and on I guess ultimately a sense of what was consistent with our deepest beliefs and what wasn't.

    There are a lot of things that fit on a bumper sticker in terms of either liberty or equality or progress that when made more concrete just don't pan out. And he was always interested in what would pan out, what would work, what made sense, and whether something was consistent with who we were as a country. And that made a big difference to me. I wasn't born here; I had come here as a little kid. Though he was born here, he had experienced a lot of things around the world. And both of us, I think, were grappling with the question of what it means to commit oneself to certain American ideals.

    So his combination of idealism and thoughtfulness made him quite distinctive from the very beginning.

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    Harvard Law SchoolObama's Ambition

    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. ...

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    One does not approach a faculty member at Harvard Law School accidentally. ... To gravitate toward Professor Laurence Tribe says something. What do you think it says about him that he came knocking on your door?

    For one thing, mine was not the only door on which he knocked. It's very important to underscore that he sought out all kinds of ideas from all kinds of people at Harvard. I don't even know all of my colleagues whom he did seek out. He clearly got to know a number of people there, and I think he was trying to get something different from each one.

    I would not draw the inference from the fact that he came to my office that he shared all of my liberal ideas. ... He obviously had some sympathy, it became clear in our conversations, some sympathy with the progressive ideas I had, with my commitment to helping people who couldn't help themselves, helping people who were oppressed by forces beyond their control. He was also deeply committed to equality, to a number of the ideals that I had, and I'm sure that that in part drew him in my direction. But I think he was more interested in learning what he could than in finding a role model or emulating what I believed. ...

  5. Ψ ShareObama is 'very centered, very calm, impossible to shake' in an argument

    Did you ever have an argument?

    Oh, I'm sure we did. In the course of working on any of several really complicated pieces of work -- one involving what lawyers can learn from modern physics, one involving the clash of values in abortion -- I think we often disagreed with how much weight should be given to one concern or another. I don't think we ever fought as such. It was never sort of a "Get out of here, Barack," or "Professor Tribe, you're crazy" -- nothing like that. But we didn't always agree certainly.

    He was very calm. One of the things that was very clear about him was that he was very centered, very calm, impossible to shake. That is, nothing that I ever saw, including a lot of the sort of fights that were going on at Harvard Law School at the time, a lot of the ideological divisions, nothing would get him off center. I mean, he was somebody who had a profoundly solid compass. I always wondered, although for some reason I never asked him, whether he engaged in meditation or something else to keep himself as calm and centered as he was. ...

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    Last week we interviewed David Maraniss, who has a new biography out [Barack Obama: The Story]. ... The fascinating thing about the biography is that in a 10-year period, as Obama heads off to law school, he spends his life in this incredible interiority integrating all of the various Obamas into something he can then believe in about himself as a black person, as a white person, as a kid who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, and a mother who was never there, and alcoholic grandparents, and all of the things that happen to somebody. ... So I have thought of our film that we're making as the first part is him integrating into who he is, so that he creates this sort of vision that is eventually a shared national intention: "We're not blue; we're not red. We're the United States of America."

    And it was that line, that line and how he delivered it in the convention that absolutely electrified me. "We are not blue states; we are not red states. We are the United States of America." It was just electrifying. And seeing and hearing him deliver that message, that integrated message of his vision for the country, both fit so well with the Barack Obama that I gotten to know when he was my student and went so far beyond it at the same time that it was really inspiring.

    One of the things that he was inspired by was the American Constitution and its sense of incompleteness. The Preamble, "To form a more perfect union," those words grabbed him, and he has used them in a number of speeches, the idea that we remake ourselves, that we perfect ourselves, that we don't cover up our mistakes, that we recognize our failings, and that we are a work in process, in progress. And how he managed to articulate that in a way that expressed what it means to be the United States of America was just an extraordinary thing in that speech.

    In effect what he is saying is, "My story that I've arrived at, hard won --"

    Is the story of America.

    "-- is the story of America. And I embody it, and I can therefore make my biography the country's biography."

    And see, this may seem naive, given the enormous difficulties that he has faced in his first term, but that is what made me think that not only would he become president but that he would be a great president, and he still might be. It's too early to tell. He will need a second term to make that work. But the fact that his life as he came to understand and integrate it expressed in a microcosm the promise and the life of the country is what makes him such a promising figure.

    And I think in some ways it's a misfortune that he had to arrive on the scene at a time of such political paralysis and such small-mindedness and such pathetically low ambition on the part of many others, but in part it may be a blessing. I mean, presidents who achieve greatness have to achieve it in the face of great adversity. For some the adversity takes the form of war and national disintegration. ...

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    He realizes that selling the national intention, painting pictures with words about who we all are and what we all share as a kind of common impulse, by elevating us so that we vote for him in the ways we voted for him, all of us bringing something and imposing it on him -- he worried, I think, according to people we talked to, that he had to back it off a little bit at Grant Park, at the inauguration. He had to get us ready.

    That Grant Park event was so moving. I mean, I was there as just part of the huge crowd. And as he and Michelle and the girls came out, I saw a different Barack Obama. It was as though the world had come down on his shoulders, that somehow reality had kicked in, and he now had the responsibility to make real the dreams that he had embodied, and it was not going to be easy. And I don't know what sort of internal transformation occurred, but it was clear that this was someone who was suddenly confronted by the enormity of the challenge that he would have to overcome.

    And I think in a realistically psychological sense he knew, because [he's] a smart guy, "Uh-oh, if I go into Washington, and Washington is as pernicious as I hear, and the economy is as bad as I fear, and the Republicans are not going to give me any quarter, how do I deliver on this heightened hope?" ...

    I think the shape of that became somewhat clear in Grant Park, as he knew he had won, but it was not even a foretaste of what he would actually confront. I mean, what he actually confronted was so much worse, both in terms of the economic news that had not yet become clear, in terms of the realities of how people didn't know literally who was at Guantanamo and what it would take to close that terrible symbol of American power. And as all of those became clear and as it became clear that the Republican opposition had as its principal agenda making him a one-term president, not making the country work, as all of that became clear, the enormity of the challenge really set in.

    I was at his 50th birthday party, and he was celebrating, but on the other hand it was obviously clear that by that time -- and this was right after the debt crisis when we almost went over the cliff over the inability to raise the national debt ceiling -- it had become clear to him at that point that this was not simply your grandfather's America. This was not the way the country was designed to work, and he was going to have to deal with a reality that was very different. ...

  8. Ψ ShareObama's contribution to his book Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes

    Let's go backward just for a second, but I think it informs everything that we've said now. When you were working on the abortion -- was it a book?

    It was a book called Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.

    He emerges as centrist, trying to figure it out in a way -- I don't need to put words to it. You can.

    It was a book that I cared a great deal about. I believe and believed then -- still believe -- that women need to be able to control their lives and their bodies if they are to be fully equal citizens. On the other hand, I have enormous sympathy for those who think of the helpless unborn as an entity with rights of its own and who find abortion a tragic choice.

    And Barack Obama and I, I think, were on the same wavelength in recognizing that there is this important clash of values. It's not simple. And indeed the reasons that people come out one way or the other on this impossible clash of absolutes, those reasons have to do with their comfort or discomfort with modernity, with what is happening to society, with the role of women, but with also the marginalized role of cultural minorities who have views that others mock and don't take seriously.

    So it was a struggle, and it was a wonderful project to work with him on, because he saw all sides. He was interested in not necessarily finding a point in the middle of the spectrum, but in finding a line that was sort of perpendicular to the normal access of disagreement, ways of coming to terms. We wouldn't necessarily agree, one side and the other, and we wouldn't each of us individually see ourselves necessarily as on one side or the other of that clash.

    But we could find ways of making abortion less necessary, making less people feel desperate enough to feel that they had to end a pregnancy, making contraception more available, making education more widely available, making adoption a more realistic option. And working with him on that clash and on how to resolve it, not find a midpoint but ways of getting beyond it, was a way of seeing a very interesting and all-encompassing mind at work. ...

    What does it mean to be the president of the Law Review?

    Well, it's an august institution. It's been around a long time. It's probably the leading legal intellectual institution in the country. And being the president of that institution means picking up the mantle of a tradition that goes back a good bit of time. It means not imposing your own views on others. It means trying to expand the horizons so that the best ideas can come to the surface. And it means not pissing off too many people who don't necessarily agree with you. It means learning how the political system works in microcosm.

    And it's a challenging position. It's always been held by somebody who is pretty impressive.

    Does it matter that he was the first black president of the Law Review?

    I think symbolically it matters. It was, I think, a cause for celebration. I think it mattered to him, but it certainly was neither the reason he became the president nor a terrible obstacle to his becoming president. I think people realized it would set a precedent, that it would be new, but I don't think it made the decisive difference.

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    How Obama approaches the law

    The fascinating thing about him is it's obviously a potential ticket to ride in some way. You're president of the Law Review, you're a Supreme Court justice's clerk; I suppose you could get a great job in Wall Street or in New York if you want.

    Yeah, he had all those options. Not every president of the Harvard Law Review has all of those options. Some of them are very smart but not nearly as charismatic. Some of them are quite charismatic but not as deep. He had it all. And it was clear both because his grades were terrific, because he had worked and impressed, worked for and impressed a number of professors as being really quite brilliant, he had all of those options.

    I think Abner Mikva had made it clear. At that time Ab was a judge on the D.C. Circuit. He had made it clear that Barack Obama could work as his law clerk, and then had pretty much a clear entry to be the law clerk for the great justice William J. Brennan Jr. And I think he struggled for a while with whether he should pursue that path, which could have given him a few years after that of accumulating some real money on Wall Street before going back into community organizing and politics, or whether he should sort of skip all of those things.

    And he talked to a number of his teachers and mentors at Harvard. I was one of them. I think he said, "Do you think I'm making a mistake in not taking up the law clerk/Wall Street option?" And I had no hesitation in saying: "No mistake at all. I mean, unless it's something that you yearn to do, I don't think you need it. I think you have a passion, you have a commitment, and you know what you need to know. People learn a lot by being law clerks to great judges and justices, but you know much more than most of them do after they're done with that experience. And I think you should go ahead."

    I know some of my colleagues were hesitant. They thought he was moving too fast. They thought he ought to take those opportunities, but I didn't.

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    So the summary of the quality of the experience, knowing you, knowing others, going through Harvard Law School, in terms of what it contributed to the Barack Obama we know today, what is the summary of that experience?

    I think there is almost nothing about America's constitutional history and how it interweaves with our law and our politics and our cultural and social upheavals that he hasn't pretty thoroughly absorbed, so that to the extent that understanding where we have been can help provide a compass to direct where we're going, he's got it all.

    The underlying sense of mission, the values, the sense of where that compass should point I think came from much earlier; it came from within this guy. And I don't have the illusion that either I or anyone at Harvard Law School made much difference in that. I think we gave him the tools, we helped him understand, we helped him integrate the background so that he knows what he's talking about when he talks about the extraordinarily unprecedented character of a decision that the Supreme Court might make on one or another matter and how it might upset our course as a nation. But I think the inner fire that drives him and the sense of balance that keeps that fire from getting out of control, those were all there. ...

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    Did he talk to you about whether he should run for the presidency or not?

    No, we never talked about whether he should run. I had some indirect communications through other former students of mine, like Samantha Power, who had become his chief foreign policy adviser for a while. Samantha was my student in constitutional law. I don't know if people don't realize that she went to the Harvard Law School. And I thought he should run. I thought it was his time, but I also knew that the voices of caution would be telling him, "This is Hillary [Clinton]'s time," and I thought she would be an extraordinary president as well. I was pleased to learn he was going to run, but he didn't ask my views about whether he should. ...

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    He obviously loves the law, thinks about it, talks about it, teaches it even at the University of Chicago as a lecturer at least, but being on the bench didn't seem to be an avenue for him either. Or did it?

    It's not inconceivable. I mean, there have been presidents who have then been appointed to the bench.

    He's very judicious. He loves legal analysis. He can't avoid thinking about the legal intricacies of a problem. He's obviously been confronted with more difficult legal challenges, not only in the context of the drones and the sort of indefinite detention and military commissions, but also the question of whether the president can unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. All of these things have fascinated him, and he likes thinking through him.

    He believes in the rule of law, takes it seriously, doesn't think it's simply politics by another name. So I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he could be chief justice of the United States someday.

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    So you sat in an office for a while at the Department of Justice halfway up Pennsylvania Avenue between Congress and him.

    ... There was no question that there were people who were concerned that somebody as liberal as I was would be part of the administration, but I carefully was given an assignment that was more contained. I mean, I was senior counselor for Access to Justice, and that's something that doesn't really have partisan implications particularly. I was interested in broadening access for the middle class as well as the poor, and anything that I did with the president that might have been controversial was completely off the charts and not part of my portfolio.

    What was your observation about how he handled the realities of politics in Washington during that first couple of years?

    You know, I don't think of myself as sufficiently experienced politically to know how one might have done it better. I mean, it is clear from the outside that he was confronting a much more implacable foe than anyone would have imagined and that his attempts at finding common ground, at achieving compromise were rebuffed quite harshly. Whether he could have taken a harder stand and pushed harder and achieved more is unclear.

    But if you look back, he's really achieved a great deal both in terms of avoiding a massive depression, in terms of rescuing the auto industry, in terms of ending Don't Ask Don't Tell, in terms of any number of things that are of great importance to progressives and to the middle class in America. And it's very hard for me, having been sitting in the Justice Department, to imagine what could anyone have done better.

    It's much easier to be a Monday morning quarterback and say: "He's disappointing. He was the great hope, and it turns out that there were so many compromises." But I always think when people say that, what would you have done, and would it really have worked? I think he's really accomplished a great deal and will accomplish more when, as I hope he is, he is re-elected. ...

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    [Do you have any thoughts on Obama's relationship to the current Supreme Court?]

    I think President Obama has recognized that through many periods of American history, an active Supreme Court, a Supreme Court that was willing to get ahead of the curve of public opinion in cases like Brown v. Board of Education and probably as well in Roe v. Wade was exactly what the country needed. One could argue, and the president at times did argue about whether the court did it exactly the right way, but the court as an important actor in moving things forward has been part of his vision.

    But his vision is a subtle enough one to recognize that there are times when the court's principal role is to defer to the political branches, when our core constitutional values are values that can best be implemented by those who are elected by the people. I think he believes that profoundly about campaign finance reform, he believes it profoundly about health care reform, that these are not areas in which our deepest values are challenged by what the popularly elected branches are doing.

    That's why he reacted so strongly against Citizens United. That's why I think he would react so strongly against an invalidation of Obamacare, because these are not areas in which Congress has really compromised our core values and in which the court needs to be at the front lines. And when he said it would be an unprecedented thing for the Supreme Court to strike down this law, he didn't mean it would be unprecedented for the Supreme Court to play an active role in bringing about social and economic justice and racial justice and gender justice. He meant it was unprecedented for the court on behalf of values that are not really the core values of the American people to get in the way in the efforts of the American people to govern themselves effectively. ...

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