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In Februay of 1990 Barack Obama  was elected president of the Harvard Law Review (HLW). He was 27 and his selection as the first African American to preside over the the most prestigious legal review in the United States brought him to national attention.

Here is how the N.Y.Times reported the event:

The Harvard Law Review, generally considered the most prestigious in the country, elected the first black president in its 104-year history today. The job is considered the highest student position at Harvard Law School.

The new president of the Review is Barack Obama, a 28-year-old graduate of Columbia University who spent four years heading a community development program for poor blacks on Chicago's South Side before enrolling in law school. His late father, Barack Obama, was a finance minister in Kenya and his mother, Ann Dunham, is an American anthropologist now doing fieldwork in Indonesia. Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii.

Here is how Obama himself commented  about his selection:

"The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," Mr. Obama said today in an interview."It's encouraging, but it's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance," he said, alluding to poverty or growing up in a drug environment

"I personally am interested in pushing a strong minority perspective. I'm fairly opinionated about this. But as president of the law review, I have a limited role as only first among equals."

Law reviews, which are edited by students, play a double role at law schools, providing a chance for students to improve their legal research and writing, and at the same time offering judges and scholars a forum for new legal arguments.Under his tenure, the Review published calls to expand the powers of women, African-Americans and the elderly to sue for discrimination.

A link to the front cover pages of the eight volumes:

Here is what some people who knew Barack during his years as the President of the HLR have had to say about that experience:

CarolPlattLiebau, first female president of HLR:

"Certainly, Barack and I were hardly best friends; he was a year ahead of me at Harvard Law School (and six years older) when we met the summer that I became a newly-minted editor of the Harvard Law Review. But we did work together for some time, and he reached out to advise me when I became the first female Managing Editor in the Review’s history.

He’s colorblind. When Barack became the first African-American President of The Harvard Law Review, it was big news. More radical black Review editors urged him not only to take controversial stands on a whole host of racial issues – they also pressured him to use his discretion to elevate black students to leadership positions within the organization. Barack declined to do so; though his choices were often left-wing (as, in fairness, was much of theReview’s membership), they weren’t race-conscious.

He’s self-confident. Even at age 29, Barack Obama had the self-possession and confidence of a much older man – a quality that, at times, manifested itself in amusing ways. At law school, he had apparently been urged by several professors to call them by their first names – and it was a prerogative he wasn’t shy about exercising, even in front of other students who hadn’t received the same invitation. He projected an air of self-assurance amid controversy,and always radiated an unshakable air of confidence in himself and his decisions

He listens. Certainly, Barack is a liberal’s liberal, and his leadership of The Harvard Law Review in many ways reflected that fact. But unlike many of his left-wing compatriots, he treated his ideological adversaries with respect on a personal level. Indeed, he always offered the small conservative contingent on the Review a hearing, even though his decision-making consistently showed that he hadn’t ultimately been influenced by their arguments.

Michael W. McConnell contributed to an article in one of Obama;s HLR issues on religion: A Politico article reports on McConnell’s impressions:

Once a piece is set, the president also sends a letter or fax and makes a follow-up phone call to each author. Federal Judge Michael W. McConnell, who was nominated by President Bush and has frequently been mentioned as one of Bush’s potential Supreme Court nominees, recalls receiving one such letter and call in early 1990 for his article "The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion."

McConnell told Politico, "A frequent problem with student editors is that they try to turn an article into something they want it to be. It was striking that Obama didn’t do that. He tried to make it better from my point of view." McConnell was impressed enough to urge the University of Chicago Law School to seek Obama out as an academic prospect.

While the title and election have become well-known parts of Obama's personal story, the substance of his actual work on the Review, where Obama  spent  more than 50 hours a week preparing the eight issues.                      

During this pressure packed  part of his life he never lost his sense of humor.On one occasion he stepped between fellow editors who were disagreeing on a topic, reminding them," Just remember, folks. Nobody reads it."

The eight dense volumes produced during his time in charge there — 2,083 pages in all — show the Review to have been a decidedly liberal institution, albeit one in transition as its focus on race and gender was contested by liberals and conservatives alike. Under his tenure, the Review published calls to expand the powers of women, African-Americans and the elderly to sue for discrimination

Obama was already showing that he could not easily be restricted to conservative, non-controversial issues. He selected a young woman from a non-Ivy League law school to fill one of the Review’s most prestigious slots, she produced an essay focused as much on individual responsibilities as on liberties, criticizing both conservative judges and feminist scholars.

From the Politico article already referenced above:

Robin West, now a professor and associate dean at Georgetown Law Center ,said to Politico.

"I was very surprised and honored to receive the invitation, of course, as I was teaching at Maryland Law School at the time, and the Foreword typically is extended to more established scholars at ‘top’ law schools," Robin West, now a professor and associate dean at Georgetown Law Center ,said to Politico.

West worked closely with Obama on her piece, she said, remembering him as gracious and helpful, if a bit polite and even formal: "He would always ask first about my baby," she recalled.

If the editor and author — a black man and a woman — were an unconventional team for the Review, however, West's article challenged the then-prevailing wisdom in a different way, taking as its touchstone the work of Czech freedom fighter Vaclav Havel and the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe that were then still under way. Havel had written that the citizen’s sense of responsibility — not just of individual rights — was essential to political liberty, and West applied that critique to contemporary liberalism to argue that goals such as tolerance and diversity might in fact be "weakened, not strengthened, by taking rights so 'super-seriously' that we come to stop examining our sense of responsibility."

Obama beat out 18 other contenders to become the president of HLR. His duties included leading discussions and debates to determine what to print from the mountain of submissions from judges, scholars and authors from across the country, supervising the thorough editing of each issue's contents .

The Sydney Morning Herald published an informative article about Obama and HLR recently in which they commented: about the difficulty in even obtaining copies of the eight volumes during Obama’s period of involvement .

Geoffrey Robertson authored the Morning Herald and offers the most detailed opinions I was able to find for this diary:

It was a worthy beginning and earned him an affectionate impersonation in that year's Harvard Law Revue. ("In Chicago I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since").

The 1990-91 legal term was an unsettling and unsettled time. Justice William Brennan, architect of Supreme Court activism (for example, The New York Times v Sullivan) had just retired, and Obama's volume begins with a tribute to him from Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black judge. William Rehnquist now held the reins, and Reagan and George snr appointees were in the majority: the candle of liberal jurisprudence, burning bright in classrooms inspired by the philosophy of Ronald Dworkin, was beginning to tremble.

Volume 104 is full of civil liberty issues (Obama had been an editor of the previous year's Civil Liberties Review) and full of apprehension lest Dworkin's moral theories would cut no ice with the likes of Justice Scalia. The first major article (solicited, it was noted with surprise, from a non-ivy league professor) analysed the philosophy of Vaclav Havel and argued that his "individual responsibility" approach might be better suited to protecting freedom than Dworkin's appeals to individual rights.

Volume 104 exhibits a refreshing interest in foreign cases (some Republican justices regard the citation of British court decisions as tantamount to treason) and there is a contrast between Stephen Sedley's views on the need to censor hate speech and the ACLU's support for the right of racist utterance.

Barack Obama leaves no byline in this volume, but as president he would have been responsible for selecting the topic of the major student disquisition: a 180-page analysis of the need for new law to protect the environment. Introduced with quotes from Chekov, U Thant and the Grateful Dead, this closely argued segment appears prescient today: it was produced long before climate change became topical, and its advocacy of "green helmets" and extra-territorial law enforcement against corporate polluters is more relevant than ever.

There is a scathing dismissal of a book by Roy Grutman, a great courtroom advocate ("money is what makes his legal world go round") reminiscent of Obama's later comments that law "is a sort of glorified accounting that seems to regulate the affairs of those who have power". I strongly suspect his contribution to the last and best article in Volume 104, titled Talking of Unconscionable Niggers.

There is an acidic review of a biography of Frederick Douglass, the slave who became a formidable orator for abolition and later a respected public servant (the title is a quoted reaction to Douglass's modest request to be paid for his services). The review notes how most white abolitionists (including Lincoln) were opposed to equal rights for freed slaves, and severely criticises the author (a white historian) for failing to notice black women.

Obama himself graduated Magna cum Laude from Harvard.He could have taken a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm, or a year's clerkship with a Supreme Court judge followed by an even more highly paid job. Instead he returned to community work for a small firm in Chicago that specialised in housing, welfare and employment and that billed him out at a modest $167 an hour. For all his rhetorical genius he never tried a case, preferring the solicitor's work of researching briefs and preparing witness statements. His clients were whistle-blowers and NGOs anxious to use the law to assist the registration of voters who were poor and black and mainly Democrat.

I have no summation or personal opinions. I am publishing this diary as an informative work that may broaden the inventory we can use to define our candidate in the months ahead.

Originally posted to irrationalbutsane on Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 12:37 PM PDT.

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