Early on, Obama showed talent for bridging divisions

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama’s entry into politics came on a winter morning at the white-columned Harvard Law Review building when, about 2 a.m., a deeply divided editorial staff chose him as the first African American to lead the prestigious publication.

It was no small accomplishment. Obama, who at nearly 30 was older and more world-wise than most of his classmates, had to navigate among sharply drawn factions of conservatives and liberals to beat 18 other candidates for the job.

Today, Obama’s weighing of a bid for the White House has provoked questions about whether he has the experience to build a winning coalition of voters. But at Harvard Law Review he showed that -- on a much smaller scale -- he had the savvy to maneuver through turbulent political waters.

“The Harvard Law Review was a place of petty and vicious internal politics,” said Brad Berenson, an editorial board member with Obama and, more recently, an associate counsel to President Bush.

“Compared to Washington and the White House and the Supreme Court, the Harvard Law Review was much more politically vicious,” Berenson said. “The conservatives threw their support to Obama because he could bridge the gap between both camps and retain the trust and confidence of both.”

Whether Obama can reprise his role as political bridge-builder remains to be seen. Now a Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, he plans to announce a decision Feb. 10 about the 2008 campaign -- though most observers believe that he is in the race.

The son of a racially mixed marriage, Obama did not present himself at Harvard as either a black candidate or a white candidate. He gained the respect of the law review’s famously divided factions by listening to all sides.

Former staffer Michael Froman, now a corporate executive who has supported Democratic presidential candidates, agreed that when Obama led the law review in 1990 and 1991, much of the staff’s right wing “felt comfortable” with Obama, even those in the conservative Federalist Society.

“It’s funny,” Froman said, “but it’s the same thing I hear now from some conservative friends of mine -- not that they agree with him on policy, but that they feel he hears them out. Unlike some of the firebrands on both the left and the right, he was just a very good listener.”

Interviews with more than a dozen people associated with the law review, both liberals and conservatives, found no one who did not profess respect for Obama.

The law review was housed in a three-story Greek Revival structure that once had been a private home. The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau occupied the first floor, leaving the cluttered upper stories for the review. The top level, or attic, became the review’s law library, its desks and tomes stacked under the sloping roof. The house invoked chaos.

Obama entered that disheveled world in the fall of 1988, already distinct from most of his classmates.

He did not come to Cambridge, Mass., directly from an undergraduate program; he had spent several years doing community work in Chicago. He was not among the privileged or Ivy League legacies. He had turned down a full-ride scholarship at New York University School of Law to attend Harvard. Classmate Cassandra Butts remembers first meeting Obama at the financial aid office.

Nor did Obama arrive with little life experience. He was born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia and later attended college in Los Angeles and New York. He had also traveled to Africa in search of his father’s roots in Kenya.

In his first year, he researched articles for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. He occasionally spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. He addressed a banquet for the Black Law Students Assn.

Professor Randall Kennedy recalled Obama’s theme: Don’t forget where you came from.

Classmate Tynia Richard called the speech “one of the most rousing and passionate addresses we heard.”

“Harvard was one of those places that can get petty politically,” said Richard, now a New York administrative law judge. “People put forth their own agendas, stretched and pressed their ideas in a variety of different ways.

“And he talked about the need to interact with different groups, to become engaged with one another.”

After students’ first year in law school, they compete for spots on the law review. They are selected by editors based on their writing and analytical skills. Each year, about 40 students in a class of 540 win spots on the review. Each winter the editors, second- and third-year students, gather to choose a president for the following year.

Obama competed in a field of 19 candidates, four of whom were black.

By tradition, the candidates spend the day cooking meals for the voters. After breakfast, the kitchen table is piled high with law articles the candidates have worked on. The articles are reviewed, and votes taken. As the day wears on, eliminated candidates join editors at the kitchen table for the next meal and round of voting.

In Obama’s case, the staff of about 80 conducted a marathon series of votes stretching about 17 hours. It was well past midnight when Obama finally bested David Goldberg.

“He was not a conventional politician,” said Goldberg, now a civil rights lawyer in New York. “He was thoughtful, and he listens. People came to appreciate that.”

Goldberg added, “I was happy to lose to him. I really wanted to be the articles editor.”

Kenneth W. Mack, now a law professor at Harvard, said Obama stood out from the beginning. “He seemed more mature,” Mack said. “Everyone understood he was a liberal. He didn’t hide that.

“We had opinions, and we argued. But he was always able to make common ground,” Mack said.

Under Obama’s presidency, the review tackled several delicate racial issues, including allegations that black males, or “invisible men,” were inadequately protected by civil rights laws, and the plight of black women giving birth to crack-addicted babies.

The review also panned a biography by a white writer about former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, saying not enough blacks were quoted.

Obama too was criticized at the time. Christine Lee Spurell, a black classmate who is now a public defender in Abingdon, Va., was upset he did not name other blacks to the law review’s masthead.

But today she believes he was trying to build the best staff. “He had to make hard decisions,” she said. “And he made them correctly.”