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Obama Made A Strong First Impression At Harvard

While a student at Harvard Law School, Barack Obama became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. (AP)

From now until November, President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney will emphasize their differences. But the two men's lives actually coincide in a striking number of ways. In this installment of NPR's "Parallel Lives" series, a look at Obama's time at their shared alma mater.

Harvard professor Laurence Tribe is a sort of legal rock star, particularly among liberals. First-year law students he has never met don't just show up at his door saying, "I want to work for you." At least they didn't until March 31, 1989.

Tribe recently retrieved his daily calendar from that year and pointed to the entry for the last day in March. Just above reminders for "Haircut?" and "Write US Atty," it says, "11 am: Barack Obama (1L)," indicating that this was a first-year law student.

"And then it has a phone number, which I guess is his dorm room," Tribe pointed out, "and there's an exclamation point next to it."

That was to remind Tribe how impressed he was by this skinny kid in jeans, a sweatshirt and an afro.

He seemed to know who he was, be very grounded.
Harvard classmate Ken Mack

Obama's Harvard Law School education set him on a path to national prominence. And although likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sometimes attacks Obama for having "spent too much time at Harvard," the school is one thing the men have in common.

Obama arrived on the law school campus 20 years after Romney earned a joint degree from the law school and the business school.

Like Romney, Obama was older than the typical student. While Romney spent time as a Mormon missionary in France before Harvard, Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago. When Obama arrived on campus, Tribe says it was clear that "he wanted to make a difference. He wanted to learn how the system worked."

Finding Common Ground

Their first conversation lasted hours, and Obama went on to work for Tribe on articles and books, including one called Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.

Tribe recalls that his research assistant tried to find a way out of deeply entrenched lines of the abortion debate, focusing instead on education and access to birth control. "It's as though he was looking not just for a point in the middle of a spectrum, but for a line that was perpendicular, so that one could get outside the tragic choice."

The two have remained close, with Tribe serving as a mentor and informal adviser to the president over the years.

Professor Charles Ogletree plays a similar role in Obama's life. In 1989, Ogletree taught a non-credit Saturday course to give first-year students a basic set of skills in law school.

Ogletree remembers the student who always arrived on time, sat in the front row, and was professorial almost to a fault. After answering the question, Obama would say, "But Al, who talked earlier, had a very good point when he said X. And Sarah, I think she really captured it when she said Y. And if you think about Latoya, her analysis was ..." at which point Ogletree would interject, "Barack, I'm teaching this class, not you!"

That might sound like the arrogance Obama is sometimes accused of, but to Ogletree it sounded like this student was trying to bring everyone into the conversation.

Bridge-Builder And Trash Talker

Even then, classmate Ken Mack recalls, Obama stood apart. Mack is now a professor at Harvard Law School and author of the book Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.

"He seemed to know who he was, be very grounded," says Mack. There was no sign of the kid people used to call "Barry."

"If you would've told me that someone had called him Barry, I would have been surprised. Barry is a little bit diminutive — that would not have fit him at all," Mack says.

After class on the basketball court, a whole different personality emerged. The conciliating bridge-builder was replaced by the trash-talker with a left-handed jump shot.

Obama played every chance he could get, including on the black law students' association team.

One day the team agreed to play Walpole prison. Obama was the starting center, standing face to face with his much bigger opponent.

"And so Barack started the game by the usual embracing, good luck, what are you in here for?" says Ogletree. The inmate replied, "Double murder."

"Barack played no defense at all that game. Didn't shoot any of his traditional jump shots," says Ogletree, laughing. "That's the only time that Barack Obama, in my knowledge, didn't talk trash, either then or now, about basketball."

Taking The Lead

By the end of Obama's second year, his academic record and reputation had qualified him to run for one of the most prestigious roles at the law school — president of the Harvard Law Review.

The review editors were a partisan, contentious group. Classmate Brad Berenson remembers the guy from Hawaii who floated above the fray. "One of the enduring images I have of him is of a guy in jeans and a leather jacket, Jimmy Dean style, standing out in front of Gannett House smoking a cigarette."

Berenson was one of the conservatives, and in a long, contentious election, his group ultimately supported Obama's candidacy.

"They did that in part because they had a sense that he was more open-minded and would listen to the conservatives, and would value and accept their contributions in a way that some of the other candidates would not," says Berenson, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and is now a member of Romney's justice advisory committee.

The conservatives' intuition turned out to be correct, says Berenson. "He ended up upsetting many more of his colleagues on the far left than those of us who were on the right, in part because the bottom line for him as president of the law review always remained putting out a first-class publication."

'An Honest Grade'

Being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review had perks. Obama received national media attention and a book deal. By the time he was ready to leave Cambridge, Mass., every door was open to him.

Mack, Obama's classmate, remembers walking back from Harvard Square getting a bite to eat with his friend. "Everyone knew he could clerk for the Supreme Court, get a high-paying law firm job, at least make a lot of money for a couple of years before he went off and did something else," Mack says. "And he said that he had decided that he wasn't going to clerk, and he wanted to go back to Chicago and just get started in the work that he wanted to do with his life."

In Chicago, the newly minted lawyer with a Harvard degree returned to community organizing work, and eventually a political career.

Ogletree never imagined that his student would become the first African-American in the Oval Office. "My assessment was ... that he was going to be the best damn mayor that we've ever seen in history."

Obama recently joked about that assessment with his old friend and mentor, asking, "Man, why did you downgrade me?"

Ogletree replied: "It wasn't a downgrade. It was an honest grade."

In a previous part of the "Parallel Lives" series, Ari Shapiro explored Mitt Romney's years at Harvard.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We can now tell you with some precision the results of this fall's election. Whatever else may happen, Americans are now very likely to elect a president from Harvard.

Twenty years after Mitt Romney received a joint law and business degree from Harvard, Barack Obama arrived on campus as a first year law student. The candidate's common educational background is the latest subject of our series Parallel Lives.

Last night, NPR's Ari Shapiro reported on Romney's time at Harvard, and now he looks at President Obama's.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Professor Laurence Tribe is kind of a legal rock star, especially among liberals. First-year law students he has never met don't just show up at his door saying, I want to work for you. At least they didn't until the spring of 1989.

LAURENCE TRIBE: All right, so this is my desk calendar from 1989. And on March 31st, it says 11 AM, Barack Obama, 1L. And there's an exclamation point next to it. And then...

SHAPIRO: That was to remind Tribe how impressive this skinny kid in jeans, a sweatshirt, and an afro was. Their first conversation lasted hours, and they went on to work together on articles and books, including one called, "Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes." Tribe says the young Obama tried to find a way out of deeply entrenched lines of the abortion debate.

TRIBE: It's as though he was looking not just for a point in the middle of a spectrum, but for a line that was perpendicular, so that one could get outside the tragic choice.

SHAPIRO: Tribe has remained a mentor and informal advisor to the president over the years.

Professor Charles Ogletree plays a similar role in Mr. Obama's life. Even in a non-credit Saturday course, Ogletree remembers the guy who always arrived on time, sat on the front row, and was professorial, almost to a fault. That student would start by answering the question...

CHARLES OGLETREE: But he would say, but, you know, and Al, who talked earlier, had a very good point when he said X. And Sarah, I think she really captured it when she said Y. And if you think about Latoya, her analysis was - I said, Barack, I'm teaching this class, not you, right?

SHAPIRO: That might sound like the arrogance Obama is sometimes accused of. To Ogletree, it seemed like he was trying to bring everyone into the conversation. After class, on the basketball court, a whole different personality came out. The conciliating bridge builder was replaced by the trash-talker with a left-handed jump shot - except for one time. The Black Law Students Association basketball team agreed to play Walpole.

OGLETREE: Walpole was not a high school, not a college. It's not a university. It's a prison.

SHAPIRO: Barack Obama was the starting center. He stood face to face with the guy on the other team who was taller and much bigger.

OGLETREE: And so Barack started the game by the usual embracing and good luck. What are you in here for? And the guy said double murder. Barack played no defense at all that game, didn't shoot any of his traditional jump shots that game. That's the only time that Barack Obama, in my knowledge, didn't talk trash, either then or now, about basketball.

SHAPIRO: By the end of his second year, he was in a position to run for one of the most prestigious roles at the law school: president of the Law Review. The review editors were a partisan, contentious group, where classmate Brad Berenson remembers the guy from Hawaii who floated above the fray.

BRAD BERENSON: One of the enduring images I have of him is, you know, of a guy in jeans and a leather jacket, Jimmy Dean-style, standing out in front of Gannett House smoking a cigarette.

SHAPIRO: Berenson was one of the conservatives, and in a long, contentious election, his group ultimately threw its support behind Barack Obama's candidacy.

BERENSON: And they did that in part because they had a sense that he was more open-minded and would listen to the conservatives, and would value and accept their contributions in a way that some of the other candidates would not.

SHAPIRO: That sense turned out to be accurate, says Berenson, who worked in the George W. Bush White House, and is now advising Mitt Romney's campaign.

BERENSON: He ended up upsetting many more of his colleagues on the far left than those of us who were on the right, in part because the bottom line for him as president of the law review always remained putting out a first-class publication.

SHAPIRO: Being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review had its perks. Barack Obama received national media attention and a book deal. And by the time he was ready to leave Cambridge, every door was open to him. Classmate Ken Mack, who now teaches at Harvard Law, remembers walking back from Harvard Square, getting a bite to eat with his friend.

KEN MACK: Everyone knew he could clerk for the Supreme Court, get a high-paying law firm job, at least make a lot of money for a couple of years. And he said that he had decided that he wanted to go back to Chicago and just get started in the work that he wanted to do with his life.

SHAPIRO: In Chicago, the new graduate returned to community organizing work, and ultimately a political career. Professor Charles Ogletree never imagined that his student would become the first African-American in the White House.

OGLETREE: My assessment was that he was going to be the best damn mayor that we've ever seen in history. And he sort of joked about that. He said, man, why did you downgrade me? I said it wasn't a downgrade. It was an honest grade.

SHAPIRO: An honest grade, but not an accurate one. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: You hear Ari and the rest of NPR's election team on this local public radio station. Thanks for listening. You can also follow MORNING EDITION throughout the day. Online, we're on Facebook, where you can subscribe. We're also on Twitter. You can find us @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRInskeep. You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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