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Sunday, January 28, 2007

"It's more like electing a pope."

That's how a former Harvard Law Review editor desribes the process of electing the Review's editor-in-chief.  In an article in today's N.Y. Times, Jodi Kantor looks at the law school career of Barack Obama, who was elected to be the Review's EIC.  The article uses Obama's law school experience as a frame for looking at Obama's current political persona, which is very consensus-driven but, according to some, lacking in potentially controversial specifics.

The article is also interesting as a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of HLR in the early 1990s.  Obama's efforts to allay tensions on campus are frequently invoked.  One former editor is quoted: "I have worked in the Supreme Court and the White House and I never saw politics as bitter as at Harvard Law Review in the early'90s."  Obama's ability to listen and make everyone believe he agreed with them was critical to his successful navigation of this contentious terrain.  The process of electing the EIC is discussed in detail, with its all day session considering 19 candidates (even Pound Hall is mentioned).  A parody of Obama from the now defunct Harvard Law Revue is excerpted.  The parody describes Obama as "the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman" and "a backup singer for Abba" -- after going to Chicago, "[t]here I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since."  (Questions about Obama's "blackness" were raised recently by Debra Dickerson, a member of HLS '95, in an article in Salon.)  The Revue's willingness to flaunt norms of political correctness and civility would result in its demise a short time later.

The article highlights an interesting issue -- the extent to which law school and law review activities are part of one's "public" persona.  In some senses, Obama first became a public figure when he was elected as the Review's first African-American EIC.  But the business of a law review is generally some mixture of academic publication and collegiate social club.  I have a sense, at least, that some of the Review's heady mix of politics should not be subject to national exposure and dissection.  After all, it's a group of 80 or so law students -- folks who are still figuring out how to approach their professional lives.  No doubt, it's interesting stuff.  But I fear that "Above the Law" profiles of law review banquets may not be far behind.

Posted by Matt Bodie on January 28, 2007 at 11:23 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I thought this article constituted an unfair criticism of Obama.

Posted by: nitin | Jan 28, 2007 4:32:02 PM

The story's author, Kantor, briefly attended Harvard Law in the late '90s (though she was not on the Law Review).

Posted by: AEDPA | Jan 28, 2007 3:19:39 PM

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