Barack Obama's election in 1990 s the first black president of the Harvard Law Review gave him his first moment of national fame, a powerful intellectual credential and a sweet book deal. It was also his first electoral victory, won in part by convincing the conservative minority of law students that he would treat them fairly.
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 he spent at least 50 hours a week, has received little attention.
Obama might have had it right while he was running the journal, when he reportedly ended minor disputes with the words, "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.
But Obama, who this March referred to "identity politics" as "an enormous distraction," was not so easily pinned down. He published a searing attack on affirmative action, written by a former Reagan administration official. And when, in an unusual move, 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.
"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, wrote in an e-mail to Politico. While other articles are selected by the Review's editors as a group, the Foreword is solicited by a smaller band led by the Review's president.