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The Real Obama

Missing in action.

11:00 PM, Nov 5, 2007 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN MY PREVIOUS PROFESSIONAL life, I had reason to be in contact with dozens of Barack Obama's classmates at Harvard Law School. When he entered the presidential race, I dusted off my Rolodex and began making some calls to get the off-the-record skinny on the Democrats' potential savior.

The results surprised me. Regardless of his classmates' politics, they all said pretty much the same thing. They adored him. The only thing that varied was the intensity with which they adored him. Some spoke like they were eager to bear his children. And those were the guys. Others merely professed a profound fondness and respect for their former classmate.

Even more interesting was what wasn't said. In dozens of conversations, not a single person said anything negative about him, and some were hardly the senator's political fellow travelers. Also noteworthy is that virtually everyone seemed to know Obama. Usually people who have such a high profile on law school campuses have their detractors. Obama apparently didn't.

This general attitude regarding Obama is even more remarkable given how well he performed at Harvard Law School. Obama graduated there in 1991. As many people know, he was president of the Harvard Law Review. This accomplishment, for those who know how such things work, was easy to minimize. Generally, you earned admission to the Law Review because of a distinguished academic performance in your first year. But there were some members who got on the Law Review because they wrote good essays as part of their application process and in spite of mediocre grades. A notable subset of this latter category was minority students; a politically correct institution, the Law Review cared about diversity in its ranks.

This was an unacknowledged form of affirmative action, but just because the Law Review didn't acknowledge it didn't mean law firms would follow suit. Membership on the Law Review basically meant that you were one of Harvard's smartest students. Unless you got there for some reason other than your grades. In those cases, hiring authorities would usually dismiss your Law Review membership, although they would never admit to doing so.

The only reason I bring this barely relevant history up is to show what a stud of a law student Barack Obama was. He graduated Harvard magna cum laude. This was one honor you unquestionably had to earn. It's a very impressive feat. Back in Obama's days at Harvard, more than 50 percent of the class graduated cum laude, a fact that made graduating "with honors" a meaningless accomplishment. But graduating magna was a different kettle of fish. Barack Obama graduated right near the top of his law school class.

That fact, along with his presidency of the Law Review, makes his uniform popularity all the more impressive. Law schools are intensely competitive places. People who thrive to an unseemly extent, as Obama did, are usually subject to an array of resentments. After all, the lawyers of tomorrow populate law schools; pettiness and insecurity reign supreme.

The people that Obama so thoroughly charmed generally weren't the charm-prone types. I say the following as a well known Republican partisan--the fact that his classmates so universally held him in the highest regard suggests that Barack Obama may truly be a special person.

ALL OF WHICH MAKES his campaign's ineptness more mysterious. Yes, Obama gives a great speech; I think we can all agree on that. But whatever special qualities that so impressed those who knew him back in the day haven't translated to the realm of wholesale politics.

One can only theorize why this is so, but I have a solid hunch. The law school version of Obama was by all accounts a consummate alpha dog. He was a few years older than most of his classmates, and in law school those years mean a lot; they often translate into an inordinate difference in confidence and maturity compared to the students who went straight to law school from undergrad. Given the kind of hard-core community organizing that Obama was doing, the difference between him and even most of his classmates who also took some time between undergrad and law school was probably significant. He was getting fascinating life experience; they for the most part were doing more mundane things like consulting or experiencing the horrors of being a paralegal at a big law firm.

On the campaign trail, however, Obama comes across as the opposite of an alpha male. In the fight for the Democratic nomination, that role has fallen to Hillary Clinton. Obama is reminiscent of another extremely impressive man who fell flat as a wholesale politician--Admiral James Stockdale. Like Stockdale, Obama doesn't seem exactly sure of who he is or what he's doing running for president.