There is something profoundly surreal about having known someone like Barack Obama, whose political career has seen a meteoric rise that is the stuff of political fairytales. To turn on the television and see a once-familiar face grown slightly more mature, hear the same vocal intonations and note many of same personal characteristics – now all presented as elements of a “rock star” persona – is a strange experience.
Of course, with public acclaim of the kind Obama now enjoys comes a host of hangers-on, many eager to claim some “special relationship” with a famous person. Certainly, Barack and I were hardly best friends; he was a year ahead of me at Harvard Law School (and six years older) when we met the summer that I became a newly-minted editor of the Harvard Law Review. But we did work together for some time, and he reached out to advise me when I became the first female Managing Editor in the Review’s history.
Barack is a deeply committed liberal, and I am a proud conservative. Even so, he possesses five qualities that are genuinely praiseworthy -- political ideology aside:
He’s intelligent. Clearly, his achievements reveal that Barack Obama possesses intellectual credentials that would impress even the snootiest resume snob. But (perhaps more importantly) he also possesses street smarts. As Hillary Clinton can testify, he knows how to throw a punch as well as how to take one. He is able to size up people accurately. What’s more, he respects "real world" intelligence, a quality that’s all-too-rare among those with stellar academic records – but one that’s vital to someone in public life who must rely on the assistance of an extensive staff.
He’s colorblind. When Barack became the first African-American President of The Harvard Law Review, it was big news. More radical black Review editors urged him not only to take controversial stands on a whole host of racial issues – they also pressured him to use his discretion to elevate black students to leadership positions within the organization. Barack declined to do so; though his choices were often left-wing (as, in fairness, was much of the Review’s membership), they weren’t race-conscious.
He’s self-confident. Even at age 29, Barack Obama had the self-possession and confidence of a much older man – a quality that, at times, manifested itself in amusing ways. At law school, he had apparently been urged by several professors to call them by their first names – and it was a prerogative he wasn’t shy about exercising, even in front of other students who hadn’t received the same invitation. He projected an air of self-assurance amid controversy, and always radiated an unshakable air of confidence in himself and his decisions – qualities that are no doubt essential to making a run for the nation’s highest office as a relatively untried first term senator.
He listens. Certainly, Barack is a liberal’s liberal, and his leadership of The Harvard Law Review in many ways reflected that fact. But unlike many of his left-wing compatriots, he treated his ideological adversaries with respect on a personal level. Indeed, he always offered the small conservative contingent on the Review a hearing, even though his decision-making consistently showed that he hadn’t ultimately been influenced by their arguments.
He has a sense of humor. In May of 2006, I encountered Barack in the hall of the Russell Senate Office Building, surrounded by a gaggle of advisors. To my surprise, he hailed me over, teasingly referencing a spectacularly fashion-backward pair of horn-rimmed glasses I had often worn during Review days. I complimented his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and then, for some reason, felt it necessary to remind him that my praise was qualified by the fact that “of course I don’t agree with any of your policies.” With that, Barack simply threw back his head and laughed. Can anyone imagine Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or Howard Dean reacting that way?
No doubt it’s a long, long road to The White House, even for politicians with significantly more experience than Illinois' junior senator. But many of the qualities that he manifested during our joint tenure on The Harvard Law Review help explain why so many enthusiastically contemplate the prospect that Barack Obama's journey to the Oval Office will be both a short and a successful one.