Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bam Bam!

Obama’s legacy at Harvard

Obama’s win has made having “brains” sexy again, shares another Harvard graduate. Americans have picked someone who is a clear intellectual, rejecting the perception that politicians who were too intellectual were out of touch with ordinary Americans.

IN one of the large classrooms in Austin Hall, the oldest building at Harvard Law School, a professor was giving an introductory lecture on American legal education to the 150-odd students who made up the incoming Master of Laws (LL.M.) Class of 2008.

It was late August 2007, and already there was a buzz of excitement in the air generated by the race for the United States presidential elections in 2008 as candidates from both parties started to gear up for the upcoming primaries.

Model student: File picture of Obama holding a copy of the Harvard Law Review while at the Harvard Law School. – AP

The terms of the contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination were already clearly being framed by its two frontrunners: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (with John Edwards a struggling third).

Wryly, the Harvard Law School professor remarked to the LL.M. candidates from over 66 countries how, unlike some other countries with dynastic successions, it would be unthinkable in the United States to have power concentrated in the hands of two families for 20 years: a tongue-in-cheek observation of the Bush-Clinton-Bush administration. However, he declared, there would be no more Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton (again) succession.

“The next President of the United States is going to come from this very classroom!” he declared. “The future President sat right here. Right on the very seats that you are sitting on now.”

I was sitting in one of those seats. Harvard Law School is an exciting place to be under any circumstance, but the charged political climate leading up to the 2008 elections made it particularly absorbing. It is, after all, Obama’s alma mater: the site where he had left such an impression and which, in turn, had left a lasting impact on him.

As the New York Times put it, Harvard Law School was where Obama “found political voice.” It would be at this institution that Obama would begin to make news as the first black to create a historical precedent by becoming president of the Harvard Law Review, the most prestigious student position at the law school.

Legal institutions in America, particularly those in the East, tend to lean heavily towards the liberal side. The sentiments in Massachusetts’s premier law school were bound to be predominantly Democratic in any event. But Obama’s legacy at Harvard gave the presidential race an almost personal element.

Professors who had taught Obama while he was at Harvard (from 1988 to 1991) were still at the law school and could speak from experience of their encounter with the 27-year-old black community organiser from Chicago. Professor Lawrence Tribe, a Supreme Court advocate and one of Harvard’s best-known Constitutional Law professors, in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, called him “the most impressive and talented of the thousands of students I have been privileged to teach in nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty.”

The law school’s active fora meant that throughout the year activities were being organised by various student groups (HLS for Obama, HLS for Clinton, HLS Democrats, the Federalist Society): talks, lectures, campaign activities, organised trips to political rallies, and big screen viewings of the Clinton-Obama debates (with food provided).

For me, however, the vibrancy in the atmosphere largely came from less formal sources: debates with a classmate about the future of the American Presidency during a Boston Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park; Clinton supporters arguing about gender discrimination at a sex equality course taught by Prof Catherine MacKinnon (one of the most prominent feminist scholars in the States); Facebook postings by friends whenever a political event intrigued them; classmates signing up to knock on doors in order to canvass support in surrounding areas; and passionate discussions in seminars.

The stimulating atmosphere was not confined only to the law school. In the “Press, Politics and Public Policy” class, for which I cross-registered at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, debates were frequent and often heated.

In one discussion, a classmate, who had a huge John Edwards ’08 emblazoned across his laptop, voiced his grievances at Edwards being unfairly neglected by the press, which was obsessed with the Clinton-Obama saga.

The Obama phenomenon Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the election year also meant that I had opportunities to experience the phenomenon first hand. And so, I found myself standing in the snow during a Boston winter waiting in line to be let into an Obama rally in order to hear him speak. Snowflakes were falling heavily, but the volunteers and supporters were undaunted; while waiting, one the volunteers started the famous chant used at so many Obama rallies..

“Fired up?” he hollered. “Ready to go!” Came back the enthusiastic shout from the crowd bundled up in thick coats and scarves, kicking the snow from their boots.

As we walked into the large hall, Stevie Wonders’ Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours blasted from speakers on the wall, giving the place an exuberant, even festive feel. I was given a place to stand at the very front of a balcony directly overlooking the stage.

As Obama walked onto the stage just a few feet below me to more loud music and even louder cheers, I had an unfettered viewpoint of the senator as well as the sea of people in front of him. The rally was a motivational-style speech: if you had come wanting to hear specifics about his stand on certain matters, you would have been disappointed. (“We need change!” Roars of approval from the crowd. “We need better healthcare! We need tax reform!” More roars.)

One thing was clear, however: the crowd loved it. A friend who had come with me shared none of my desire to have more details. “That was awesome. So inspiring,” he declared. Such infectious enthusiasm was the hallmark of Obama supporters. Obama’s themes of hope and change had created a general sense of optimism and buoyancy among those who believed in his message.

It manifested itself in various ways: volunteers willing to give up their weekend to knock on the doors of strangers, trying to rally supporters for Obama over dinner, or through the way faces simply lit up whenever Obama appeared on television.

I was having lunch with a close friend of mine at the law school cafeteria when Obama flashed across the high definition screen on the cafeteria wall.

Her response was instantaneous. “O-Bam-Ma! O-Bam-Ma! Bam Bam! Bam Bam!” She squealed excitedly. “Who calls him Bam Bam?” I asked, half-amused.

“I call him Bam Bam!” she said. In a tribute to Obama’s likeability factor, she continued, “I just feel like hugging him every time I see him. I look at him and go ‘Aww, let’s go help him fight for change’.”

Appointment of judges Obama’s historic victory to become the first black President of the United States is particularly interesting for those in legal institutions. One of the most significant implications will be the effect of Obama’s presidency on the appointment of United States Supreme Court justices. The ability of the Supreme Court to declare acts as constitutional or unconstitutional with a five-four majority gives it immense power to shape the legal landscape of the entire country on issues as controversial as abortion rights, gay marriage, the death penalty, and gun control.

The current slant of the court is generally conservative, with the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito in 2006 by Bush’s Republican administration making up a majority of five conservative justices. Obama is likely to have the opportunity to appoint two new justices; Justice John Paul Stevens, 88, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 75, are expected to retire soon.

In rebalancing the liberal-conservative tilt of the court, Obama will draw on his legal background and experience as a Constitutional Law professor at the University of Chicago. Democrats and liberals across America doubtless drew a breath of relief that the composition of the court will no longer be in the hands of another Republican government, a situation that would doubtless have sealed the conservative stamp of the Supreme Court for decades to come.

Another significance of Obama’s win, particularly after the McCain-Palin campaign, is that brains are sexy again.

Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times wrote that the “remarkable” thing about Obama’s election is that Americans have picked someone who is a clear intellectual, rejecting the perception that politicians who were seen as too intellectual were portrayed as out of touch with ordinary Americans (Bush’s government was an illustration of an “anti-intellectualism administration”).

Harvard Law School’s intellectual elites loved Obama (magna cum laude, Harvard Law Review president): he was intelligent and had the appeal of being different. The question was whether Obama possessed the ability to appeal to the rest of America – the Joe Six Packs and Joe the Plumbers that McCain’s campaign had targeted – who wanted a candidate who was likeable as well as simply intellectual.

On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, after a feverish wait for the electoral votes to be called, Obama’s name flashed as the President-elect of the United States. History was made. His appeal transcended intellectual and racial barriers: battlegrounds states like Ohio, Indiana, Florida, even North Carolina, all called for Obama. The message from the people was clear: “Let’s go help him fight for change.”

In the intense excitement of the moment, I sent a message to my friends: “Bam Bam won!”

Yvonne Tew ( graduated from Harvard Law School in 2008 with a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree and read Law as an undergraduate in the University of Cambridge from 2004-2007. She enjoys passionately arguing about a wide range of issues.

Article approved and endorsed by the original Bam Bam.

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