By Jodi Kantor
The New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The peers who elected Barack Obama the first black president of the Harvard Law Review say he was a natural leader, an impressive student, a nice guy.
But in the 1990 Revue -- the graduating editors' gleeful parody of their elite publication -- they said quite a bit more.
"I was born in Oslo, Norway, the son of a Volvo factory worker and part-time ice fisherman," a mock self-tribute begins. "My mother was a backup singer for ABBA. They were good folks." In Chicago, "I discovered I was black, and I have remained so ever since."
After his election, the Faux-bama says, he united warring students into "a happy, cohesive folk," while "empowering all the folks out there in America who didn't know about me by giving a series of articulate and startlingly mature interviews to all the folks in the media."
The ribbing in the Revue suggests Obama was beginning to realize the power of his own biography.
In his memoirs and the biographical video on his Web site, his legal education is barely a blip, one of the least-known chapters. But for the Illinois Democrat who is all but certainly running for the presidency, Harvard was where he first became a political sensation.
He arrived as an unknown, Afro-wearing community organizer who spent years searching for his identity; by the time he left, he had his first national media exposure, a book contract and a shot of confidence from running the most powerful legal journal in the country.
Obama proved deft at navigating an institution scorched with ideological battles, many of which revolved around race. He developed a leadership style based more on furthering consensus than on imposing his own ideas. Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Obama cast himself as an eager listener.
Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind and because of that, even those close to him did not always know where he stood. It is a tendency that could prove perilous on the campaign trail, as voters, rivals and the media try to fix the positions of a senator with only two years in office.
"He then and now is very hard to pin down," said Kenneth Mack, a classmate and now a professor at the law school, referring to the senator's on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style.
Charles Ogletree, another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Obama's, said, "He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts."
Many of his former professors and classmates say they are cheering on Obama, 45, in his candidacy. But the skills he displayed in law school may not serve him as well in U.S. presidential politics, which sometimes rewards other qualities, such as delivering sound bites instead of deliberateness or fidelity to a base of supporters instead of compromise.
Obama declined to comment about his time at Harvard.
An elder statesman
He arrived at the law school in 1988, a graduate of Columbia University with a well-inked passport -- he had grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia, son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother -- and years of community organizing experience in Chicago, making him, at 27, an elder statesman among the students who had tested and term-papered their way straight there.
Obama spent much of his time alone, curtailing his dating life after his first summer, when he met his future wife, Harvard Law graduate Michelle Robinson, who was working in Chicago. He often played pickup basketball, replacing his deliberative off-court style with sharp elbows and aggressive grabs for the ball.
Along with 40-odd classmates, he won a precious spot on the law review at the end of his first year through grades and a writing competition. But the next year, when other students implored him to run for the presidency, he demurred; he wanted to return to community work in Chicago, he said, and the credential would be no help. Late in the process, he finally agreed, saying he might be uniquely able to heal the review's partisan divisions.
The election was an all-day affair with the ego-crushing drama of a reality-TV show. Inside Pound Hall, the editors picked apart the intellectual and social skills of the 19 contenders, four of them black, eliminating them in batches. At the last moment, the conservative faction, its initial candidates defeated, threw its support to Obama. "Whatever his politics, we felt he would give us a fair shake," said Bradford Berenson, a former associate White House counsel in the Bush administration.
Newspapers and magazines swarmed around the first black student to win the most coveted spot at the most vaunted club at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions.
In interviews, Obama was modest and careful. In a rare slip, he told The Associated Press: "I'm not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me."
He signed a contract to write a memoir.
A prankster posted a cast list for a movie version of his life, starring Blair Underwood. When Underwood visited the school, he questioned Obama for material for "L.A. Law."
Winning the job was simpler than doing it. The president had to reject articles by some of the school's famous professors and persuade a divided group to stop arguing and start editing.
"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," Berenson said.
"The law school was populated by a bunch of would-be Daniel Websters harnessed to extreme political ideologies." They were so ardent that they would boo and hiss one another in class.
A tricky position
Even trickier, Obama was the most prominent minority student on a campus shaken by racial politics. A group agitating for greater faculty diversity occupied the dean's office and sued the school for discrimination; Derrick Bell, a black law professor, resigned over the issue.
The law review struggled to decide whether affirmative action should factor into the selection of editors and how much voice to give to critical race theorists, who argued that the legal system was inherently biased against minorities. That drew the ridicule of conservative students.
It left the new president with a difficult choice. If he failed to use his office to criticize Harvard, Obama would anger black and liberal students; by speaking out, he would risk dragging himself and the review into the center of shrill debates.
People had a way of hearing what they wanted in his words. Earlier, after a long, tortured discussion about whether it was better to be called "black" or "African American," Obama dismissed the question, saying semantics did not matter as much as real-life issues, recalled Cassandra Butts, still a close friend. Ogletree said students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side. "Everyone was nodding, 'Oh, he agrees with me,' " he said.
He served on the board of the Black Law Students Association, often speaking passionately about the tempest of the week, but in a way that white classmates say made them feel reassured, not defensive.
Obama's boldest moment came at a rally for faculty diversity, where he compared Bell, the professor who resigned, to Rosa Parks.
The eight law-review issues Obama presided over included articles on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and gender and racial discrimination in retail-car negotiations, as well as an anonymous, student-written "Note" arguing the legal system had not provided adequate protections against discrimination for black men.
Obama suffered one defeat at the law school: He was rejected by a screening committee of female students for a pinup calendar of black students created as a fundraiser and a source of black pride.
Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.