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Barack Obama's Law : Personality: Harvard Law Review's first black president plans a life of public service. His multicultural background gives him unique perspective.

March 12, 1990|TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Barack Obama stares silently at a wall of fading black-and-white photographs in the muggy second-floor offices of the Harvard Law Review. He lingers over one row of solemn faces, his predecessors of 40 years ago.

All are men. All are dressed in dark-colored suits and ties. All are white.

It is a sobering moment for Obama, 28, who in February became the first black to be elected president in the 102-year history of the prestigious student-run law journal.

The post, considered the highest honor a student can attain at Harvard Law School, almost always leads to a coveted clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court after graduation and a lucrative offer from the law firm of one's choice.

Yet Obama, who has gone deep into debt to meet the $25,000-a-year cost of a Harvard Law School education, has left many in disbelief by asserting that he wants neither.

"One of the luxuries of going to Harvard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life," Obama said recently. "You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet. That's what a Harvard education should buy--enough confidence and security to pursue your dreams and give something back."

After graduation next year, Obama says he probably will spend two years at a corporate law firm, then look for community work. Down the road, he plans to run for public office.

The son of a Kenyan economist and an American anthropologist, Obama is a tall man with a quick, boyish smile whose fellow students rib him about his trademark tattered blue jeans.

"I come from a lot of worlds and I have had the unique opportunity to move through different circles," Obama said. "I have worked and lived in poor black communities and I can translate some of their concerns into words that the larger society can embrace."

His own upbringing is a blending of diverse cultures. Born in Hawaii, where his parents met in college, Obama was named Barack (blessed in Arabic) after his father. The elder Obama was among a generation of young Africans who came to the United States to study engineering, finance and medicine, skills that could be taken back home to build a new, strong Africa. In Hawaii, he married Obama's mother, a white American from Wichita, Kan.

Two years later, Obama's parents separated and he moved to a small village outside Jakarta, Indonesia, with his mother, an anthropologist. There, he spent his boyhood playing with the sons and daughters of rice farmers and rickshaw drivers, attending an Indonesian-speaking school, where he had little contact with Americans.

Every morning at 5, his mother would wake him to take correspondence classes for fear he would forget his English.

It was in Indonesia, Obama said, where he first became aware of abject poverty and despair.

"It left a very strong mark on me living there because you got a real sense of just how poor folks can get," he said. "You'd have some army general with 24 cars and if he drove one once then eight servants would come around and wash it right away. But on the next block, you'd have children with distended bellies who just couldn't eat."

After six years in Indonesia, Obama was sent back to the United States to live with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii in preparation for college. It was then that he began to correspond with his father, a senior economist for the Kenyan finance ministry who recounted intriguing tales of an African heritage that Obama knew little about.

Obama treasured his father's tales of walking miles to school, using a machete to hack a path through the elephant grass--the legends and traditions of the Luo tribe, a proud people who inhabited the shores of Lake Victoria.

He still carries a passbook that belonged to his grandfather, an herbalist who was the first family member to leave the small Kenyan village of Alego, move to the city and don Western clothes.

"He was a cook and he used to have to carry this passbook to work for the English," Obama recalls. "At the age of 46 it had this description of him that said, 'He's a colored boy, he's responsible and he's a good cook.' "

Two generations later, at the most widely respected legal journal in the country, the grandson of the cook is giving the orders.

Yet some of Obama's peers question the motives of this second-year law student. They find it puzzling that despite Obama's openly progressive views on social issues, he has also won support from staunch conservatives. Ironically, he has come under the most criticism from fellow black students for being too conciliatory toward conservatives and not choosing more blacks to other top positions on the law review.

"He's willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don't have and don't care to have," said Christine Lee, a second-year law student who is black. "His election was significant at the time, but now it's meaningless because he's becoming just like all the others (in the Establishment)."

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