Sep 20, 2008

World - Students saw in Professor Obama a pragmatist,not an idealogue

When Jaime Escuder, a University of Chicago law student, was searching for a professor to supervise an independent project on prisoners' rights, he turned to Barack Obama, but not for Obama's politics. As a student in Obama's constitutional law class in 2001, Escuder was impressed by his teacher's ability to see both sides of an argument.

"I figured Obama would respect the stance I took in the paper, whether or not he agreed with it," said Escuder, now a public defender in Illinois.

In the project, Escuder forcefully advocated for prisoners having the freedom to procreate. Obama gave him guidance on honing his argument - but never told him if he agreed. When he did venture an opinion, it was to prod Escuder to consider real-world implications. On running into Escuder one weekend morning, Obama said: "I don't think that you're giving adequate consideration to how difficult it will be for prison officials to care for pregnant women. I've been dealing with this recently, and believe me, it isn't easy." Escuder assumed Obama was talking about being a father.

Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School for a decade before he left in 2003 to run for the U.S. Senate. He emerged as one of the Senate's most liberal members, and his voting record is often invoked in the current campaign, especially by his opponents. But the men and women who studied with him at Chicago echo Escuder's observation that Obama was much more pragmatic than ideological. Even as his political career advanced, Obama's teaching stuck to the law-school norm of dispassionately evaluating competing arguments with the tools of forensic logic.

"It was drilled into us from Day 1 that you examined your biases and inclinations," said Richard Hess, now an attorney at Susman Godfrey in Houston. "And then, when you made decisions, they were based on sound empirical reasons."

Escuder saw his professor as "a street-smart academic."

"He wanted his students to consider the impact laws and judicial opinions had on real people," Escuder said.

According to Marcus Fruchter, who took constitutional law with Obama and now practices at the law firm of Schopf & Weiss in Chicago, "You never would have known he was going to be a liberal senator based on what he said in his courses."

I recently spoke to many of Obama's former students and asked them to speculate about how the teacher they saw manage a classroom might try to manage a country. Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who lobbies for progressive causes in Illinois, said he thought his former professor was unlikely to emerge as an ideological liberal if he makes it to the White House. "Based on what I saw in the classroom," he said, "my guess is an Obama administration could be summarized in two words: Ruthless pragmatism."

Obama's status as senior lecturer in law was a rarefied one. At that time, two federal judges - Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, both of the Seventh Circuit - held that position, and both men had been full-time, distinguished members of the Chicago faculty before joining the bench and reducing their course loads at the law school. So when the 34-year-old Obama told the law school's dean, Douglas Baird, that he wanted the same post, Baird was somewhat taken aback. "He's not a man possessed by self-doubt," Baird said with a smile.

It wasn't that he didn't think highly of Obama. Baird had recruited him from Harvard Law School, where Obama was the first African-American president of the Law Review. Baird arranged for the promising graduating student to become a law and government fellow at Chicago, providing Obama with a stipend and an office so he could complete his first book, "Dreams From My Father."

In 1996, after winning election to the Illinois Senate, Obama decided he needed to supplement the salary he would draw as a legislator. And so over dinner at the Park Avenue Cafe in Chicago one evening, he and Baird hammered out an agreement whereby Obama would become a senior lecturer and teach three classes a year.

Baird pushed hard to get Obama the senior lecturer position. The newly minted state senator would have added diversity to the law school: At the time, there was only one person of color on the full-time Chicago academic teaching staff. And Obama had proved to be a skilled teacher.

"You could tell from the course evaluations and enrollments that students had really taken to him," Baird said.

When Obama was promoted to the senior lecturer position, he had only taught his seminar on racism and the law. While his teaching schedule expanded to include constitutional law and voting rights, it was his original seminar that left the greatest impression on his students. In the class, Obama emphasized how people's experiences and backgrounds could influence their perceptions of prejudice and the possible need for government action to curb its effects.

"He wanted us to be aware of our biases so we could better avoid the pitfalls they can bring," said a former student, Bethany Lampland, who now practices in New York.

He did that in part by sharing personal stories that revealed preconceptions he himself harbored. In the autumn of 2003, for example, he told of an uncomfortable encounter he had one evening on Lake Shore Drive. An Asian driver in a souped-up Honda cut him off; when the two men reached a stoplight, Obama shot him a dirty look. The driver's response was to roll down his window and yell "nigger" at Obama before speeding off.

The professor described himself as initially shocked. But as he reflected on the episode, he told the class, he realized that the other driver wasn't the only one harboring stereotypes. "I was thinking, 'Here's some Asian kid on his way to a club,"' Obama said, according to Richard Hess, who was enrolled in the course. Obama had stereotyped the driver as the kind of person who would never call him "nigger."

Hess, who worked in Democratic politics before attending law school, told me he was impressed by his professor's ability to coolly analyze such an unpleasant confrontation. "I thought it displayed a thoughtfulness," he said. "He would talk about race in a way that I doubt anyone had heard from their professor before, or I had heard from a politician before."

The class led Tom Hynes, who took racism and the law in 1996, to consider his experiences growing up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in racially balkanized Chicago. Under Obama's supervision, he wrote an independent paper on the history of tensions between Irish immigrants and African-Americans. He was struck, he said, by Obama's pragmatic take on race relations.

"In his mind, the real problem wasn't racist attitudes some people may hold, but the fact that some minorities were starting at such a huge disadvantage," Hynes recounted. "Issues like poor public education and the lack of access to credit seemed more glaring to him."

Dennis Hutchinson, who also teaches courses on race and the law at Chicago, pointed out that Obama's racial background gave him a certain advantage. "Let's be frank," said Hutchinson, who is white. "If you're black, and you are teaching a group of mostly white students about sensitive topics touching on race, then you're controlling the class."

But like any good law professor, Obama seems not to have used his position to produce a preconceived political result. When he lectured on a pivotal affirmative action Supreme Court case, for instance, he emphasized that white contractors who lost out to minority businesses because of racial set-asides had a legitimate grievance.

Similarly, Obama allowed that there was an argument to be made for paying out reparations for slavery. The class reading - including authors like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington - certainly bolstered the idea that some kind of atonement was warranted. But after making the theoretical case, Obama pushed his students to think about the implications of actually cutting checks to the descendants of slaves. It was possible, he pointed out, that the move would merely create resentment. Obama kept his own thoughts on the topics he was teaching mostly to himself.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger studied voting rights with Obama. He remembers Obama as an able observer of the allocation of power in the American democratic system. As Obama shepherded students through the evolution of how Americans elect their representatives, Johnson-Weinberger said, he emphasized how important the rules of the game were in determining who won elections.

That background in voting law, the former student said, played a factor in Obama's primary triumph over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. "He understood how important the caucus states would be, and he grasped that voters in African-American Congressional districts would have a disproportionate impact in selecting the nominee," he said. "I think one of the reasons he said yes to this race is that he grasped the structural path to victory."

Johnson-Weinberger, who has championed alternative electoral systems like proportional voting in Illinois, found Obama's practical approach to be a welcome respite from traditional law-school fare. He volunteered for Obama's losing 2000 primary challenge to Representative Bobby Rush and his victorious Senate run four years later. His former professor, he speculated, would bring a similar mind-set to the White House.

"I don't think he's wedded to any particular ideology," Johnson-Weinberger told me. "If he has an impatience about anything, it's the idea that some proposals aren't worthy of consideration."

Alexandra Starr has written about politics and culture for The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic and The American Scholar.

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