Watching Breitbart.com’s footage of law student Barack Obama praising radical law professor Derrick Bell gave me a strong sense of déjà vu. I arrived at Harvard Law School in August 1991, just a couple months after Barack Obama graduated. It would be hard to overstate the level of poison and vitriol that pervaded the school throughout the early 1990s. In 1993, GQ dubbed the law school “Beirut on the Charles” as HLS campus politics made national news.
This was the era of proud political correctness — including booing, hissing, and shouting down dissenting voices in class — combined with the vocal ascendance of the “crits.” Critical legal theorists rejected American legal systems root and branch, decrying them as the products of an irretrievably broken racist patriarchy. Their “scholarship” was unorthodox (and that’s being charitable), their voices were strident, and their student followers tended to be vicious. Many of the “crits” also had magnetic, preacher-like personalities, and it was more than a little disturbing to see the psychological hold they had over their student constituency.
Conservatives navigating this environment had to watch themselves. I can remember seeing cut-and-paste pictures of gay porn on the walls of the Harkness Commons, with the faces of Federalist Society leaders superimposed on the nude figures of the gay “actors.” If you truly angered the activist Left, they would call your future employers demanding that job offers be revoked, and I can recall receiving more than one note with some variation of “die, you f***ing fascist” for my pro-life advocacy. I was shouted down in class and verbally attacked by teachers. If it weren’t for the courageous free-speech advocacy of professors like Alan Dershowitz, the atmosphere would undoubtedly have been even worse. (I don’t mean to imply that Barack Obama ever participated in acts of political intimidation — I never heard that he did — but these stories do provide some sense of the background political intensity.)
Two events truly caused the campus to explode in the early 1990s. The first was the denial of tenure to Regina Austin (Jake Tapper tells the story here), and the second was the granting of tenure to four white male professors. The first event occurred during Barack Obama’s time at the law school, and the second almost two years later. In both instances there was enormous pressure on all left-leaning students to unite in outrage — and unite they did.
But what does all this mean now? In 2012? There’s little doubt that law student Obama was a political radical by any conventional, society-wide measure of the term. But that’s not the end of the story. At Harvard at least, radical was mainstream and conservative was radical. In fact, the radical view was so mainstream that one couldn’t help but think that even the loudest students would graduate, go to law firms, and fit in just as seamlessly to the new mainstream of their legal professions. And, in fact, most did. They weren’t intellectual leaders; they were followers.
My reading of Barack Obama’s political biography is pretty simple: He’s not so much a liberal radical as a member of the liberal mainstream of whatever community he inhabits. In that video, he was doing no more and no less than what most politically engaged leftist law students were doing — supporting the radical race and gender politics that dominated campus. When he went to Chicago and met Bill Ayers, he was fitting within a second, and slightly different, liberal culture. He shifted again in Washington and then again in the White House. But radical, “conviction” politicians don’t decry Gitmo then keep it open, promise to end the wars then reinforce the troops, express outrage at Bush war tactics then maintain rendition and triple the number of drone strikes.
Obama’s biography is essentially the same as many of the liberal mainstream-media journalists who cover him. They’ve made the same migration — from leading campus protests, to building families in urban liberal communities, to participating in a national political culture. At the risk of engaging in dime-store pop psychology, they like Obama in part because they identify with him so thoroughly and see much of themselves in him. They call him “pragmatic” or “moderate” or “technocratic” because they’re fully aware of legions of leftists who never made the transition from the purer form of activist politics. The pure activist is still leading campus protests or camped out in various parks across the country or writing radical tracts for minuscule readerships. The more moderate Left is running the country.
I would imagine that law school Barack Obama would never imagine ordering drone strikes on American citizens on foreign soil or Navy SEAL raids deep into Pakistan. Law school Barack Obama would likely think Obamacare was a thoroughly unsatisfactory half-measure and oppose it bitterly. Law school Obama is not our president, and I’m not sure that the videos tell us much at all about the man who sits in the oval office.