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An Obama Moment

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In 1991, when Barack Obama was a third-year student at the Harvard Law School, I was serving as Dean of the University of Chicago Law School. I had heard through the grapevine that there was an extraordinarily talented African-American student at Harvard who was president of the Harvard Law Review and who was planning to come to Chicago after graduation to do public service law and to write a book about his experiences as a community organizer.

After checking with some members of the Harvard faculty, who assured me that this fellow Obama was, indeed, remarkable, I invited him to become a Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. This would give him support for his research and connect him officially to the Law School. He accepted, and over the next dozen years Obama became a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and a highly respected and much admired teacher of Constitutional Law, while at the same time pursuing his other interests.

In 2003, having served several highly successful terms in the Illinois legislature, Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate. This seemed to me an utterly hopeless quest. Peter Fitzgerald, the Republican incumbent, seemed unbeatable, the Democratic field had already drawn several very strong candidates with more established statewide reputations than Obama, and Obama had recently failed in his effort to unseat Bobby Rush as the Congressman from Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. Obama's candidacy for the Senate seemed pointless.

Shortly after Obama announced his candidacy for the Senate, I attended (and, indeed, co-hosted) a major fundraising event in Chicago for the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation. At one point, I spotted Obama moving gracefully through the crowd, chatting amiably with each individual, dutifully pressing the flesh. As I observed him, I thought to myself, "What a waste. This is demeaning. Barack should forget politics and become a full-time law professor. Then he could really make something of himself."

A few minutes later, I found myself standing next to Obama at the shrimp bowl. Although it was really none of my business, I decided to impart some of my wisdom. "Barack," I said, "I've been watching you out there, making nice to all these folks. Why are you doing this? Given the realities of politics, you know as well as I that there's no chance you'll get the nomination, let alone defeat Fitzgerald. Why don't you just pack all this in and accept a full-time position on the faculty?" Barack smiled and thoughtfully replied, "Geof, I know where you're coming from, but, you know, I have to do this. I believe I can make a difference. I have a responsibility to try." As he blended back into the crowd, I thought, "What a waste."