Talking with Obama's friends

August 28, 2008 6:17:42 PM PDT
Classmates who knew Barack Obama as a young law student may not have known that he was destined to become a presidential nominee. But they had a good idea that he'd leave his mark on the world.

Like the biracial bloodlines in his veins, Barack Obama has always easily flowed between groups. It's a skill he put to good use at Harvard Law School, a place then tensely fragmented between conservatives and liberals.

Classmate Jordana Cooper, now a Cherry Hill lawyer, says Obama quickly emerged as a leader who could stop the shouting.

"It's hard when people are in disagreement to really respect and incorporate the other side's viewpoint. What he was able to do was build on people's statements and feelings in a respectful way and move the class to consensus," Cooper said.

That ability got Obama elected the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, a win that led to more change. The next two presidents after him were also historic: the first woman, then the first Asian American.

And speaking publicly on behalf of the review, Obama previewed his rhetorical gifts.

"That was a gift of his, to be able to get up and command an audience, and to captivate an audience," said law school classmate Shelley Simms Reed.

Chestnut Hill's Peter Buttonweiser, an Obama confidante and fundraiser, believes the "Review" victory planted a seed.

"I suspect he knew that, if he could achieve that, he was probably on his way to the presidency of the United States," Buttonweiser said.

Obama then spent years as a community organizer, an experience that still influences him as a candidate.

On the rough streets, he learned a first show of respect could make or break his efforts.

So when Jerry and Raye Johnson held a fundraiser at their Villanova mansion last year, they witnessed an Obama protocol. After they greeted his motorcade, he waited outside until they invited him into their home.

"So, it wasn't like we were outside holding the door while he walked in. It was, 'you go in first, and I will follow you," Raye Johnson said.

Those years also taught Obama to be strategic.

Insiders say the plan to open 70 field offices in Pennsylvania, double the usual number, is all Obama, borne out of efforts like getting new voters on the rolls and to the polls in poor Chicago neighborhoods.


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