Published Monday, Jan. 19, 2009 | 7:11 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009 | 11:05 a.m.
Barack Obama was either an ambitious student, an incredibly popular student, or both.
“This guy must have taken more courses than anybody at Harvard Law School because every faculty member I see tells me he was in that faculty member’s class,” the school’s dean, Elena Kagan, joked on Sunday during a reception for the high-profile alumnus.
The president-elect graduated from the Ivy League law school in 1991. The incoming first lady also graduated from HLS, in 1988, when she was better known as Michelle Robinson.
The prestigious law school celebrated two of its most prestigious graduates at Washington’s historic Willard Hotel just two days before the Obamas were scheduled to move into their new white house a few blocks away.
Though the Obamas weren’t at the event, many friends and mentors, both past and present, were.
Kagan remembered the president-elect as a student who “took Harvard Law School by storm” when he stepped onto the Cambridge, Mass., campus in the fall of 1987.
She joked about how the president-elect has become somewhat of a claim to fame for many professors.
“Every faculty member I see says that he or she was Barack Obamba’s mentor,” she said. “This guy must’ve been mentored to death!”
One of Obama’s longtime mentors, Newton Minow, recalled the first time he heard about Obama.
Minow is senior counsel of the Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin, which first hired the president-elect in the late 80s, when Obama was a first-year law student.
He remembers his first encounter with Obama because it is the only time his daughter, who is a longtime Harvard law professor, called him to recommend a student for a job.
Not that Obama needed the lip service.
“She said, ‘Dad, I know your firm doesn’t take first-year students for its summer program but this young man is so exceptional you ought to take a look at him,’” he recalled.
Minow said he asked for the candidate’s name and when his daughter told him it was, “Barack Obama,” he replied, “You want to spell that for me?”
The standing-room-only audience laughed.
The former Federal Communications Commission chairman went on to explain how he approached a fellow partner at the firm to suggest they consider Obama for a position, only to learn he had been beaten to the punch.
He said his colleague told him, “We’ve heard about him, we’ve hired him … (and) we’ve made Michelle Robinson his supervisor.”
Indeed, Sidley Austin is not only the place where Obama found his first job; it is also where the soon-to-be president found his wife.
“HLS Celebrates the Obamas” was almost as exclusive as the esteemed law school itself. The brunch reception quickly sold out and the wait list was rumored to run 500 names long.
As the alumni of the Obamas’ alma matter mixed and mingled, the conversation often included names of other HLS grads who Obama is hoping to bring with him to the White House.
The incoming president has already offered 10 HLS grads various roles in his administration, including five of his former classmates.
Fellow HLS class of ’91 grads poised to take key positions within his government include Julius Genachowski (nominated Federal Communication Commission chairman); Cassandra Butts (appointed deputy White House counsel); Chris Lu (appointed cabinet secretary); Robert Malley (nominated Egypt and Syria envoy); and Thomas Perrelli (appointed associate attorney general at the Department of Justice).
“And,” Kagan added, “there’s – knock on wood – me.”
The much-loved dean is Obama’s pick for Solicitor General. If nominated, Kagan will be the first female in American history to hold the position.
“I have a hearing in a week or two,” she said, adding, “You’re all invited to testify.”
Other notable attendees at Sunday’s function included Virginia Sen. Mark Warner; California Congresswoman Jane Harman; Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper; California Congressman Adam Schiff; North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones; and New Jersey Congressman John Adler.