Behind the president is a great mentor

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There are no end of inaugural receptions here, many designated by the word "official" even if they had no chance of making the president-elect's daily planner.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There are no end of inaugural receptions here, many designated by the word "official" even if they had no chance of making the president-elect's daily planner.

One that did have a special connection -- though the nascent president was otherwise occupied dining with Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain -- was a Monday gathering honoring Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor and mentor to Barack and Michelle Obama.

"It feels great," said Ogletree, whose institution has nurtured no shortage of presidential timber but few candidates as improbable as the skinny, basketball-playing kid from Hawaii, Indonesia and Chicago.

It was another Chicago student a few classes ahead of Obama, however, who Ogletree said he thought showed even more promise.

"I always thought Michelle was going to be the one running for national office," he said, adding he thought Barack might become a mayor. "I wouldn't say publicly that Michelle is the smarter of the two," he said jokingly -- and publicly.


If Ogletree's name, or face, is familiar, you've seen it before if you watched the 1991 Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court appointment. Ogletree was the lawyer sitting next to Anita Hill.

He also starred in numerous PBS specials about the law and had a hand in writing the post-apartheid constitution of South Africa. But he's best known on campus as "Tree," a mentor to students of all colors and an academician with a foot in the real world and real problems.

On one of those -- reparations to African Americans for slavery -- he and his protege don't agree.

"It's not to get something for free but to try to think about the many contributions made by African slaves that made this country great," he said, "and to find a way to not just give people a check but to transform the pervasive poverty in our society." Obama, faced with the most daunting economic situation in a lifetime, obviously wouldn't argue with that main goal, he said.

The event was hosted by another Obama law classmate: Keith Boykin, a Black Entertainment Television personality and creator of the news Web site the Daily Voice. I first met all three almost 20 years ago when I covered Harvard law as a reporter in Boston. Boykin made the news for leading protests for a more diverse faculty. Obama got face time for becoming the first black president (editor) of the Harvard Law Review. Ogletree offered poignant commentary on both subjects.

The two caught up again in the mid-1990s when Ogletree hosted a book signing for them both and Obama told Boykin he was thinking of running for state senator in Illinois.

"At the time, I was working in the White House and I thought, 'Oh, state senator ... OK ..." Boykin said, adding the book Obama was promoting then was "Dreams From My Father." Like its author, it too has since become internationally famous.

So are contemporaries shocked that one of their own from back then is about to be president? Yes; even at Harvard, no one -- save Obama himself, perhaps -- gave much thought to the chances of a black student of humble means becoming the leader of the free world.


But given his mentor, no one should be surprised, either.

Robin Washington is news director of the News Tribune. He may be reached at

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