Two years ago I inadvertently began my exploration of the authorship of Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” with an inquiry into how Obama got into Harvard Law School in 1988.
In the summer of 2008, I was tipped to a story that the media were scrupulously ignoring. It involved the venerable African-American entrepreneur and politico Percy Sutton.
A Manhattan borough president for 12 years and a credible candidate for mayor of New York City in 1977, Sutton had appeared in late March 2008 on a local New York City show called “Inside City Hall.”
When asked about Obama by the show’s host, Dominic Carter, the octogenarian Sutton calmly and lucidly explained that he had been “introduced to [Obama] by a friend.”
The friend’s name was Dr. Khalid al-Mansour, and the introduction had taken place about 20 years prior. Sutton described al-Mansour as “the principal adviser to one of the world’s richest men.” The billionaire in question was Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.
According to Sutton, al-Mansour had asked him to “please write a letter in support of [Obama] … a young man that has applied to Harvard.” Sutton had friends at Harvard and gladly did so.
Three months before the election it should have mattered that a respected black political figure had publicly announced that a crazed anti-Semite like al-Mansour, backed by an equally bonkers Saudi billionaire, had been guiding Obama’s career perhaps for the last 20 years, but the story died a quick and unnatural death.
The books that might have shed some light on this incident have not done so. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s comprehensive look at the 2008 campaign, “Game Change,” does not so much as mention Percy Sutton.
Nor does David Remnick. His new book, “The Bridge,” stands as the authoritative book on Obama’s “life and rise,” but he only inadvertently addresses the question of how Obama got into Harvard Law.
The reader learns from Remnick that Obama was an “unspectacular” student in his two years at Columbia and at every stop before that going back to grade school.
A Northwestern University prof who wrote a letter of reference for Obama reinforces the point, telling Remnick, “I don’t think [Obama] did too well in college.” As to Obama’s LSAT scores, Jimmy Hoffa’s body will be unearthed before those are.
How such an indifferent student got into a law school whose applicants’ LSAT scores typically track between 98 to 99 percentile and whose GPAs range between 3.8 and 4.0 is a subject Remnick avoids in the section of his book dealing with Obama’s admission.
In his 2007 book, “Obama: From Promise to Power,” David Mendell is likewise silent on the mystery admission. This surprises because Mendell, a Chicago Tribune reporter who saw more of Obama than Michelle often did, writes objectively and intimately about Obama’s ascendancy.
Mendell traces Obama’s sudden itch to become a lawyer to the model of the recently deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, but Washington went to Northwestern’s very respectable law school in Evanston, Ill.
The thought doesn’t cross Obama’s mind. In “Dreams,” he limits his choices to “Harvard, Yale, Stanford.” Writes Mendell as casually as if the honor were deserved, “Obama would soon be accepted at the most prestigious law school in the nation.”
Whether or not Sutton helped Obama get into Harvard, Michelle Obama’s experience suggests that he could have gotten in without that help.
“Told by counselors that her SAT scores and her grades weren’t good enough for an Ivy League school,” writes Christopher Andersen in “Barack and Michelle,” “Michelle applied to Princeton and Harvard anyway.”
Sympathetic biographer Liza Mundy writes, “Michelle frequently deplores the modern reliance on test scores, describing herself as a person who did not test well.”
She did not write well, either. Au contraire. One of my correspondents, a college drop-out, found Michelle’s senior thesis at Princeton online and concluded, “I could have written it in sophomore English class.” Mundy charitably describes it as “dense and turgid.”
The less charitable Christopher Hitchens observes, “To describe [the thesis] as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn’t written in any known language.”
Hitchens exaggerates only a little. The following summary statement by Michelle captures her unfamiliarity with many of the rules of grammar and most of logic:
The study inquires about the respondents’ motivations to benefit him/herself, and the following social groups: the family, the Black community, the White community, God and church, The U.S. society, the non-White races of the world, and the human species as a whole.
Michelle even typed badly. Still, she was admitted to and graduated from Harvard Law. One almost feels sorry for her. She was in so far over her head that the anxiety had to have been corrosive.
Obama was sufficiently self-deluding – some would say narcissistic – that he felt little of that anxiety. Later in his book, Remnick lets slip into the record a revealing letter Obama had written while president of the Harvard Law Review:
I must say, however, that as someone who has undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career, and as someone who may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative action policy when I was selected to join the Review last year, I I have not felt stigmatized within the broader law school community or as a staff member of the Review.
Bottom line: Had Obama’s father come from Kentucky not Kenya and been named O’Hara not Obama, there would have been no Harvard Law Review, no Harvard, no Columbia. Barry O’Hara would probably be chasing ambulances in Honolulu and setting his political sights on the Honolulu City Council.