Carol Platt Liebau: Evasive, or Empty Suit?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Evasive, or Empty Suit?

Over at National Review, John Derbyshire wonders about the significance of the absence of an Obama paper trail:

Either O'B made a long-strategic decision very early on in life that he was going to climb the political ladder, and that therefore the less of a trail of opinions he left behind him, the less trouble he'd get into; or he really is a quite exceptionally empty suit. Which is it?

It is certainly the former, and perhaps the latter. First, it's worth noting that, as President of the Harvard Law Review, Barack wouldn't have been entitled to write a Note (i.e., a signed piece on a topic of a third year law student's choosing) in the Review. That being said, it was obviously Barack's mission not to take any position he could avoid taking. I liked him personally, but it was patently obvious that he saw himself as a "Man of Destiny" even back then. As someone who had his eye on something infinitely bigger than the Harvard Law Review, he wasn't about to jeopardize his ambitions by laying a controversial opinion on the line if it could possibly be avoided.

Of course, after a lifetime of that, it's quite possible that he is an empty suit. If you never lay it out there, how is anyone to know one way or another? The only reason I tend to doubt Derbyshire's second theory is because he was beloved by some of the far left professors on Harvard's faculty -- particularly Laurence Tribe. And unlike some of the other left-wingnut professors (including, to his credit, Duncan Kennedy), Tribe isn't the kind of guy who befriends people who haven't signaled in some way their understanding of and agreement with his "living Constitution" approach to the law. He's 67 now, but if he were a little younger, I would be confident in asserting Tribe would be on an Obama Supreme Court short list.

Finally, keep in mind that Barack was a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago. That's not a tenure track position, but it's pretty remarkable that someone as ambitious as he clearly is wouldn't have published anything -- plenty of ambitious academic empty suits routinely generate piles of worthless articles that are sagely nodded over by other academic empty suits.

Even teaching a class where it's almost impossible not to deduce a professor's own personal biases, Barack still held his cards close to his chest, as his former students testify:

A lot of time with faculty members, you know what point of view they're coming from. He would rarely say, 'This is what I think.' He kind of had a mysterious air to him because you didn't know what his position was on all these issues.

Certainly, that's a refreshing change from a lot of the left-wing proselytizing that routinely takes place in schools across America. But it's remarkable no one could even guess what he thought; I was taught con law by Professor Kathleen Sullivan, a Tribe protegee who went on to become dean of the Stanford Law School. She was a straight shooter, and an excellent teacher who never mixed politics and law in the classroom. It was still clear, however, what her own views were.

He's not an empty suit, in my judgment. He's just evasive.


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