This 25-Year-Old 'New York Times' Story on Barack Obama Shows How Much America Has Changed


How the times change.

A Google search today for mentions of "Barack Obama" on the New York Times website yields more than 1.2 million results. His name has appeared in countless headlines over the years on stories about his numerous campaigns, speeches or White House adventures.

But on Feb. 6, 1990 — 25 years ago Friday —  the New York Times referred to the future president of the United States with the crude headline "First Black Elected to Head Harvard's Law Review." The profile was the first time Obama's name appeared in the New York Times, but his actual name doesn't appear until after the 41st word in the story:

After noting that "Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii," the piece goes on to quote him about what his victory meant to him and other black men and women:

''The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress,'' Mr. Obama said today in an interview. ''It's encouraging.

Sound familiar?

Though Obama's tone, echoing a quarter-century later, is easily recognizable to millions of Americans, the way the "paper of record" presents his election is an artifact of a decidedly different period in time. We can safely assume similar barrier-busters would not today be described in a headline as simply a "black," no "man" or "student" to follow. Less impressive: An administrator quoted in the 25-year-old story says that 12.5% of the student body at Harvard Law during Obama's year as editor of the review was black. In 2015, the percentage of African-American students has decreased to a dismal 8.7%.

Obama doesn't often discuss that first election or his subsequent tenure as editor, but a follow-up by the New York Times, from 2007, tells the story of a man with a very clear vision of who he was and the kind of politician he would become.

"He then and now is very hard to pin down," Kenneth Mack, a former classmate, told the New York Times. 

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the civil rights leader who still teaches at Harvard Law School, told the paper that Obama "can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts."

Foreshadowing his unifying political messages (more obvious in his first run), a Republican former classmate and future George W. Bush administration lawyer told the New York Times, "Whatever [Obama's] politics, we felt he would give us a fair shake."

Back in 1990, Harvard professor Randall Kennedy told the New York Times that, ''[f]or better or for worse, people will view it as historically significant. But I hope it won't overwhelm this individual student's achievement.''

Worry not, professor. The student has managed his initial success pretty well.