For decades, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree has mentored hundreds of his minority students. As it just so happens, two of them recently became the President and First Lady of the United States. Ogletree talked to ESSENCE.com about the influential role he has played in the lives of Barack and Michelle Obama as their mentor of the past 20 years, sharing his unique insight into who they are, and how they will lead the country.
ESSENCE.COM: How did your relationship as mentor to the President and First Lady come about exactly?
CHARLES OGLETREE: I met Michelle when she started her legal career here at Harvard in the fall of 1985, and I was able to watch her develop into a very strong and powerful student leader. She was an active member of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she served as a student attorney for indigent clients who had civil cases and needed legal help. She was a real mentor to the younger African-American women at Harvard Law School. I met Barack three years later when he arrived at Harvard Law School in fall of 1988. He was quiet and unassuming, but had an incredibly sharp mind and a thirst for knowledge. He was a regular participant in a program that I created called the Saturday School Program, which was a series of workshops and meetings held on Saturday mornings to expose minority students, in particular, to critical issues in the study of law. Even then I saw his ability to quickly grasp the most complicated legal issues and sort them out in a clear, concise fashion.
ESSENCE.COM: What sort of advice were they asking you about back then?
OGLETREE: I was faculty adviser to the Harvard Black Law Student Association. I routinely gave career advice, and often personal advice, to students who would come in with questions about where they should work, how they should use their legal skills and talent, and was it possible to do well and do good. The question was, “Can I work at a law firm and still contribute to the Black community? Can I have a job in corporate America that is meaningful to the people who made it possible for me to make it this far in life?” My advice to people like Barack and Michelle was that they could easily navigate the challenges of a corporate career and find a variety of ways to serve their community—through financial support, through volunteer legal services, and through getting involved in community efforts. So this advice started then, and I guess it must have been useful enough. They have not hesitated to call on me over the past 20-plus years as needed.
ESSENCE.COM: Did you recognize any of the ideas you tried to instill into the President throughout his campaign?
OGLETREE: The most important qualities that Barack exhibited 20 years ago are evident today. Even though he was often the smartest person in the room, he made sure that every voice was heard and that even those who had disagreeing points of view should have an opportunity to participate in the discussions. So it was early advice about how to handle difficult discussions that I saw exhibited time and again, in the way he conducted himself in the debates, and how he was able to keep a level head during some of the most difficult moments of the campaign. I had many people call and e-mail me throughout the camping saying, “He’s not tough enough, he’s being too kind.” What they didn’t realize is that Barack Obama was a mature politician who did not have to get into the mud with others to make his point. And he was able to take blows without it affecting his ability to move forward. It was that cool, calm, mature demeanor that I saw developing in the late 80’s that was a signature characteristic of his campaign.
ESSENCE.COM: How does it feel to see two of your former students in such a historic position?
OGLETREE: It’s been a pretty dramatic moment. It’s one thing to see Michelle and Barack keep their promises by going back to Chicago and serving those communities. It’s another thing to see them have the dream of leading the nation as the President and First Lady and to see that happen. I was most deeply touched during Barack’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. What I saw were these two talented, deferential, deeply committed public servants reach a different stage in life. It was, in a sense, watching my kids grow up and being able to say that they are ready to take on the most important challenges facing the country. It was a moment of deep reflection that I will never forget, and it is an incredible reality today to realize that not only are the President and First Lady younger than me, but they are two people that I’ve had the honor and pleasure of mentoring over the past 20 years.
ESSENCE.COM: What was your first conversation with them after the presidential inauguration like?
OGLETREE: For the President, it was a personal message about the things that he needed to do. Without getting into any details, the central point was: Make sure you keep your promises. With Michelle, it was more my sense and my hope, that has now been realized, that she would not just be a great First Lady and a phenomenal First Mom, but that she would also be able to use her many gifts and talents in the community in ways that were natural to her. I’ve been particularly pleased this past week to see her not only out building support for her husband’s stimulus package, but talking about families and children and education and health care, where she’s going to be incredibly helpful.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think we can expect from Michelle Obama as First Lady? She seems to still be devising what shape her platforms and outreach will ultimately take.
OGLETREE: Michelle is very methodical about what she does. She’s not going to try to step in and do things that upstage the president or are inconsistent with his roles and responsibilities as the elected public servant. But she’s going to be the person who has his ear every night, someone who’s going to give him good advice on both the things he would like to hear, and what he may not like to hear but what he’ll need to hear. I think most of her work will be within the White House in her personal interaction with her husband, and not competing for attention or credit in a public way, but being a very strong and reliable supporter. He’s going to work his way through the most difficult moments knowing that he’s got a supportive and enthusiastic spouse behind him at every single stage of his progress as the President.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you think President Obama is doing so far?
OGLETREE: What I have seen in this very short period of time is what I would describe as A-plus work. It was important that he kept his promise to examine the process for closing Guantanamo, and signed an order hoping that it would be closed within a year. I thought it was critical that he set a high standard of ethical conduct in his administration that was transparent. I thought it was brilliant to come up with a stimulus package that reached the lower rungs of society by providing for unemployment compensation, educational support, health care incentives, and jobs throughout the infrastructure that will have a direct impact on urban communities and minority individuals. So he is absolutely the man for the job, and what he has been doing is quite impressive in the short time that he has served as President.
ESSENCE.COM: And what about you? Should we expect to hear that you’ve been appointed to a position in the Justice Department?
OGLETREE: There are some wonderful people who are working in the Obama administration, and I am delighted that I know most of them. My job right now is to continue working here, and try to help the next Michelle and Barack Obama define avenues of public service. I don’t think I’m finished with my task of trying to let people know that there is no conflict between being Black, brilliant and deeply committed to public service, so that’s what I plan to continue doing here.