Attending Harvard Law doesn’t make Obama a genius

Regular readers know that I have fussed for years about Obama’s much vaunted intelligence.  I’ve agreed that he has a feral, manipulative intelligence, but I’ve challenged the whole brilliant scholar thing.

It’s not just the missing grades (which one assumes are missing because they’re embarrassing).  It’s also the horrible way he expresses himself when he’s off of the teleprompter, the wooden writing when he doesn’t have Bill Ayers at his back, and the repeated gaffes when he reveals that he does not have a well-furnished mind.  Who can forget his repeated references to “corpse” men, his throwaway remark about the Austrian language in Austria (“uh, that would be German, Sir”) and his recent comment that LBJ’s home state, Texas has been historically Republican.  The man is an ignoramus.

I was never impressed by the whole Harvard shtick.  First of all, with all due respect to the many brilliant, competent, delightful Harvard Law grads out there, my experience here on the West Coast with Harvard Law grads hasn’t been so good.

The “more than few but less than many” Harvard grads with whom I’ve worked or against whom I’ve litigated have been — sorry! — unimpressive specimens.  They’ve certainly had the arrogance one would expect from someone graduating from a premier law school, but they lacked the concrete skills:  poor work ethics, small fund of legal knowledge and bad writing were only the beginning.  The ones I got to know were also just peculiar human beings, with more than their share of foibles (personality disorders, alcoholism and drug use topped the lists).

Incidentally, all of the Harvard grads I knew were white.  They weren’t at Harvard because of affirmative action.  How they got in, I don’t know, because, with their emergence into the legal world, Harvard was sending to the Left Coast some poor representatives of Harvard’s vaunted wonderfulness.  After more than twenty-years in the field, I’d always prefer to have at my back someone from a solid second tier school (Baylor, Hastings, Santa Clara, etc.) than an Ivy League grad.

My practical experiences with Harvard grads didn’t surprise me.  When I attended a premier public, not private, law school at roughly the same time Obama was gracing Harvard’s halls, many lawyers who worked at huge, well-paying, reputable firms told me that they hired Ivy League grads for the cachet, not because they were any good.

The lawyers’ complaints were always the same:  the Ivy Leagues had done away with reliable grading, either because of massive grade inflation or because they’d switched to a pass/fail system.  This meant that all the Ivy League (plus the Boalt) graduates they interviewed presented themselves as top-of-the-class brilliant people.  From the lawyers’ perspective, though, hiring one of them was like buying a pig in a poke.  One assumed they were smart because they got into the cachet school in the first place, but it was fatal to assume that they had the knowledge, skills or attitude necessary to become a good lawyer.  If you were lucky, you hired someone wonderful; if you weren’t, you could still boast that your firm was a draw to Ivy League lawyers.

Now that Obama’s past is no longer untouchable, people are revisiting his law school experience.  As Ace shows, even absent actual grades, one can figure out a lot of things about Obama’s law school performance.

Using a variety of sources, Ace explains that, when Obama attended Harvard, neither grades nor Law Review were done anonymously.  At my law school, our tests didn’t have our names, just random numbers, so the professors graded based solely on the test.  Law Review admission was based upon those same blind grades or upon an essay that was submitted anonymously.  Again, no favoritism based upon anything but the work’s quality.

At Harvard, the professors’ implicit social goals aimed at advancing people of color or the Law Review’s explicit set-aside of spaces for blacks meant, sadly, that the blacks just didn’t have to be as good as the whites.  And unless one is driven, why be better than the bare minimum?  As for the magna designation beside his degree, it turns out that about half the Harvard class was magna.  Garrison Keillor must have been thinking of Harvard when he spoke of a place in which “all of the children are above average.”

Based on available evidence, Ace puts Obama’s IQ at 116.  It’s above average, but not by much.  Unlike me (a little boast here), Mensa he’s not.  Genius, he’s not.  Brilliant, he’s not.

Being a Mensa qualifier, being a genius or even being brilliant doesn’t necessarily mean being a good president.  I know a lot of people who are too smart for their own good, and who get lost in trees without ever realizing, as a less intellectually convoluted person might, that those trees are part of a forest.  With Obama, however, we, the American people, were sold a bill of goods.  Our watch dog Fourth estate promised us that Obama was the most brilliant American since Einstein (and yes, I know that Einstein wasn’t American, but I wonder if our boy genius in the White House knows that).  This is untrue.  As Obama daily reveals, he’s just your ordinary above-average guy who knows how to run a con.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • David Foster

    I think much of the belief in Obama’s intelligence comes from his speech patterns. For example, he pronounces Pakistan as “pah-kee-stahn”, which I presume is correct, rather than “Pack-i-stan” like I always do. I’m pretty sure this careful enunciation brought many people of the professor class, and especially the would-be professor class, almost to orgasm. No matter than the man thinks Austrians speak Austrian.
    East Coast boarding school and Ivy League speech patterns are coming to play the same role in our society that the Public School accent has long played in Britain.

  • Charles Martel

    Nice dissection, Book. I think you’re on the nose about how overrated Harvard and the Ivies are when it comes to the quality of their grads.

    I used to edit the alumni publication for a second-tier law school in San Francisco, and chasing down stories put me in touch with a lot of local law firms. One thing I learned is what you reported, namely, that law firms often hired Ivy grads for the cachet of saying “So-and-so came to us from Yale or Stanford.” But, they said, predigree meant nothing after a couple of years in the trenches. Turns out that the school I wrote for had a great reputation for producing hard-working, industrial-strength advocates who would dog a case to the end and bring home victory after victory. The Ivy boys and girls? Many of them didn’t last all that long, especially at roll-your-sleeves-up firms where prima donnas weren’t appreciated.

    Aside from being the worst poster boy evuh for affirmative action, both in terms of his lack of intellectual firepower and the showcasing of the intense racism and cynicism of the people who pushed him well beyond his merits, Obama may be the straw that breaks the spell of the higher education delusion. I run into very few college graduates these days that impress me with their ability to reason logically, or their store of basic knowledge, or their love of reading and the exploration of new topics. Here’s a guy with a Harvard degree who clearly has all those lacks. If the New Messiah can be so shallow after sojourns to Occidental, Columbia, Harvard and the U of Chicago, what hope is there for mere humans?

    (David Foster: Good call on the pronunciation angle. There are no greater snobs than academics and NPR types, and Obama is exactly what Joe Biden said racists like that were waiting for: A Negro who cleans up good and talks purty and white.)

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  • Indigo Red

    When I’m reminded that Obama attended Harvard Law School, this exchange from Legally Blonde comes to mind –

    Warner Huntington III: You got into Harvard Law?
    Elle: What? Like, it’s hard?

    By Ace’s explanation of class placement, I would have graduated Harvard far ahead of Obama with all kinds of academic honors. After graduating university 34 years ago, knowing what I know now and what I should have learned then, I would not have awarded me a diploma.

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  • Gringo

    One time in the mid-80s I was taking the train between Boston and NYC. Someone in the car, apparently a Harvard Law student, started talking about the personal qualities of Harvard Law students. So good and practically saintly, they are- though he didn’t use the word “saintly.”  I was tempted to go up to him and inform him that from his conversation I had concluded that Harvard Law students were a bunch of conceited twits.

  • JKB

    I remember seeing before the election an interview with someone who was on the law review when Obama was “in charge.”  I remember this individual said someone else ran the day to day with Obama preferring to “work from home.”  When he did show up for a few minutes it was usually to bother people who were trying to get work done.  I swear I heard or read this before we knew of Obama’s work habits.

    But, I would be careful, there seems to be a Harvard mafia, who search the internet looking for anyone who might suggest they are not above average.

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  • Danny Lemieux

    JKB, I remember reading pretty scathing reviews by his colleagues of Obama’s tenure as a law lecturer (not a professor) in the Chicago Tribune and other papers. Apparently he was quite averse to work, not his usual workaholic self that he demonstrates as present (whoops, I mean as “President”).

  • Libby

    While I would agree that a lot of Harvard grads are quite proud of themselves, and I do not doubt your personal experience with Harvard law grads, I’d just like to ask that you not smear all Harvard Law grads as pompous and mediocre. My brother in law is a Harvard Law grad and a bright, hard working (and humble) lawyer. Of course, he attended Harvard law after a career in the Navy (as an officer on a nuclear sub) and had already gotten an MBA, so he wasn’t the typical law student. I sure hate having grads like Obama cheapen this accomplishment of his.

  • BrianE

    Nice going, BW– but just as you recognize the pomposity of the elite, us little people in the hinterland have felt the social sting of snobbery and recognized its baseless and banal claims of superiority for a long time. You know, us graduates of State U, us folks that took more than 4 years to work our way through Journalism School (and I’m even willing to concede it is easier to get a degree in Journalism than English Lit).

    Whenever those city folk deign to descend on our little hamlets– we know who they are. We know because they are the ones who sp-e-a-k slowwwwly to give us the extra time to comprehend their magnificence, who synchronize their words with sign in case we’re not just dumb, but deaf and maybe mute.

    What the chattering class fails to grasp is while intellectual capacity may not be evenly distributed throughout the land (and there are parts of Arkansas and Kentucky and among the Royal family where that is definately true), common sense is inversely proportional to population density. 

    And at all times, in all situations, give me common sense. You find yourself in a rapidly descending, runaway elevator shaft– who would you rather be with– Einstein or MacGyver? I rest my case. Now I will concede that were I trapped in a worm hole lost in the space-time continium I might favor Einstein, but what’s the chance of that actually happening?

    May we from now on and forever more extoll the virtue of knowing which way to screw a light bulb, that hot stoves will burn you, that you don’t stick your head in an unlit oven searching for the pilot light with a match as your only source of light!

    I say, down with IQ, up with CS! Is there even a reliable metric for CS? It has been ignored too long! I suggest that someone from Mensa get on it post haste! And henceforth the CS quotient be listed right before the college transcript for all potential Presidential candidates.

  • David Foster

    Some liberal journalist was fond of asserting that “Obama knows how to play 3-dimensional chess” by way of praising his brilliance—presumably this was only a metaphor since I’ve never seen any evidence that Obama is really particularly good even at ordinary chess, let along the 3-D kind. But I was reminded of something George Eliot wrote, way back in 1866:
    Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessman had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own . . . You would be especially likely to be beaten if you depneded arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with a game man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for instruments.
    People who see chess and similar games as metaphors for executive leadership still fail to understand the point she was making.

  • suek


    One of my favorite “maxims” is to _Never_ confuse the terms “stupid” and “ignorant”. That’s in addition to your “intellectual” and “common sense” approaches.

    Just because someone is ignorant does _not_ mean same person is stupid.

  • Ymarsakar

    I have never seen the rules for 3d chess. But the only ones that use it in examples are the ones that don’t seem to know how to play normal chess. Chinese, Japanese shogi, OR Western chess. That’s right, there are plenty different versions of chess and there are just as many, if not more, versions of strategic games such as Go.

    That’s more than a minor difference. 

    A grandmaster in chess does not necessarily understand decision making in leadership roles. But at least he has a basis in the decision making necessary for chess and can attempt to make extrapolative and intuitive judgments. People who have no idea what they are talking about, who repeat what other people say and thus believe that their copying makes themselves smart, has what to offer us?

  • Ymarsakar

    People who see chess and similar games as metaphors for executive leadership still fail to understand the point she was making.
    Like Z here, they don’t know how to play chess or similar strategic games, so why should their opinion be given any credence to begin with? People assume that their views are an objective assessment of chess’ relative value to decision making. That’s like taking a blind man’s view of structural engineering and believing his architectural sketches are correct when building the bridge. You’d be taking a damn high risk even if he actually knew structural engineering and architecture. But the people we talk of here never even graduated a single year’s curriculum of whatever they think they have the authority to speak on.

    [Wordpress is now actually removing references within posts, that’s why this part disappeared from my previous comment. It should be right above “minor difference]

  • Bookworm

    Libby (#11):  I recognize that my experience with Harvard Law grads may be anomalous.  Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked with 10 or 12 of them (on either side of a case, mine or the opposition), and these people haven’t lived up to the Harvard reputation.  That small sampling is not enough from which to draw any conclusions, but it’s left me with a visceral sense that Harvard, for the last 25 or 30 years, has not been doing a good job of churning out high-functioning lawyers.  My analysis doesn’t go past that.

    Having said that, Obama is definitely bringing the brand down because, although his acolytes assure us that he’s brilliant, he doesn’t think or analyze the way a good lawyer does.  As this birth certificate thing reveals, he’s good at Machiavellian games, which has its own virtue if you like that kind of thing, but it’s not necessarily the hallmark of a well-furnished mind or a well-trained attorney.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Japanese view of this subject is multi faceted but primarily it is the traditional vs the passionate. The traditional said that only those of the right bloodlines and genetic inheritance could achieve the unachievable. The passionate view, based off the influence of many foreign ideas into Japan, said that hard work and perseverance would produce results.

    Thus regardless of what someone is interested in, if they are passionate about it and have devoted their entire life to it, they will be very good at it, compared to the rest of Japan or even the world. Thus skill can be derived from two basic foundations: talent and hard work.

    College degrees thus fall into both categories as you demonstrate you place higher then your fellows by either talent or hard work. Since Japanese tests are extremely competitive socially and hierarchy wise, it’s a good objective test of where people stand.

    The idea of nobility in Japan is that commoners have less responsibilities but also more freedoms. Thus the nobility are expected to do better at all things, due to the position, authority, and bloodlines they hold. It is expected of them from the institution of tradition, their families, and their culture. On the other hand, if positive attributes are expected to emerge so strongly, then Japanese culture would also have the vice a versa. Negative attributes, such as criminality, would also be expected to pass to children. And immigration wise, this is applied to Koreans and other foreigners as well. Although as newer and newer generations of Japanese come online, the old ways are disappearing or becoming integrated into a more cosmopolitan build.

    Regardless, in Japan it would be very hard to find an elite that wasn’t focused on becoming Number 1 or staying that way. It would be very hard to find an Obama, who got uplifted to the heights of success by the work of others. Competition is one of the central tenets of Japanese cultural philosophy. Their honor, social, and family traditions make that even more fierce. While in America, exploration, freedom, and independence are valued more. Some parts of America

    When Katrina hit New Orleans, we saw what “some parts of America” were like. And when the double hit Japan, we saw how they were. A little unsightly isn’t it. But we knew what kind of evil they were brewing up in the slums of New Orleans. We just tried to pay it no mind. And our culture wasn’t strict enough to force people to acknowledge their inferiority or to actively fight evil. Not even at home. A chocolate city. A deserved payment for slavery from whites. Children that deserve to feel good about themselves. Teachers that can talk but are given no authority nor do they expect to exercise any, as they take their Union checks.

    Some parts of America. Not like other parts of America. But it’s all in America, one way or another. And for us, we have discarded both actual talent and actual hard work, not just when Obama was elected, but decades before then. Those are no longer American values, in parts of America. And what are American values, when more and more places in America become unAmerican?

  • Ymarsakar

    Libby, is your brother an individual that makes his own decisions or is he part of an institution?

    It cannot be both. An individual is not affected by the failures or successes of other people he is unrelated to.

    A member of an institution, a unit, represents the honor of  that institution. Or takes on the disgrace of the same. Such a thing cannot be a decision of anyone other then the member.

    If Obama’s actions reflect on Harvard and Harvard reflects on your brother, then have you made the decision for your brother that your brother is part of the Harvard institution? What does he have to say on this matter do you think.

  • Anonymous

    Caitlin Flanagan wrote a piece in the Atlantic on Ivy League admissions (jumping off from the Tiger Mom meme) where, I think, she wrote that only 1/3 of admits are pure merit based.  AA, athletes, and legacy get the other slots. (I know there are no “athletic scholarships”, but don’t be naive.)  Harvard law might have only slightly more merit slots.  

    School of origin does not seem to reliably predict whether the lawyer you’re dealing with is great, capable or crappy.  More accurate is talking to them a bit, looking at written product, etc. 

  • David Foster

    Peter Drucker, writing about higher education:
    That so much of American education before Sputnik (and still today, I am afraid) was content with mediocrity and rather smug about it, is a real weakness of our knowledge base. By contrast, one strength of American education is the resistance to any elite monopoly. To be sure, we have institutions that enjoy (deservedly or not) high standing and prestige. But we do not, fortunately, discriminate against the men who receive their training elsewhere. The engineer whose degree is from North Idaho A and M does not regard himself as “inferior” or as “not really an engineer”…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim.

    It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A and M is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility that Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap…the European who knows himself competent because he is not accepted as such–because he is not an “Oxbridge” man or because he did not graduate from one of the Grandes Ecoles and become an Inspecteur de Finance in the government service–will continue to emigrate where he will be used according to what he can do rather than according to what he has not done.
    This is from 1969! Given current trends in credentialism, we are in serious danger of losing the openness to talents that Prof Drucker (an Austrian) saw in American society.

  • suek

    >>Thus the nobility are expected to do better at all things, due to the position, authority, and bloodlines they hold.>>

    Otherwise stated as: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

    Up until recently, that was the underlying philosophy of the super wealthy in raising their children. They didn’t take out the trash, but there were other “chores” that were expected of them, usually having to do with either charitable efforts or political efforts. Nowadays, it seems like “not so much”.

  • Danny Lemieux

    My daughter interned with a high-profile Wall Street firm. She is graduating with a business-finance degree from a Midwest land-grant university. She interned with many students from Ivy League schools. All the students from her land-grant university were offered prestigious jobs after the internship. Not so with the Ivy League students.

  • Charles Martel

    Obviously the law firm was racist.

  • Ymarsakar

    There’s nothing to base American elitism on. There’s no war that people can prove their intellect and martial prowess in, for military skill is no longer synonymous with political power.

    For other places they work it through family traditions that run in the blood, not just a piece of paper the bureaucracy printed up that says you are a “Special Exalted Child that will Lower the Sea Levels from On HIgh”. In other cultures they actually have a tradition and foundation for nobility and elitism, so if there are 100 nobles out of 1 million people, you can expect 33 nobles to be good to average, and 66 to be power hungry idiots.

    In America, money is no delineation of social tradition either, since anyone can become wealthy. Just look at Soros, Gore, and Charlie Sheen. A money class can indeed hold traditions such as marriage and stable wealth growing true for generations, but in America not even money can be a stable form of generational transaction. Since people’s fortunes change so much, up and down.

    So what can American elitists base their authority to be elites on? If they cannot use the US Constitution, what else is left other than ego and self-fabricated megalomania? Japan has a history of samurai taking responsibility for failure by killing themselves in ritual suicide. What does America have as a version check to keep retarded, incompetent, and honorless people in check? A slap on the wrist for Bernie Sanders and the stuffing classified information into pants leg? A regular citizen would be jailed for 20 years and be stripped forever of license or citizenship due to that. But Bernie got probation and had his clearance RE INSTITUTED. Do you understand the difference? So where is the check supposedly in existence to keep the elites on an actual quality standard? There is none. Not in America.

  • Ymarsakar

    Transliteration: Sandy Berger.

    And has this injustice been corrected? No. And people expect this country to get better after Obama is gone? How can that be when Leftist injustices continue to be unpunished. In fact they are even rewarded for their arrogant posturing.

    This is not a winning formula for any war.