's Massive Barack Obama-Derrick Bell Video Fail

A supposedly incriminating clip debunks the myth of insufficient vetting, proves little about Obama, and distracts from more serious issues.

There is no better testament to the influence of the late Andrew Breitbart than the buzz over a 1991 video of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School that is heralding. Unfortunately, the buzz also points to the other side of Breitbart's legacy: a tendency to overhype non-stories.

For weeks,'s scoop has been hotly anticipated. Prior to the publisher-provocateur's untimely death, he said he was working on a project to "vet" President Obama, especially his record at Harvard Law School -- a task he felt had not been done. But if this video is the best his allies can do, either Obama's Harvard days aren't fertile ground for opposition researchers or else he was better vetted four years ago than Breitbart thought.

Here's a brief timeline: On Wednesday, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski found the video that had been teasing and posted it. In the evening, the editor of Big Government claimed on Fox News that the video had been "selectively edited." Given the history of the Shirley Sherrod video, that claim was either amusingly hypocritical or else a moment of brilliant irony. In any case, Frontline has the entire video, so you can see for yourself.

Let's start with the controversy itself. Obama was introducing Derrick Bell, then a professor at Harvard who announced he was going on unpaid leave until the school hired a tenured female faculty member of color. At the time, there were none. Interestingly, this remains a serious problem at Harvard. Here's Guy-Uriel Charles, a professor at Duke Law School, writing at the time of former HLS Dean Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court:

Of the 32 new hires [while she was dean], only seven were women. So, she hired 25 white men, six white women, and one Asian American woman. Please do not tell me that there were not enough qualified women and people of color. That's a racist and sexist statement. It cannot be the case that there was not a single qualified black, Latino or Native-American legal academic that would qualify for tenure at Harvard Law School during Elena Kagan's tenure.

Harvard Law School could not immediately provide demographics on its faculty members. Some slightly out-of-date info is available on a Harvard University site about faculty diversity. is charging that there was a massive cover-up of the whole flap, pointing to a video of Charles Ogletree, an Obama mentor and Harvard Law professor, saying, "We hid this throughout the 2008 campaign." But this is bogus -- and not just because the video clearly shows it's a throwaway laugh line. This incident is well known. It was covered at the time, and it's been covered since. David Remnick wrote about it in his major Obama biography, The Bridge. In fact, Frontline used some of this very same footage in a 2008 documentary about Obama. It's valid to ask whether Obama was vetted as fully as he should have been, but this incident is evidence for the proposition that he was.

But for the sake of discussion, let's imagine there was a cover-up. First, one has to believe that Obama's act of introducing and praising Bell for wanting a more diverse faculty is evidence of radical leanings. Apparently, the Breitbart crew believes that the hug alone is incriminating -- hence Ogletree's alleged suppression of the embrace. But is anyone really that surprised that a young black leader in the Harvard Law School community would be sympathetic to a call for more black faculty members? Indeed, there's evidence that Obama was not seen as a zealot on the issue by his peers. During this famously polarized time at the law school, Obama won an election to be president of the Harvard Law Review in part because he was able to earn the trust of the liberal and conservative wings of the publication.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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