Posts Tagged ‘Mattie Stepanek’

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mattie Stepanek and Five Judges

May 10, 2011

On April 30th at the University of Chicago Law School’s reunion week-end , two of its distinguished graduates, Geoffrey Stone and Robert Barnett, spoke about some interesting people with whom they have interacted: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Mattie Stepanek and five judges (Circuit Judges J. Skelly Wright and Minor Wisdom and U.S. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan, Byron White and Elena Kagan).

Geoffrey Stone

Geoffrey Stone

Geoffrey R. Stone is a 1971 graduate of the Law School, law clerk to U.S. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright (1971-72) and U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan (1973). In 1973 he returned to the Law School to join its faculty where he has been ever since. He was Dean of the Law School (1987-93) and Provost of the University (1993-2002). He is now the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the Law School.[1]

Barack Obama

Stone recounted the story of the Law School’s recruitment of Barack Obama to join the faculty. In 1991 Michael McConnell, then a professor at the Law School and now at the Stanford Law School, told Professor Douglas Baird, who was the chairman of the faculty appointments committee at the time, about Obama, then an impressive editor at the Harvard Law Review who was doing an excellent job editing McConnell’s submission. Baird reached out to Obama and asked him about teaching, and Obama agreed to come for interviews at the Law School.[2]

Stone recalled that when he met Obama for the first time, Barack at age 26 already had a real political persona. “It was partly a kind of magnetism, partly a kind of grace, a sense of his own presence. You couldn’t mistake that you were with somebody who thought he was somebody—not in a bad way, but in a compelling way.” After Obama left, Stone’s secretary said,” He’s going to be governor of Illinois someday.”

The Law School then made an offer to Obama to be a full-time assistant professor. Obama refused the offer as he already had plans to write a book on voting rights. So Stone and Baird took a different approach and offered Obama a Law and Government Fellowship, which would allow him to work on his book and would perhaps lead him to develop an interest in teaching. Obama accepted the offer and began the fellowship in the fall of 1991. The book, instead of being about voting rights, was the autobiographical  Dreams of My Father.

The next year Obama became a Lecturer (and a Senior Lecturer in 1996) and continued to teach at the Law School until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Obama taught “Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection,” “Voting Rights and the Democratic Process,” and a seminar entitled “Current Issues in Racism and the Law.” After his election as President, glowing comments were made about his time at the Law School:

  • Stone said, “As a teacher and colleague, [Obama] was always curious, probing, open-minded, and rigorous.”
  • Professor Baird said, “From the open and robust debates [Obama] generated in every class to the many more informal displays of his tenacious mind and incisive wit, it was a great privilege to have had Barack Obama with us for twelve years.”
  • Davis Strauss, the Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, offered that “at the Law School we have known for a long time . . . that Barack Obama is both amazingly gifted and a deeply human person.”

Elena Kagan

Stone also hired Elena Kagan for the Law School’s faculty (1991-95), and he joked that he has the distinction of being the only law school dean who hired two people who later became President of the U.S. and an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judge Wright and Justice Brennan

Stone said it was a great privilege to be a law clerk for both of these judges, who made him feel like he was a part of their families. Brennan was usually a very cheerful man to one and all in the Supreme Court building.

Robert Barnett

Robert Barnett

Robert B. Barnett is also a 1971 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a former law clerk for Circuit Judge Minor Wisdom (1971-72) and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White (1972-73). Barnett is now a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Williams and Connolly, LLP. He was ranked Number One on Washingtonian magazine’s list of “Washington’s Best Lawyers” and as one of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by The National Law Journal. He represents major corporations in litigation matters, corporate work, contracts, crisis management, transactions, government relations, and media relations.[3]

Mr. Barnett is also one of the premier authors’ representatives in the world. His clients have included Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush, Bob Woodward, Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, James Patterson, Katharine Graham, Daniel Silva, Tim Russert, Stephen White, Barbara Streisand, George Will, Art Buchwald, James Carville, Mary Matalin, William Bennett, Mary Higgins Clark, Cokie Roberts, several former U.S. Secretaries of State, numerous U.S. Senators, Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, Queen Noor of Jordan and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. He is also one of the leading representatives of many famous television news correspondents and producers. Mr. Barnett also provides legal counsel to former government officials in conjunction with their transitions to the private sector. [4]

His legal practice as an authors’ representative, he said, grew out of his helping Geraldine Ferraro prepare for the vice presidential candidates debate in 1984 when he played the role of George H.W. Bush in practice debates. After the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush ticket defeated the Mondale-Ferraro team, she wrote a book about her political experiences and hired Barnett as her lawyer in negotiating a contract with the publisher. This was his first book publishing deal.[5]

Judge Minor Wisdom and Justice Byron White

Judge Wisdom, much like Judge Skelly Wright, was a warm human being and an excellent judge. Justice White, while also an excellent judge, was more formal and reserved. But not on the basketball court where White, a former professional  football and basketball player, regularly challenged the law clerks in hard-fought games.

Bill Clinton

In response to a question about who were the most impressive people he had met and worked with, Barnett said there were two people.

The first was Bill Clinton. Clinton, he said, knew more people than anyone else. And Clinton knew more about more subjects and with greater depth than anyone he has ever met.

Mattie Stepanek

Mattie Stepanek

The second person named by Barnett was surprising to me in that he did not name one of the other famous people he had represented. Instead he said it was someone I had never heard of: Mattie (whose last name I could not catch). Barnett said that Mattie was a young poet who had appeared on the Oprah Winfrey television show, and Barnett had had the privilege of negotiating an excellent book deal for him. Mattie was an exceptionally gifted and brave person, Barnett said, adding that Mattie had died of a rare form of muscular dystrophy at age 13.

After I got home and googled “Barnett & Mattie & Oprah,” I discovered Mattie’s last name was Stepanek and learned more about him.[6] He had published six books of poetry and one book of essays, all of which had been on the New York Times‘ bestsellers lists. He also had become a peace advocate and motivational speaker and had testified on Capitol Hill on behalf of peace, people with disabilities and children with life-threatening conditions. Over 1,300 people attended his funeral, and former President Jimmy Carter delivered the eulogy. Carter said,

“We have known kings and queens, and we’ve know presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek. His life philosophy was “Remember to play after every storm” and his motto was: “Think Gently, Speak Gently, Live Gently.” He wanted to be remembered as “a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.”


[1]  Univ. Chicago Law School, Geoffrey R. Stone, http://www.law.uchicago.edu/faculty/stone-g. Edward H. Levi was the Dean of the Law School (1950-62), Provost of the University (1962-68), President of the University (1968-75) and U.S. Attorney General (1975-77). (Wikipedia, Edward H. Levi, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_H._Levi.)

[2]  Stone’s comments about Obama are supplemented by the following: U. Chi. Law School Press Release:  Former Senior Lecturer Barrack Obama Elected President of the United States (Nov. 4, 2008), http://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/staff110408; Hundley, Faculty Discuss Their Time as Obama’s Colleagues (Chic. Trib. March 22, 2009), http://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/faculty032209; Mordfin, From the Green Lounge to the White House, The Record Online (Spring 2009), http://www.law.uchicago.edu/alumni/magazine/spring09/greenloungetowhitehouse.

[3]  Williams & Connolly, Robert Barnett, http://www.wc.com/rbarnett.

[4]  Id.; Montgomery, Washington lawyer Bob Barnett is the force behind many political book deals, Wash. Post., March 7, 2010.

[5] Mr. Barnett has worked on eight national presidential campaigns, focusing on debate preparation for the Democratic candidates in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2008. He played the role of George H.W. Bush in practice debates with Michael Dukakis in 1988, and practice-debated Bill Clinton more than 20  times during the 1992 campaign. In 2000, he played the role of Dick Cheney in practices with Joe Lieberman. In 2004, he played the role of Dick Cheney in practices with John Edwards. In 2000 and 2006, he assisted Hillary Rodham Clinton with her Senate debate preparations and helped prepare her for 23 presidential primary debates in 2008. Id.

[6] Wikipedia, Mattie Stepanek, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mattie_Stepanek;Mattie Stepanek’s Personal Website, .http://www.mattieonline.com/.


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