The man who lost to Obama! A Brooklyn Paper exclusive!

Winner and loser: As president, Barack Obama is in the center of this archival shot of the Harvard Law Review staff. As the man he defeated, Park Sloper David Goldberg is in the far left bottom corner.
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It is no small thing to say that a Park Slope lawyer named David Goldberg is one of the most important figures in American history.

Goldberg, you see, ran against Barack Obama for president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990.

So it stands to reason that if Goldberg had won, perhaps he — and not Barack Obama — would now be the president-elect.

Uh, no.

“If I had actually beaten Barack, it would have very quickly revealed what a lousy president of the United States I would be,” said Goldberg, who ended up serving as Obama’s articles editor before beginning a legal career that included clerking for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (before she was a Supreme Court justice) and David Souter (when he was one), a stint at the White House as a special counsel in the personnel office, and a private practice specializing in civil rights law.

Despite Obama’s election in November to the highest office in the land, Goldberg is definitely not sitting around thinking about what might have been had he assumed the highest office in the land of Harvard lawyers.

“When I ran for president of the Law Review, my dream was to sit in a library and read legal documents, not manage 70 or 80 people, deal with self-important law professors and students, or mediate debates — the stuff that Barack was, and is, great at,” Goldberg said. “Barack’s management style and competence stood out, even then.”

Until now, Goldberg has not spoken to the press about the events of that long February day in 1990 when 19 ambitious young legal minds set out to win the job of Law Review president. But he agreed to talk to this reporter because, one can only assume, this reporter called him and asked.

Here’s how it went down: Like a proto-reality show, all of the hopefuls gathered in a room while their jury — the 60 or so Law Review writers and editors — winnowed the field one by one over the course of the day.

“It was somewhat absurd,” Goldberg recalled, “because 19 people wanted the job out of 35 potential candidates. There was certainly no shortage of ego or ambition in the room.”

Eventually, just two men were standing: Obama and Goldberg. And both waited in a room together, perhaps unaware (or perhaps all too aware) that this election would change history.

“Now it can be told: We drank a shot of vodka and waited for the vote,” Goldberg said. “But there wasn’t much tension, partly because we were friends, but mostly because I had no realistic chance against Barack. I am quite confident that the final vote was extremely lopsided. Barack was a very compelling candidate, as he proved to be for president. He was just as impressive a character then as now.”

Goldberg had no time to sulk, either, as Obama tapped him to be articles editor. Goldberg got his dream of reading law journal articles for 40 hours a week while Obama got the headache of overseeing every phase of the 300-page monthly publication.

In other words, perfect preparation for becoming president, right counselor?

“Not at all,” Goldberg said. “There’s no way in which it’s preparation for being president. But watching Barack did show me what a great manager and leader he was. Think about how absurd a law review is: you have second-year law students editing submissions by world-renowned Harvard law professors. There’s a lot of diplomacy there. And the head of the publication has to motivate people to work long hours and come back early from summer vacations.

“I didn’t think he would become president, but he showed a leadership and management of people — people with strong egos, huge amounts of arrogance, and some ideological diversity.”

Obama must have done a good job; nearly 20 years later, Goldberg still considers himself a friend, has occasionally been an adviser, and remains a dedicated campaign contributor.

That’s a lot more support than Goldberg has given to the other political rival that vanquished him in a bitter ninth-grade student council election.

It soured him on politics for years — until, that is, a man named Barack Obama beat the pants off him.

Gersh Kuntzman is the Editor of The Brooklyn Paper. E-mail Gersh at
Updated 5:10 pm, July 9, 2018
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