A young Obama in love: 7 takeaways from a juicy biography
Vanity Fair publishes excerpts from a new book on the president, delving into an intense love affair that Obama had when he was a a young man in New York
Vanity Fair has published excerpts from Barack Obama: The Story, a forthcoming biography of the president by David Maraniss that focuses on two of Obama’s former flames from his days as a student and young graduate in New York City. Obama dated Alex McNear for a brief period in 1982, and Genevieve Cook from December 1983 to May 1985, and Maraniss had access to Obama’s letters to McNear and, perhaps most revealingly, to Cook’s diary. The previously unseen documents show Obama wrestling with the issues of identity that would later be addressed in his memoir, Dreams From My Father. They also offer Cook’s intimate impressions of Obama before he became the public figure we know today.
Here, seven takeaways:
1. Obama really struggled with his identity
His years in New York, beginning at Columbia University in 1981, represent “the most existential stretch of his life,” says
Maraniss. McNear remembers Obama as being obsessed with issues stemming from his race, his upbringing overseas, and his fractured family. In one letter to McNear in 1982, ostensibly about T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” Obama appears to search for a political philosophy he can hold on to, saying, “Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — Eliot is of the type.”
2. He was often quite distant
In a diary entry from January 26, 1984, Cook writes, “How is he so old already, at the age of 22? I have to recognize… that I find his thereness very threatening… Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.” In another from February 25 of the same year: “The sexual warmth is definitely there — but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness — and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.”
3. He didn’t tell Cook he loved her
“When she told him that she loved him,” says Maraniss, “his response was not ‘I love you, too’ but ‘thank you’ — as though he appreciated that someone loved him.” And yet it was the “deepest romantic relationship of his young life,” one which he would explore later in his memoir, though he didn’t identify Cook by name. Obama tells Maraniss that the woman described in Dreams From My Father is a “compression” of girlfriends, including Cook.
4. Cook thought Obama was scarred
In a diary entry dated May 23, 1985, shortly after the couple broke up, Cook writes that Obama’s distance might reflect a deeper, “emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.” She concedes that he had never been infatuated with her, and that perhaps a “lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere” for him.
5. Obama did the crossword in a sarong
“On Sundays Obama would lounge around, drinking coffee and solving The New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong,” says Maraniss. Cook also reveals that the young Obama’s choice of deodorant was Brut.
6. Obama was a regular at the famous Seinfeld restaurant
Obama and his friends often “walked to the corner of Broadway and 112th to eat at Tom’s restaurant, the place immortalized later as the fictional Monk’s, a familiar meeting place for the characters on Seinfeld,” says Maraniss.
7. The print edition of Vanity Fair has Cook’s picture
The online version of the story does not feature a photograph of Cook. For that, you’ll have to purchase Vanity Fair’s June issue.
I don’t know if it means anything–it may mean nothing–but two of the most powerful people in the world, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, apparently spent a lot of time in college thinking, writing and/or speaking about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
For those familiar with English majors on American campuses in the quarter century from 1964-1989, this may be unsettling news. But before we spawn any conspiracy theories about a global takeover by surly, anemic stacks-dwellers–”If they can make you buy health insurance, they can make you read Lacan”–let’s consider the facts:
Last fall, in a post linking to our cover on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, I quoted the passage from Eliot’s East Coker that Clinton cited as a touchstone in her first major public speech at graduation from Wellesley in 1969. “There’s that wonderful line in East Coker by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before,” Clinton said at the time. The actual lines are:
“…What there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Not bad. But that is tame stuff compared with Obama’s analysis of Eliot more than a decade later. We learn from the great David Maraniss in the Vanity Fair excerpt of his upcoming biography, Barack Obama: The Story, that our president went way deeper on Eliot as a 20-year-old at Columbia University in New York. In a letter to his then-girlfriend apparently responding to her deconstructionist interpretation of Eliot, Obama wrote:
“Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.”
OK, maybe we all will be reading (re-reading?) Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts in 2013. But if that makes you want to vote for Mitt Romney, you fail to see the full scope of the threat. Clinton and Obama ended up majoring in political science. Before he got his business and law degrees at Harvard, Willard Mitt Romney spent his time tracing the influence of Homer and Dante on 19th century thought as an English major at Brigham Young University.
Apparently the stacks dwellers were up to–or on to–something.
Obama love letters show a different side of the president
It’s a different view of a man we all think we know so well. In excerpts of a new biography of President Obama by David Maraniss, as published in Vanity Fair, then-student Barack Obama was painted as a man in love.
The magazine describes the relationship between then-Columbia grad student Obama and Genevieve Cook in 1983—described as his most serious romance yet. The story was told through letters written between Obama and Cook.
The book describes Obama’s life in New York at the time, saying that though he felt no attachment to his post-graduation work, his “sense of destiny deepened.”
“He was conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, pres¬ent, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting rec¬ord, one in letters, the other in her journal,” according to an excerpt of the book.
The letters between McNear and Obama centered around philosophy and literature.
“Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — [T.S.] Eliot is of this type,” Obama wrote in one letter to McNear. “Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter — life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?”
Hot? How existential of him! Even his alleged “love letters” are pretentious.
No word yet if the letters were to real women or his usual “composite” girlfriends. President Obama makes stuff up? Who would have thunk it?! It totally happened in band camp. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
In a new book called Barack Obama: The Story, author David Maraniss publishes diary entries and correspondence between the president, then in his early 20s, and two ex-girlfriends, providing new insight into Obama’s life in New York City while at Columbia University.