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.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- Hey, Paul Ryan's new poverty plan isn't completely terrible!
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
- Deficit scolds are the most crazed ideologues in America
- The secret to Gabrielle Hamilton's amazing grilled cheese sandwiches
- The disturbing lessons of Arizona's un-American execution
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
Subscribe to the Week