Obama with his wife Michelle on the South Lawn of the White House last week. (Reuters)
Washington, June 17: At a celebrity-packed fundraiser at the New York home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker last week, President Barack Obama made his usual joke about his wife, daughters and dog being more popular than he is.
He then made a more unusual reference to another family matter that has long intrigued White House watchers. “I don’t get a chance to say this a lot publicly,” the President said. “Some of you know that Michelle had some scepticism about a life in politics. I think that’s well known.”
While numerous authors have tried to describe occasional tensions in the Obama marriage as Michelle adjusted to her husband’s ambitions, a new biography to be published this week suggests that America does not know nearly as much as it wants to about its first black President’s meteoric rise to power — and is hungry for the smallest detail, especially about his romantic relationships.
In New York, Obama paid tribute to the qualities his wife had brought “to an extraordinarily difficult task as First Lady”. This weekend, it included the improbable challenge of smiling serenely while everyone in Washington was talking about her husband’s old girlfriends.
Not many husbands would relish the publication of 20-year-old diaries written by former lovers, complete with accounts of “running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing”. Michelle Obama’s “scepticism” about a life in politics may also extend to a distaste for public discussion of the women who previously shared her husband’s bed.
Yet that is the ordeal now facing the Obamas with the publication of Barack Obama — The Story, a blockbuster biography by David Maraniss, a Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post reporter.
That Obama dated white women in the early 1980s is scarcely a secret. In Dreams from My Father, his best-selling autobiography, he describes at length his search for racial identity — his father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white American — and he refers several times to a “New York girlfriend” who was white.
The President has since acknowledged that the woman in his book — who played a small but significant role in persuading him to embrace his blackness — was a composite of several white women he dated.
Several biographers have attempted to fill the gaps in Obama’s account, but Maraniss hit the jackpot when he tracked down Genevieve Cook and Alex McNear, both former girlfriends of the man who once said that despite the colour of his skin he “felt like an impostor” describing himself as black.
Cook provided Maraniss with excerpts from a diary she kept at the time; McNear supplied letters Obama had written to her. While the contents are neither salacious nor scandalous, they are already fuelling a vitriolic debate about Obama’s origins and performance, and are helping provide what a New York Times reviewer described as “a richer view of the man we have become familiar with, without really knowing”.
Reaction to extracts from the book has inevitably divided along partisan lines. Right-wing Obama haters have flooded online networks with comments such as Brad Gates’s on Facebook: “Proving what we already knew: (Obama is) pathologically self-absorbed, narcissistic, manipulative, cold.”
Leanne Scorzoni, on the other hand, found the new pictures of a student Obama alluring: “Would definitely have gone out with a young Obama. Although I’d be turned off by the smoking.” There were also those who wondered what all the fuss was about: “He dated women in college!” wrote Taylor Murphy on Facebook. “Let’s all freak out...”
Yet the Cook diary and McNear letters illuminate what remains a significant aspect of Obama’s rise, with echoes that linger today. Although he is the first African-American President, he has been criticised by some black activists for not doing enough to help his race.
Obama’s desire to transcend race — to be seen not as a black President but as a competent President — was foreshadowed in a letter he wrote to McNear more than 30 years ago: “The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions (and) classes; make them mine, me theirs.”
Cook, a bright young Australian teacher who had migrated to New York, met Obama at a Christmas party in 1983 and was immediately smitten. “I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after,” she told Maraniss. “I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable.”
It was Cook who wrote in her diary of her new lover’s “mixture of smells, his presence, his liveliness, his habits, he is very beautiful”. Yet she found that despite his “sexual warmth”, he could be cool and distant.
After discussions about racial identity, Cook came to believe that Obama had not resolved the dilemma of his mixed parentage and “needed to go black”. She wrote in her diary shortly before they broke up: “I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced — a black woman I keep seeing her as.”
With a difficult election looming, scrutiny of Barack and Michelle can only intensify. No wonder he is paying her compliments — by November she may have many more reasons to be sceptical of a political life.