PRESIDENT’S NEW YORK LIFE
TODAY, the story of the bare-chested crosswordpuzzle solver. Barack Obama barely mentions his New York years in his autobiography, Dreams From My Father. I have always wanted to know more, ever since I learned that in 1981, when he was a student at Columbia, we lived within a few blocks of one another. Also, we patronised the same diner, and his first book editor also edited one of my books. So really, we are practically the same person.
This is not to be confused with the curiosity of, say, Donald Trump, who – during his pseudo presidential campaign – subjected Obama’s Columbia degree to the same keen intellectual scrutiny as the birth certificate. (“The people that went to school with him, they never saw him. They don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”) I am bringing all this up because Vanity Fair has just published an interesting excerpt from a forthcoming Obama biography by David Maraniss. It includes interviews with two former girlfriends from the New York period.
Admit it, everybody likes a good girlfriend story.
There has always been some curiosity about the president’s pre-Michelle love life. Obama briefly described one unnamed romantic interest in Dreams From My Father, who turns out to be a composite of a couple of women, including a New Yorker named Genevieve Cook.
If I was just starting out in life, I think one of my goals would be to become a composite girlfriend of a future president. You get a part in the story, but there’s really not all that much pressure.
Cook and the other woman, Alex McNear, depict a young Barack Obama who’s pretty similar to the one in Dreams From My Father – searching for his identity, smart and introspective.
He was tough to get close to.
Cook kept a diary that called him “guarded, controlled” with a whole lot of “distance and wariness.” While Obama was obviously in many ways a remarkable young man, this last part actually sounds a lot like 80 percent of all the 22-year-old boyfriends on the planet. (The others may require an occasional restraining order.) When Cook told Obama she loved him, he said “thank you.” I cannot tell you how often that sort of thing happens.
It’s remarkable, and somewhat reassuring, that two women with documented evidence of their love affairs with the president of the United States took so long to let anyone see it. Although to be honest, we could have waited a few years more. I think I speak for most of America when I say that after all we’ve been through, our bottom line is just to make certain that the men we are electing to high office only had affairs with women who are not going to ever show up in a tabloid announcing their need to “give my side of the story.” The Barack Obama the New York women describe seems more appropriate for a Noel Coward play than The National Enquirer. He accuses one girlfriend of sharing TS Eliot’s “irreconcilable ambivalence.” The other depicts him on Sunday mornings “drinking coffee and solving The New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong.” For cheap thrills, he does once appear clad in a “Tshirt depicting buxom women.” Obama was still rather young to have that T-shirt held against him in 2012, but his New York period is fair game for reasonable amounts of scrutiny. The only absolute rule is to discount things a presidential candidate did before age 18. If Mitt Romney names Marco Rubio as his vice presidential nominee, it is not fair to point out that Rubio was also once a Mormon because the conversion and deconversion happened between the ages of 8 and 13.
Also eating dog meat when you are a child in Indonesia is not the same thing as driving to Canada with the family Irish setter strapped to the roof of the car when you are 36.
But college years have to count for something if a person included them in his best-selling autobiography.
Also, sometimes things reverberate. Mitt Romney is certainly not disqualified from running for president because when he was at Stanford, he and some friends trapped students from a rival college, shaved their heads and painted them red. On the other hand, you would want to ask whether that pretty much still defines Romney’s sense of humor.
Maraniss’ book will not be out until June, but it’s an eagerly awaited chapter for the story.
Critics have argued that Obama’s own portrayal of that period pushes the seeking-answers-toprofound- issues-of-race-andclass angle and fails to let readers in on the degree to which this was the journey of an extremely ambitious young man intent on parlaying himself into a major – and possibly presidential – future.To which, on behalf of all readers, I say: Duh.