Barack Obama, I thought you were different.
It turns out that at 22, you were just like, well any other 22-year-old man.
Obama was “sexually warm” but “emotionally cool” says Genevieve Cook, an early girlfriend in a much publicised article in Vanity Fair.
As kiss and tells go, this excerpt from an upcoming book on Obama by David Maraniss, is rather tame. (You can read the entire excerpt here.)
Think Harlequin romance with the TDH stranger – Obama lounging around bare-chested in his blue and white sarong, his room a “warm private space pervaded by a mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits – running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.”
But this is Harlequin romance for the intellectually inclined – the shirtless Obama does not just lounge in that sarong. He solves the New York Times Sunday crossword. He also discusses Derrida and reserves more of his passion for a discussion on TS Eliot than on romance.
When his girlfriend says “I love you” his response is “Thank you.”
The timing of this excerpt is obvious. The book is coming out in June and although it’s about much more than Obama’s early love life, “sexually warm” is what is going to heat up the sales.
With the presidential election getting into full swing, Obama is also in the need for a little bit of a makeover. The cool, cerebral, cosmopolitan image was so 2008. In the last few weeks we’ve been seeing glimpses of Obama 2012. He’s an avenger, the one who smoked Osama bin Laden out of his Abbottabad lair. He’s a jokester telling the press club he had lots of material but “I have to get the Secret Service home in time for their new curfew.” Now it turns out he’s also a lover. Almost all the media coverage headlines that “sexual warmth.”
The comments have been fairly uniform.
Waste of space. E-tainment voyeurism. Who … cares? A story about paint drying would be more interesting than this.
Come on people, you read the whole piece, didn’t you? Would you have read it with such interest if it said “Obama’s early New York days show his nascent middle of road politics”?
In fact, that’s what really comes out in the Vanity Fair article. The bare-chested Obama or the Obama in a Luscious Ladies t-shirt is just a decoy meant to tease you into thinking there are juicier bits buried in there.
But this is really the portrait of a man who is very deliberately fashioning an identity for himself. He writes in a letter that he is “caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me.” He is not really looking for a girlfriend. He is looking for an identity.
He needed to become black. At one point he tells Cook he feels like a racial “impostor” – a man who looks black but grew up with white grandparents in Hawaii. “There was hardly a black bone in his body,” she writes. Then he started carrying around a frayed copy of Ralph Ellison’s famous book The Invisible Man. As a man who looks visibly black but feels white he is almost the inverse of Ellison’s black man who is invisible in the white world. Cook wrote in her journal that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black.”
He needed to become American. When Obama came to New York, he was the cool outsider, a sort of immigrant-like figure, a man who had lived around the world and grew up on an island far away from the American heartland. In New York his best friends were party-hearty Pakistanis who taught him how to cook a mean ginger beef dish. “He knew the ways of different cultures better than he knew himself,” writes Maraniss.
He needed to find his politics. Those who now moan that Obama betrayed the liberal left will find that he was always suspicious of what he saw as the excesses of the left. He did not think it was practical. Though he was bored with his job at Business International its stated goal is not a bad summation of Obama’s philosophy – “to advance profitable corporate and economic growth in socially desirable ways.” He did not like the radical rhetoric of the 1960s but was leery of the business world his Pakistani friends were embracing with gusto. He was the quintessential middle path guy.
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In the process of that self-conscious identity-crafting Obama does what all writers do. He uses people as means to an end. He selects stories to prove a point. So his own memoir has a story about his fight with his white girlfriend about race after watching a play about an angry black man. The unnamed girlfriend in the memoir sounds like Cook but it turns out the play incident didn’t happen with her. Obama has said that the “New York girlfriend” in his memoir was a composite character. That’s well and good, except the New York girlfriend is also a real woman and now the right wingers are jumping up and down saying he fabricated his life story. (And by extension his birth certificate.)
That’s rubbish but the birthers who are harping about his birth certificate are unwittingly on to something. Barack Obama is really not 100% American in the way other presidents have been. It’s not about where he was born. He was a loner with scattered roots who didn’t belong anywhere. His biography is not fabricated but his identity is carefully constructed – that is the audacity of the talented Mr Obama. The question is is he at home in it?
What the Vanity Fair excerpt shows is that he never felt assured of his place in America. That famous there are no red states, or blue states, only the United States speech in 2004 that catapulted him to national attention acquires a new poignancy in light of this portrait of the president as a young man. It turns out he was always looking for that common ground not for America’s sake but his own.
“The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal.”
Yes, he also once wore a Luscious Ladies t-shirt and blue jeans and sat at the edge of the bed. That has certainly fired up Vanity Fair's imagination. But dishy as that is, that will have little bearing on his presidential legacy. The identity stuff, however, can actually affect his policies.