As elected leader of the free world, President Barack Obama may seem larger than life to the American people. However, every now and then we are provided with a brief glimpse at the man behind the title. A man who like many men before him had several romantic relationships—some of which shaped his transformative years as a young man. Vanity Fair, the latest publication to feature an intimate look at President Obama’s background, has published an adaptation from David Maraniss‘ upcoming book Barack Obama: The Story. In this exclusive read, Maraniss spotlights two young women, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook—both of whom played integral roles in President Obama’s New York years—where he spent most of his twenties. Like many twenty-something year olds, the young Obama faced an ongoing existential crisis that stemmed mainly from his multiple racial, ethic and socioeconomic identities.
These years were primarily spent brooding, observing and self-evaluating, according to McNear and Cook. McNear, a fellow Occidental College student of Obama’s whom he met as a student on campus, kept the many letters that a young Obama sent to her after their whirlwind romance while she was in New York City for the summer. The two young lovers spent the season getting to know one another better through a series of intimate conversations on everything from philosophy to literature. “I remember thinking how happy I felt just talking to him, that I could talk to him for hours,” McNear revealed. Maraniss features clips of these profound letters throughout his piece, highlighting the internal conflict that Obama seemed to have regarding his “obsession with the concept of choice.”
As for Cook, an Australian young woman who had come from several distinguished families, the relationship she shared with Obama is described as “the deepest romantic relationship of his young life.” Obama and Cook shared a great deal in common, including a shared notion of being “outsiders” of their social circles and former residents of Indonesia. Having met initially at a mutual friend’s Christmas party in 1983, the two swiftly began dating, seeing one another on a weekly basis, and ultimately moving in with one another.
Both kept very detailed journals, Cook’s serving as the primary source of Maraniss’ look into this extremely telling and transformative period of Obama—who gradually began displaying signs of the man he would eventually become. In addition to dwelling on “the veil” of distance and coolness that a usually warm Obama often held between himself and Cook, according to her entries, Obama had begun to further develop and cultivate his personal identity—in spite of his ambivalence towards his upbringing. In her journal, Cook discloses her feelings of helplessness when it came to supporting Obama in his discovery of his racial affiliation. Apparently, he had enough told her about his “dream” woman whom Cook believed to be a “lithe, bubbly, strong Black lady”—something that she could never be. At the same time, he confessed to Cook, “At times he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a Black bone in his body.”
To mitigate these feelings of isolation, Obama ultimately resorted to a self-determined evaluation of his identity based not on socially constructed labels, but on a more basic human level. In his journal, Obama wrote, “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. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is at the core of who I am.”
Maraniss’ book may not be groundbreaking in terms of content, seeing as how President Obama discusses some of his past relationships in his own previously published memoir, Barack Obama: The Story promises to color in the story with more intimate details, descriptions, and first-hand accounts. Those particularly interested in a young President Obama’s perceptions of race, identity, and coming of age in a more relatable way will find Maraniss’ gathered accounts not only an informative source, but an extremely humanizing and eloquent portrayal of the most powerful man in government today.