Obama’s former girlfriends speak out for first time

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Chicago Sun-Times front page May 3, 2012

WASHINGTON — No one has heard from Barack Obama’s former girlfriends until now, when two of them — Genevieve Cook and Alex McNear, complete with love letters and a diary detailing their relationships — surface in a new Obama biography by David Maraniss.

Obama’s “sexual warmth is definitely there,” Cook wrote on Feb. 25, 1984, “but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all.”

Obama was 22 and living in New York when he started “his most serious romance yet” with Cook in 1983, Maraniss writes in Barack Obama: The Story excerpted in the June issue of Vanity Fair. (The book will be released on June 19.)

He was “guarded, controlled,” a man who built a “veil” around himself, Cook wrote in her journal as she puzzled over how they could be so close — yet so far apart at the same time.

“When she told him that she loved him,” Cook recalled for Maraniss, “his response was not ‘I love you too,’ but ‘thank-you” — as though he appreciated that someone loved him.”

That description of a cool Obama is often how he is seen today.

Despite the massive press attention on Obama’s life in the run-up to his winning an Illinois Senate seat in 2004 and his 2008 presidential campaign, no names of Obama’s girlfriends — even casual dates — have ever been reported.

Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, about an unnamed white woman he loved when he lived in New York after he graduated from Columbia University. Obama, who gave Maraniss an interview for his book, confirmed that Cook was his New York girlfriend.

But Maraniss writes in his book — as if it were a revelation — that Obama in his memoir created composite characters, folding several girlfriends into one to create his New York lover.

I discovered this years ago, writing in an Aug. 8, 2004, column: “I was dismayed, however, at what I found when I read Dreams From My Father. Composite characters. Changed names. And reams of dialogue between Obama and other people that moves the narrative along but is an approximation” of the actual conversation.

“Except for public figures and his family, it is impossible to know who is real and who is not.”

Obama did disclose in his introduction, I wrote in 2004, “that he uses these literary devices to buttress his recollections. He also kept a journal.”

“For the sake of compression,” Obama wrote in the intro, “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of their privacy.”

Maraniss spent years on the Obama biography, and I give him a lot of credit for tracking down Cook and McNear.

McNear was a friend from when Obama attended Occidential College in California, “who had enchanted Obama when she was co-editing” a campus literary magazine.

The more profound relationship was with Cook, three years older than Obama, the daughter of an Australian diplomat who — as did he — lived for a time in Indonesia.

“Day by day, week by week, her perceptions of him became more complicated,” Maraniss writes about Cook’s journal entries:

Sunday, January 22, 1984

“What a startling person Barack is — so strange to voice intimations of my own perceptions — have them heard, responded to so on the sleeve. A sadness, in a way, that we are both so questioning that original bliss is dissipated — but feels really good not to be faltering behind some facade — to not feel that doubt must be silenced and transmuted into distance.

Thursday, January 26

“How is he so old already, at the age of 22? I have to recognize (despite play of wry and mocking smile on lips) that I find his thereness very threatening. . . . Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.

Saturday, February 25

“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. I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-stranded reasons. 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.

Thursday, March 22

“Barack — still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.”

The romance eventually ended.

Thursday, May 23, 1985

“Barack leaving my life — at least as far as being lovers goes.

“. . . I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and “fall in love” with me. Now, at this point, I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.

“Hard to say, as obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)”

Cook’s worries turned out to be unfounded. He fell in love and married Michelle Robinson in 1992.

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