Twenty-two years old, just graduated from Columbia University and about to enter his first meaningful romantic relationship, Barack Obama charmed a young Australian woman at a Christmas party in 1983.
Sitting on an orange bean bag in the sixth-floor East Village apartment in New York City, Mr. Obama and Genevieve Cook, who was three years older, swapped stories about their overlapping stays in Jakarta, where he spent time as a boy.
“They talked nonstop, moving from one subject to another, sharing an intense and immediate affinity, enthralled by the randomness of their meeting and how much they had in common. They had lived many places but never felt at home,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, whose biography, Barack Obama: The Story, is to be published in June.
The details of the young would-be U.S. President’s romance and his struggle with issues of identity and race are drawn from the diaries Ms. Cook kept of their relationship. She provided her diaries to Mr. Maraniss, who quotes from them in his book.
Cool detachment and emotional distance are recurring themes.
In a February, 1983 excerpt, just weeks in to the relationship, Ms. Cook writes about her lover’s “sexual warmth.” But the relationship unsettles her.
“His warmth can be deceptive. Though 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,” she writes.
A month later, another excerpt: “Barack – still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.”
Mr. Obama’s personal story – born to a Kenyan father and American mother, raised by his grandparents – is highlighted in his own best-selling autobiography Dreams from My Father. Mr. Maraniss’s biography delves deeper into key moments in Mr. Obama’s autobiography.
Contradictory accounts emerge.
In the book, he writes about his “New York girlfriend” without naming her. In one key passage, he describes getting in to an argument in front of the theatre where the two had just seen a play by a black playwright – a performance that made his girlfriend wonder “why black people were so angry,” as Mr. Obama recalled.
“When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough,” he wrote.
As it turns out, the incident never occurred with Ms. Cook. So who was the “New York girlfriend” referred to by Mr. Obama?
Mr. Maraniss explored the issue with Mr. Obama in a White House interview that was meant to last 45 minutes but instead went for 90 minutes. In that encounter, Mr. Obama explained that the incident did occur, but not with Ms. Cook. The New York girlfriend in his memoir, as Mr. Obama explained, was a “compression” of several girlfriends.
The first edition of the book Dreams from My Father acknowledges the use of composite characters. Still, the question arises: What other aspects of President Obama’s personal story have been “compressed?”
Mr. Obama’s relationship with Ms. Cook fizzled 18 months after it started. “Barack leaving my life – at least as far as being lovers goes,” Ms. Cook writes in a May, 1985, journal entry, speculating that a “lithe, bubbly, strong black lady” awaited Mr. Obama somewhere.
In his memoir, Mr. Obama describes how he “pushed” his New York girlfriend away.
But, as Mr. Maraniss’s biography shows, Ms. Cook remembers the end of the relationship differently.
“My take on it had always been that I pushed him away, found him not to be ‘enough,’ had chafed at his withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity, which, eventually, I imagined might be assuaged, or certain elements of it might be, by living together,” she is quoted as telling Mr. Maraniss.
She added: “Because it felt so intrinsically to be part of his character, though, this careful consideration of everything he does, I saw it, then, as a sort of wound, one which ultimately I decided I was not the person he would ‘fix’ it with.”