Young Obama Was Intellectually Deep But His Girlfriend Was Speedier

May 2, 2012
Originally published on May 3, 2012 7:40 am

David Maraniss, the Washington Post journalist, who has written memorable biographies of former President Bill Clinton and legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, has, as is his custom, found some previously unreported and fascinating material for a new biography on his latest subject, President Obama.

Maraniss gained access to at least some of the journals of one of Obama's girlfriends, Genevieve Cook, who he dated when he lived in New York City just after his graduation from Columbia University. Maraniss also had access to some of the correspondence between the two.

Vanity Fair has an excerpt from Maraniss' biography "Barack Obama: The Story" to be released in June.

Among the things the journal entries revealed is that in his early 20s, Obama had an intellectual depth that easily exceeded most others of his peer group but that also comes across at times as a little too precious and prancing.

For instance, take this excerpt from a letter he wrote to Cook after she told him that she was writing a paper on poet T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land:"

"I haven't read 'The Waste Land' for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he's less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it's due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance..."

If ever you felt like you needed a college professor to walk you through a letter between a guy and his girlfriend, this would be it.

What also comes across is how discerning Cook was of Obama's internal struggles with his racial identity and how much to reveal of himself to the outside world. She wrote in journal entries:

Friday, March 9, 1984
It's not a question of my wanting to probe ancient pools of emotional trauma ... but more a sense of you [Barack] biding your time and drawing others' cards out of their hands for careful inspection—without giving too much of your own away—played with a good poker face. And as you say, it's not a question of intent on your part—or deliberate withholding—you feel accessible, and you are, in disarming ways. But I feel that you carefully filter everything in your mind and heart—legitimate, admirable, really—a strength, a necessity in terms of some kind of integrity. But there's something also there of smoothed veneer, of guardedness ... but I'm still left with this feeling of ... a bit of a wall—the veil.

Thursday, March 22
Barack—still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled.

One of the best parts in the Vanity Fair excerpt is Cook's description of beating a very surprised Obama in a footrace.

"On Sunday Barack and I raced, and I won. I ran so fast my body transformed itself onto another plane. We ran, he started off behind me and I just said to myself stay ahead, stay ahead and my body became a flat thin box w/ my arms and legs coming each precisely from a corner. And I didn't know how long I could keep it up, but I was going to try—my whole sight concentrated on the lamp post when I felt him slow and yell you beat me, at first I thought he was giving up, but then I realized he'd meant the lamp post on the left and I'd really won! The feel of the race was exhilarating, but I didn't feel very victorious. Barack couldn't really believe it and continued to feel a bit unsettled by it all weekend, I think..."

Maybe Hillary Clinton should've challenged him to a footrace in 2008.

Cook was also prescient in anticipating Michelle Obama. After she and the future president ended their relationship in May 1985, she wrote:

"... Obviously I was not the person that brought infatuation. (That lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere!)"

All in all, an interesting glimpse at the president as a young man. It's a reminder that anyone who would become president would be well advised to treat the people they meet along the way well, or at least decently, since one day Maraniss or someone very much like him will be interviewing them.

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