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Obama at 22: Ambitious, in love and keeping his distance

May 03, 2012|By Morgan Little
  • President Obama addresses troops in Afghanistan.
President Obama addresses troops in Afghanistan. (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

A future president sits shirtless in his apartment working the New York Times crossword as his girlfriend looks on, amid conflict over an emotional barrier between himself and those close to him, unsure of his future path in life but certain that it would be one he would build himself.

That’s the portrait David Maraniss paints of a young Barack Obama in an upcoming biography.

Details of Obama’s past love life, excerpts of which have been published by Vanity Fair, are the focus of a preview piece of "Barack Obama: The Story." The key character in the excerpt is Genevieve Cook, an ex-girlfriend of Obama who met him during a Christmas party in 1983. After spending the night talking, they exchanged numbers and eventually became deeply involved.

"I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after," Cook recalled. "I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable."

Cook was a 25-year-old assistant second- and third-grade teacher at the time, and had long kept a detailed journal of her life. Naturally, Obama became a recurring character.

"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 there-ness very threatening.… Distance, distance, distance and wariness," she wrote on Jan. 26, 1984.

Her later entries show a sense of detachment from Obama, though their relationship continued.

"I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-strained reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness," she wrote Feb. 25, 1984.

Obama’s letters to an earlier girlfriend, Alex McNear, portrayed his inner struggle:

"Caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me," he wrote. "The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs."
"Obama recalled that he was then 'deep inside my own head … in a way that in retrospect I don’t think was real healthy,' " Maraniss writes of an interview he later had with the president in the White House.

Cook eventually became one of several girlfriends who formed a composite figure in Obama’s book, "Dreams From My Father."

Passages from the book depicting "a woman in New York that I loved" contained events that Cook didn’t take part in, which Obama has explained as "an example of compression. I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them."

Cook and Obama split in 1985 after living together off and on for some time.

"Barack leaving my life -- at least as far as being lovers goes. In the same way that the relationship was founded on calculated boundaries and carefully, rationally considered developments, it seems to be ending along coolly considered lines," Cook wrote on May 23, 1985.

Later in the spring of 1985, Obama landed a job at the Developing Communities Project in Chicago as a community organizer, after having been to the city only once. And the rest, as they say, is history.

[For the record, 8:45 p.m. May 3: An earlier version of this post said Barack Obama's letter about his sense of isolation had been written to Genevieve Cook. He wrote it to an earlier girlfriend, Alex McNear.]

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