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Biography excerpt features Obama's early love life, 'internal struggle'

Vanity Fair runs part of 'Barack Obama: The Story' by David Maraniss. Two former girlfriends provided letters and a journal.

May 04, 2012|By Morgan Little and Connie Stewart
  • Barack Obama on the campus of Occidental College during his freshman year (1979-80).
Barack Obama on the campus of Occidental College during his freshman year… (Eric Moore / Oxy '83 )

A future president sits shirtless in his rent-controlled Manhattan apartment working the New York Times crossword while his girlfriend looks on, an emotional barrier separating him from those close to him. He is unsure of his future path in life but certain that it will be one he builds himself.

That's the portrait David Maraniss paints of a young Barack Obama in an upcoming biography, "Barack Obama: The Story," which is excerpted in Vanity Fair. The biography ends as Obama heads to Harvard Law School, but the excerpt is mostly about Obama's early love life.

He had transferred to Columbia University in 1981, his junior year, after two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

During Obama's time in New York, Maraniss writes, he was "conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting record, one in letters, the other in her journal."

To McNear, whom he knew from Occidental and who spent the summer of 1982 in New York, Obama wrote, "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. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs."

But the key character is Cook, who met Obama at a Christmas party in 1983. They struck up a conversation and learned how much they had in common. Both had lived in Jakarta as children, even overlapping for a few years starting in 1967. Their sense of standing apart from the world also drew them together.

"They had lived many places but never felt at home," Maraniss writes. After talking the entire night they exchanged numbers, and soon became deeply involved.

Cook, 25, was an assistant second- and third-grade teacher at the time. She kept a detailed journal of her life, and 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.

Another time, she wrote that Obama filtered everything, which she called "a strength, a necessity.... But I'm still left with this feeling of … a bit of a wall — the veil."

Obama maintained a sense of distance even when Cook told him she loved him. His response? "Thank you."

Cook believes race was a barrier: She was white, and Obama was struggling with his identity.

"He felt like an impostor," she wrote. "Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body." She came to realize that "to resolve his ambivalence ... he needed to go black."

They broke up in 1985, shortly before Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer.

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