Obama's Old Flames: Where's the Heat?

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Forgive me if I fail to see the point of "Becoming Obama," the zillion-word story that Vanity Fair released on its site Wednesday about President Obama's early love life, as interpreted from the letters to ex-girlfriend Alex McNear and the journals of another, Genevieve Cook. The widely read, six-page exposé happens to be an excerpt from the upcoming biography Barack Obama: The Story by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Maraniss, who has also written about former President Bill Clinton.


I get that because he is a public figure and the nation's leader, every detail of President Obama's life will be deemed interesting, even fascinating, by some. And I do understand fully why he's a topic of interest, especially in an election year.

What I don't get is what I'm supposed to glean from a long story about him, told through the eyes of his exes from the '80s. It's in poor taste to kiss and tell (with names), especially when the subject is married. But such is the popular way now.

Still, if a story is taking the politically incorrect route, the revelations should have a little "oomph" to make them worthwhile — like, say, when Lillian McEwen broke her 30-year silence about her ex, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 2010 she revealed to the Washington Post that Thomas was "obsessed" with porn and spent his downtime at the office contemplating which of his female officemates was likely to have sex with him. That was a story worth the ink to print it. The former girlfriends on Obama? Eh … not so much.

An article that could be headlined "Exclusive: Obama's Exes Speak!" sounds so juicy in theory, as if readers will be privy to some dirt, maybe a buried sexual scandal from way back when, in the absence of one now. Perhaps an early-20s Obama had a rebellious streak that defies the easygoing, levelheaded public persona worn so effortlessly by President Obama today. Perhaps there was something, anything, that would fuel late-night talk or Limbaugh radio shows for weeks to come.

However, we learn from his ex-girlfriends that at 22, postcollegiate Obama mused about his place, path and purpose in the world, not so unlike the lyrics in Diana Ross' Mahogany theme song, "Do you know where you're going to/do you like the thing that life is showing you?" or anyone who just graduated from any institution of higher learning. The titillating revelations are limited to insights such as these: The would-be president read (and reread) Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, was emotionally guarded, wore Brut deodorant and spent Sunday mornings doing New York Times crossword puzzles while lounging bare-chested in a sarong, with the Brut and sarong-wearing being perhaps the most salacious — and the funniest — parts of the story.

She also recounts the constant feeling that Obama was seeking a woman unlike herself. "I can't help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced," she wrote. "A black woman I keep seeing her as." It's an insightful observation only because it accurately describes first lady Michelle Obama, his wife of 19 years.


In the painstaking detail expected of a prize-winning journalist, Maraniss aptly compares and contrasts Cook's version of her relationships with the accounts that Obama gave in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, in which she was referred to but not even given a pseudonym. Even Maraniss acknowledges in the excerpt that the differing accounts are mostly an "understandable matter of perspective."

For instance, Obama inaccurately recalls that the country estate he visited with Cook was her father's, when it was actually owned by her stepfather. Cook says that she pushed Obama away from her; in his memoir, he takes the blame for the relationship's demise.


It's quite telling that the most intriguing aspect of the excerpt wasn't anything the exes said but, rather, the hasty and inaccurate reaction by Politico and the Drudge Report. In the excerpt, Cook refutes Obama's account in his memoir about a date they had at the theater. Obama wrote that he and his then girlfriend went to see a show by a black playwright, and Cook did not understand the cultural humor. Cook says that she never attended such a play.

When Maraniss asked the president about this contradiction while interviewing him for the biography, Obama admitted that some details of that relationship had been "compressed" with another one that occurred when he moved to Chicago. "I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them," the president explained. 


Politico's Dylan Byers took Obama's explanation as proof that he had been caught in a lie. "Though Dreams From My Father is an autobiography, and hence non-fiction, Obama makes no mention of this 'compression,' nor is there any note by the publisher, Broadway Books," wrote Byers. "In fact, Obama only acknowledged the 'compression' after Maraniss learned that Cook had no recollection of some of the events at which Obama said she was present." The Drudge Report went a step further, running a story with the headline, "Obama Admits Fabricating Girlfriend in Memoir." 

If both sites had done a quick fact-check, they would have discovered that the president acknowledged in all editions of his books that he used composites. The Politico story now includes an editors' note acknowledging Byers "significant" inaccuracy.


Even the big story about the big story reached a dead, albeit juicier, end.  

Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.