David Maraniss has a very long, occasionally fascinating piece in Vanity Fair, an excerpt from an upcoming book where he recounts the story of two early romances of Barack Obama’s during the years he lived in New York. If this sounds ponderous it mostly is, but buried deep within Maraniss’ piece is some real reporting.
In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend.
“One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. 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.”
None of this happened with Genevieve. She remembered going to the theater only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright. When asked about this decades later, during a White House interview, Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. “It is an incident that happened,” he said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”
By lying, obviously. After all, what’s the harm in fabricating a story about someone who once trusted you when there is a “useful” point to make about black anger in America. No wonder he seems so adept at throwing former associates under the bus when it suits his interests: he’s probably been doing this his entire adult life. Real classy.
I’ve never read Dreams of my Father and so I was a little taken aback by just how self-absorbed and race-obsessed Obama was, according to the accounts of his former friends. It’s really the running theme of Maraniss’ entire piece. Exactly who was this man, and was he really white or black? These were the types of life-defining questions our future president struggled with as a young adult.
Genevieve and Barack talked about race quite often, as part of his inner need to find a sense of belonging. She sympathized and encouraged his search for identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? He confessed to her that at times “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.”
It’s too bad that apparently there was no one in Obama’s life to tell him to just get over himself. Perhaps if he had focused less on self-discovery and more on becoming a productive citizen he might have learned a few practical skills that would have come in handy these past 3 years. Like balancing a checkbook.
But ultimately my favorite part of the article was this. In retrospect, let’s call it Genevieve’s revenge:
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. He was more startled to discover that I had expected to win than anything else. Anyway, later in the shower (before leaving to see The Bostonians) I told him I didn’t feel that good about winning, and he promptly replied probably cos of feelings of guilt about beating a man. In which case, no doubt, he’d already discovered the obverse feelings about being beaten by a woman. Nevertheless, it was a good metaphor for me, despite, as I confessed to Barack, that in some ways it would have appeased some aspect of my self-image to have tried and lost. But I didn’t; I won.
Now this I believe.
Correction: The original publisher of Dreams of my Father has weighed in over at TPM and apparently Obama’s book included a disclaimer that some of the events and individuals portrayed within the book were based on composite characters. I continue to think it was more than a little unfair of him to attribute someone else’s words and actions to the woman in New York, but it’s also not really fair to accuse him of “lying” about this. So consider this a correction on my use of this characterization in the main post.