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When Genevieve Cook first met Barack Obama in the kitchen of a mutual friend’s New York flat, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a dark leather jacket. It was 1983, and she was impressed when this cool, self-assured young man could tell immediately she was Australian.
In those days most Americans, even supposedly cosmopolitan New Yorkers, couldn’t tell a Cockney from a Kiwi.
But Obama had met many Aussies while living in Indonesia as a young boy with his mother and stepfather, and it turned out he and Cook had lived in that country at the same time.
They exchanged phone numbers and the self-assured Obama didn’t waste time. Within days, he was cooking her dinner at his flat.
“Then we went and talked in his bedroom,” Cook recalled. “And then I spent the night with him.
“It all felt very inevitable.”
The US president and his first lady sometimes seem so well suited that it’s hard to imagine there ever having been any woman in his life other than the formidable Michelle, who he met while working for a Chicago law firm in 1989.
Obama has reinforced this notion by making only fleeting mention of ex-girlfriends in his carefully calibrated memoirs Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. The president gives the impression of a man in such a hurry to save the world that he had no time for such distractions as romance.
But now, in a blistering new biography, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss has pulled his exes out of the shadows.
In so doing, he has revealed an unflattering picture of a president so desperate to sell an image of himself as a pioneering race warrior that he has airbrushed many of the white elements from his life – including that string of well-heeled, well-educated white girlfriends.
Obama’s version of events, in his autobiography, is a moving story of a mixed-race child struggling to find his black identity after being deserted as a young child by his Kenyan father.
It tells how his grandfather was jailed by the British for helping the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya – an assertion that Obama’s step-grandmother later embellished with claims he was also tortured – for which Maraniss found no evidence.
Delighted Republican opponents are picking over the inconsistencies (38 at the last count) between Obama’s own memoirs – published in 1995 as he prepared to launch his political career – and the facts uncovered by Maraniss. Time and again, Obama, who has had to fight hard to convince other African-Americans of his “black credibility”, appears to have burnished his radical credentials, not least by playing up the roles of black people in his life and playing down the roles of the white.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in his romantic life. For Cook – to whom admittedly the president alludes in his memoirs – wasn’t the first white girlfriend in his life, or the last.
As a young student in the early 1980s at Occidental College, a small university in Los Angeles, Obama developed a serious crush on student Alexandra McNear, co-editor of a college literary magazine which published two of Obama’s poems.
McNear, described by Maraniss as “lithe and mysterious, with the face of a young Meryl Streep and a literary bohemian air”, had just the sort of rarefied upbringing that might impress an ambitious young man.
Both her parents were writers and her father, Erskine McNear, the scion of a property empire. In the summer of 1981, Obama and McNear moved to New York, she to do a theatre course, he to finish his degree at Columbia University, so he could explore his black identity in a more African-American city.
Far away from family and friends, Obama’s first summer in the Big Apple in 1981 might have been lonely but, suggests Maraniss, for the presence of McNear.
She recalls admiring his intellect, his sense of humour and his good looks.
After a first date at a dimly lit Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they embarked on a two-month affair. She remembers it as a “summer of walking miles in the city, lingering over meals at restaurants, hanging out at the apartments, visiting art museums and talking about life”.
When she went back to Los Angeles, their relationship continued, largely through an exchange of passionate if pompously intellectual letters.
They discussed everything from TS Eliot to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – but mainly they discussed Barack Obama.
Supremely self-absorbed, Obama forever harped on about his search for meaning and identity.
He seemed oblivious to her feelings, once remarking that, tempting as it would be to run off with her when he finished his degree in New York, it would mean living “in some sense of compromise and retreat”.
Obama’s self-obsession would have left many women cold, if not bored to death, but McNear persevered.
Perhaps she appreciated his toe-curlingly pretentious notes on literature, like his observation that Elliot’s poem The Waste Land “contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Munzer (a somewhat obscure Reformation theologian) to Yeats”. She told her diary that he was “the closest friend I had, and that I really loved him but didn’t know if we could sustain a relationship”.
Her instincts were correct.
A few months later, while Obama was visiting his mother in Honolulu, he wrote to inform McNear with cold detachment that he felt their relationship was changing from romantic love to “the more quotidian, but finer bonds of friendship”.
Next for Obama was Cook. She was three years older than him, and an assistant teacher at a private school in Brooklyn.
As Maraniss observes, “there had been girlfriends before her but none quite like Genevieve”, who “engaged him in the deepest romantic relationship of his young life”.
Cook is mentioned in Obama’s memoirs as a mystery woman. While never naming her, he wrote: “There was a woman in New York that I loved. She was white. She had dark hair with specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime. We saw each other for almost a year.”
She shared many of Obama’s obsessions and, like Obama, she had a burning passion to save the world.
Within two months of meeting, they were seeing each other every Thursday night and at weekends.
On Sundays, he would lounge around in his cheap, cockroach-infested flat in the less salubrious end of the Upper West Side.
Obama’s bedroom, she recalls, smelt of “running sweat, Brut spray deodorant and smoking”.
Like McNear, Cook was attracted by the “mental exhilaration” of his intellect, marvelling at how mature he was at 22, but dismayed by his remoteness and wariness about commitment. Needless to say, he was as self-obsessed as ever.
Cook described him as “an uncommon, earnest young man” and confided to her diary: “He is very beautiful – more than he thinks himself to be.”
But there was another side to him she found unsettling.
“Barack’s warmth can be deceptive. Though he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness.”
They often talked about race and Obama would confide that he felt like an “impostor” as there was “hardly a black bone in his body”.
She eventually told him he “needed to go black” (to date a black woman), whereas he countered that he would never find a black woman he “would feel truly comfortable with”.
They moved into a flat together but their intellectual discussions eventually turned into fights over issues like the washing-up.
In the end, Cook tired of his emotional “withheld-ness, his lack of spontaneity”, and broke up with him in 1985.
Cook insists she couldn’t have been more sympathetic about his confusion over his racial identity, but that’s not how Obama portrayed it in his memoirs. Obama recounts taking his New York girlfriend to see a black play after which she “started talking about why black people are so angry all the time”. They had a “big fight” in front of the theatre and she burst into tears and said she couldn’t be black. All very dramatic, but Cook insisted to Maraniss that it never happened. The only play she saw with Obama was entirely different – British actress Billie Whitelaw performing a monologue written by Samuel Beckett. And there had been no row over race, she said.
Obama had to admit to Maraniss the incident happened not with Cook in New York but with someone else, though he wouldn’t elaborate.
Did it really happen? Obama mixed dates and places to protect former girlfriends’ identities, he said.
In a moment of acute foresight, Cook had told her diary that while she was not the woman for Obama, “that lithe, bubbly, strong black lady is waiting somewhere”. She may not be “bubbly”, but “strong” certainly sums up Michelle Obama.
However, before Obama met Michelle, he had a relationship with another white woman in Chicago. The woman, like Cook, was an anthropology graduate and is barely mentioned in Obama’s memoirs, but by then he was trying to establish his African-American credentials by toiling in a poor and predominantly black area of Chicago.
Within four years, he had met Michelle in Chicago and the rest we know. Obama finally had the partnership he wanted history to record – with a strong black woman, a descendant of slaves who had pushed her way up from humble roots. – Daily Mail