Why Barack Obama's Old Girlfriend Matters

Genevieve Cook's diary, used by David Maraniss in 'Barack Obama: The Story,' is a gift to readers, history, and the future.

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No ordinary girlfriend, Genevieve Cook is a biographer's dream.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's autobiographical coming of age novel, captured the growing pains of a writer in Dublin a century ago. Now we have a brilliantly insightful portrait of the president as a young man making his way in the human ocean of New York, seen through the eyes of a 25-year-old woman who loved him. Barack Obama was then a Columbia College graduate who felt like a stranger and sojourner in the city.

Bestselling author David Maraniss, while at work on a magisterial biography of Barack Obama, had the good fortune to meet someone very close to the president at a turning point in his life. And she had more than memories—she had her spot-on diaries, in black and white, which she entrusted to Maraniss for the forthcoming Barack Obama: The Story.  

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Genevieve was a senior when I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, the co-ed liberal arts college founded by Philadelphia Quakers during the Civil War. Full of lush greenery and conversations about The Republic—Plato's—the campus had parties that only started when the graystone library closed.

I did not know the tall, graceful Australian, but knew young Genevieve's blue-jeaned intellectual look—wearing privilege lightly—even if I were blind. There were only 1,400 of us walking under the majestic trees the Quakers planted.

Since I saw the chapter excerpt of Maraniss's work ("Becoming Obama") published in the June Vanity Fair, I can't shake her out of my mind, out of time. A lilting voice has also moved in.

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Spirited with a soft gaze, young Genevieve read her younger boyfriend Barack like a book as they fell for each other in wintry New York at the end of 1983. Their romance played out during his search for himself and his place in the world. He had turned the American adage around to "go east, young man," all the way from an island in the Pacific. And he felt, frankly, lost and torn between his father's Kenyan and his mother's Kansan heritage.

Then came the morning he woke next to her from a haunting, heart-breaking dream about his dead father, Barack Obama, Sr.—who says to him while he weeps, "Barack, I always wanted to tell you how much I loved you." The dream inspired the autobiography he wrote a decade later, Dreams from My Father. The dream also propelled the young man toward a choice on race Genevieve saw coming: to chart and anchor his identity in the black community.

As Maraniss gently recounts the romance's run into the summer of 1984, Genevieve wrote then: "In his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me he needed to go black." As if she had met the sturdy Chicagoan Michelle Robinson, who wed Obama in the early '90s, she predicted he'd marry an African-American woman who was strong, upright, a fighter and a laugher. As Maraniss makes clear, Genevieve recognized his fate in a clear-eyed way, sympathetic to his dilemma.

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Joyce's alter-ego, the young writer Stephen Dedalus, declares he relied on "silence, exile and cunning" along the way to make his name. That line is written on the walls at Swarthmore. If not a precise fit for the president as a young man, it's not far off either. If not cunning, he was known for being wary, calculating every move he made among friends as he negotiated New York.

Genevieve Cook's diaries and their depth perception meant a great deal, then and now, for Barack Obama was a complex mystery, even to himself. She saw he was traveling light on a journey, and did not try to hold him back. More importantly to history, she identified characteristics that define him to this day, namely a cool core. "Barack—still intrigues me, but so much going on beneath the surface, out of reach. Guarded, controlled."  That's our man.

One day in Brooklyn, Genevieve raced with her boyfriend Barack—and won the sprint. In so many ways, this urbane, knowing young woman stretched him—mind, heart, wings, and legs. Her diary was a gift to Maraniss and will be to readers, history, and the future.  

Not everyone sees the significance.  In a televised interview, I heard a noted male historian harrumph at a time when people kept handwritten journals.  His tone dismissed the Cook diary as merely the scribblings of "just a girlfriend." Very nice.

Sorry, but you don't have to read between the lines to see Genevieve Cook adds up to much more than that. Women's diaries, the private pages of their lives, are where they have told their own truths for, um, centuries.

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