The Young Obama
Eliot, women, and the man who would be president
On Wednesday, President Obama did one of the most courageous things I have ever seen a president do; on the eve of a hotly contested election to be decided by a few swing states, he declared his personal support for gay marriage. But for me, this announcement was the logical conclusion not to Vice President Biden’s admirable if imprudent admission on Sunday, but to the letters and journals that have emerged in the past two weeks that have given extraordinary insight into the man who candidly spoke to ABC this week.
David Maraniss is a very good biographer, so it should come as no surprise that he has dug up some fascinating material about President Obama for his upcoming book Barack Obama: The Story, excerpted in the June edition of Vanity Fair. The article, entitled “Becoming Obama,” treats what has been a hitherto overlooked interval in the lifeof the forty-second President, his time in New York after graduating from Columbia in 1983.Maraniss’s descriptions are both intimate, giving us an Obama who would “lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Timescrossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong,” and relatively profound, as when Obama explains in an interview “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality…So that is at the core of who I am.” In some ways, Obama’s attempt to turn his life into a story, best exemplified in his superb autobiography Dreams from My Father, is part of the job of all aspirants to high office.Every politician strives to create a narrative that explains their rise to prominence and fills out their character in such a way that the office they seek to occupy seems like an inevitable next step, something that follows consequently from the trajectory that brought them before the electorate.
But the Obama we meet in Maraniss’s account is someone much different, and much more interesting; the protagonist of a real bildungsromanwho struggles to define himself, both in isolation and in relation to his white girlfriends, Pakistani friends, and multi-textured familial background. Obama describes his predicament as one where he felt “caught without a class, a structure or tradition to support me.” These lacunae where we might expect to find the primary markers of identity spurred not alienation, but an intense search for integration, “The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions (and) classes; make them mine, me theirs.” Before he could organize communities, Obama had to organize the confusing fragments of identity that were his inheritance, but also his opportunity. The young man we see in these pages doesn’t have any definitive answers, but his awareness of the centrality of this task of self-fashioning is boldly apparent.
His letters to one of his girlfriends Alex McNair, and the journals of a second, Genevieve Cook, portray a man who, even when he “sat on the edge of the bed—dressed— blue jeans and luscious ladies on his chest, the end of the front section of the Sunday Times in his hand,” is readily recognizable. Cook laments how Obama “bides his time” and draws “others’ cards out of their hands for careful inspection—without giving too much of your own away.” This might be a young man who kept a cool distance that his girlfriend found frustrating, but it also might be the President Obama who passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act with the slimmest of votes or who continues to teach us about a kind of progressivism that happens slowly—but meaningfully and irrevocably.
Maraniss describes a young man searching for purpose, pontificating on Modernist poetics and falling in and out of love with a couple of thoughtful, beautiful young women. His analysis of T.S. Eliot is both insightful and revealing; “Remember how I said there’s a certain type of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type.” What is striking about these snippets of the young Obama is how prosaic they are on the one hand and how utterly revealing on the other. Obama continues to model a kind of liberalism that is temperamentally conservative, that sees change as most effective when it is processed through a mind that can capaciously not only understand the other side, but alsoinhabit opposing view points.
In an editorial in The New York Times, the poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch ‘97 lauds “Mr. Obama’s ability to recognize the poetic truth of Eliot’s conservatism, while still embracing the practical truth of liberalism.” Both recognition and embrace happened in and through writing, and much of it in the crucible of passionate romantic relationships that refracted both selves through a kind of dual lens. Obama teaches us to recognize everything about ourselves and other people, and through that recognition we will learn which causes and people deserve our embrace. As we recognize the extraordinary man who is our President, we should never forget when he was our age, in his girlfriend’s apartment, smoking a cigarette in pajamas, musing on Eliot. This, more than anything else, is the portrait of the President as a young man.
Ari R. Hoffman ’10 is a Ph.D. candidate in English.