There was a brief media firestorm yesterday when Vanity Fair broke the news that Obama’s famous “New York girlfriend” was a fiction. She appears in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, described in some detail by her appearance, voice and mannerisms. But a new biography of Obama –with an excerpt published in Vanity Fair – “reveals” that she was actually an amalgam of several different women. Politico immediately ran with “Obama: 'New York girlfriend' was composite” and Drudge headlined with “Obama Admits Fabricating Girlfriend in a Memoir.” Coming hot on the heels of the news that the Pres once ate a dog, his weirdo factor seems to have hit the roof.
Actually, it turns out that Obama always said that his New York squeeze was a fake. Within a couple of hours of the story breaking, journalists pointed out that at the beginning of Dreams From My Father it reads, “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people, I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Politico was forced to print a humiliating correction and David Graham of The Atlantic went in for the kill: “Politico has served as an unwitting pawn in a game conservative spinmeisters are playing to redefine Obama between now and November … It's much the same as the flap over Obama eating dog, in which a different piece of Dreams From My Father, in which he describes eating canine meat as a boy in Indonesia, was rediscovered. While conservative activists and journalists present these stories while claiming that Obama wasn't properly vetted four years ago, what's actually happening is they're reintroducing facts to the record, this time with a far more negative spin.”
I’m not sure. What stands out from the composite story isn’t that Obama amalgamated characters, it’s that the press hadn’t noticed until now. As with the dog story, this confirms the suspicion that the mainstream media gave Obama a free pass in 2008 and declined to check too deeply into his background. Even The Atlantic’s Graham admits that he’s never read Dreams From My Father, and neither, it would seem, has anyone else in the press corps. They have the excuse that the book is incredibly narcissistic and boring, but otherwise isn’t this exactly the sort of character assessment/assassination that should have happened four years ago?
Meanwhile, the new biography excerpted in Vanity Fair does reveal some genuinely odd things about Barack Obama. The impression one gets is of an arrogant loner who struggled to fit in with the world around him. This is explained away by his lack of a clear racial or class identity, for which the reader has every sympathy. But it’s hard to empathise with a man with this level of self-absorption. One girlfriend, Genevieve, wrote in her diary that it was impossible to break through his shell of introspection: “The sexual warmth is definitely there — but the rest of it has sharp edges and I’m finding it all unsettling and finding myself wanting to withdraw from it all. I have to admit that I am feeling anger at him for some reason, multi-stranded reasons. His warmth can be deceptive. Tho he speaks sweet words and can be open and trusting, there is also that coolness — and I begin to have an inkling of some things about him that could get to me.” Hanging around his apartment discussing TS Eliot and wearing a sarong (I'm not judging him for the latter; I own a kimono), it felt like Obama was always “so old already,” even when he was just 22. Genevieve: “I have to recognize (despite play of wry and mocking smile on lips) that I find his thereness very threatening … Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.” A woman told Obama that she loved him and he replied, “Thank you.” He was intelligent and charming, but all the joy and spontaneity of youth was lacking. Of their first night together, Genevieve recalled: “I’m pretty sure we had dinner maybe the Wednesday after. I think maybe he cooked me dinner. Then we went and talked in his bedroom. And then I spent the night. It all felt very inevitable.” All very inevitable? In the arms of Barack Obama, even sex has its cool logic.
Why didn’t we know all these details four years ago – even though some of them were published in a best-selling autobiography that was sold to us as if it was a fifth gospel? And yet we knew everything there was to know about Sarah Palin, despite the fact that she was in the race for a much shorter space of time than Obama – and only running for veep.
That’s the significance of the canine and composite revelations – both of them, aside from their delightful “dish” factors, not really revelations at all. That we are only discussing them this late into Obama’s career suggests that the vetting that should have happened four years ago was unforgivably neglected. But, hey, it’s never too late to start.