Who hasn’t done or said something they regret in their early twenties? Written an impassioned letter to a friend in the heat of the moment, revealing slightly too much? What about all those early attempts at sex? Or the embarrassing one-night stands, disastrous crushes and demanding partners you dumped to concentrate on nurturing your driving ambition?
All of the above could certainly apply to me, and (I suspect) many of you. Should we be shocked to discover that Barack Obama, like most students, experimented with drugs and was ambivalent (allegedly) about his sexuality?
Because this hard-working graduate of Harvard Law School went on to become the first African-American President of the United States, his student years are fair game as biographers search for clues that might shed light on why such an inspirational man ended his political career in such a lack-lustre fashion, succeeded by a crass vulgarian.
A new, highly controversial biography concentrates on the young Barack, using interviews with former girlfriends and letters to friends written in his twenties at the start of his career. It offers a very different picture of the former President to his autobiography Dreams From My Father.
The author, David Garrow, is a law professor with impressive credentials, having won the Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. But this book smacks of a repugnant puritanism, implying that Obama chose Michelle as his wife because she was African-American and even makes the astonishing charge that he once considered a same-sex relationship, but decided that a heterosexual one would be more “challenging”.
Was Obama really that dispassionate? Time magazine calls some of the book’s observations “out of touch and offensive”, and the New York Times dismisses it as “unfair”. But the book was obviously written as an attempt to unpick why the former President remains an enigma, someone many people put on a pedestal, but who left office without living up to his initial promise.
Obama dithered over foreign policy and seemed indecisive when his fans craved passion and action. Worse, his greatest achievement – Obamacare – is now being ritually disembowelled by Trump, diminishing his legacy even further. For all his shortcomings, though, I can’t judge Obama – or anyone – on the basis of how they behaved at 23. Back then, the law student and budding journalist lived with a girlfriend, Sheila Miyoshi Jager, but seemed ambivalent, writing he was “not accustomed to having another person underfoot all the time”, adding that she was “as busy as I am, so temperamentally well-suited”.
That relationship, like so many youthful romances, fizzled out, but Jager claims that Obama had “a deep-seated need to be loved and admired”. Is that a crime? Surely that’s exactly what most leaders are like, from Theresa May (no matter what she might say) to Donald Trump. Even more ridiculously, Jager says that while they were dating she became aware that for Obama to pursue his ambition “he had to fully identify as African American” and although he proposed to her twice, by then their relationship had run its course.
Anyone who wants to be successful secretly weighs up which potential partner will work best in a team, but the claims seem dubious: if Michelle Obama was chosen just because her race fitted a particular career path, it’s amazing they are still married after 24 years and exude tenderness when photographed together.
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Another of Obama’s girlfriends reveals they had “passionate” sex on their first date, and claimed he took cocaine in his early twenties. I can’t count the number of times I had sex on a first date, or puffed on a spliff at a party back in the 1960s – hardly a heavy duty criminal offence.
Garrow portrays Obama as a self-centred operator – exactly like any other ambitious man or woman.
A while ago, I wrote a memoir about my student years, and the one characteristic that shines through is self-interest. Partners came and went, but all I ever cared about was work and climbing up the greasy pole of power. Obama had to fight racial prejudice, all I had to contend with were the macho men at work.
Why should Obama be embarrassed for taking white lovers or having a close relationship with an openly gay academic? Try reading Kitty Kelley’s unauthorised biography The Family – The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, if you want to read a real saga of loathsome ambition coated with “homespun” values. I pray Ms Kelley is now hard at work unpicking the Trump back story. Sadly, Barack Obama’s student years are a little bit dull – rather like his presidency.Reuse content