Culture

The Corner

We’re Still Learning About the Younger Years of Barack Obama

From the first Morning Jolt of the week:

We’re Still Learning About the Younger Years of Barack Obama

Former President Obama’s fans completely reject the idea that he wasn’t sufficiently vetted in 2008, and they spent the past eight years scoffing at reporters looking into Obama’s pre-political past and suggesting there was more to Obama’s life than the autobiographical narrative in Dreams From My Father.

Did you know Barack Obama proposed marriage to a woman before he married Michelle? For quite a few years, Obama’s love was Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a professor at Oberlin College. I’ve read most of the Obama biographies and big profile pieces, and yet I didn’t know this until I read the Washington Post review of Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by David J. Garrow.

“In the winter of ‘86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him,” she told Garrow. Her parents were opposed, less for any racial reasons (Obama came across to them like “a white, middle-class kid,” a close family friend said) than out of concern about Obama’s professional prospects, and because her mother thought Jager, two years Obama’s junior, was too young. “Not yet,” Sheila told Barack. But they stayed together.

In early 1987, when Obama was 25, she sensed a change. “He became. . . so very ambitious” quite suddenly, she told Garrow. “I remember very clearly when this transformation happened, and I remember very specifically that by 1987, about a year into our relationship, he already had his sights on becoming president.”

The sense of destiny is not unusual among those who become president. (See Clinton, Bill.) But it created complications. Obama believed that he had a “calling,” Garrow writes, and in his case it was “coupled with a heightened awareness that to pursue it he had to fully identify as African American.”

… Discussions of race and politics suddenly overwhelmed Sheila and Barack’s relationship. “The marriage discussions dragged on and on,” but now they were clouded by Obama’s “torment over this central issue of his life . . . race and identity,” Jager recalls. The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she said.

In Garrow’s telling, Obama made emotional judgments on political grounds. A close mutual friend of the couple recalls Obama explaining that “the lines are very clearly drawn. . . . If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here.” And friends remember an awkward gathering at a summer house, where Obama and Jager engaged in a loud, messy fight on the subject for an entire afternoon. (“That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason,” they heard Jager yell from their guest room, their arguments punctuated by bouts of makeup sex.) Obama cared for her, Garrow writes, “yet he felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his.”

On the one hand, these are really personal issues for the former president, and reading about them in such detail feels a little voyeuristic. On the other hand… wait, Barack Obama nearly married a white woman, but decided against it because of how it would have impacted his political ambitions?

Does this decision by Obama in his 20s change the way America would have or should have seen the 47-year-old candidate in 2008? Probably not. But Rising Star points out that Obama’s cocaine use continued into his post-college years, which, along with the “Choom Gang” years revealed in David Maraniss’ book, makes the Obama administration’s drug policies look even more hypocritical. Garrow describes Obama’s public religiosity aligning perfectly with his political ambitions – a cynicism that perhaps someone like Michael Wear deserved to know about.

These revelations affirm that when Obama appeared on the scene, America was sold an airbrushed, carefully-contrived image designed to maximize his electability. Dreams from My Father was what he wanted people to know about him, and in many cases, that’s all they cared to know about him. (Skeptical eyes declared that many scenes sounded too cinematically perfect to be true.) On the campaign trail, Obama often told how his mother was denied health coverage for her uterine and ovarian cancer because the insurance company considered it “a pre-existing condition.” It turns out her cancer treatment was covered; Ann Dunham filed a separate claim for disability insurance, and the disability insurance company that refused to pay because they said her cancer was a pre-existing condition.

Back in the impassioned quasi-religious frenzy surrounding Obama back in 2007 and the 2008, many who fell in love with him didn’t care that his “autobiography” used composite characters, fudged the details, and wasn’t a reliable account of his early years. Like the poster on Mulder’s wall, they wanted to believe.

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