How Young Barack Obama Wooed The Ladies, According To His Ex-GFs

Once upon a time, a young college student named Barry transferred from Occidental College in California to Columbia University. The year was 1981. The fashion styles were perhaps regrettable. And the young man was Barack Obama, who later went on to become the first African-American president of the United States. In a new cover story in Vanity Fair, two of the president’s ex-girlfriends from that time — Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook — opened up about Obama as a young man. That includes what everyone wants to know — how he wooed women.

In the summer of 1982, Barack started seeing Alex McNear, a young woman whom he’d met when she edited the Occidental literary magazine. They met up at an Italian restaurant, drank, and she remembers “how happy I felt just talking to him.” Being a gentleman, he walked her home to her apartment and they said goodbye. They dated over that summer, walking around New York City and having somewhat annoying-sounding conversations about free will in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After she left NYC to go back to California, they penned letters to each other: one of his references the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and a long musing on the poet T.S. Eliot. The pair drifted apart over time, although she saved all the letters.

Then in December 1983, he met Australian Genevieve Cook at a Christmas party in the East Village. They spoke briefly but it wasn’t until she tried to leave that he implored her to stay: “They plopped down on an orange beanbag chair at the end of the hall and this time the conversation clicked.” They exchanged numbers and, well, he worked quick. Cook told Vanity Fair:

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.

The couple dated for a year in New York; she had fond memories of him lounging around on Sundays, “drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong.” In her journal, Cook wrote about “what a startling person Barack is” and “How is he so old already, at the age of 22?” She uses the word “wary” to describe him often. Perhaps the most intimate entry she shared with Vanity Fair reads:

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. 

Cook claims that when she told him “I love you,” Barack Obama’s response was “thank you” — which, as any woman can tell you is an Oh, no, girl, that’s not good response. Indeed, they starting fighting — who should wash the dishes, how much she spent on gifts for him, their future — and eventually broke up. Cook wrote tellingly in her diary:

I guess I hoped time would change things and he’d let go and “fall in love” with me. Now, at this point, I’m left wondering if Barack’s reserve, etc. is not just the time in his life, but, after all, emotional scarring that will make it difficult for him to get involved even after he’s sorted his life through with age and experience.

I, for one, feel somewhat guilty about reading about this couple’s private relationship; I suppose because I know how the story ends (he meets and marries Michelle Robinson in Chicago). One wonders whether any of the observations from ex-girlfriends in the article, such as the eventual difficulties he felt relating to the white women that he dated, will be used against him somehow. Ultimately, though, it’s making me feel glad that I was born in a different time period. I can totally see myself falling for a 22-year-old philosophy-spouting, poetry-reading Barack — and getting my heart broken.

[Vanity Fair]

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Image via Vanity Fair