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Obama’s Composite Girlfriend and Other Things I Don’t Care About

I spent much of yesterday traveling to and attending meetings, so only caught the buzz about “Obama’s composite girlfriend” peripherally. Having more time to delve into the story this morning, I’m underwhelmed.

The revelation came in a Vanity Fair piece, “Becoming Obama,” excerpting a new biography by David Maraniss. Politico’s Dylan Byers (“Obama: ‘New York girlfriend’ was composite“) seems to have made the story viral, finding the information in the meandering essay.

One of the more mysterious characters from President Obama’s 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father is the so-called ‘New York girlfriend.’ Obama never referred to her by name, or even by psuedonym, but he describes her appearance, her voice, and her mannerisms in specific detail.

But Obama has now told biographer David Maraniss that the ‘New York girlfriend’ was actually a composite character, based off of multiple girlfriends he had both in New York City and in Chicago.

“During an interview in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that, while Genevieve was his New York girlfriend, the description in his memoir was a “compression” of girlfriends, including one who followed Genevieve [Cook] when he lived in Chicago,” Maraniss writes in his new biography, an excerpt of which was published online today by Vanity Fair.

“In Dreams from My Father, Obama chose to emphasize a racial chasm that unavoidably separated him from the woman he described as his New York girlfriend,” Maraniss writes, offering a passage from the book in which they go to see a play by a black playwright:

One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.

“None of this happened with Genevieve,” Maraniss writes. “She remembered going to the theater only once with Barack, and it was not to see a work by a black playwright. When asked about this decades later, during a White House interview, Obama acknowledged that the scene did not happen with Genevieve. “It is an incident that happened,” he said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?””

Well . . . okay. But the intro to the book made clear that several of the characters in the book were composites. He specifically declined to name the girlfriends in the book, including this one, whom he referred to as “the New York Girlfriend.” So . . . why is this a big deal?

Cue John Hinderaker:

Genevieve Cook says it never happened. No such play, no such dialogue. Maraniss charitably supposes that the event involved a different, later girlfriend in Chicago who was part of the “composite” girlfriend character. But Obama places the play in New York, not Chicago. My guess is that the incident never happened at all: one nice thing about fictionalizing an autobiography and including fake characters is that it gives you license to include events that didn’t happen but, from an artistic standpoint, should have.

But Obama never claimed it happened with Genevieve Cook. Or mentioned Genevieve Cook by name at all. He was at Columbia two years; maybe he had other girlfriends. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Hinderaker is right and that Obama made the whole thing up. Does it really matter? I’ve never actually read Dreams From My Father but always gathered that it was a story about a young man (the book was first published in 1995) dealing with his confused racial self-identity. So, maybe the play story was a composite, or a parable, helping explain why he ultimatley chose to self-identify with his absent black father rather than the white mother and grandparents who had raised him.

Hinderaker is similarly bemused by another incident:

It was striking to me that when Genevieve met Obama he was a 22-year-old college graduate, but hadn’t yet figured out what his name was. In high school, he had generally been called “Barry,” but by this time he apparently was looking for something more formal:

She called him Bahr-ruck, with the accent on the first syllable, and a trill of the r’s. Not Bear-ick, as the Anglophile Kenyans pronounced it, and not Buh-rock, as he would later be called, but Bahr-ruck. She said that is how he pronounced it himself, at least when talking to her.

I find that very odd. Think how fundamental a part of you your name is: when you were in elementary school, did you have any doubt about what to call yourself? At 22, Obama was still trying out names.

Well, perhaps it’s because Barack is a different sort of name than John or James? Like Obama, I was named after my father. Unlike Obama, my father and I lived in the same house until I was grown and had a name that was perfectly congruent with the society in which we lived. My dad went by our middle name, Harvey, as a youth and became Jim in the Army and it stuck. Since James is a bit formal for a child, my parents called me Jamie and I became James to the rest of the world until I started school. I’ve been James ever since, except for the four years I was in the Army when I, too, was Jim because senior officers insisted on calling me that. The only other experimentation I’ve ever done with my name was a brief time in junior high when I was James H. Joyner II rather than James H. Joyner, Jr. 

And, again, James is a rather common name in our society. Except for the occasional phone operator, nobody has ever needed me to spell the name, explain how to pronounce it, or inquired as to the national origin of said name. Barack, on the other hand, not so much. Indeed, Obama had been running for president for months before I figured out how to spell it consistently. So, that he wanted to fit in with the kids in school as Barry and then later experimented with different ways to pronounce Barack neither surprises nor puzzles me.

For that matter, I’m bemused by last week’s tomfoolery over old revelations that young Barry once ate some dog meat. The boy grew up in Asia; it would be pretty damned surprising if he hadn’t. If he’d grown up in France, he’d probably have eaten some horse flesh. Who the hell cares?

I realize that we’re in the Silly Season of the campaign, the long stretch between knowing who the major party nominees will be and between the general election fight getting into full stride. But Barack Obama has been under the intense glare of the national spotlight now for some five years. He’s been Leader of the Free World for more than three years. Let’s just say that we have a pretty good idea of what sort of man he is and what kind of president he’d be.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Belle Roberts says:

    But you have to ask yourself, how “underwhelmed” would you be if Mitt Romney, or any other conservative, said these things in his autobiography? Would we still be in the “silly season” of the campaign? Unfortunately, as a conservative, I already know the answer.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 33

  2. Jason says:

    I’ll see your ‘I don’t care’…and raise you an ‘I don’t care.’ Frankly, I don’t care what you don’t care about. With that said…since you don’t care about so many things…why don’t you do yourself a favor, and pursue a hobby that isn’t purely built on a narcissistic need to have others know what you don’t care about?

    Oh yeah…and then there’s the fact that you’re not a very good writer anyway.

    Your apathy sure is “cool” though, James.

    Have fun not posting this.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 59

  3. superdestroyer says:

    The people how have written about Romney’s dog for a year now want to be the decdiers on what is important and not important.

    I guess when an election is going to be a rout, wonks have to find anything to write about besides writing about the impact of the election being a rout.

    My guess writing about such non-issues beats writing about the possible changes in the House and Senate, writing about the debt and budget deficits, writing about the economy, or writing about the demographic or cultural changes in the U.S.

    I suspect by Sept 1, James will have written more about Sarah Palin than Nancy Pelsoi because writing about relevant politicians is boring for wonks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 13

  4. Scott says:

    I have found it is not at all unusual to still be playing with names. We called our son by his middle name (and still do). In middle school and high school, he started introducing himself by his first name. Now as an adult, he use both: Family and inner circle use the middle name. Professional life he uses his first name. No, he is not confused. It is just life.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  5. Kit says:

    @Belle Roberts: I think similar revelations in a Romney autobiography would garner marginally more traction but only because they would fit into the narrative of Romney seeming to have no stable permanent character. Marginally more in this case is still vanishingly small.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  6. dennis says:

    @Jason:

    Well, you can always start your own blog and write about the things you care about.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 33 Thumb down 3

  7. rodney dill says:

    @Jason: …but who cares.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  8. Jason was harsh (I did not vote) but he and I are both registering how much linkage the blogosphere generates on things it purports not to care about.

    Given that linkage and commentary drive further linkage and commentary, it becomes self-defeating, a signal-to-noise problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. @dennis:

    Yes ;-), and in doing so he could increase the Google and Memeorandum page rank of things he does not care about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Franklin says:

    Well, when someone says they don’t care about something, they’re implicitly saying that somebody else cares about it but shouldn’t. Or in this case, somebody else thinks there’s some big scandal and there isn’t.

    So it seems that angry Jason is suffering from a case of poor comprehension. (And I don’t care.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  11. @Franklin:

    Or someone thought they could get a few hits with it?

    I’m sure that’s not James’ main motivation, but there is always the chance (and certainly in “silly season”) that other players in his link network are thinking that way.

    I could see a “don’t care” cascade building off a first item, some of the players serious, and some not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. (On any issue some writers are serious, and some are just trying to climb Memeorandum.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: There’s certainly benefit to talking about the things others are talking about, although more in introducing new conversations that become memes. The former is easier.

    In addition to traffic issues, though, there’s the invariable chorus of “why are you ignoring issue X” comments that arise. So it’s often worth addressing the memes just to go on the record.

    And, yes, as @Franklin notes above, part of the rationale for explaining why I don’t care is to explain why others shouldn’t, either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  14. Janis Gore says:

    Are there more interesting aggregators out there than Memeorandum? Or has everyone become so predictable that all of them elicit a “meh”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. @James Joyner:

    You’ve described a classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario. There is an individual advantage to comment on fluff, but there is a degradation of the medium.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. al-Ameda says:

    When I was in college my composite girlfriend was a cross between
    Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson. It was difficult to concentrate on studies.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  17. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Certainly true on the Tragedy of the Commons. The thing is, though–and I’ve long recognized if not come to terms with–I’m not the target audience for the news. “Human interest” stories seldom interest me. I don’t follow the various “something bad happened to a good looking blond girl” stories. But that’s what most people who watch the news or even buy newspapers and magazines care about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. anjin-san says:

    Your apathy sure is “cool” though, James.

    I guess James is another one of these annoying urban “hipsters” you hear so much about. He probably wears sunglasses indoors.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  19. mantis says:

    For that matter, I’m bemused by last week’s tomfoolery over old revelations that young Barry once ate some dog meat. The boy grew up in Asia; it would be pretty damned surprising if he hadn’t. If he’d grown up in France, he’d probably have eaten some horse flesh. Who the hell cares?

    Jim Treacher cares. A lot. He posted a new page on Wikipedia, “Obama Eats Dogs,” following his week of 10,000 “Obama eats dogs” comments around the blogosphere (including an all day marathon here at OTB). Wikipedia admins deleted it, because Liberal Fascism, that’s why!

    Jenos thinks he’s a super genius though, so he must be on to something.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  20. al-Ameda says:

    @mantis:
    as Obama said the other day:
    “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? ‘A pit bull is delicious’”

    What’s the difference between Treacher and FoxNews? FoxNews has better looking news babes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  21. An Interested Party says:

    If this is something that gets someone like John Hinderaker upset, if this is the straw that some want to grasp, the President should have few worries about being reelected…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  22. @anjin-san:

    Heh, I went camping with some hipsters. I was rewarded with knowing smirks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. MM says:

    @mantis: Keep in mind that Treacher thinks Obama ordered the Secret Service to run him over because he’s such a brave truth-teller and a danger to the regime. I await his hard-hitting expose where he harasses Obama’s exes by calling them non-stop and asking them about dogs, then whining when they get restraining orders.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. Franklin says:

    @john personna: Heh, we get abused for hits all day long, so you have a point. To some extent I just learn who’s likely to have something interesting to read beyond the title. And considering I’m still here at OTB …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Jenos Chinos says:

    @ Mantis

    Don’t make me plant my size 7 Hush Puppies on your backside.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  26. RalfW says:

    The revelation about the composite did not come from Vanity Fair. The idiotic spin/buzz is classic Hindraker. As you note, it’s been in the public realm for years, was in the introduction to the book itself that Obama acknowledges composites. I saw yesterday that his publisher made it clear that it’s been reported, even.

    The Obama-deranged are going to grab at anything they can. It’s pathetic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. michael reynolds says:

    I literally cannot figure out what it is I might conceivably be upset about were I in the mood to be upset.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  28. RalfW says:

    [Hindraker says:] I find that very odd. Think how fundamental a part of you your name is: when you were in elementary school, did you have any doubt about what to call yourself? At 22, Obama was still trying out names.

    Let me tell ya. Ralph/Ralf is not not not a common name for Americans born in or after 1965. I dreamed of changing my name every time we moved to a new city and I started a new school. But of course my mom would go with me to the admin office and I couldn’t really, as a 9 or 11 or 14 year old say, right in front of the woman who, with my dad, named me, and say to the principal “I hate my name, all the kids tease me, I want to be called something else.”

    Of course John Hindraker doesn’t get it. That’s how lack of empathy works! You can’t place yourself in any situation that doesn’t directly relate you your own life.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  29. rodney dill says:

    @al-Ameda: Sorta made me wonder how many hockey mom’s he’s tasted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  30. merl says:

    @dennis: he’s probably not smart enough to do that. I’d like to know more about Army officers calling Jim by his first name. When I was in the Navy I doubt the officers even knew my first name.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. merl says:

    @mantis: that treacher dude has a lot of time on his hands. he trolled the Village Voice for hours one day about dog eating. Too damn bad that Secret Service vehicle he claimed tried to run him over missed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. James Joyner says:

    @merl: In my battalion, at least, it was pretty typical for senior officers to call junior officers by their first name or a nickname. It was my general Army experience, in fact. Obviously, juniors called seniors either “Captain Jones” or by their common nickname, “Sir.” Warrant officers and NCOs were invariably addressed by their ranks or an informal variant of it (Chief, Top) and junior enlisted by their last name.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. jukeboxgrad says:

    Hinderaker:

    Think how fundamental a part of you your name is: when you were in elementary school, did you have any doubt about what to call yourself? At 22, Obama was still trying out names.

    The deeply awesome thing about Hinderaker whining about this is that he has his own history of “trying out names.”

    He used to call himself Hindrocket. That word has now been mostly scrubbed from his site, but thanks to the miracle of the wayback machine it can still be seen as part of his bio here and here. You can also see it here. All those pages are from 2003. Another capture shows that he kept using the name at least until 12/21/06.

    He doesn’t use that name anymore. If you look at his current bio (link, link), you see that “Hindrocket” has disappeared. Why? I guess because he got tired of being called Assrocket (which is a name people made up for him, but it was obviously inspired by a name he had picked for himself).

    Only someone who is truly an ass would mock someone else for “trying out names” at age 22 even though he has his own history of “trying out names” at age 56. So this is yet another nice example of what John Stewart calls “galling Republican forgetfulness a/k/a Ballzheimer’s,” and what I call the standard Republican practice of combining chutzpah and amnesia.

    RalfW:

    Of course John Hindraker doesn’t get it. That’s how lack of empathy works! You can’t place yourself in any situation that doesn’t directly relate you your own life.

    But the priceless part is that the idea of “trying out names” does indeed “directly relate” to Assrocket’s “own life.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0