Pulitzer-winning author David J Garrow, facing criticism from colleagues, says Obama is a changed man who has embraced celebrities and ‘big money’
An American president’s ex-girlfriend who claims she was written out of history. A scathing review from the New York Times. And a literary feud with a rival biographer.
Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, by the Pulitzer prize winner David J Garrow, is no ordinary addition to the annals of political biography. It took nine years to produce and runs to a doorstopping 1,461 pages. Its unusually candid disclosures about Obama’s sex life and drug use have generated clickbait headlines. In particular, it contains extensive interviews with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a former girlfriend who claims Obama twice proposed marriage.
But Garrow’s reliance on Jager as a source has been attacked by the influential New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, as has his own critical portrayal of rival Obama biographies. On Friday, one of those biographers, David Maraniss, weighed in with a tweet: “Willl [sic] say this once only. David Garrow, author of new Obama bio, was vile, undercutting, ignoble competitor unlike any I’ve encountered.”
The controversy comes as Obama himself starts to mould his post-presidential career. This week, he unveiled the conceptual design of his presidential library and museum in Chicago and released a video endorsing the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the French election. On Sunday, the 55-year-old will deliver his first major speech since leaving the White House when he receives a John F Kennedy Profile in Courage award in Boston. He has not, as yet, offered direct criticism of his successor, Donald Trump.
The new book by Garrow, who describes himself as “essentially a Bernie Sanders democratic socialist”, offers a taste of how Obama’s legacy is likely to be contested. Its attention-grabbing element is Jager, now a professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
Garrow writes how Obama and Jager met in mid-1980s Chicago, moved in together and talked about marriage “all the time”. He continues: “In their evenings at the spacious apartment on South Harper, Barack read literature, not history, while Sheila had more than enough course readings to occupy her time. And, of course, there was another dimension as well. Barack ‘is a very sexual/sensual person, and sex was a big part of our relationship’, Sheila later acknowledged.”
In the winter of 1986, according to Jager, Obama asked her to marry him. But when the couple visited her family home, Obama met her father and his best friend – both conservative Republicans. It did not go well. They talked politics and, at least in the view of the friend, Mike Dees, Obama “ended up getting beat up”. Jager’s father came out against the marriage.
The following year, according to Jager, Obama changed and gained a sense of manifest destiny. “He became someone quite extraordinary … and so very ambitious, and this happened over the course of a few months. 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.”
Discussion of marriage dragged on, Garrow writes, but “it was affected by what Sheila describes as Barack’s ‘torment over this central issue of his life’, the question of his own ‘race and identity’. The ‘resolution of his “black” identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career’ and to the crystallization of the ‘drive and desire to become the most powerful person in the world’.”
The book claims that even after Obama met Michelle Robinson, a law firm colleague, he continued to see Jager irregularly for a year (“I always felt bad about it,” Jager says). And it strongly implies that his preference for Michelle, an African American, over Jager, who is half-Dutch and half-Japanese, was politically motivated.
“Barack’s prior relationships had been with women who, like himself through 1985, were citizens of the world as much as they were of any particular country or city,” Garrow writes. “But if Barack truly believed that his destiny entailed what he thought, he knew full well the value of having roots in one place and having that place be essential to your journey. And who more than Michelle Robinson and her family could personify the strong, deep roots of black Chicago?”
Jager does not appear in Obama’s bestselling memoir, Dreams from My Father. Instead, she is conflated with two other ex-girlfriends into a single woman who makes a cameo appearance.
“I never understood why he wrote it that way,” Jager told Garrow. “There are whole passages from that book that are essentially copies of his letters to me. I always found it ironic that he was using his love letters to me to write his book and then completely omitted me from the entire account.”
The author said his researcher got the scoop on Jager in 2009 because, knowing what address Obama had lived at, it was simply a case of going to the University of Chicago library and pulling the student directories for 1986, 1987 and 1988 to see who else was living at the address.
Speaking from Pittsburgh on Friday, he said: “I find this really quite astonishing and humorous that given all of the inaccurate speculation about Barack’s life over the years, it dawned on no journalist that there’d be student directories from the 80s that you could go look at. It seemed like an obvious thing to do but nobody had done it.
“I was living in Britain at that time in 2009, and so I emailed her out of the blue and that began a very extensive email conversation.”
Garrow, who spent eight “very intense” hours with Obama last year and showed him the manuscript, said he had been taken aback by the intense media interest in this aspect of the book. “I’m sort of bemused because to me it’s not surprising that someone, anyone would have prior girlfriends. I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing about Barack.
“The single most important thing about Sheila and Sheila’s memories is her crystal-clear recollection of Barack beginning to talk about his political aspirations and sense of political destiny in 1987. That matches up with how everyone who came to know him at Harvard Law School from ’88 onward realised from day one this was someone who was going to be a politician.”
‘There has been this profound change’
For Garrow, if not for headline writers, a more important and equally neglected part of Obama’s life is his eight years in the state legislature in Springfield, Illiniois, which were hugely politically formative. He also argues that Obama was once a firm supporter of single-payer universal health coverage and outspoken critic of government surveillance, only to reverse these positions once he reached the White House.
He added: “I think it’s just undeniable that there has been this profound change and an embrace of big money, an embrace of all of these music and movie celebrities and Richard Branson billionaires. To me, it’s a profound change from who he once was.
“Up through 2004, this was someone who lived a very modest, middle-class paycheck-to-paycheck life, and so to see him, as president, get so infatuated with celebrities – and we’ve seen that infatuation with celebrities and all this money and private airplanes continue this spring – I’ve just really come to feel that who he is now is astonishingly different from who he was up through 2003. To me, this is a much more substantive point than who was his girlfriend in 1987.”
But Garrow’s narrative cannot resist more references to sex than might be expected in an academic history, nor a chance to belittle rival biographers. He states that Maraniss’s 2012 book, Barack Obama: the Story, contained “only two newsworthy nuggets” and that reviewers “panned the volume’s shortcomings”. He also quotes Jager as saying Obama called her out of the blue and said he was “disgusted” by Maraniss’s interest in his sexual history.
Asked about Maraniss’s tweet accusing him of being vile and ignoble, Garrow said he had never met or spoken to him and denied feeling insulted.
“No,” he said. “I’m an academic. I think American life would be better without Twitter and I think we’d have a better country if the president was not on Twitter. What people say in a bar or a pub doesn’t necessarily merit being memorialised. So he doesn’t like being criticised in print. I’m not surprised.”
In the New York Times, Kakutani dismissed the biography as “a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and – given its highly intemperate epilogue – ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive.”
A spokesman for Obama declined to comment.
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