The Biographer With No Regrets About Uncovering Obama's Sex Life

U.S. historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow defends his decision to dish the dirt on Barack Obama's hedonistic lifestyle in his controversial new biography

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U.S. President Barack Obama has his tie adjusted by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in Washington, September 25, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama has his tie adjusted by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in Washington, September 25, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Tzach Yoked
New York

NEW YORK – One person who wasn’t surprised by media reports about Barack Obama receiving $400,000 for a speech to Cantor Fitzgerald employees was historian and author Prof. David Garrow. 

For Garrow, who has devoted the past nine years to deciphering the former president for his new biography “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama,” this is merely a direct continuation of the Obamas’ irritatingly hedonistic behavior during their time at the White House. “I think this is additional evidence of the huge contrast to who he and Michelle were all the way to 2004,” Garrow tells Haaretz, in an interview conducted in the Manhattan hotel where he is staying.

Until then, says Garrow, the Obamas lived in a very small apartment in Chicago, had just paid off their university loans and were living a very modest middle class life. “What I started to notice during his presidency, we saw not only this odd pattern of playing golf every weekend, but we also saw this increasing obsession with Hollywood celebrities and musicians and billionaires, inviting all these celebrity-types to the White House.

“When he was in the Illinois State Senate, he was so sensitive. He always talked about immigrants collecting bottles and cans from the garbage, and during the presidency he would mention how being in the White House you get increasingly out of touch with real life. That’s what I think happened,” observes Garrow.

More evidence of this can be found in the Obamas’ decision to move to a spacious home for which they are paying monthly rent of $22,000, claims Garrow, noting with evident disgust, “When Barack was in Illinois, his annual salary was $57,000 a year.”

After working on the book for nine years, can you understand where this need to be around celebrities comes from?

“For me, that’s the hardest part about him,” says Garrow. “I believe this reflects a need for approbation from these celebrities. I would tell you that when Barack ran for the Senate in 2004, his most important financial support was from Jewish families – particularly the Crown family, who are a big deal in Chicago. And in 2012, one of the main members of the family, Susan Crown, switches and endorses [Mitt] Romney and complains to the U.S. press that when Barack was in New York [at the opening session of the UN General Assembly], he refused to see [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu but went instead to some very expensive private event with Beyoncé and Jay-Z.”

Some would attribute this need to be loved to the fact that he grew up without a dad and later on, when he was 10, was abandoned by his mom.

“To me, as an academic historian, what is extremely important is what people who knew him [in the 1980s], like Sheila Jager and Genevieve Cook, how they view this behavior in retrospect. They loved the man, and that’s why I go back and value their reactions of how the man they once knew now has this need [to be loved].”

Garrow says he believes the circumstances of Obama’s upbringing play a large part. “Friends who knew him very well in Hawaii viewed him as this abandoned child who grew up with his old grandparents, and some even thought he was adopted by this old white couple.”

Would you say this need to be loved impacted his work as a president?

“I think you can see it mostly with the case of gay marriage. Back to the ’90s, when he first enters the political arena, he totally endorses gay marriage. Then he realizes he needs to back off of that until [Vice President] Joe Biden endorsed it publicly and forced him to do the same. I believe he developed an emotional need to proclaim victory, and this need became more powerful than any particular policy goal.

“What I believe we saw with Obama – especially with the nuclear deal with Iran, and letting North Korea go its own way or failing to intervene in Syria – is he had a deep need to mark victories, without thinking hard and tough about the implications for the longer run. I think that with Syria, as with North Korea, we can see the tendency to kick the can down the road. We can see the idea that if you choose not to do anything, things may come out better than if you chose to do anything at all.”

Garrow boasts several times during the interview that he knows pre-2004 Obama better than anyone else. But Garrow is a respected historian who chooses his words very carefully. When he brags about his intimate familiarity with Obama, he is relying on the research he conducted for the purpose of writing the biography, which is of unprecedented scope and depth. The research took nine years, during which time Garrow met with about 1,000 people who knew the president, and was exposed to rare, previously unpublished materials. He also met Obama for a series of intimate, off-the-record conversations over a period of eight hours, which he says helped him better decipher the man.

What is your personal view of the man you spent nine years studying so intensely?

“I’m a professional historian, so my ‘feelings’ don’t loom very large at all: it’s the factual record of what he said and did. I think there’s no question he was more true to his better self back in 1997-2000 than he subsequently became. The fact that the biographical journalism of 2007-08 was so poor, so incomplete, so incurious: that’s what stimulated my professional interest.”

But more stories were written about Obama than any other candidate in American history, no?

“I think particularly during the first 2008 campaign, the media was astonishingly incurious about Barack’s life story. No one found [girlfriend] Sheila Jager – you could have found her by walking into the library of the University of Chicago, taking the student directory off the shelf and seeing who else lived at the address that Barack lived at. They also didn’t find Rob Fisher, his best friend during his years at Harvard, with whom he wrote the unpublished book manuscript that includes the race chapter that is a road map to how Barack himself thought about addressing issues of race.”

President Barack Obama is flanked on stage by musicians Jay-Z, left, and Bruce Springsteen at a campaign event at Nationwide Arena, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.
Barack Obama is flanked on stage by musicians Jay-Z, left, and Bruce Springsteen at a campaign event at Nationwide Arena, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Would you say the media was backing him, as many people believed back then?

“I think a wide range of people, including journalists, loved the idea of having a first Afro-American president. I also think that many journalists were hesitant to examine Barack’s biography because there was so much crazy right-wing disinformation. The fact you had people claiming he wasn’t born in Hawaii – which was nuts – I think that made many other journalists think that asking much more important relevant biographical questions was somehow shading over into territory similar to that of the crazy people.”

The result of Garrow’s extensive research is a 1,461-page biography that provides a rare glimpse into Obama’s formative years. Garrow considers that pre-politics period “the lost years,” which barely came to public attention despite their vital importance in understanding the man. Instead, he says, the media relied on Obama’s own account in his 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”

Garrow’s writing about Obama is directly related to his academic work over the past 30 years, during which time he specialized in the study of the legal history of the United States and the black struggle for equal rights. When he was only 33, Garrow won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 biography about Martin Luther King Jr., “Bearing the Cross.” He has subsequently published dozens of articles and taught in some of the top U.S. universities. But he has only become famous in recent weeks, after the publication of his Obama biography.

Some of the publicity was negative, with many reviews noting Garrow’s tendentious treatment of the president. Aware of the criticism, Garrow is careful to describe himself throughout the interview as a “progressive Bernie Sanders liberal,” and says he voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election.

The U.S. media has focused mainly on the book’s juicy details about the bedroom habits of America’s 44th president and his previous girlfriends. For example, Cook was Obama’s girlfriend in 1983, when he was 22, studying political science and international relations at Columbia University. The daughter of an Australian diplomat and three years older than Obama, Cook showed Garrow her personal diary from the period, in which she wrote about Obama: “B. That’s for you. F’s for all the f***ing that we do.”

In another part of the diary, Cook writes: “All this f***ing was so much more than lust. Making love with Barack, so warm and flowing and soft but deep – relaxed and loving – opening up more.” Cook also told Garrow that cocaine use was a key part of their relationship at the time, although Obama was much more moderate in his use than she and her friends. “For every five lines that somebody did, he would have done half,” Cook told Garrow. “The thing that connected us is that we both came from nowhere – we really didn’t belong,” she added.

REFILE - ADDING RESTRICTIONSFormer U.S. President Barack Obama sits on a boat during a kite surfing outing with British businessman Richard Branson during his holiday on Branson's Moskito island, in the British Virgin Islands, in a picture handed out by Virgin on February 7, 2017. Jack Brockway/Virgin Handout via REUTERS FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Barack Obama during a kite surfing outing with British businessman Richard Branson during his holiday on Branson's Moskito island, in the British Virgin Islands, February 7, 2017. Credit: HANDOUT/REUTERS

Do you regret including the sexual details from his days with Jager and Cook? What’s their relevance to understanding the man, and how do you feel about the media that focused on them rather on other parts of the book?

“Genevieve’s contemporaneous journal, and her and Sheila’s memories are what they are: My job as a historian is to recount what they believe was important. And neither I nor they can control for tabloid journalists who are so preoccupied with sex and largely disinterested in his political record.”

Obama met Jager two years after he ended his short relationship with Cook, and the two had a much longer and more serious relationship. Obama not only shared an apartment with Jager when the two were living together in Chicago, but even decided she would be his wife and asked for her hand on two separate occasions. Later, Garrow reveals that after they had broken up and he was already in a romantic relationship with Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, Obama continued to see his former girlfriend without the knowledge of the woman who was to become his wife.

“I always felt bad about it,” Jager is quoted as saying. Although she didn’t become the first lady, she did complete her doctorate and is a professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio.

“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,” Garrow writes. Jager also noted Obama’s voracious sexual appetite. “Barack is a very sexual and sensual person,” she told Garrow, adding, “Sex was a big part of our relationship.”

“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 than because of Jager’s age – she was only 23 at the time.

Garrow says the great importance of Jager’s testimony stems from her ability to shed light on Obama’s personal and political development in those decisive years, during which the personal and public planes clearly overlap and lead Obama – as Garrow doesn’t hesitate to state – to prefer Michelle to the white Jager, on the assumption that this would serve him better politically. “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.”

Jager, the daughter of a Dutch father and Japanese mother, says that discussions on race and politics suddenly overwhelmed their 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.” The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she told Garrow, and his urge to be the most powerful person in the world.

You claim that when Obama reached the conclusion that a white wife would harm him politically, he also twice asked Jager to marry him. How do you explain the contradiction?

“Only when he moved to Chicago during the ’80s [does] he get to know a significant number of urban black Americans, and those years in Chicago incredibly strengthen his black identity. One of the women in the community group whom he’s very close to is a woman named Cathy, who is white. She was a single mom who raised two biracial children, and Cathy always identified her kids as half and half. But Barack’s argument with Cathy is the same he had later with Jager – that you have to choose a racial identity, you can’t be half and half. Back then, he was choosing to identify himself as black rather than biracial, and embracing that opened the path to a political future.”

So the decision to choose Michelle over Jager was a politically calculated move that was aimed at helping his future aspirations as a politician?

“Without a question. Barack concluded that he couldn’t pursue a political future if he married Sheila Jager. That is so powerfully clear in so many things Sheila remembers from their relationship. When Barack is there in Chicago, living with Sheila, there is a local Afro-American black state senator, Richard Newhouse – a very well-known figure – and everyone in the local black community believed that he couldn’t pursue a further political life because he had a white wife. Barack Obama is aware of that – that this was considered to be a problem for a black politician to be married to a white woman.”

In no place do you mention Michelle as someone who had any part in Barack’s rise to success, yet today many view her as a dominant woman who has had a great impact on her husband.

“From their first day of marriage up until 2004, Michelle is very dubious and challenging about his political prospects – but it is as a state senator or in a congressional race. He enters all of those campaigns over Michelle’s objection. She once told him, ‘You would have more impact being a high school principal.’ So up through 2004 Michelle is not a significant influence on his political career because A, she is opposed to it; and B, she is taking no active part. Only after he wins the Senate nomination she begins to do some campaigning.”

You clearly connect Obama’s decision to endorse his black identity with his decision to pursue a political career and his belief that he can become president one day. Yet many people in the American black community are disappointed by his presidency. Is their disappointment justified?

Barack Obama and wife Michelle at at his election night New Hampshire presidential primary rally in January 2008.
Barack Obama and wife Michelle at at his election night New Hampshire presidential primary rally in January 2008.Credit: Stephan Savoia / ASSOCIATED PRES

“Yes, I think the disappointment is justified. In black Chicago, there are many people who are emotionally disappointed that as Barack experienced more and more political success and won the presidency, he forgot and ignored people who were so crucial to his earlier success. I think this is not typical of American presidents, from my knowledge. The great majority who had worked for Barack were left behind. Valerie Jarrett [who served as a senior adviser to President Obama] is an exception, but she was a wealthy corporate person, not a lower level person.

“Early in his presidency, Barack made a calculated decision that he can’t be a ‘Black President’ – that to be a black president would harm him politically. Certainly after he was [re]elected in 2012, he could have done more for the black community of America. But Barack’s history of not being a ‘black politician’ was so deeply grounded that even when he finally had the political freedom after 2012 to be more politically black, he didn’t do so.”

You won the Pulitzer Prize for your biography of Martin Luther King Jr. In many ways, comparisons between the two men are inevitable. How do you see it?

“I had spent nine years trying in my own mind to avoid comparing them. Dr. King was a deeply self-critical person who had a prophetic belief that his calling was to speak the truth, irrespective of the political consequences to his own popularity. So, for example, when King so forcefully attacks the American involvement in Vietnam in 1967, he does so knowing full well that this is going to do great harm to his political reputation. In this way, King was the total opposite of a politician.”

People who know Obama say that when enters the room, he thinks he is the smartest man in that room. Is he really that smart and how aware is he of that?

“A number of people used this phrase to me, about him thinking he is the smartest man in the room. Even at Harvard Law School, Barack was stand-out smart. But as a president, the depth of his belief in being the smartest person in the room gave him a self-regard for his own judgment that didn’t serve him well. Obama repeatedly elevated people who wouldn’t disagree with him.

“Now, [Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates was an exception, but with Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Susan Rice, I think Barack as president failed to spend the amount of time he should have with first-rate, independent minds who would have been willing to challenge him and disagree with him, because he didn’t feel he needed it.

“One thing we can say for Donald Trump is that with [Secretary of Homeland Security] Gen. [John] Kelly, [National Security Adviser] Gen. [H.R.] McMaster and [Secretary of Defense] Gen. [James] Mattis, he appointed people who have lifelong records of being willing to disagree with anybody.”

As a political historian, can you try to explain to readers in Israel how someone like Trump could defeat someone as qualified as Hillary Clinton and become president?

“For me, Clinton lost both in 2008 and 2016 because her campaign staff ran a really bad campaign. Hillary Clinton wasn’t really a compelling candidate either time, because she has a clunky persona, she is someone who is not at ease around regular people. Both in 2008 and 2016, given Clinton’s financial resources, she should have had vastly better campaigns than she did. But also there are a lot of Americans – mostly white Americans but not only – who feel a class resentment toward the elite, toward people whom they perceive view themselves as better, smarter, superior to working class people.

“I think there are a lot of underappreciated Americans who found the persona of Donald Trump, with this ‘punch the elite in the nose’ attitude, this combative hostile persona – that was something that emotionally resonated with their own anger, with their own bitterness toward the U.S. elite. But now, in the age of Trump, so many people are worried about the Trump presidency that I think, retrospectively, they end up with a rosier view of the Obama years.”