Obama in Love: The Story Behind 'The Story'

Yes, the upcoming biography of the president goes into the details of his love life as a young man. But it really dives much deeper than that. 

obama- 53-body.jpgAP

Imagine: a college undergraduate lounging about with his lady friend on a Sunday afternoon, bare-chested, wearing a blue sarong and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.

This would not seem the stuff of headlines. But if the kid was a future president, and initial consumers of the modestly titillating revelation include a voracious and at times ideologically-driven media, well, it's the stuff of instant, sneering caricature and pseudo-cultural debate.

And it's too bad.

But it is an image found in the Vanity Fair excerpt of journalist-historian David Maraniss' upcoming Barack Obama biography, "Barack Obama: The Story."

I can hear Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and my friend Laura Ingraham now, mocking his effete ways -- imagine, too, that the guy was reading T.S. Eliot! -- as they themselves live lives distinctly removed from many proletarian realities.

I've been lucky enough to help Maraniss on the editing of several of his books, including the new one. He's a remarkable reporter, wonderful writer, fair-minded but tough analyst and, knock on wood, not combative when it comes to editing.

Despite my anemic commercial sense, I had suspected that disclosures of Obama's college romance with Genevieve Cook would be instant fodder for the Obama-bashing chattering classes.

But it's in no way, shape or form the crux of the book; more a revealing and only modestly-salacious parenthetical.

When the book arrives, those who actually read it will find a revealing effort that insightfully expands on several fine works on Obama by David Remnick, David Mendell, and Janny Scott. It will underscore how Obama's own books about his life are as much strong literature as they are truly empirical histories.

I thought I knew about all there was to know about the guy. Instead, I found mounds of new material on his dysfunction-filled family and the evolution of his mind and temperament, especially during years as a community organizer in Chicago.

Even living now far from the Beltway, I have a better sense of how he deals with others and with issues, be it dueling with the Republican leadership on raising the debt ceiling or wrestling fitfully with the mess of Afghanistan.

It's a portrait that shreds the caricatures of him found among critics both on the political left and right; either of a weak-kneed liberal sellout or some closet socialist clamoring to nationalize all our basic industries.

Yes, there's stuff about his personal life, including those more bohemian younger days. Yes, some of it involves women. Yes, he inhaled.

Obama himself may learn quite a bit since there are some folks, who know much about his family background, who had not previously spilled any beans to a journalist. If you thought the philandering father was a piece of work, wait until you read even more about him.

Of course, we can all only imagine what a bigtime reporter would uncover if inspecting our individual lives. For sure, he or she would shred many uncritically accepted accounts of the family passed along by aunts, uncles and grandparents.

That may mean a pinch of pain for Obama. But, by and large, there should be a certain grudging gratitude to Maraniss for revealing greater complexities than he's known. It will be an important document for Obama's daughters and their children.

As for the American electorate, it probably won't move many one way or another. Most won't read it. And that's too bad. Whichever way they plan to vote in November, they might just concede that Obama's personal odyssey is a remarkable tale of self-discipline, ambition and dealing with adversity

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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