Yesterday the interwebs were abuzz with stories about Obama's "composite girlfriend" -- the supposed bombshell that the story in Dreams From My Father about the white woman he had an affair with wasn't strictly true. The Atlantic has a really good corrective piece on how the meme began. Media Matters has covered the story as well. Politico, by the way, has now moved its correction up to the top of the article.
I'd missed the initial story but I saw a snarky reference to it on Michelle Malkin's blog yesterday (she sends me her newsletter every weekday at 4:00 pm).
The real reason the right seizes on these things is 1) To reemphasize the broader idea of how "unvetted" and essentially mysterious Obama is (everyone, after all, can name three of the women that Jimmy Carter dated before he met Rosslyn, or George W. before he met Laura, right?); 2) To re-rehearse the story, which has become almost an object of conventional wisdom on the far right, that Bill Ayers wrote Dreams From My Father. Thanks mostly to Donald Trump, this idea has also been aired in the mainstream media -- how could a black person have written an actual book after all?; and 3) To intimate that Obama is gay. Most people in the real world probably haven't heard those rumors, but as I wrote on the SPLC's Hatewatch blog some months ago, they are most definitely out there.
The funny thing is that Obama was much better-known than most politicians are when he entered public life. Dreams From My Father was originally published in 1995, almost ten years before he ran for the U.S. Senate. By six degrees of Kevin Bacon standards at least, he's one of the more accessible super-famous people in the world. I'm hardly well-connected myself, but I know at least two people who knew Obama back in the day (one went to Harvard Law School with him, the other supervised him at one of his early jobs).
FDR was accused of being a secret Jew; Lincoln of being a secret Catholic (posthumous stories insist, with greater and lesser degrees of credibility, that Lincoln was gay and Jewish as well). Lightning rod that he is, Obama can't but be polarizing and that means his enemies will fall all over themselves to prove his essential "otherness," even if it ties them up in knots. He's either a dangerous demagogue or so inarticulate that he can't talk without a teleprompter; a Kenyan Muslim or an atheistic Communist.
How ironic that the truth is that he is so essentially conservative, as the "composite girlfriend" story also proves. The occasion for the rumor, remember, was the excerpt from the David Maraniss book in Vanity Fair, which not only identifies some of Obama's former girlfriends, but quotes copiously from letters and diaries -- providing, I would venture, much more sensuous detail about the 22-year-old future president's love life than we have for either Bush or even Reagan (though I do recall reading, I think in Lou Cannon's biography, about the parade of starlets that passed through Reagan's bedroom between Jane Wyman and Nancy).
But here's Obama writing to his Occidental College girlfriend Alex McNear about T.S. Eliot. I disagree with The Atlantic's Graham, who calls it pretentious gibberish. For better or for worse, it shows you why biographers read their subjects early letters: because sometimes they can provide real clues into how they think about the world -- and how they will act in it, when they become who they are fated by history to be. If anyone is wondering why such a historic president has had such a cautiously centric and ineffectual presidency, they need read no further:
Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism -- Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it's due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter -- life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.
You'd think Obama's enemies would make more of that "fatalism" than they do. For when all is said and done, that might be what causes his undoing.