As Donald Trump and the Republicans this week start to dismantle Barack Obama’s landmark health care reforms, what they cannot surely take from his legacy is the former president’s integrity.
And yet even this may have to be reconsidered with the publication of the most exhaustive biography of the former president ever written. Rising Star, a 1,500-page tome by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Garrow, is the result of nine years’ research and interviews with more than 1,000 people.
It includes sensational claims that Obama failed to tell the truth about the extent of his drug-taking, flirted with homosexuality and wrote out of his memoirs a girlfriend with whom he lived for two years and twice proposed to.
Barack Obama wrote his white girlfriends out of his memoir, according to an extensive new biography. He dated Australian Genevieve Cook, pictured, and she claims they took cocaine
It portrays him as a man whose romantic choices were influenced by his political ambition.
It isn’t the first time, although it’s the most damning example, that Obama has been the subject of a biographer who has seemingly found discrepancies in his own account of his life, set out in his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father.
We know already he tried to camouflage the fact he had a string of well-heeled, well-educated white girlfriends — hardly helpful to a politician trying to connect with America’s black voters.
But the new book reveals Obama’s most ‘explosive’ personal secret, claims Garrow. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a university professor, didn’t merit a single mention in his autobiography even though he quoted liberally from his long letters to her from Kenya in his own memoir.
Blonde Alex McNear edited a literary magazine and fell for Obama’s charms
And she wasn’t a brief dalliance but it is claimed possibly one of the great loves of his life — and a woman who, she says, he continued to see even after he had begun a relationship with his future wife, Michelle Robinson.
Garrow has found many old friends of the Obamas who have recollections that differ from the former President’s own — beginning with his childhood in Hawaii, where he was raised by white grandparents.
His mother, Garrow reveals, was absent from his young life to an astonishing degree, even after his father deserted them and returned to Kenya.
In the Seventies, Hawaiian high school students referred to smoking marijuana as ‘chooming’ and ‘Barry’, as Obama then called himself, led the Choom Gang, a group of boys who loved to play basketball, drink beer and smoke marijuana.
Speaking now, none of those friends remembered Obama as anything but happy, relaxed and outgoing — hardly the angry, racially conflicted ‘thug’ that he has described in his own writing. There was, Garrow says, little racial discrimination in racially diverse Hawaii anyway.
Although one former friend is convinced Obama started experimenting with cocaine in his teens, Obama’s claim he used to swagger into classes ‘drunk or high, daring [his teachers] to say something’ appears to have been a flight of fancy, according to Garrow.
At university — Occidental College — in Los Angeles, Barry took part in his dorm’s nightly beer and cannabis binges, occasionally snorting cocaine, too.
He was ‘always vague’ about his family — until, one night when he took psychedelic ‘magic mushrooms’ and, said fellow student Sim Heninger, ‘just came unglued, he was a mess’.
A ‘hysterical and angry’ Obama ‘babbled about identity and nudity and not wanting to experience rejection’, said Mr Heninger.
It was at Occidental that Obama befriended an openly gay professor, Lawrence Goldyn. He ‘made a huge impact’ on the future president, particularly in his understanding of gay issues, says Garrow.
Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a university professor, is possibly one of the great loves of Obama’s life. She claims he continued to see her even after he had begun a relationship with his future wife, Michelle Robinson
His gay mentor has said that the 18-year-old Obama ‘was clearly not gay’ himself, but could he have misjudged the young student?
Garrow tantalisingly reveals that three years later, Obama wrote somewhat elusively to his first intimate girlfriend that he had thought about and considered gayness, but ultimately had decided a same-sex relationship would be less challenging and demanding than developing one with the opposite sex’.
Obama doesn’t reveal precisely which girlfriend revealed this confidence, but there are several possibilities.
Alex McNear, co-editor of an Occidental College literary magazine which published two of Obama’s poems while he was a student, has been described as having been ‘lithe and mysterious, with the face of a young Meryl Streep and a literary, Bohemian air’. Obama developed a crush on Alex and they started seeing each other in New York, where, aged 20, he had applied to complete his degree at Columbia University.
Alex told Garrow that Obama was shy and didn’t seem ‘at all experienced’ or ‘terribly driven’.
When Alex returned to Occidental College, they wrote fiercely intellectual letters to each other. No wonder at Harvard Law School a few years later, classmates created an ‘Obamameter’ ranking ‘how pretentious someone’s remarks are in class’.
In his first year after law school, Obama met the future Michelle Obama at the Chicago law firm where she worked. She would join him at the White House as First Lady
The next glamorous white girlfriend was Australian Genevieve Cook, who Obama met at a New York Christmas party in 1983. He had graduated and was working in a dull office job.
She was three years older and taught in a private school. They slept together on their first date and the relationship was certainly passionate even if Cook, the daughter of a former ambassador, felt he wasn’t very imaginative in bed. ‘How is he so old at 22?’ she confided to her diary. She wrote him an alphabet poem which included: ‘B. That’s for you. F’s for all the f***ing we do.’
Obama has claimed his cocaine use was limited to a brief dalliance in his teens, but Genevieve claims that he was still snorting it when they were together. ‘Though Obama was not that into it. For every five lines that somebody did, he would have done half,’ she said.
The man who would controversially support legalising marijuana as President appeared to have conflicting views about harder drugs. He might still indulge but he was simultaneously pontificating to black friends about how they were reinforcing damaging racial stereotypes by taking them.
Genevieve was aware that Obama never regarded her as more than a passing phase in his love life. They discussed race often, with Obama confessing there was ‘hardly a black bone in his body’ and feeling like an ‘imposter’.
The pair drifted apart after Obama moved to Chicago and she delivered the final blow after revealing she had become sexually involved with one of Obama’s druggy student friends, she told Garrow.
Obama, by now working as a community organiser in Chicago, was complaining he hadn’t had ‘female companionship’ for a year when two of his friends invited him to dinner in 1986 to meet Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a stunning student of Dutch and Japanese parentage.
Obama and Michelle had Malia and Sasha together
Unknown to her, however, Obama enjoyed a fling with a Hispanic divorcee and mother of three, Lena Montes, while Sheila was away in California. Obama had met Lena, who was three years older, through his work and they remained close friends.
But Obama swiftly asked Sheila to move in with him and she agreed. ‘Very sweet lady, as busy as I am, and so temporarily well-suited,’ he wrote to a friend in his usual stilted language. He rhapsodised to friends about the specks of green in her eyes.
Just six months after meeting her, while visiting her parents in Manhattan, Obama proposed. Friends say Obama damaged his chances after he had a heated row over politics with her Dutch father, Bernd, a staunch conservative and Republican.
He made it clear he was worried over Obama’s ‘lack of prospects’. ‘I went along with their judgment, basically saying “Not yet”,’ said Sheila. The couple returned to their unmarried life together in Chicago, becoming ‘an island unto ourselves’, she said. They got themselves a cat, which infuriated Obama by always urinating on their best house plant.
It was around this time that, according to Garrow, he changed dramatically. Over the months of 1987, Sheila said she saw him suddenly become ‘powerfully ambitious’. At 25, he had his sights set on becoming President, she said. Like Genevieve Cook, she sensed Obama felt what Garrow described as a ‘calling’, that he was destined for greatness.
Their conversations about marriage continued but the increasingly withdrawn Obama was now tormented over the issue of his racial identity.
In this picture, Obama is a handsome law student sitting beside his grandparents Stanley Armour Dunham and Madelyn Payne Dunham in New York City
He started saying he could never run as an African-American for the presidency with a ‘white wife’. Chicago’s racially divided political history suggested he had a point as inter-racial marriage often damaged a black politician’s prospects. As a mixed race man, Obama ‘wasn’t black enough’ to rise up with a ‘white wife’, said a friend.
Sheila didn’t see herself as white, but she clearly wasn’t black. Friends recalled an awkward house party at which everyone could hear the couple arguing through the open windows of their bedroom. ‘They went back and forth, having sex, screaming yelling, having sex, screaming yelling,’ recalled a witness.
It appears that the final straw came in May 1988 when Sheila decided to read through a diary that Obama kept under their bed. It seems it contained details of his relationship with Lena Montes.
Lena recalled Obama telling her that Sheila had been ‘upset’ to read about ‘someone’ in the diary and that she was ‘leaving because of this journal’.
Even if they no longer lived together, their relationship didn’t end. Obama soon proposed for a second time. It would have meant her moving to Massachusetts with him where he had won a place at Harvard Law School. Sheila, who believes Obama was simply ‘desperate over our eventual parting and not in any real faith in our future’, again said ‘No’.
However, she continued to visit him, telling Garrow she still ‘loved him deeply’ but ‘felt smothered . . . by his neediness to be the centre of my world’.
In his first year after law school, Obama met the future Michelle Obama at the Chicago law firm where she worked. They quickly became serious, but Sheila was not yet out of his life. She followed him to Harvard on a teaching fellowship.
Once she arrived there in 1990, they continued to see each other, occasionally despite his deepening relationship with Michelle.
Garrow observes that Obama would later say this was a ‘difficult, transitional period in my life’. Indeed it was, says the biographer, as he juggled ‘two powerful, overlapping relationships’.
Sheila knew about Michelle as Obama told her all about the latter’s authentically African-American background in Chicago’s working class South Side.
‘I always felt bad about it,’ Miss Jager told Garrow.
Obama admitted in his memoirs to experimenting with cocaine as a teenager in Hawaii
In spring 1991, Sheila met her future husband, Korean-American academic Jiyul Kim, and the relationship with Obama ended. They parted amicably although, using the alias ‘Recovered Obamamaniac’, she posted several critical comments about his 2007 election campaign on the Washington Post website, angrily accusing him of softening his old radicalism.
She remembers him now as ‘a profoundly lonely person at heart’ and someone who ‘was and is truly unreachable’. She told Garrow: ‘As much as I loved him, I was relieved when our paths finally parted.’
They went ‘through many painful things together’. She remains deeply disappointed that his ‘deep-seated need to be loved and admired’ caused him to take the easy, conformist path as President rather than the ‘path to greatness which I had hoped for him’.
She isn’t the only ex-girlfriend who wasn’t impressed. Genevieve Cook described Obama to Garrow as riddled by self-doubt, arrogant, self-glorifying and having a ‘strong dislike for being embarrassed, losing status, of having his reputation tarnished’.
Of course, many of Obama’s devoted fans will not let any of this tarnish their hero worship.
But it is Michelle Obama who may have hit on the truth when, during his 2008 presidential election campaign, she said there were two Baracks — the public ‘phenomenon’ and the one that lives with her, ‘and that guy’s a little less impressive’.
To date, the Obamas have not responded to the claims in the book.
Rising Star, by David J. Garrow, is published by William Collins on May 25, price £30.