Those who jumped on that link reached a Politico story with this headline: “Obama: ‘New York girlfriend’ was composite.” That piece was a work of aggregation, based on the new Vanity Fair book excerpt of David Maraniss’s “Barack Obama: The Story.”
The excerpt plumbs Obama’s romance with Genevieve Cook, a woman he’d met at a party in 1983. Maraniss goes deep into the relationship, with some able assistance from Cook’s journal entries. One of them reads:
Today, for the first time, Barack sat on the edge of the bed — dressed — blue jeans and luscious ladies on his chest [a comfy T-shirt depicting buxom women], the end of the front section of the Sunday Times in his hand, looking out the window, and the quality of light reflected from his eyes, windows of the soul, heart, and mind, was so clear, so unmasked, his eyes narrower than he usually holds them looking out the window, usually too aware of me.
Though Obama references this relationship in his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” he doesn’t name Cook. Maraniss addresses this omission in the Vanity Fair excerpt:
Decades later, during an interview in the Oval Office, Obama acknowledged that, while Genevieve was his New York girlfriend, the description in his memoir was a “compression” of girlfriends, including one who followed Genevieve when he lived in Chicago.
Politico hopped on the matter, with media reporter Dylan Byers writing, in part: “But Obama has now told biographer David Maraniss that the ‘New York girlfriend’ was actually a composite character, based off of multiple girlfriends he had both in New York City and in Chicago.”
Okay, but way back Obama told the whole world that characters in that book were composites. From the introduction to “Dreams From My Father”: “For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of privacy.”
In other words, there’s nothing at all surprising about this composite thing.
Byers defends the value of his post: “The news that the ‘New York girlfriend’ is a composite character is new. Though Obama acknowledges the use of composite characters in his introduction, he does not specify which characters he is referring to. It thus seemed like a relevant item.” An update and correction to the post clarify that it initially overplayed the story by leaving out a critical detail:
UPDATE: In the reissue of “Dreams from My Father,” Obama writes in the introduction that “some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post stated that Obama had acknowledged using composite characters in the reissue. In fact, Obama acknowledged the use of composite characters in the first edition of the book.
The lobbying behind that correction, Byers reports, comes from the White House, which clearly has a stake in defending against any notion that Obama wasn’t upfront about the devices he’d deployed in his memoir.
The Politico post on composite-ness drives at just what constitutes a newsworthy revelation. Yes, as Byers argues, it may not have been known that the “New York girlfriend” was a composite. Yet since the book includes a prefatory disclosure that there are composites within, does it qualify as news that one of the characters is a composite? Perhaps it’d be more noteworthy if the “New York girlfriend” turned out not to be a composite.
The danger of packaging it as revelatory — without noting Obama’s intro disclaimer — surfaces in the comments to the Politico post. Here’s one:
100% lying scumbag.
Evertime this illegal ailien open his mouth it is a lie.
His birth certificate was a composite, too. So is his economic plan, as was the cost of his health care bill. Nothing this guy says is truthful.
Obama’s shortcut of constructing composites was a lame and lazy way to put together a memoir. But if you signal to the reader that it’s the route you’re taking, it’s no lie. If recent history is any guide, however, we’ll be hearing the echo from this Politico-to-Drudge handoff for years to come.