Before Michelle, Barack Obama asked another woman to marry him. Then politics got in the way.Dr. Jager’s name wasn’t known until now, although the few details that had been known about her — e.g., U. of Chicago grad student in anthropology — seem confirmed.
A massive new biography sheds light on the relationships, sacrifices and calculations that enabled the Obama presidency.
Reviewed by Carlos Lozada May 2 at 1:00 PM
RISING STAR: The Making of Barack Obama
By David J. Garrow.
William Morrow. 1,460 pp. $45. …
… It is in the personal realm that Garrow’s account is particularly revealing. He shares for the first time the story of a woman Obama lived with and loved in Chicago, in the years before he met Michelle, and whom he asked to marry him. Sheila Miyoshi Jager, now a professor at Oberlin College, is a recurring presence in “Rising Star,” and her pained, drawn-out relationship with Obama informs both his will to rise in politics and the trade-offs he deems necessary to do so.
Garrow, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr., concludes this massive new work with a damning verdict on Obama’s determination: “While the crucible of self-creation had produced an ironclad will, the vessel was hollow at its core.”Obama was groomed by his extended family, well-educated people with ties to academia and American deep state power, for a career as a foreign relations go-between: what I call a Muslimist. Not an “Arabist,” but similar: an expert on non-Arab heavily Muslim countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Kenya.
… Note how it was as much about Obama himself as any success he had in his organizing work. Inspired by Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, Obama began to discuss his political ambitions with a few colleagues and friends during his early time in the city. He wanted to be mayor of Chicago. Or a U.S. senator. Or governor of Illinois. Or perhaps he would enter the ministry. Or, as he confided to very few, such as Jager, he would become president of the United States. Lofty stuff for a 20-something community organizer who struggled to write fiction on the side.
Jager, who in “Dreams From My Father” was virtually written out, compressed into a single character along with two prior Obama girlfriends, may have evoked something of Obama’s distant mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Like Dunham, Jager studied anthropology, and while Dunham focused on Indonesia, Jager developed a deep expertise in the Korean Peninsula. Jager was of Dutch and Japanese ancestry, fitting the multicultural world Obama was only starting to leave behind. They were a natural fit.
As Obama told his previous biographer David Maraniss, the “obvious path for me given my background” was to get a graduate degree in international relations and wind up “working in the State Department, in the Foreign Service, or working for an international foundation.…”
Dr. Jager has a similar job involving being an expert on Korea.
In 1985 Obama rebelled against that foreign affairs destiny, moving to insular Chicago. Of course, he didn’t get along all that well with the African-Americans he was now paid to organize, so he acquired a girlfriend straight out of his old International Affairs world.
The white girlfriend he left behind in New York was the daughter of a top Australian intelligence official with expertise in Indonesia who later because Australia’s ambassador to the United States. She was also the stepdaughter of a top Washington Democratic power broker lawyer who ran the Indonesian connection for a giant international mining company. I’ve always wondered who set them up: maybe Timothy Geithner’s dad, who worked with Obama’s mom?
Jager soon came to realize, she told Garrow, that Obama had “a deep-seated need to be loved and admired.”I wonder when he took the LSAT.
She describes their life together as an isolating experience, “an island unto ourselves” in which Obama would “compartmentalize his work and home life.” She did not meet Jeremiah Wright, the pastor with a growing influence on Obama, and they rarely saw his professional colleagues socially. The friends they saw were often graduate students at the University of Chicago, where Sheila was pursuing her doctorate. They traveled together to meet her family as well as his. Soon they began speaking of marriage.
“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 (Barack came across to them like “a white, middle-class kid,” a close family friend said) than for concern about Obama’s professional prospects, and because her mother thought Sheila, two years Obama’s junior, was too young. “Not yet,” Sheila told Barack. But they stayed together.
In early 1987, when Obama was 25, she sensed a change. “He became. . . so very ambitious” very 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.”
The sense of destiny is not unusual among those who become president. (See Clinton, Bill.) But it created complications. Obama believed that he had a “calling,” Garrow writes, and in his case it was “coupled with a heightened awareness that to pursue it he had to fully identify as African American.”That’s kind of interesting.
Maraniss’s 2012 biography deftly describes Obama’s conscious evolution from a multicultural, internationalist self-perception toward a distinctly African American one, and Garrow puts this transition into an explicitly political context. For black politicians in Chicago, he writes, a non-African-American spouse could be a liability. He cites the example of Richard H. Newhouse Jr., a legendary African American state senator in Illinois, who was married to a white woman and endured whispers that he “talks black but sleeps white.” And Carol Moseley Braun, who during the 1990s served Illinois as the first female African American U.S. senator and whose ex-husband was white, admitted that “an interracial marriage really restricts your political options.”
Discussions of race and politics suddenly overwhelmed Sheila and Barack’s 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,” Sheila recalls. The “resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career,” she said.
In Garrow’s telling, Obama made emotional judgments on political grounds. A close mutual friend of the couple recalls Obama explaining that “the lines are very clearly drawn. . . . If I am going out with a white woman, I have no standing here.” …
He points out that Obama’s cocaine use extended into his post-college years, longer than Obama had previously acknowledged.
And he suggests Obama deployed religion for political purposes; while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Garrow notes, Obama began toting around a Bible and exhibited “a greater religious faith than close acquaintances had ever previously sensed.”[Comment at Unz.com]