The truth will not exactly “out.” In this instance it would be more accurate and precise, according to the strictures of PC vernacular, to say it has been outed.
There is a fascinating passage in Rising Star, David Garrow’s comprehensive biography of Barack Obama’s early years, in which the historian examines Obama’s account in Dreams from My Father of his breakup with his longtime Chicago girlfriend, Sheila Miyoshi Jager. In Dreams, Obama describes a passionate disagreement following a play by African American playwright August Wilson, in which the young protagonist defends his incipient embrace of Black racial consciousness against his girlfriend’s white-identified liberal universalism. As readers, we know that the stakes of this decision would become more than simply personal: The Black American man that Obama wills into being in this scene would go on to marry a Black woman from the South Side of Chicago named Michelle Robinson and, after a meteoric rise, win election as the first Black president of the United States.
Yet what Garrow documented, after tracking down and interviewing Sheila Miyoshi Jager, was an explosive fight over a very different subject. In Jager’s telling, the quarrel that ended the couple’s relationship was not about Obama’s self-identification as a Black man. And the impetus was not a play about the American Black experience, but an exhibit at Chicago’s Spertus Institute about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.
At the time that Obama and Sheila visited the Spertus Institute, Chicago politics was being roiled by a Black mayoral aide named Steve Cokely who, in a series of lectures organized by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, accused Jewish doctors in Chicago of infecting Black babies with AIDS as part of a genocidal plot against African Americans. The episode highlighted a deep rift within the city’s power echelons, with some prominent Black officials supporting Cokely and others calling for his firing.
In Jager’s recollection, what set off the quarrel that precipitated the end of the couple’s relationship was Obama’s stubborn refusal, after seeing the exhibit, and in the swirl of this Cokely affair, to condemn Black racism. While acknowledging that Obama’s embrace of a Black identity had created some degree of distance between the couple, she insisted that what upset her that day was Obama’s inability to condemn Cokely’s comments. It was not Obama’s Blackness that bothered her, but that he would not condemn antisemitism.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about Jager’s account of her fight with Obama, though, is that not one reporter in America bothered to interview her before David Garrow found her, near the end of Obama’s presidency. As Obama’s live-in girlfriend and closest friend during the 1980s, Jager is probably the single most informed and credible source about the inner life of a young man whose election was accompanied by hopes of sweeping, peaceful social change in America—a hope that ended with the election of Donald Trump, or perhaps midway through Obama’s second term, as the president focused on the Iran deal while failing to address the concerns about rampant income inequality, racial inequality, and the growth of a monopoly tech complex that happened on his watch.
Yet when it came out six years ago, Rising Star was mostly ignored; as a result, its most scandalous and perhaps revelatory passages, such as Obama’s long letter to another girlfriend about his fantasies of having sex with men, read today, to people who are more familiar with the Obama myth than the historical record, like partisan bigotry. But David Garrow is hardly a hack whose work can or should be dismissed on partisan grounds. He is among the country’s most credible and celebrated civil rights historians—the author of The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bearing the Cross (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography) and one of the three historian-consultants who animated the monumental PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, as well as the author of a landmark history of abortion rights, Liberty and Sexuality.
Much, much, MUCH more here, as well as here, of which you should definitely read the etc. But don’t for a moment think Samuels’ interview with Garrow was strictly limited to salacious details about Bathhouse Barry’s, umm, bi-curiosity, let’s say. Oh no, he’s actually after much bigger quarry than that.
That Obama might enjoy serving as a third-term president in all but name, running the government from his iPhone, was a thought expressed in public by Obama himself, both before and after he left office. “I used to say if I can make an arrangement where I had a stand-in or front man or front woman, and they had an earpiece in, and I was just in my basement in my sweats looking through the stuff, and I could sort of deliver the lines while someone was doing all the talking and ceremony,” he told Steven Colbert in 2015, “I’d be fine with that because I found the work fascinating.” Even with all these clues, the Washington press corps—fresh off their years of broadcasting fantasies about secret communications links between Trump Tower and the Kremlin—seemed unable to imagine, let alone report on, Obama’s role in government.
I have never seen any evidence that Barack Obama has the slightest personal animus toward Jews as individuals. But from his denial of American exceptionalism, and his sourness toward Israel, going all the way back to Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s account of their breakup, there does seem to be an awareness of the underlying problem posed to his politics by Jews—that is, the problem posed by Jewish group survival and their continuing insistence on Jewish historical particularity.
Progressive theology is built on a mythic hierarchy of group victimhood which has endured throughout time, up until the present day; the injuries that the victims have suffered are so massive, so shocking, and so manifestly unjust that they dwarf the present. Such injuries must be remedied immediately, at nearly any cost. The people who do the work of remedying these injustices, by whatever means, are the heroes of history. Conversely, the sins of the chief oppressors of history, white men, are so dark that nothing short of abject humiliation and capitulation can begin to approach justice.
It goes to say that nothing about the terms of progressive theology is original. It is the theology of Soviet communism, with class struggle replaced by identity politics. In this system, Jews play a unique, double-edged role: They are both an identity group and a Trojan horse through which history can reenter the gates of utopia.
Ghettos were invented for Jews. Concentration camps, too. How can Jews be “privileged white people” if they are clearly among history’s victims? And if Jews aren’t white people, then perhaps lots of other white people are also victims and therefore aren’t “white,” in the theological sense in which that term gains its significance in progressive ideology. Maybe “Black people” aren’t always or primarily Black. Maybe the whole progressive race-based theology is, historically and ideologically speaking, a load of crap. Which is why the Jews are and will remain a problem.
Obama didn’t invent any of this stuff; he was just a wounded kid trying to figure out his own place in the world and get ahead. Still, looking back, it is hard to avoid the sense that Obama himself was exceptional. He was the guy chosen by history to put something in the American goldfish bowl that made all the fish go crazy and eat each other: America’s emerging oligarachy cementing its grip instead of going bust. The rise of monopoly internet platforms. The normalization of government spying on Americans. Race relations going south. Skyrocketing inequality. The rise of Donald Trump. The birth of Russiagate. It all happened with Obama in the White House.
To understand how we wound up here, it therefore seems necessary to start by understanding the man that so many of us refused to see outside of the myth that he created for himself. His problems are now our problems, as much as Donald Trump’s are.
That is why I went to talk to David Garrow.
And so he did. Follows, the interview itself, which is wide-ranging, very intriguing, and quite possible even dangerous, at least in a personal way, to Garrow and Samuels both. That there is no perceptible risk of similar harm to Bathhouse Barry is telling, I think.