MHP   |  May 05, 2012

Obama's ex-girlfriends detail president's past

Melissa Harris-Perry and her panelists discuss the upcoming biography on the president by David Maraniss called "Barack Obama: The Story," as it gives insight on Obama's past loves and struggles with identity.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, HOST: Before the president launches his campaign today with his vision for the future, first he has to contend with some ghosts from his past. And the worst nightmare honestly of anyone who has been in a relationship, namely his exes, and their meticulously preserved diaries and letters coming out of the woodwork , with all the juicy details .

This week, "Vanity Fair" released an excerpt of "Barack Obama: The Story," autobiography of the president by David Maraniss , to be released in June. And in the book, two of the president's former flames from his post college years in New York , open up and tell all. Only instead of dishing on how the president loved and left them, his past loves paint a portrait of one of the most watched men on the planet and his search for himself. The person that he was looking for and that we now know as President Obama was no accident. In the book, a friend from those years describes the future president as "the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and his achievement was really an achievement of identity in the modern world . That was an important period for him, and first the shift from not an international, but an American, and number one. And then not white, but black." Joining me here at the table, MSNBC political analyst Karen Finney . She is the former director of communications for the DNC ; Kai Wright , editorial director of and a fellow at the Nation Institute ; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson ,during of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of "The Obama Victory". OK. So, I confess --


HARRIS-PERRY: I confess, I loved this story, because I felt like one of the things that excited a lot of us in the world of nerds when President Obama was elected is a sense that a genuine intellectual was coming into White House , but you can never be completely sure on how someone frames themselves. And I actually thought it was sort of sweet in a little dorky that he quotes all of the philosophers in the middle of his love letters . And, you know, I wonder, do we gain any insight on Obama the man and potentially on Obama the leader and president from knowing these things? KAI WRIGHT, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, COLORLINES.COM: Well, they are not new things, though. One of the interesting things about Barack Obama is that for all of the crazy Tea Party conspiracies about who is he really -- the man has lived out loud his whole life. I mean, "Dreams For My Father" covered much of this emotional territory already. You know, his wrestling with who he is, and the racial identity and what is the role in the world and what he will represent in the world. He -- this is actually isn't new other than the really interesting girlfriend piece of it.

KAREN FINNEY, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: But you know what? The girlfriend piece, we're talking about this earlier.


FINNEY: If anything, it makes him very much an American male, let me tell you, because how much of you have had the experience that you say, "I love you" and the guy was like, thanks. Like come on.

HARRIS-PERRY: Like nice sentiment, dear.

FINNEY: Come on, that is the American male in their 20s, trust me.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, ANNENBERG PUBLIC POLICY CENTER: I had another reaction which is that there is a strange piece in the Internet that circulated in 2008 that said that Barack Obama did not write his books, and William Ayers wrote his books.


JAMIESON: When you read the language in the love letters --


JAMIESON: -- and -- or whatever those letters were, those communiques, and you compare them to the books, it is exactly the same voice, exactly the same kind of stylistic tendencies and we can now put to rest that strange viral allegation.

HARRIS-PERRY: Right that he did not write it. And I want to pause on this for a second, especially the point that he is an American male, because part of what the Romney campaign has been doing as they put Ann Romney , very likable figure out front, is this very, I think sort of sanitize and although I think completely honest version of an American love story . There was only Ann. There was only Ann for Mitt . It was just us. We met. And -- you know? But this story is a much more complicated one. Obama actually did love others, and work on his way sort of as he finds his way to Michelle who has a 70 percent approval rating. Am I going too far in the metaphor that maybe Americans prefer the kind of third grade version of love and America and of history versus the real complicated messy versions of love and America and history?

WRIGHT: Plainly.

FINNEY: Well, how do we know that there aren't any complications in the Mitt and the Ann story? They can better control that story, because they have been together for such a long period of time and none of the former girlfriends are writing anything.

WRIGHT: Well, it is uncomfortable point, but it's also an important narrative for the Romney story, because of the -- what a lot of the Americans think about Mormonism , you know? So having recognizable family is important to him, politically. You know? And I think --

HARRIS-PERRY: You think that monogamy from the beginning is very important because of the LDS ?

WRIGHT: Because of the way that the Americans think about it , and the regardless of the perception.

HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. Right, not because it is there , but because it is out there.

WRIGHT: And whereas, you know, Michelle Obama has a 70 percent approval rating and she did not always have one. And one of the things that attracted me to, us, to the Obama story, those of us in nerd land, and many people who didn't participate or care about politics before that is the complexity of the Obama story. It's a complicated story. It always has been.

HARRIS-PERRY: I literally, when I read this, I could not help myself, but I went out to find a quote because I thought, you know, this is so perfect, right, that no straight thing has ever made from the crooked timber of humanity, right? That's what we are. We are the cooked timber of humanity and kind of reading the pathos of young Obama felt to me like the sort of Kantian moment. And it also felt like he would have actually quoted Kant as a way of getting of --

JAMIESON: There is a piece of a story that's emerging here that was consistent, more consistent with the presidency with what we thought we saw in 2008 , and that is the person who is detached. And the Republican line on the detached -- and the sort of Republican framing of detached is cold and calculating, you can't necessarily trust. And the -- of course, the Democratic take is endearing and romantic, searching for himself and finding identity. But here is the bottom line electorally, once someone has been president, we don't use those early biographical years, because they don't tell us anything knew. Those things matter for Mitt Romney , because we are screening him. We're still trying to find out who he is. But once somebody has served two or three years as Dan Rather found out about George W. Bush , whatever it is in the past doesn't really matter.

HARRIS-PERRY: And does race complicate that at all? I love that story that -- you know, once we've known the three or four years, that's really the only kind of what have you done for us lately, we don't care about the past. But I wonder if we are still grappling with having a black president and the ways in which since we live as DuBois would have said, behind the veil, that we are like somehow still trying to get to know this particular president. Am I over-reading the race story here?

FINNEY: I don't think -- you know, one of the excerpts that got no attention up against the girlfriend factor was this conversation that he had with Maraniss , where he was saying like, in trying to figure out who I am, you know, I'm black, I'm white, I don't have a class. I don't have you know, I'm sort of all over the place . I realize I have to embrace all of it. I feel like that tells you a lot about who this person is, and why he is an effective leader, because he is somebody -- and again, if it plays against the narrative that the Republicans want to paint of this man, but he is someone who genuinely, I think sees the big picture 360 degrees and is trying to live a life that embraces a lot of that rather than saying, "I'm going to will put this piece off here and be this," he is trying to be a more integrated human being, which I think is a harder thing to do, and racially, you know, talked about this as a mixed race person . That is a hard thing to do, and that is a hard line to walk.

WRIGHT: Though at the same time, you know, I think there is a progressive critique of the president that I have made myself is and it comes up in this portrait is that he is a person who is more interested in what he represents than the change he makes, right? That he's -- that he sees himself as the embodiment of change, and that that gets in the way of system of ugly messy business of making change in a place like Washington . You know, I think that, so I think that it is a -- you can spin his, and it is clear that he is very concerned with what he represents, and you can spin that -- there's both a positive and negative side of it.

HARRIS-PERRY: But I love that -- so, he apparently says actually to Genevieve Cook , one of the ex-girlfriends that he is actually making a choice to go towards blackness. So he confessed that, you know, he is having ambivalence about being both black and white , and it becomes clear to him that he needs to go towards blackness. And we actually see him embrace the blackness, both in the choice of romantic partner. You know, and I have been carrying around my " Invisible Man " because I found out that apparently he had a tattered version of " Invisible Man ," in his choice to live on the south side of Chicago , even in his Census bubble choice that he made in 2010 , I wonder if that's -- if there is something about that embrace, itself, that is politically relevant as a change moment.

WRIGHT: Maybe. I think that it is more relevant to him. First off on the question of, I think that we are in fact wrestling with having a black president , but no more or less than we did in 2008 , right? I think we're there, sort of speaks to Kathleen 's point that the people have done what they are going to do around it emotionally, and this is the end of that. It's present, but people are going to go where they have gone. I think what's interesting about the " Invisible Man " piece is, you know, his embrace of blackness. He is talking Ralph Ellison , not Richard Wright , you know?

HARRIS-PERRY: It's true.

WRIGHT: So, you know, there are different ways to embrace blackness. And he has embraced a version that, I think, is -- could go differently.

HARRIS: Could, indeed. All right. So, stay right there. We're going to continue to dig into the psyche of President Obama and the question of elections. And then after that, I'm going to actually test our panelists' political prowess. Don't go away.

HARRIS-PERRY: We are here and mining the memories of the president's