Now, we know a little more about what he wrote in them. Nine handwritten letters from Obama to his college girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, were recently obtained by Emory University and will be available to the public starting Friday.
Spanning 1982 to 1984, the letters were written after Obama transferred from Occidental College in California ― where he and McNear were in school together ― to Columbia University in New York.
Not all the letters are romantic in nature, and some were written after the couple broke up. In many, Obama struggles with self-identity, feelings of loneliness and his dreams for the future.
Rosemary Magee, the director of the Rose Library at Emory, told the New York Times that the letters show a young man who has “yet to become or even dream about” about one day becoming president.
“It’s a story of a journey over a couple of years about a sense of self-understanding, self-definition and his understanding of himself and place in the world,” she told the paper.
They also show a young Obama waxing poetic about his love for McNear.
“I trust you know that I miss you, that my concern for you is as wide as the air, my confidence in you as deep as the sea, my love rich and plentiful,” he wrote in one letter.
Magee declined to say who had the letters before the library obtained them, simply telling the Times it was “someone in the rare book world” who acted as a middleman.
Many of the letters were written as the pair’s romantic relationship was coming to a close. In a letter dated June 27, 1983, written in Indonesia during a visit to his mother and sister, Obama struggles to sort out of his complicated feelings for McNear.
“It seems we will ever want what we cannot have,” Obama wrote. “That’s what binds us. That’s what keeps us apart.”
He also wrote of feeling like an outsider in Indonesia, where he lived as a child.
“I can’t speak the language well anymore,” he wrote. “I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”
In another letter, Obama mocks the serious tone of some of his earlier writings to McNear.
“When I sit down to write, I no longer feel the need to bleed for brilliance on the page,” he said. “I trust the strength of our relationship enough that I can show myself with curlers in my hair, my will sapped, my confidence shaken, a bit peevish perhaps, a bit dull.”
I trust you know that I miss you, that my concern for you is as wide as the air, my confidence in you as deep as the sea, my love rich and plentiful.President Obama to McNear
In an interview with former senior adviser David Axelrod last year, Obama joked about the cerebral love letters and how his move to New York for college ushered in a “wildly pretentious” and “humorless” period in his life.
“Physically I removed myself from my old life, I go to New York. And it’s true, I live[d] like a monk for three or four years, took myself way too seriously,” he said.
“Letters that I’ve written to girls [I’m] courting or something, they’re impenetrable,” Obama said. “The [pickup lines] didn’t work, I think, because people were all like, ‘Wow, this guy is just too intense.’ I should’ve tried like, you know, ‘Wanna go to a movie?’”
For what it’s worth, the letters seem to have worked well with McNear. In an interview with David Maraniss for a 2012 Obama biography, she said that their their relationship was based on ideas and words just as much as passion.
It was a “dance of closeness through language,” she said.
Clearly, Obama was a skilled dancer. In one early letter, he wrote of his fondness for McNear and how much he enjoyed the challenge of “forging a unity, mixing it up, constructing the truth to be found between the seams of individual lives. All of which requires breaking some sweat. Like a good basketball game. Or a fine dance. Or making love.”
To read more excerpts from the letters, head to Emory’s site.