Rick Wade, a senior adviser, Stacey Brayboy, the state campaign manager, and
Anton Gunn, the state political director, took turns to beseech their boss.
The gala, they told Obama, would be attended by more than 2,000
college-educated African-American women, a constituent group that was
originally sceptical of the candidate’s “blackness”. They would be
in and out in five minutes. Obama’s irritation grew. “Man, it’s late,
I’m tired,” he snapped. The three knew what their only option was at
this point. “If you want him to do something,” Gunn would later
tell me, “there are two people he’s not going to say no to: Valerie
Jarrett and Michelle Obama.”
At the day’s penultimate event, a rally in Columbia, Gunn, Brayboy and Wade
pleaded their case to Jarrett, the Obamas’ long-time friend and consigliere.
Jarrett informed Michelle of the situation and when the candidate stepped
offstage from the rally, Obama’s wife told him he had one last stop to make
before they called it a night.
“I told Anton I’m not going to any Pink Ice Ball!” Obama barked.
Then Jarrett glided over to the fuming candidate. Her voice was very quiet
and very direct.
“Barack,” she insisted, “you want to win, don’t you?”
Scowling, Obama affirmed that he did.
“Well then. You need to go to Pink Ice.”
“And he shuts up,” Gunn recalls, “and gets on the bus.”
Among the narrative threads that are weaved, almost uninterrupted, throughout
the history of the American presidency, is the inevitable presence in the
White House of The One Who Gets the Boss. Karen Hughes got George W Bush.
Bruce Lindsey got Bill Clinton. And so on, back to Thomas Jefferson’s
lifelong reliance on the counsel of James Madison.
Valerie Jarrett is a Washington outsider with a Washingtonian’s mind-deadening
job title: senior adviser and assistant to the President for
intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. Roughly translated, she is
Obama’s intermediary to the outside world. But the 52-year-old Jarrett is
also the President’s closest friend in the White House, and it is not lost
on her colleagues that when senior staff meetings in the Oval Office break
up, she often stays behind with the boss.
Over a four-month period of reporting, I struggled to understand Jarrett’s
ineffable raison d’être in the Obama White House. Perhaps proving that
nothing succeeds like failure, my plaintive queries were unexpectedly
rewarded one afternoon by a telephone call from the President himself.
“Well, Valerie is one of my oldest friends,” Obama began. “Over
time, I think our relationship evolved to the point where she’s like a
sibling to me … I trust her completely.” As his surrogate, Jarrett is
trusted “to speak for me, particularly when we’re dealing with delicate
After our conversation, I began to reflect on Jarrett’s portfolio. Broadly
speaking, it consists of “outreach” ? endless meetings,
conferences and speeches. She functions as Obama’s de facto conduit to the
business community. Among the President’s economic team, only Jarrett, the
former president of a Chicago real estate development firm, has actually run
a multimillion-dollar business. Her street cred with the private sector is
an obvious asset to a president confronting a major recession.
Jarrett also serves as the White House’s unofficial champion of minority
issues. This may seem superfluous, given that a black man inhabits the Oval
Office ? until it’s noted that Obama’s inner circle consists largely of
white males, same as it ever was.
Jarrett’s shared experience with Obama is about race ? and on a deeper level,
about the coexistence, in the post-King African-American psyche, of
conscience and ambition, activism and accommodation. Their identity rests on
that fulcrum; it is, as Barack Obama would say, who they are.
Authenticity has a lot to do with place, of course. The Obamas and Valerie
Jarrett experienced first-hand the hard-won progress of a Chicago beset with
racial and class divisions during the administrations of Harold Washington,
who was the city’s first black mayor, and Richard M Daley. “There was a
certain sense we all shared that people can change, communities can change,
cities can change,” Jarrett said when I asked her to talk about what
Chicago means to her and the Obamas.
Still, she told me, what Chicago provided Obama with most of all was family ?
beginning, of course, with Michelle Robinson. “My guess is that
Michelle’s childhood was his idea of perfection,” Jarrett said. “It
allowed him to anchor himself with her and with her family. To me, that’s
the most special thing about Chicago for him.” It didn’t take long for
Jarrett to become part of Obama’s patchwork family. As Daley’s deputy chief
of staff, Jarrett was already one of the city’s power brokers in 1991 when
her friend and co-worker, Susan Sher, suggested that she take a look at the
resumé of a promising young African-American lawyer named Michelle Robinson.
The applicant made an impression on Jarrett and vice versa.
In less than a year, Michelle’s fiancé began to confide in Valerie Jarrett. He
showed her pages from a book he was writing. That book, Dreams From My
Father, explored Barack Obama’s inner struggle. “He talked about how
hard it was ? things he hadn’t dealt with yet,” she recalled. “‘It
isn’t just a matter of writing a simple story,’ I told him. ‘You’ve got to
deal with the fact that your father left you at a very young age. And you
lived in a variety of different settings at an age where it could’ve been
discombobulating. Your grandparents are white and you look black. Your
friends in Hawaii all are different-looking and that’s great ? but you come
to the mainland, and things are much more black and white, literally.'”
Jarrett was born of African-American parents in Shiraz, Iran, where her
physician father was running a hospital as part of an American aid
programme. Obama’s fabled “exoticism” was therefore comprehensible
to her, the President told me. “She and I both are constantly looking
for links and bridges between cultures and peoples,” he said.
Obama, as his memoir would reveal, sought connection to the heroes of the
civil rights movement. Jarrett’s struggle had been of a different sort: how
to measure up to the role models that filled her life. Her father, Dr James
Bowman, was an eminent pathologist. Equally influential was her mother,
Barbara, a childhood-development expert.
The fast track laid out for Valerie Bowman ? a Massachusetts boarding school,
then Stanford, then a law degree at Michigan, then marriage and work at a
corporate law firm ? was one she pursued with neither resistance nor zeal, “kind
of like an automaton”, she told me.
Eventually she quit both her marriage and her job, and in 1987, as the mother
of a two- year-old daughter, she went to work for Mayor Washington’s
corporation counsel, Chicago’s chief legal officer handling civil claims.
Over the next 15 years, her upward trajectory would outpace even Obama’s.
Jarrett’s unhappy years as a real estate lawyer now paid off in a city law
department responsible for maintaining Chicago’s business base. Washington
died of a heart attack in 1987, but her work ethic and supple intelligence
distinguished Jarrett in the eyes of Richard M Daley, who took office two
years later. The new mayor promoted her to deputy chief of staff ? and later
to the post of planning commissioner, thereby baptising Jarrett in the
racially-charged torrent of urban affairs.
From 1991 until 1995, she presided over a rancorous but largely-successful
makeover of the city’s landscape. Meanwhile, she was raising her daughter
and developing a social life that revolved around an intimate community of
like-minded black urban professionals who, like Jarrett, sought advancement
not only for themselves but for the local African-American community. Chief
among them were the Obamas. Jarrett brought Michelle into the Daley
administration, attended their wedding, threw a book-signing party for the
Dreams From My Father author and generally assumed a big-sisterly presence
in the young couple’s lives such that “I don’t think either of them
made major decisions without talking to her”, according to Susan Sher.
As Obama told me: “We’ve seen each other through ups and downs.” For
Jarrett, one such low point came in 1995, when she began to lose the mayor’s
support. Wounded, Jarrett bolted for the property development firm Habitat ?
only to have Daley ask her to keep a foot in the public sector by offering
her the post of chairwoman at the Chicago Transit Board. She accepted. Soon
other boards beckoned, including the University of Chicago Medical Center
and the Chicago Stock Exchange. Habitat made her an executive vice
president. By 2002, it was as if the city had awakened one morning to find
that Valerie Jarrett had taken over.
Over the ensuing five years, the role Jarrett played in Obama’s political
ascent was important but also confined. For his senatorial campaign, she
made key introductions to the donor community. She was among the handful of
close advisers who met at the close of 2006 to carry on a rolling discussion
of the risks entailed in a presidential run. And during the first six months
of Obama’s presidential campaign, Jarrett remained in constant contact with
him but otherwise stayed in Chicago to run Habitat ? she had become chief
executive in January ? and the Chicago Stock Exchange.
That arrangement began to change on the evening of July 17 2007, when Obama
convened a meeting at Jarrett’s Chicago town house. The presidential
campaign was not gaining traction in the national polls. “Lots of
things were bubbling up, and no one was really handling issues that would
arise, either in Chicago (at headquarters) or on the road,” says Penny
Pritzker, who was one of the meeting’s participants and the finance
chairwoman of the campaign. “You needed another smart, capable, really
close adviser involved who could play a bridging role. Valerie was the
Not everyone agrees with Pritzker. She never actually moved into headquarters, “and
that was good and that was bad”, says the White House senior adviser,
Pete Rouse, who at that time was Senator Obama’s chief of staff. Jarrett’s
ambiguous role particularly annoyed the campaign manager, David Plouffe.
Jarrett and Plouffe tangled over issues ranging from where the campaign
should be spending its money to where the candidate should be spending his
Today Plouffe offers unqualified praise for Jarrett’s work as a campaign
surrogate but says, “She wasn’t terribly involved in strategic issues.”
This is probably true ? but only because the campaign did not consider the
matter of race to be a “strategic issue”. On this subject, Jarrett
consistently and forcibly weighed in.
It was Jarrett, several aides say, who helped convince otherwise sceptical
senior staff that Michelle Obama should go to South Carolina in November
2007 and give a speech addressing fears in the African-American community
that harm might come to the black candidate. It was Jarrett who strongly
encouraged Barack Obama to give his race speech. Numerous campaign officials
credit Jarrett, along with the communications director Anita Dunn and
Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, for helping to
rehabilitate Mrs Obama’s “angry black woman” image.
A few days after the election, the president-elect told his new chief of staff
Rahm Emanuel: “I want her inside the White House.”
When the subject is Valerie Jarrett, it’s fair to say that Emanuel’s words
fall short of effusive. Their opposing qualities ? deliberateness and
sensitivity in Jarrett; speed and brutal practicality in Emanuel ? may
reside harmonically in Barack Obama. But what the two aides represent isn’t
simply a function of velocity or decibel level. While both of them obviously
want the President to succeed, Emanuel’s criteria for “success”
are straightforward. Jarrett, according to Cecilia Munoz, Jarrett’s director
of intergovernmental affairs, is “very focused on why he ran in the
first place” ? a psychological calculation that only Jarrett would
presume to undertake and which therefore is bound to drive others nuts.
“Where’s my picture?” Valerie Jarrett exclaimed, addressing no one
in particular. She stood up from the conference-room table in her office and
walked over to the bookshelf. “They brought these to me today.”
The image was odd. It featured five figures seated on the couches and chairs
of the Oval Office: the President; Jarrett; the Reverend Al Sharpton; the
former Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich; and the New York mayor,
Michael Bloomberg. Standing over me, Jarrett said: “I love that photo.”
That unlikely meeting had been arranged by Jarrett. Sharpton, Gingrich and
Bloomberg were part of a group convening in Washington to commemorate the
55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education school
desegregation decision by promulgating education as a civil right.
“I liked the idea of getting this odd quartet together to come around an
issue,” Jarrett told me. “Because it would show the American
people that this is what the President is about, getting unlikely
I asked: “If you hadn’t suggested that this meeting take place, do you
think anyone else would have suggested it?”
Jarrett looked across the table at her friend, the White House communications
director, Anita Dunn, who had dropped in on the interview. Dunn stopped
taking notes and flashed Jarrett a look of abiding doubt.
“Probably not,” Jarrett then murmured.
“Probably not?” exclaimed Dunn, who had been virtually silent until
now. “Absolutely not!”
Dunn’s outburst was delivered with a depth of appreciation that I had not
picked up on elsewhere in the West Wing. Though Dunn is white, her words
reminded me of the interviews I conducted with several African-Americans who
had served at high levels in the Obama campaign. To them, Valerie Jarrett
was something of a heroine.
Without Jarrett, these officials said they believed, their opinions and the
often-legitimate concerns voiced by black leaders like Sharpton would have
been thoroughly disregarded by the white-dominated senior staff. “There’s
a cultural nuance that they just didn’t get,” one such African-American
staff member told me. “And the landscape of our campaign is littered
with hundreds of stories where she intervened and voices got heard and
decisions got made that might’ve gone a different way.”
As to just how much difference Valerie Jarrett’s various interventions had
made, the staff member admitted he couldn’t say. It wasn’t for him to judge,
anyway. That was between Obama and Jarrett.
Right-hand women: Other famous gatekeepers
French politicians are usually spared intrusion into their private lives, so
the extraordinary extent to which Jacques Chirac deferred to his younger
daughter was not known publicly until two years ago, when the 74-year-old
President was near retirement. She had been his personal adviser since 1994.
Her hold over him, which may have reflected his feelings of guilt over his
troubled older daughter Laurence, was said to be resented by Chirac’s
put-upon wife, Bernadette. Nicolas Sarkozy was one of Claude’s many lovers,
although that relationship ended bittlerly.
Hughes was a journalist from Texas whose career took off when she went to work
for the state Governor, George W. Bush, as his communications director. This
also turned to be when his career took off. She helped to run his election
campaign and subsequently worked in the White House as his “counselor”.
She stood down from this role in 2002 to be with her family, but Bush
persuaded her to come back to work on his 2004 campaign. One of her many
duties was to correct his English. She tried to teach him not to say “misunderestimate”,
for instance, but with limited success.
Often described as the second most important woman in Tony Blair’s life. They
knew each other as teenagers, years before Blair met and married Cherie
Booth. Anji Hunter started working for Blair in 1987, left for a time, then
returned as his ever-present gatekeeper. She was Director of Government
Relations in 1997-2001. But her duties were not precisely described, and
when she tried to write her job description, she stirred up Cherie Blair’s
long simmering hostility. She left to take up well paid private sector
posts, and has since married Sky’s Political Editor, Adam Boulton.
No one has been near the centre of power in the Labour Party longer than Sue
Nye, the quiet, commanding presence who minds the door to Gordon Brown’s
office and makes sure that his shirt is tucked in when he appears in public.
She worked as a typist for Jim Callaghan, then organised Michael Foot’s and
Neil Kinnock’s diaries for more than a decade. She has been at Brown’s side
since 1992. She and Peter Mandelson were the two aides who fleshed out the
famous Granita agreement, under which Brown stood back to allow Tony Blair
to run for the Labour Party leadership.
Sawyer is now a household name in the US as a television journalist. At one
time, however, she was the smart young woman quietly helping Richard Nixon
not to make things any worse for himself during the Watergate scandal. For
years, she was wrongly suspected of being “Deep Throat” ? the
White House official who was the Washington Post‘s most important
source when they were investigating Watergate. She also helped Nixon to
prepare for the legendary television interview with David Frost. In the film
based on the Nixon-Frost encounter, Sawyer is played by Kate Jennings.
In 1956, when Harold Wilson’s fortunes were at a low ebb, he took on a young
secretary who helped boost his confidence but also seemed to play on his
paranoia. She stayed with him for 20 years, becoming head of his political
office in 1964 ? and more powerful every year. Her hold over the Prime
Minister was so complete that it has been suggested, but never proved or
accepted, that they were briefly more than simply colleagues. Wilson granted
her a peerage in 1974, and she still sits in the Lords as Baroness
Falkender. But, 35 years on, we await her maiden speech.
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