‘I Want Her Inside the White House.’

Declining a possible run for U.S. Senate, Valerie Jarrett stayed where the president needed her most: nearby.

September/October 2009

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‘I Want Her Inside the White House.’

Photo: Pete Souza

Valerie Jarrett was never one for timid choices. "Put yourself in the path of lightning," her mother used to tell her. So when historian John Hope Franklin visited her junior high school in the late 1960s and glowingly described a university surrounded by verdant hills and dotted with palm trees, Jarrett decided then and there that she would attend Stanford. In the fall of 1974, having never seen the place, she arrived on the Farm and began what she calls "the best four years of my life."

Jarrett pauses for effect and grins. "Except for the four coming up."

It's early June, and we are sitting in her office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., second floor. (Previous occupants of this cozy, comfortable space included GOP strategist Karl Rove and Hillary Clinton when she was first lady.) Officially, Jarrett, '78, is senior White House adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison. But her influence extends beyond the boundaries of any title. She has been President Barack Obama's friend, confidant and mentor for 18 years—almost from the moment she met him in a Chicago restaurant while recruiting his then fiancée, Michelle, for a job in Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration. "She's told me that when she met him that day," says close friend Gwen Poindexter, '76, "she knew he was destined for greatness."

Jarrett has been an ever-present figure throughout Obama's improbable ascent and has become a star in her own right. She appears regularly on national television advocating the president's position on an array of issues. She was profiled in July on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and earlier in Vogue. She is that rare political appointee who becomes a public figure, known to millions despite working in what would typically be a behind-the-scenes role.

Political savvy, extraordinary personal skills and intense loyalty established Jarrett as a central member of Obama's inner circle long before she arrived at the White House. She was co-manager of the presidential campaign, but more appropriately she was its guiding light—the person in every room who best knew the Illinois senator, and who held the most sway. Considered a candidate for Obama's vacated Senate seat, Jarrett declined the opportunity. "I want her inside the White House," Obama insisted. "She is family," the president told the Times; ". . . she is someone I trust completely."

Washington insiders and the press have fixated on trying to deconstruct this relationship, and understand precisely what Jarrett does. On the surface, her job involves a lot of meetings—including two daily one-on-ones with the president—to set agendas and work out what she calls "headline issues." More deeply, it's bringing a conscience to daily decisions that reflects the sense of duty and purpose Jarrett and Obama share, trying to capitalize on the president's historic election to create lasting change in America and throughout the world. She straddles an unusual duality, providing both policy input and personal counsel. "The senior adviser is a substantive role," she says. "But if he just needs a friend, I'm there."

Along with the first lady, Jarrett is often the most persuasive voice on crucial issues and at critical moments. One of those moments came in July during a dustup over the highly publicized arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a Cambridge, Mass., police officer investigating a possible break-in. The week following the incident, President Obama, in response to a question at a nationally televised press conference, said Sgt. James Crowley acted "stupidly" for arresting Gates after the 58-year-old professor had provided Crowley with identification and proof that he lived in the home.

The president's strong denunciation created a firestorm of criticism, particularly from police throughout the nation, and rekindled the country's debate on race. Two days later the president admitted that he should have "calibrated" his words differently. Aides had been split about whether a mea culpa was necessary. The person, in addition to his wife, who finally persuaded Obama: Valerie Jarrett.

By the time she makes the eight-minute drive from her apartment building to the White House at 7:30 each morning, Jarrett has already been up for three hours, checking email "to see what I missed since I went to sleep," working out on an elliptical machine or treadmill, and preparing for the day.

First up is a meeting with Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, and other senior advisers. But on the day we met, that plan was turned upside down. That morning, reports of a shooting at the Holocaust Museum a few blocks away reached the White House. Jarrett, Emanuel, the president's national security team, and local law enforcement officials huddled in emergency session. When they learned the shooter was an 88-year-old white supremacist, acting alone, the alert subsided and Obama issued a statement of condolence to the family of the victim, security guard Stephen T. Johns. "We try to plan for every possible scenario, so as not to get caught flat-footed," Jarrett tells me later.

"Valerie's the type of person who can juggle many balls and keep them in the air," says Poindexter. "She loves this kind of work, loves to problem-solve. She knows she can do it and likes that. It gives her a sense of accomplishment."

The only child of James E. Bowman, a pathologist and geneticist, and Barbara Bowman, an educator and expert in childhood development, Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her father ran a hospital for children. The family later moved to London, and then to Chicago. Jarrett grew up in Hyde Park, the racially diverse neighborhood that abuts the University of Chicago, where her father worked. She went to Massachusetts for prep school, and on to the Farm. Her conviction to attend Stanford was so strong it didn't even occur to her to visit beforehand. "I remember turning down Palm Drive thinking, 'I wonder what the campus looks like.'"

Valerie Bowman (she later married and divorced) had designs on being a doctor. "She was obviously very smart and very dedicated, and had a strong value system," says Poindexter, now an attorney with the city of Los Angeles, who lived with Jarrett in the African American theme house Olivo-Magnolia (now known as Ujamaa).

Jarrett admits to having "a little less discipline than I have now." When told this, Poindexter laughs. "She enjoyed everything at Stanford," she recalls. "We used to go to the parties at San Jose State and Berkeley. We went to the Berkeley Jazz Festival. There was a lot of little girl in her."

As it turned out, there was not much "doctor" in her, though. An encounter with a cadaver in an anatomy class during her sophomore year provided what Jarrett calls a "clarity moment." "I sat there and thought, 'I can't do this,'" she says. "I could not deal with cadavers. That, coupled with organic chemistry, was the end of my medical career."

Still, she was smitten with the academic challenges at Stanford. "I loved the intellectual rigor in a setting where the competition was on the same level, which I had not always had."

And like many students who came from a northern region, "I loved the weather. I could sit outside on Lake Lagunita and study, or in one of the big chairs at the Law School. You might think the setting is a distraction but I found it enriching. I thrived there. I loved every single day I was there."

Less than a decade after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and just a few years after the nation's elite educational institutions began to actively recruit Black students, racial tensions in America were still high in the mid-'70s. Jarrett was an anomaly at Stanford, not because she was Black but because her experience was so different from most other African American students at the time. And because she did not receive a penny of financial aid. "I was very aware of being one of the few African American students not on scholarship, and that Stanford prided itself on diversity and was very generous with financial assistance," she says. "There were a lot of my Black classmates who would have not been able to go there were it not for financial assistance. My parents reminded me every day how much they were sacrificing."

Jarrett was an enthusiastic participant in Ujamaa's cultural pursuits, and joined hundreds of students in front of Old Union in 1977 to protest apartheid and Stanford's investments in South Africa. Looking back now, those days offer an intriguing precursor to Jarrett's role as a conciliator at ease in any cultural setting. The places she had lived and studied were natural training grounds. "Race was not a factor at all for me," she says of her days on the Farm. "I'd go to the café and oftentimes sit at the 'Black' table and just as often sit at the table that was integrated. I managed to walk among different worlds."

She graduated with a degree in psychology and immediately enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. "My dad discouraged me from getting a graduate degree in psychology; he said it would be a waste of time." Law school allowed her to buy time, she admits. "I didn't know what I was going to do."

She returned to Chicago and spent six unhappy years at two major law firms before realizing the legal profession was about as attractive to her as a cadaver. She stepped off that path and strode into the one that ultimately led her to the White House. She became deputy corporation counsel for finance and development under Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor. That led to her stint with Daley, and her first encounter with the young, skinny lawyer with the odd-sounding name, fresh out of Harvard Law School.

Jarrett doesn't recall the first time the idea of Obama—a community organizer, law professor, attorney and an Illinois state senator—running for president of the United States was broached among them. "It was kind of an evolution," she says. "Some of his friends said it to him before he took it seriously. He didn't exhibit any ambition for being president until shortly before he decided to run. He was always challenged by the single issue in front of him. I joked with him early, though, that I did not imagine him staying a state senator very long."

Poindexter says while Obama may not have known his own destiny, Jarrett had a sense of it. "It was during the beginning of the buzz about the possibility of Barack Obama running for president," Poindexter recalls. "Valerie told me then quite definitely that he would be the next president. She was that confident then."

Still, the decision to run wasn't easy for the Obamas. Jarrett says she told the senator, "You would be an outstanding president but you have to make up your mind to make the personal sacrifices necessary to devote to the rigors of running for office." Jarrett was referring primarily to the impact on the Obamas' marriage and on their daughters, Malia and Sasha. "He knew the campaign would require him to spend a couple of years away from the girls, and would test their marriage," Jarrett says. "Given how much he loves Michelle and the girls, I didn't know what he'd say."

It did not help that Michelle Obama wasn't crazy about the idea of a presidential bid. Jarrett describes her as a disciplined thinker, analytical and unemotional when it comes to major decisions, history be damned. "The stakes were too high to be swept away," Jarrett says. "Once she makes up her mind to do something you have her 110 percent, but she resisted any temptation to be swept away."

Poindexter watched from afar as the senator emerged as a viable candidate, then a front-runner for the Democratic nod, then as the party's nominee. Ultimately she became a supporter and a contributor, but one with a unique pipeline to her close friend on the front line. "I had gone to a fundraiser in Pasadena," Poindexter recalls. "Valerie was there, and she mentioned to me that Oprah [Winfrey] was having a fundraiser in a few days and told me to let her know if I wanted to go. Finally I agreed and bought a ticket. I went with a friend. I was put in a van that took a different route. Lo and behold, Valerie had signed me up to get into the VIP reception. She arrived twenty minutes later with Obama, and when she saw me she glanced at me with a little grin and said, 'So were you surprised?' It was a wonderful gesture."

Poindexter is still trying to reconcile that the freshman she befriended 30-plus years ago is now at the center of power. "After we graduated, we used to say we should have taken more of the opportunities we had to meet some of the people in high positions because our parents or other family members knew them. I've joked with her that I was hanging out with the right person all along, but just didn't know it at the time."

Part of the secret to Jarrett's success, her friends say, is her basic decency and humanity. She tries to live by a set of 21 "life lessons" she's gleaned from family, colleagues and mentors. They're simple, down-home dictums: Take time to be kind to everyone. Have the courage to make tough decisions. Focus on your priorities. But she says they still guide her as she helps the president contend with complex issues in an environment where it's tough to stay grounded.

Not surprisingly, given the simpatico nature of Jarrett's relationship with Obama, parts of her credo sound as if they describe the president himself. Trust your gut after you have listened, studied and learned from those with a diverse range of opinions. Or: Effective leadership depends on your ability to connect with and motivate people, not on your title, position or power.

One of her favorites: Don't stay in your comfort zone too long. Jarrett pushes everyone on her staff to heed that advice. "Don't shy away from new challenges, things you haven't done before."

Like moving across the country to an unfamiliar place to spend four years of your life? Jarrett nods. "This does remind me of our time at Stanford. There was such a rich diversity of people there, all smart and coming to the University with a fresh enthusiasm for learning. People are coming [to the White House] from all over the country with a thirst to serve the country at the top of their game. Like our first six months at Stanford, it's new and challenging and everyone's getting to know each other and learning their roles.

"It's overwhelmingly positive and there's not a day that goes by when I don't pause at some point, pinch myself and say, 'We're at the White House!'"

ROY S. JOHNSON, '78, editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness and UFC magazine, last profiled Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh for Stanford.

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