Obama's senior consultant, Valerie Jarrett, offers an intimate look behind the scenes of his presidency


Digging through the archives of photographs from Barack Obama's time in the White House, one cannot help but notice it.

In virtually every photo, from every important moment during his election campaign and his presidency, Valerie Jarrett is not far from Obama's side.

His was a trusted voice, given that Obama considered some of the most crucial moments of his political career.

In fact, she has been her friend, confidant and mentor for almost three decades. From his time as a community organizer in Chicago, to the moment he announced his candidacy for the president of the United States, perhaps the most critical moment of that 2008 campaign – the controversy of Jeremiah Wright – she was there.

President Barack Obama speaks backstage with senior advisor Valerie Jarrett before a reception in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 30, 2011. (Pete Souza / The White House)

  • WATCH: The interview with Valerie Jarrett tonight The national team on CBC Television and online streaming

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Jarrett's relationship with the Obama family dates back to 1991, when a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson approached her for a job. At the time, Jarrett was the chief of staff for Chicago mayor Richard Daley.

"She goes in for a job interview, she is tall and elegant and simply dressed, with her hair pulled back, almost without makeup," says Jarrett.

"And he sits down, sees his curry sitting on my desk and she never says a word. Not Princeton, Harvard, big law firm. He tells his story – Growing up in a working class family, a father who had a job very humble who works for the city, but instilled in her a sense of the value of education both for her and her brother, and how her parents sacrificed powerfully to get the education they had and in return they said "to those who are given much, much is expected.

"And it was a story that simply upset me."

Jarrett says he offered her a job on the spot, but Robinson needed time to think about it – and then a catch came.

Who is your boyfriend? And why do we care what he thinks?– Valerie Jarrett

"A couple of days later I said," Good? "And she said," bad news, my boyfriend doesn't think it's a good idea. "And I was like," Who's Who? " your boyfriend? And why do we care what he thinks? & # 39;

"And you said, & # 39; your name is Barack Obama, you started your career as a community organizer, would you dine with us to talk about it? & # 39;", Says Jarrett.

"I'm glad I said yes!"

From that moment, after the now famous Chicago dinner, Barack, Michelle and Valerie were a team. Michelle Robinson joined Jarrett in the mayor's office and the three friends began an extraordinary journey.

Valerie Jarrett reflects on the recruitment of Michelle Obama (later Michelle Robinson) for a job, and on the now famous first dinner she had with Barack Obama. "Who is your boyfriend? And why do we care what he thinks?" 00:48

Reckoning with race

Jarrett says the close bond between them gave her a unique advantage in her work as Barack Obama's senior consultant.

"When we were having dinner, I knew what weighed on his mind," says Jarrett of the times he spent with Obama during his presidency. "And so I think I could be more confident, because I knew what was going on during the day."

One of his most memorable moments came in 2008. With his first presidential campaign on the line and in the face of growing criticism of his pastor's sermon, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama called his senior team to talk about how to deal with the problem.

Jarrett, one of the team's two black staff members, says he encouraged him to address the issue.

"All other senior team members remained silent or expressed serious reservations," says Jarrett.

In the end, Obama listened to Jarrett's advice and responded with his now famous March 18, 2008 speech in Philadelphia about race and politics, which was titled "A more perfect union".

Valerie Jarrett describes the tension that led to Barack Obama's crucial speech on the race during the 2008 presidential election campaign. They were people in the countryside who said it was too risky. 00:44

A few minutes before the speech, Jarrett says Obama was relaxed backstage, casually chatting about basketball with his legal advisor, Eric Holder.

But it was a decisive moment, and when he took the stage to speak, Barack Obama grabbed it.

In his book, Find my voice, Jarrett goes on to say that "the promise of his campaign, his real purpose, has not transcended the race, but has necessarily taken it into consideration".

Jarrett adds that Obama was determined to create a place where people who traditionally felt disconnected from one another could find a common bond.

Family history

Asked if, in the early days of their relationship, he thought Barack Obama would ever end up in the oval office, Jarrett cannot help but smile.

"I thought that he could have won and actually when he won, my mother asked me the question" How did you know he could? ", Because none of my parents thought they had a chance, based on their life experience: would there be a black president for life?

"And I told them, & # 39; you made me think that if you work twice as hard, everything is possible. And then they said, & # 39; well we didn't really believe it! & # 39;", Ride Jarrett. "But I realized that they had raised me in an aspirational way, not like the world they knew but like the world they hoped to find, and it is, I think, the best gift you can give your children".

That education, along with the inspiration of her remarkable family history, helped Jarrett become one of the most influential black women of the 21st century.

"My grandmother, who was the matriarch of her family, had photographs of our ancestors throughout her home, and when I wasn't running, I watched them," says Jarrett.

Valerie Jarrett's family includes some extraordinary people who have made history. Seen here is a portrait of the Dibble-Taylor family in 1927. Front row: Helen Dibble and her daughter Helen, Henry Taylor, Beatrice Robinson with her granddaughter Lauranita Taylor. On the back: Dr. Eugene Dibble, Edward Taylor, Robert Rochon Taylor, Laura Dorothy Taylor, Robert Robinson Taylor and Nelly Taylor. (Valerie Jarrett)

"I would like to hear her tell stories about them, and what really resonated with me was my great-grandfather, Robert Robinson Taylor, who grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina."

His father was born in slavery and was released after the civil war, becoming a carpenter. He gathered enough money to send his son, Jarrett's great-grandfather, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Robert Robinson Taylor became the first graduate of MIT and the first black architect to be credited in American history.

"He was the first African-American to go to MIT," says Jarrett. "I often wonder how that train journey was, from Wilmington to Boston, and how it was embraced by his classmates, who probably had never been around a black person, socially or academically before.

"So every time I get nervous about something, I think of him."

His grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, was a distinguished civic leader and became the first African-American president of the Chicago Housing Authority. The city later titled a series of housing projects in his honor – which would become the infamous Robert Taylor Homes that were the antithesis of his visionary approach to housing. Decades later, Jarrett laid the foundations that led to their demolition, starting in 1998.

Jarrett's father, Dr. James Bowman, also had an extraordinary career. He became a world-famous pathologist and geneticist, but only after he moved his family to Iran because he presented more opportunities for black doctors than he was in America at the time.

No one looked at me as black. And so, in many ways, I think it gave me a sense of security.– Valerie Jarrett

"My father really faced challenges when he was leaving the Army, finding a job in the United States," says Jarrett.

"He was considered a black doctor or a negro doctor (in America) at that time and in Iran he was an American doctor, respected on the merit of his work, and since I was born there and I lived in a hospital with children on all sides of the world, nobody looked at me as black and so in many ways I think it gave me a sense of security ".

When Jarrett was six, his father moved the family to Chicago, where he became the first African-American resident at St. Luke's Hospital.

Whether you talk about his family history or his career, the issue of race is the common thread of Jarrett's extraordinary story.

More recently, in June 2018, Jarrett remembers a conversation he had with his mother, who was in the grip of a racist tweet directed at her daughter. He doesn't mention her by name, but Valerie Jarrett makes her think about the now infamous tweet that Roseanne Barr's devastated career has addressed to her.

Valerie Jarret talks about the racist tweet directed by Roseanne Barr in 2018 which led to the cancellation of the successful ABC TV series. "It is symptomatic of a much bigger problem." 00:34

In his book, Jarrett says that the tweet pushed a long conversation with his mother about the current climate in the United States regarding race relations.

"We started with too many young people of color who grow up painfully aware that they are not judged for their merits, but rather, stigmatized by their race, and what it does to their spirit and ambition," explains Jarrett.

"My mother was particularly worried that, after our country had taken what it considered an impossible leap forward by twice electing a black man as our president, it seemed we were rapidly regressing."

Jarrett says they were both stunned by the speed with which the Trump administration was destroying many of Obama's policies for which they had fought.

Obama and Jarrett, together with press secretary Robert Gibbs, have left, waiting for the backstage before the president's speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on December 1, 2009. (Pete Souza / The White House)

Even today, more than two years after Donald Trump became president, Jarrett is still struggling to deal with America's decision to put him in the White House.

"The word I used is overwhelming the soul," says Jarrett. "Didn't I see it coming, and I spent a long time after the elections trying to figure out how a country that elected Barack Obama twice, electing his successor?

"It is painful because I think of the families affected by these changes – whether they are moving away from the climate agreement, or from the agreement with Iran, or from the immigration policies that separate families to It was very painful to watch, not to mention the impact it is having on families, not only in America but all over the world, which have always looked to the United States to be that beacon of hope and democracy ".

Obama's best moment

When she is put in place to invent her favorite Obama story, Jarrett smiles and says, "I have so many, but I couldn't tell you most of them!"

However, when Jarrett rethinks his time at the White House and the countless hours he spent with President Obama, he does not reflect on a particular moment, but an unshakable bond between his two closest friends.

In an emotional moment, Valerie Jarrett reflects on what she liked most during her time in the White House as an advisor to President Obama. 00:47
  • WATCH: The interview with Valerie Jarrett tonight The national team on CBC Television and online streaming


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