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World & Nation

‘First friend’ Valerie Jarrett reflects on 8 years in Obama’s White House

Valerie Jarrett
Valerie Jarrett in the Oval Office as President Obama meets with then-Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont in February 2009.
(Matthew Cavanaugh / European Pressphoto Agency)

Valerie Jarrett has played a unique role in the Obama administration.

She was both a senior advisor to the president throughout his eight-year administration — it is extremely rare for White House staffers to stay for the duration — and a close friend of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The three have been allies and confidants for 25 years, leading Jarrett to sometimes be called their “first friend.”

On Wednesday, with less than a month to go before the Obamas leave the White House, Jarrett reflected on the last eight years while giving few clues about what her future holds.

Jarrett spoke from Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood, where she is spending Christmas with her 88-year-old mother, Barbara, whose residence is a short walk from the Obamas’ Chicago home.

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She said that after the Obamas leave the White House she plans to relax and get reacquainted with relatives. She said she had no firm professional plans but expects to “roam” between Chicago, Washington and perhaps two or three other places.

“We’ll see,” Jarrett said. “I haven’t made any firm plans on what I’m going to do next.”

The president and the first lady have said they will stay in the capital until their youngest daughter, Sasha, 15, graduates from high school in 2019. Jarrett’s only child, Laura Jarrett, became a Washington-based reporter for CNN last September, so the capital still will have a “big tug,” she said.

Jarrett, who is known to be circumspect, said she had not “made any decisions whatsoever” about whether she’ll run for office herself someday, adding, "I have not given it a moment’s thought.” Nor would she say whether she plans to write a memoir.

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“You’re asking me questions I haven’t even considered yet, so we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see what I have an appetite for,” she said.

Jarrett, who celebrated her 60th birthday last month, figures to have no shortage of job offers after leaving the White House, and also could hit the lecture circuit.

For now she’s finishing official business, citing a recent national summit for the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which aims to empower boys and young men of color.

“I’m not allowing myself the luxury of focusing on the future until Jan. 20,” she said, “and then I will.”

In Chicago, Jarrett worked under Mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. She said the “rough and tumble” politics of Chicago was nothing compared with what she saw in the capital, pointing to Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s upfront desire to see Obama fail and the entrenched special interests with a “political and financial interest” in maintaining the status quo.

We have tried to be forces for good.
Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama

The “lowest point by far” of her tenure was the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Jarrett, who recently attended a memorial to mark the event’s fourth anniversary.

She said that she was pained as a mother, and that the attack also brought back memories of a personal tragedy from 46 years ago, when her grandfather James E. Bowman was murdered during a robbery attempt in his Washington dental office. The fatal shooting took place just before Christmas in 1970.

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She said she regretted that there was no congressional action on gun control after Sandy Hook.

Jarrett said the high points of her White House years include the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to repeal. She said she’d lost count of the times Congress has voted unsuccessfully to repeal Obamacare but has yet to see a replacement measure that keeps intact its key provisions.

She said she wouldn’t prejudge what Trump might do about the healthcare act, but hoped he would retain the goal of seeing that all Americans have affordable insurance.

As to other key achievements of the Obama White House, she cited the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban to let gays and lesbians serve openly in the military.

When the high court ruled on gay marriage in 2015, she was in a meeting and an aide slipped her a note: “We won.” Jarrett said she ran down to the Oval Office, but found Obama was not there. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asked Jarrett whether she had called him.

“Oh, good point,” she replied. She reached the president as he was preparing the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor slain in a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. “I had the honor of telling him we had won that case,” she said.

Not long after that, the president, Jarrett and others were off to Charleston, where she recalls Obama’s eulogy in which he led the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace.”

They were back in Washington before dusk and on the North Portico of the White House, watching the sun come down and seeing the Executive Mansion bathed in a rainbow of colored lights to mark the Supreme Court decision.

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“Extraordinary,” she said, crediting White House staffer Jeff Tiller with proposing the light display.

During her long tenure, some took to calling Jarrett the “Night Stalker” because she could visit with the Obamas in the family’s private quarters at the end of the day. There was occasional infighting with colleagues, including Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff and now Chicago’s mayor.

Jarrett downplayed her disputes with Emanuel, saying they had a “very comfortable relationship” and were “direct” with one another. They continued to engage after he became mayor of Chicago and with her role as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Jarrett said she’d miss the “high platform” from which “we have tried to be forces for good and bending that arc of the moral universe closer to justice.”

She said she wouldn’t miss the coarseness of the dialogue on social media. “I think we can do better than that. It is unnecessarily harsh and oftentimes personal,” she said.

Trump’s victory was “shocking,” Jarrett said. She said she had met Trump once, in 2011 when he attended (and was lampooned by speakers at) the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The two recognized each other. “He couldn’t have been more gracious and said nice things, and I told him it was a pleasure to meet him,” she said. “It was a very brief encounter.”

If she has any fears about what his administration will bring, she’s characteristically tight-lipped. Instead she recalls how diligent President George W. Bush and his aides were in preparing Obama for his transition. Obama’s White House, which stood firm for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, is following suit to assist Trump with his transition, she said.

Mystery, for now, may shroud Jarrett’s next steps. But she is unequivocal about her loyalty to her boss. Asked whether she would work on behalf of the future Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, she said: “I will help President Obama for the rest of my life in any way I can, including [at] his center.”

Skiba writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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