How Valerie Jarrett Became One of President Obama's Most Trusted Advisers
As President Barack Obama’s longest-serving senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett helped shape the past decade of U.S. history. Now, with a new memoir out in April, she’s ready to tell her own story.
When Valerie Jarrett opens the front door to her house in Hyde Park, the historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, it’s clear she’s happy to be home. The property has been in her family for more than 50 years, she says, settling in on the couch while the family dog, Honey, perches next to her. And though neighbors have come and gone, hers still include her friends of more than 27 years, the Obamas, whose pre- and post-White House house is “just down the block.”
Jarrett just got back from Phoenix, where she was on a book tour with Michelle Obama for Becoming, the former first lady’s memoir. It was Jarrett’s third time moderating a discussion and Q&A with her. “We have a great time doing it, and even though I know all her stories already, they’re still so funny,” says Jarrett. “It’s crazy to think that other than her childhood, we’ve experienced so much of her history together.”
And when Jarrett decided to pen her own memoir, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward (out April 2 from Viking), she used the former FLOTUS as a resource of sorts. “We were writing our books around the same time, so we spent some quality time fact-checking with each other. The truth is we were all moving so fast during the White House years, you couldn’t reflect on what was happening or how you felt about it. We were already focused on the challenge of the next day.”
It’s hard to separate Jarrett’s story from the Obamas’, in part because before now, she hadn’t really told hers. Born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1956 to Dr. James Bowman Jr., a pathologist and geneticist, and Barbara Bowman, an early-childhood-education expert, Jarrett says her early years abroad gave her a global perspective (her family moved to the Middle East because black doctors were not readily hired in the U.S.). “We lived in a compound with families of physicians from all over the world, and all of us kids would play together,” she says, noting that’s how she learned French, Farsi, and English, sometimes speaking all three in the same sentence. “It taught me that I could be comfortable in a room with anyone.”
Jarrett’s family relocated to London when she was 5, and a year later they moved to Chicago, where she began her own quest for the American dream. In her 20s she mapped out a 10-year plan for her life, and by 30, she had checked off nearly every box: a Stanford education, a career as a big-shot corporate lawyer, a wedding to the boy next door, a bouncing 1-year-old baby girl. The only problem? Jarrett was miserable.
“I was unhappily married, in a job I couldn’t stand,” says Jarrett. “I would just sit in my office in the Sears Tower and cry because I was so busy doing what other people thought I should do.” The one bright spot in her life was her daughter, Laura, whose presence put everything in perspective. “I was leaving her every morning to do a job that was soulless, and I finally realized I needed to find something that would make me happy so I could be a role model for her.”
And so Jarrett got a divorce and embarked on a new life as a working single mom. She pivoted from private law to public service, joining Chicago mayor Harold Washington’s historic administration. A series of positions under Richard M. Daley, a subsequent mayor, followed, and it was there, as his deputy chief of staff, that she came across a bright 27-year-old lawyer named Michelle Robinson.
“She came in for an interview, and immediately I saw that she had such a great sense of self,” recalls Jarrett. “And, of course, we bonded over the fact that we both didn’t want to be at a big law firm.”
When what she thought would be a 20-minute interview stretched well past the one-hour mark, Jarrett blurted out a job offer on the spot. Robinson had only one request: that Jarrett meet her fiancé first, a young civil-rights lawyer named Barack Obama. Jarrett thought it was odd but obliged since she’d heard of Obama before, when he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. The thing she remembers most about that first dinner was how in love the couple was. “They sat on the same side of the table, and I could tell that he was paying close attention to what I had to say, thinking, ‘Is this somebody who’s going to look out for my soon-to-be wife?’ ”
Jarrett quickly connected with the future president over their childhoods overseas. “He started telling me about growing up in Indonesia. And the next thing I knew I was recalling stories that I’d only discussed with my parents. We shared a different attitude toward the privileges that many Americans take for granted, from civil liberties to clean water. And we were finishing each other’s sentences, which clearly amused Michelle.”
And so began a lifelong friendship. While working together, Mrs. Obama says that Jarrett became a constant source of inspiration for her. “Valerie was one of my earliest, and best, models of what it means to be a confident mother in the workplace,” says the former First Lady. “When I was working for her at the City of Chicago, she was unflappably calm, unafraid to speak her mind in meetings full of men, and always wholeheartedly devoted to her daughter. She showed me that achieving a perfect balance might not be possible every day, but it’s at least possible on some days—and it’s worth it to at least try to navigate all the pressures and obligations of working motherhood.”
Jarrett became not only a confidante of but also a close personal adviser to the couple throughout the wild ride that eventually led them to the White House. In Jarrett’s book she details the thrill of election night in 2008, when she watched that same down-to-earth couple she’d met 17 years prior become the new president and first lady of the United States.
Just days after, Obama offered Jarrett a position as one of his senior advisers, and she says she jumped at the chance to have a seat at the table. Though she describes her transition into Washington life as akin to “drinking from a fire hose,” her Chicago support system came with her. Two of her closest friends also joined the administration, and another friend who relocated to D.C. had twins the same age as first daughter Malia Obama. “A wonderful continuity for Michelle to have too,” says Jarrett.
At work Jarrett became known as the Obama whisperer, the one member of his team who knew him best and had his ear on pretty much every hot-button issue. “There was some healthy curiosity at best, and at worst, concern that we had this close relationship,” says Jarrett. “But I think being his friend made me a more effective adviser because I had no other motive than to be supportive of him. And it helped me be a better friend too. When we were sitting around and people were wondering why he looked distracted, I knew it was because we’d just come out of the Situation Room.”
Despite the chatter, Jarrett said she looked forward to going to work every single day. “We always stayed focused on why we were there. He’s no-drama Obama. Temperamentally calm. All decisions were made with logic and reason,” she says. In her role Jarrett oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs while also chairing the White House Council on Women and Girls. Her proudest achievement? “The work we did around gender equity,” she says. “When women succeed, America succeeds — it’s that simple.”
Of course, there were lots of surreal moments too. One of Jarrett’s favorite childhood memories was when she would stand outside Buckingham Palace, watching the changing of the guard, so when she got to travel with the president to meet Queen Elizabeth II, everything came full circle. “We went in the motorcade, and when they opened up that gate, my gosh, was it thrilling,” she says. “The queen was lovely, and I was just stunned. It was exactly how you would imagine a state dinner to be, with footmen behind every chair and everyone wearing long gloves.”
Another unforgettable memory was when she was tasked with telling a handful of notables that they were going to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. NBA great Michael Jordan was first on her call list, a dream for Jarrett, a lifelong Bulls fan. “He was speechless,” she says, smiling ear to ear. “I got to call Meryl Streep as well. At first she said to me, ‘Is this a hoax?’ It was amazing to see how touching it was for them too.”
Though Jarrett misses a lot from her White House days, she says she’s found new purpose beyond Pennsylvania Avenue. “After a period of profound mourning I came out of the fetal position and said to myself, ‘You’ve had the privilege of working on literally every major issue in the world. What is it that you really care about?’ And for me it was really easy — gender equity, criminal-justice reform, civic engagement, and reducing gun violence. I made up my mind that everything I’d do would fit into those buckets.”
Even now a typical day is hardly typical, as Jarrett splits her time between D.C., where she’s a senior adviser to the Obama Foundation, and Chicago, where she’s a senior distinguished fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. She’s also a board chair of When We All Vote and the United State of Women, among a number of other organizations. On rare days off she spends time with family (her daughter, Laura, 33, is a CNN correspondent in D.C.) or watches the occasional political drama. “I just finished Bodyguard on Netflix, and I watch a lot from Shondaland. I’m still heartbroken that Scandal is over, though nothing at all about how they portrayed the White House was accurate.” One show that hit the nail on the head? Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. “Early on in the presidency, when things were crazy and I wanted to make myself feel better, I’d watch reruns of it,” she says, laughing. “That’s what we were striving for.”
Jarrett also remains close with the Obamas outside of her work with their foundation. “Valerie has been one of Barack and my closest confidantes for decades now—and there’s a reason for that,” says Mrs. Obama. “She’s the friend that always has your back but isn’t afraid to push a little harder when you might be straying from your center. She’s unwaveringly trustworthy. She’s a comforting, soulful presence. And she’s just fun. Outside of my immediate family, I’ve probably laughed with her as much as anyone in my life. As I see it, the world would feel a lot better if there were more people like Valerie blazing the trail for the rest of us.”
One thing that’s not on Jarrett’s current to-do list: vying for public office. “I’d rather help the next group of people who want to run,” she says. In fact, many of the candidates who have announced their bid for 2020 have already reached out to Jarrett (The Washington Post recently reported seeing her power-dining with Sen. Elizabeth Warren).
Her advice to them is fairly simple: “Open up and let people get to know you. Also be kind to each other — we don’t want to destroy folks in the primary so that we’re all weakened by the time we get to one of the most important general elections ever.”
Lately, when people come up to Jarrett, they have another prospective candidate on their minds. “The thing I get asked the most is, ‘Will Michelle Obama ever run for president?’ ” she says with a sly smirk. “And that’s one of the few questions where I know the answer is absolutely not. But I always say the same thing, especially to the young people who approach me. We have to find a candidate who’s going to lead our country in a way that’s inclusive and true to our values, which is why everybody has to vote. It’s up to all of us now.”
Jarrett's book, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, is available for pre order now. For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download on Mar. 22.