When Valerie Jarrett speaks, the President listens. Behind her easy smile is a shrewd operator who helped chart Barack Obama’s route to the Oval Office. Writer ISABEL WILKERSON talked to Jarrett during her first weeks in the White House and found out why hers may be the most important number in her new boss’s BlackBerry.
It is only weeks into the presidency of Barack Obama, and every so often, the new President can be seen bounding up the carpeted steps in the West Wing of the White House, wending his way through the narrow corridors that connect the tiny warren of offices where the affairs of the world are decided. He often pops into one office in particular at the top of the second-floor landing, above the Oval Office. It is where he knows he can find one of his dearest and most trusted confidantes, the woman he and the First Lady have known and relied on for most of their adult lives.
Valerie Jarrett, 52, has a mouthful of a title that does not begin to capture the role she plays in the Obama White House. She is now arguably one of the most influential people in the world. She is one of three or four top aides who talk to the President every day, several times a day, who have the President’s ear and, more important, his private e-mail address, a privilege more coveted than an invitation to a state dinner.
When I meet with her at the White House, she is sitting at the mahogany table in her office in the West Wing. The gold sofa looks to have survived several administrations, and the gold carpeting still bears the imprint of somebody else’s furniture. The ceilings20are low and covered with acoustic tile, but this is the White House, and she knows this could very well be the biggest thing she will ever do in her life.
She looks around the room and considers the enormity of it all. “I have the privilege of serving in the administration of someone who’s not only my friend,” she is saying, “but who I think is the perfect person to lead the country at this moment in history. I wake up every morning, and I just can’t wait to get to work.”
Long before the nation, much less the world or even most of Chicago, had heard of Barack Obama, before he ever ran for office or even married Michelle, it was Jarrett, then a well-connected city official and rising star, who took the two of them under her wing and opened doors to the influential circles from which Obama would launch his political career. “Put yourself in the path of lighting,” she would say to inspire them. It was one of her 21 rules of life that they would come to take more literally than she ever imagined. “I didn’t know he would be President one day, but I did know that both of them were decent to their core,” she says. “Two of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, and two people devoted to public service. I was always confident he would figure out his path.”
It is nearly two decades later, and there she is, sitting a few feet away as he takes the oath of office as the forty-fourth President of the United States. There she is, riding in the p residential motorcade at the Inaugural Parade, the surreal, slow-motion scene of hundreds of thousands of people packed on the sidewalk to glimpse the new President. And now here she is in the White House, conferring with the chief of staff, or back on the second floor in her West Wing office, the office once occupied by Hillary Clinton as first lady and later by Karl Rove, the mastermind of George W. Bush’s ascent.
To read the rest of our interview with Valerie Jarrett, pick up the April 2009 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands everywhere.