Valerie Jarrett is known as the other side of Barack Obama's brain. Can this tough-minded adviser, who is guided by aphorisms and gut instinct, help him reach the White House?
Say you're Sen. Barack Obama, the hottest politician on the planet. You fill up stadiums like the Beatles. You're JFK-smooth, scary smart and, for a skinny middle-aged Ivy Leaguer who quit smoking not that long ago, your basketball game isn't half-bad.
No African-American politician has soared this close to the sun. Everyone sings your praises, from Hollywood starlets to rappers on YouTube. One excitable cable TV host even admitted on the air that when he hears you give a speech a thrill runs up his leg.
That was weird. But you have a strange sway over all kinds of people.
It seems everybody wants to be a new millennium FOB -Friend of Barack. But good as all this feels, you know how easy it is to get lost in the hype. There are sycophants and schemers hiding among the supporters.
So when you want cold-eyed analysis and blunt advice on handling your beloved but inflammatory former pastor, for example, or who you should name to join you on the ticket, or dozens of other issues rushing at you all at once, who can you trust? Really trust?
Long before he began running for president, the answer for Obama was the same as it is today.
"I trust her completely,'' he says simply.
Technically her title is "senior adviser.'' But Jarrett, the soft-spoken, steely willed, longtime Chicago powerbroker, has also been called the other side of Obama's brain. At the very least, he says, she is his eyes and ears in meetings that he cannot attend.
Yet even as her role in Obama's campaign has expanded over the past year, Jarrett has kept her day job as president and CEO of the Habitat Company, a major real-estate firm and court-appointed receiver of Chicago public housing, overseeing the beleaguered agency's long, painful struggle to desegregate by building new mixed-income developments. She travels with Obama or his wife, Michelle, as often as she can-usually on weekends or in times of crisis.
"I try to make all the major events,'' she says. But Obama, who officially becomes the Democratic presidential nominee in August, told me in a recent Saturday morning telephone interview that he and Jarrett "talk every day about a whole range of issues.''
"She participates in every conversation we have in the campaign,'' he said. "She is involved in broad strategic decisions about our message and how we approach the campaign, and she's involved in the details of managing the organization. She's really a great utility player.''
Every successful politician, monarch or business tycoon needs someone like Jarrett, a straight-talking, fiercely loyal, well-connected, discreet, disciplined, protective confidant/friend/sounding board/ surrogate sibling who has known the candidate since before he or she became the next big thing. Obama told me that having an adviser like Jarrett, someone who "knows your flaws but also knows your strengths'' and encourages you "to follow your gut'' when others advocate sticking to the script is crucial in the brutal, chaotic, 24/7 world of presidential politics.
"She's always very insistent on me trusting my instincts,'' Obama told me. "One of the dangers in running for high office is you get so much chatter in your ear that you stop listening to yourself.''
She's a hot commodity in her own right these days, her name and picture popping up in national magazines and newspapers. With so many eyes on her, Jarrett can't afford to fall flat.
Not long ago, she almost did. She was walking toward her car in the Loop with her daughter. Jarrett's head was down, her thumbs flying across the keypad of one of the two BlackBerrys she carries with her everywhere she goes.
She can't remember whom she was texting at that moment. Likely it was Obama, the potential leader of the free world; or it could have been her former boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley, ruler of the city state of Chicago; or perhaps it was Penny, as in Pritzker, one of the richest women in the universe. Such is the company the 51-year-old Jarrett keeps.
Then, in mid-text, Jarrett stumbled, painfully twisting her ankle. She had not seen the curb that jumped out of nowhere and tripped her up like a political dirty trick.
Her only child, daughter Laura, who is 22 and recently completed her first year at Harvard Law School, echoed the advice Jarrett had been dishing out to her for years.
"Shake it off. You'll be fine.''
That sums up Jarrett's philosophy of living and succeeding in the cutthroat arenas of city government, big business and now presidential campaigning. Life can be unfair-she's a black woman. Love fades-she's a divorced single mother. Too bad, so sad, shake it off. Work harder. Be smarter. Get tougher. You'll be fine.
She's even put her philosophy to paper, two sheets of "lessons'' she has learned and lives by. Lesson: Trust your gut.
Back in March Obama's quest for the nomination was suddenly in peril, threatened by his longtime pastor's fiery words about race and injustice in America. It didn't matter that the words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright were sometimes years-old and had been taken largely out of context-a few minutes snatched from a lifetime of sermons. The words were all over Fox News and YouTube. The damage was done.
Obama called his senior staff and Jarrett together to discuss how to handle the crisis. All told, there were a half-dozen people in a conference room at Obama's Chicago headquarters, 233 N. Michigan Ave. The senator opened the floor for discussion.
"Barack's management style,'' Jarrett says, "promotes open, candid, provocative discussion in a setting where his advisers all feel safe opening up and sharing their opinions. Barack leads the discussion, but if one or two people are not weighing in, he will ask them their thoughts.''
Jarrett's position that day was clear. He should confront the issue of race head-on. "I knew that because of Barack's life experiences and many of our conversations, he had given a great deal of thought to the topic of race,'' she says. "He had mentioned earlier in the campaign that he thought he could provide a framework for a conversation about race in a way that could bring the American people together and heal so many wounds. My advice was to seize this opportunity, speak honestly, directly from his heart, and I had every confidence that his message would resonate broadly with the American people.''
In the end, it is always Obama's call and he quickly made it. He would deliver a speech-sermon-of his own in Philadelphia, professing once again his faith in America to heal and overcome. "People were eager,'' Jarrett says, "to understand Barack's perspective and he knew that with the 24-hour news cycle, time was of the essence.''
Still, it was a risky decision. Up to then, Obama had tried mightily to keep race out of the campaign. But Jarrett's advice to her old friend was simple: Trust your gut.
But for that crucial moment in the campaign, Jarrett did more than offer advice. She also supplied what turned out to be the moving conclusion to the speech, an anecdote about two Southerners, a young white woman and an elderly black man, coming together to get a biracial politician from the Midwest elected president.
Early in the primary season, Jarrett was doing her eyes-and-ears thing for Obama at a meeting of campaign volunteers in Franklin, S.C. A white, 23-year-old field organizer named Ashley Baia told the group that when she was a little girl her mother developed cancer and had lost her health insurance. To save money for medical expenses, Ashley and her family ate mustard and relish sandwiches. She told the room that she joined the Obama campaign to help millions of struggling children like she used to be. Then she asked everyone else to introduce themselves to Jarrett and reveal why they had come. "People brought up various issues,'' Jarrett says, "from health care to education to veteran's benefits.''
Lastly, it was an elderly black man's turn.
"I'm here,'' he said, "because of Ashley.''
The man had been visited by Baia and was so moved by her story of sacrifice on behalf of her mother that he had joined the campaign.
Jarrett first told Obama that story in January as they flew to Atlanta, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The story, Jarrett says, "symbolized Barack's goal of bringing people together.''
"He was very touched by the story and his immediate reaction was that the story was the missing piece for the conclusion of his MLK speech,'' she says. "He revised his speech that night and delivered it the next day.''
He used it again in Philadelphia.
Lesson: Take the time to develop personal relationships all along the way.
Jarrett is one of Barack and Michelle Obama's closest friends. She is someone both Obama and his wife have described as "like family.'' And family, as we all know, will tell you things no one else dares to say.
Jarrett goes back with the couple nearly 20 years. She is the big sister in Obama's Hyde Park-Kenwood extended family of friends: a clan of doctors, lawyers and business men and women who have nurtured him personally and politically for years. The University of Chicago is like another member of that family, perhaps a rich and imperious aunt. Obama taught at the university's law school. His wife is on leave from her executive position at the university's medical center and Jarrett is the vice-chair of the university's board of trustees.
Their relationship, however, has undergone a bit of a role reversal. Jarrett used to be the top dog.
In 1991, Jarrett was the deputy chief of staff for Mayor Daley when a tall, striking-looking African-American lawyer named Michelle Robinson walked into her office for a job interview. The young woman had the whole package: Princeton University undergrad, Harvard Law School, two years at a prestigious corporate law firm.
But she wanted more out of life than a nice office and high salary. She wanted to give back to her city and her country. When she told people that she was thinking about trading in corporate practice for public service, people laughed at her.
Jarrett didn't laugh. She had done exactly the same thing four years earlier. "We hit it off,'' Michelle Obama told me in an interview. "She understood how I felt. It was difficult to find people who understood my desire to leave a high-paying corporate job. She went through the same kind of feelings, wanting to do more for the community, wanting to have a civic life.''
Jarrett offered the young lawyer a job that day. But Robinson said she wanted to think it over. A couple of days later, she called Jarrett back and asked if Jarrett would have dinner with her and her fianc, Barack Obama.
They slid into a booth at a downtown restaurant, the engaged couple on one side of the table, the divorced Jarrett on the other. They spent a long time getting to know one another, sharing their life stories. "They each raised similar concerns regarding whether I was ever pressured to compromise my integrity,'' Jarrett told me in an e-mail. "I assured them that I had never been asked to do so and would feel very comfortable saying no if the situation arose.''
Michelle took the job working in Daley's office as an assistant to the mayor.
Jarrett and the Obamas have been friends ever since. "There's a cadre of people like me who have worked for her who are like family,'' Michelle told me. "Valerie at some level has advised me and Barack. She's always one of the people that he and I talk to when we're about to make a move.''
Lesson: To thine own self be true.
Last fall, Obama was about to make a big move and, of course, he wanted Jarrett with him.
Obama, Jarrett and David Plouffe, the campaign manager, were on a mission to renew the confidence of some of the senator's key supporters gathered in Iowa for a meeting of his national finance committee. Despite a record-breaking fundraising effort, Obama was way behind in the polls. Jarrett says some of his supporters were beginning to question his strategy of placing so much emphasis on Iowa.
"My objective during the flight to Iowa,'' she says, "was to be a sounding board, to ask him the tough questions that would be waiting for him.''
At the end of the conversation, she says, Obama was completely comfortable that he had chosen the right path. "We talked about the very uneasy crowd that would greet him in Iowa,'' she says. "Because he was confident that he had fully exhausted all of the alternatives, he delivered a strong, persuasive speech that convinced everyone that he had charted the right course. When he arrived, the crowd was very nervous and concerned. When he left, they were jubilant and fully prepared to redouble their efforts.''
Word is that Jarrett is in line for a big job in Washington if Obama becomes president. Perhaps she will be tapped to head housing or commerce. Or she may simply be First Friend, wielding power and influence behind the scenes like her cousin-in-law, the former civil rights leader, Vernon Jordan, did during the Clinton White House years.
But she won't discuss her future. "All I'm thinking about is getting Barack elected,'' she says. "I've had no time to enjoy the fantasy.''
Obama is less reluctant to talk about it. "We haven't had specific conversations,'' he said. "But as long as we've been friends and as important as she's been to this campaign, there's no reason I wouldn't want to continue to have her extraordinary skill set and talents utilized.''
Or maybe, as some believe, Jarrett will someday run for office in Chicago. Though all evidence seems to the contrary, Daley can't be mayor forever.
"I don't currently have any political ambitions,'' is all Jarrett will say on the subject.
But she says it with a smile and an apology for being evasive.
Jarrett, by the way, prefers the term "non-responsive.''
It's a more polite word and "polite'' is a word you hear a lot when people describe her.
"She's always the lady,'' says Shirley Newsome, a longtime neighborhood advocate in Bronzeville on the South Side. "She never raises her voice. She never loses her temper. But she pushes back when she has to. She does it in such a professional manner that a lot of times you don't even know you've been pushed back.''
Lesson: Good will.
Paul Vallas has felt the Jarrett pushback. In the early '90s, Vallas was the city's budget director; Jarrett was head of the Department of Planning and Development. "If there's no tension with the department heads,'' Vallas says, "you're not doing your job as budget director.''
Jarrett, he says, "was as tough as nails [and always] one of the smartest, if not the smartest, person in the room in terms of judgment, in terms of knowledge.''
"But she's not overbearing,'' adds Vallas, who is superintendent of schools in New Orleans. "She speaks her mind. There are individuals who try to run with the crowd. She doesn't mind being the dissenter.''
Dr. Eric Whitaker often travels with Obama and Jarrett on the campaign trail. Whitaker has seen the tough-as-nails Jarrett. But he has seen another side that he says is an untold story. "Valerie,'' he says, "is one of the kindest people I've met.''
Whitaker is one of Obama's basketball buddies. He is also a nationally recognized expert on minority health issues. He is an executive vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center and a former director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. Yet when he first met Jarrett many years ago, he was intimidated by her. Her father was one of his professors at the University of Chicago Medical School. "I'm from the other side of the tracks,'' Whitaker says. "Her family is part of Chicago history.''
Jarrett is the only child of Dr. James Bowman, an internationally known specialist in hematology and pathology, and his wife, Barbara, an expert in early childhood development. Jarrett's grandfather was Robert Taylor, an early Chicago pioneer in the struggle to house the poor with dignity.
"One of the untold stories of the campaign,'' Whitaker says, "is how she ends up mentoring a great deal of staff around this country. She's very much a caretaker, a nurturer.''
Still, he admits, "Valerie is direct.''
"She doesn't mince words,'' he says. "She has an economy of words. But she can coax greatness out of people. I've come to love me some Valerie Jarrett.''
Lesson: As my grandmother would say, "Put yourself in the path of lightning."
Just reading Jarrett's resume will make you tired. She is a former chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority board. She served as board chairman of the Chicago Stock Exchange and was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. She is currently vice chair of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee and a trustee of the Museum of Science and Industry. She served as finance chair for Obama's 2004 Senate campaign. And there's more. "She knows her way around the corporate world,'' says Robert T. Starks, a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. "In that regard alone she becomes very valuable to a Barack Obama campaign.''
Although Jarrett is well-known in her hometown of Chicago, especially in the halls of power, she is gaining more recognition across the country as Obama continues what she has called "his unlikely journey.'' The Obama campaign has been her national coming-out party. In recent months, she has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal and has appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, along with Obama and campaign strategist David Axelrod. A few weeks ago, she had dinner with one of her heroes, television journalist Tom Brokaw.
Everybody is learning that she has the ear of the man who, according to recent polls, has a better-than-even shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world. Perhaps that's why it is hard to find anyone willing to publicly make even a constructive criticism of Jarrett. The closest on-the-record critique came from the typically independent Toni Preckwinkle, alderman of the 4th Ward. "We've had our differences of opinion,'' Preckwinkle told me, carefully choosing her words. "She's intensely loyal to the mayor. I don't think anyone would describe me in that way.''
Still, even Preckwinkle couched her remarks about Jarrett in the kind of glowing language used by everyone from Rev. Jesse Jackson and low-income housing advocate and lawyer Richard Wheelock to longtime civil rights activist and scholar Timuel Black and one of Jarrett's best friends, Linda Johnson Rice, publisher of Ebony magazine: "loyal,'' "smart,'' "savvy,'' "special.''
But one Chicago businessman-"strictly off the record''-told me he would add "snooty'' to that list.
"She's personally difficult to approach,'' he said. "She's a business person who travels in rarefied circles. She's very selective about who she will even talk to. She's one of those people who wear their snootiness like a badge of honor.''
Lesson: Set high standards for yourself and your team (lead by example).
Jarrett is a member of African-American and Chicago royalty. But her story and her life begin in the Middle East, not the Midwest. She was born in 1956 in Shiraz, Iran, about 570 miles south of Tehran.
Her parents moved to Shiraz, known for its poets, wine and flowers, as part of a program that sent American doctors and agricultural experts to developing countries to help jump-start their health and farming efforts. Her father was on the staff of the brand new Nemazee Hospital, where Jarrett was born.
"Every memory from Iran is a very happy memory,'' Jarrett told me in an e-mail.
Her family lived with Iranian and American doctors in a sheltered community surrounding the hospital. The weather was dry and sunny, the food fantastic. "It is where my lifelong love of rice and lamb began,'' she said.
They stayed in Iran for six years.
"I remember how welcoming everyone was to the many Americans who were there,'' Jarrett told me. "We were viewed by the Iranians as Americans-not black Americans-so I had no awareness of race until we returned to the United States.''
The family left Iran and spent a year in England, where Jarrett's father had a university fellowship to study genetics. In 1963, they returned to America, settling in Hyde Park, one of the few integrated neighborhoods in Chicago at the time.
Now, she was to become aware of race.
"My parents often told me that because I was both black and a woman, I should expect to have to work twice as hard,'' Jarrett says. "They did not dwell on the unfairness. Rather, they readily admitted it was unfair, but a fact of life. They also believed that I would benefit from working harder and learning more.''
That did not mean, her parents told her, that she should not push back against injustice. They taught by example. In 1947, her father, a young doctor at the time, became the first African-American to be accepted into a residency program at St. Luke's Hospital. Jarrett says he was not allowed to live in the hospital dormitory where all the other residents lived.
On his first day of work at the hospital, he was told he had to enter the building through the back door. He refused and walked through the front. The next day, Jarrett says, the rest of the black staff waited for young Dr. Bowman to arrive.
Then they all walked into work together-through the front door.
When the family first moved back to Chicago, Jarrett attended a local public elementary school where she was teased for the English accent she picked up during their year in London. At the start of 4th grade, she transferred to the University of Chicago Laboratory School. She spent her final two years of high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts.
During the summers, the family traveled, studied and worked across Europe, Africa and Mexico. "She spent a good deal of her lifetime in some other country,'' Jarrett's mother says. "She had been almost all over the world by the time she was 15. She had to make friends over a short period of time and adapt to different people.''
Lesson: Don't stay in your comfort zone too long.
After graduating from Stanford University as a psychology major and then earning a law degree from the University of Michigan, Jarrett got married and had a daughter. Everything was going her way. She was a lawyer for a big corporate law firm, specializing in commercial real estate. Her office was on the 79th floor of the Sears Tower. It had a "you-can-see-tomorrow" view of the lake.
She was miserable.
She'd leave her young daughter in the morning and return home in the evening, her soul dragging. "I didn't feel the time away from her was worthwhile,'' she says.
Having Laura "triggered something inside me,'' she says, adding, "I wanted to do something that she'd really be proud of me for.''
What that would be Jarrett did not know. It was 1987. Her marriage of four years to the late Dr. William Robert Jarrett, the son of the legendary black journalist, Vernon Jarrett, was falling apart. This is how she described her marriage in an e-mail: "Married in 1983, separated in 1987 and divorced in 1988. Enough said.''
One day, sitting in her office in the sky, the job, the crumbling marriage, hit her all at once. She began weeping. She got up to close the door.
Not long after that she had lunch with a lawyer friend, Elvin Charity. He had just left his job at the city law department in the Harold Washington administration. He was striking out on his own. But Charity had only good things to say about working for Harold Washington's office of the corporation counsel. "I told her my experience in government was the best experience in my professional career,'' he says. "I met a lot of good people and learned more than I ever had before.''
Jarrett went to work for the city law department. On her first day her supervisor showed Jarrett her new office. It was a cubicle. But it was next to a window-looking out into the alley.
After the shock over her new digs wore off, she fell in love with her job, doing the public's business. "I think she had something in her that needed a forum to be developed,'' Charity says. "Government provided that forum. I've watched her grow from being that seemingly vulnerable person I had lunch with 20 years ago to a person who can walk into a room and be a commanding presence.''
Shortly after Jarrett went to work for the city, Mayor Washington collapsed at his desk, dead from a massive heart attack. Jarrett stayed on when Eugene Sawyer succeeded Washington as the second African-American mayor of Chicago.
Then Richard M. Daley took over the fifth floor of City Hall. Many of Jarrett's colleagues quit, fleeing what they saw as the resurrection of the old Democratic Machine.
Jarrett stayed. Within the law department, she was responsible for economic development issues, transactions and real estate deals.
Susan Sher came to City Hall with Daley in 1989. She was the new first assistant corporation counsel, the No. 2 in the department. Her office was next door to Jarrett's. Sher says Jarrett immediately impressed her with her "smarts and great judgment.''
They became fast friends, two single moms with children at the University of Chicago Lab schools. Jarrett loves to tell the story about the time she and Sher were in a meeting in City Hall with Daley. The mayor was animated as he made a point and then noticed Jarrett catching a peek at her watch. He asked her what was more important than what she was doing. Sheepishly, she told him that the Lab School Halloween Parade was starting in 20 minutes and their children were marching in it.
The mayor said go.
Then, in the spring of 1992, the Loop sprang a leak. Millions of gallons of water from the Chicago River rushed through the damaged wall of a utility tunnel running beneath the city's downtown, flooding basements and other underground facilities. Much of the Loop was shut down.
Sher and Jarrett and almost everyone else in City Hall worked for days trying to fix the physical and legal damage. "We were working very, very hard,'' Sher says.
During the height of the crisis, Jarrett's young daughter called. She missed her mommy. Jarrett told her she was at a news conference with the mayor and could not get home. But, she said, she would walk past the television cameras and smile at her from across the screen.
That's exactly what she did.
"She is completely devoted to her daughter and her parents,'' Sher says. "What I wish for her at this moment is that she had time for herself.''
Jarrett's rise in the Daley administration was rapid. She went from the law department to deputy chief of staff for the mayor to commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. "There isn't a single day that I worked for city government that I regretted it,'' she says. "And I had some pretty bad days.''
Lesson: You can have it all, just not all at the same time and in the proportions that you may want.
Jarrett left City Hall in 1995 to become executive vice president of The Habitat Company. She became president and CEO in January of 2007. "She has wonderful people skills and a finely disciplined mind,'' says Daniel Levin, Habitat's chairman. "I trust her judgment more than mine.''
Jarrett's office at Habitat is on the fifth floor and looks out on the massive East Bank athletic club where she can often be found having breakfast meetings. She also uses the athletic facilities, but not as much as she would like. Finding the time is the tricky part. But she's not complaining. As she told about 150 woman at the June luncheon meeting of the Professional Women's Club of Chicago, working on the Obama campaign "is just the most important thing I'll ever do.''
Her talk to the women's group was titled, "Making Successful Career Transitions.'' She shared some of her life lessons but ran out of time before she could get through all 20. Then she took a few questions.
A woman asked her about the media treatment of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Was it fair, was it sexist?
"First of all,'' she said, "hats off to Sen. Clinton.''
She said Clinton had blazed a trail. Never again would the nation question whether a woman had the right stuff to run for president.
The women-doctors, lawyers, business owners-gave Clinton a loud round of applause.
Then Jarrett said, "Life is unfair.'' Women, she added, will always be judged by what they wear and how they look.
"It's always going to be harder as a woman,'' she said.
Right now, though, there's nothing else to do about it but shake it off. Work harder. Be smarter. Get tougher.
You'll be fine.
Valerie Jarrett is proof that it works.