Race, Politics And The Obamas: Valerie Jarrett’s New Book Traces Her Steps From Iran To Chicago To The White House

By Lolly Bowean
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) More than two years after she left the White House and ended her two terms as former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser,  Valerie Jarrett’s memoir, “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” is out from Viking.


In her free moments between working with law students at the University of Chicago, serving on corporate boards and making speaking appearances, Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett interviewed her mother, daughter and other close relatives about her childhood memories and pivotal moments in her life and career.

It was through those conversations and reflections that Jarrett was able to focus in on what lessons from her past led her to success and happiness, she said.

“I was in information-gathering mode to see what stories would resonate broadly. I spent a lot of time by myself,” she said. “It would be too much to do an exhaustive history. I wanted to tell stories I thought had broader meaning and were most profound to me.”

More than two years after she left the White House and ended her two terms as former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser, Jarrett’s memoir, “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” is out from Viking.

Rather than a tell-all that spills salacious secrets, the book is more of a guide that Jarrett hopes will connect with a younger generation.

Jarrett’s book comes about four months after Michelle Obama’s highly anticipated memoir “Becoming,” for which the former first lady toured like a rock star, selling out large stadiums across the country. “Becoming” has sold more than 10 million copies and is slated to become the highest-selling memoir in recent history, publishers have said.

While many of Jarrett’s stories overlap with ones told by Michelle Obama, whom Jarrett mentored as a young lawyer, Jarrett’s book rollout is more subdued. She’ll make two appearances on the East Coast and is scheduled to make the rounds in Chicago starting Thursday.

“I’m going about it a little gentler, but I have a robust tour,” said Jarrett, 62. “I am really enjoying the conversations the book is prompting.”

And though large sections are dedicated to her White House years, there’s much more to Jarrett’s story. She writes about her early childhood in Iran and her transition to Chicago’s South Side, about her first encounter with racism and often being too shy to defend herself, about her troubled marriage and her later struggles as a single working mother. Throughout, she laces the anecdotes with reflections of what she wishes she knew at the time.

“I thought that one of the things I could do to be helpful to other women who are struggling in their careers and personal lives is to tell my story,” she told the Tribune in a recent interview. “I wanted the book to be not just enjoyable to read, but helpful.

“In my case, being a young, single mom, there were so many times I thought if I was just smarter, or more efficient or slept fewer hours, this wouldn’t be so hard,” she said. “But the truth is, it’s just hard.”

While she may be internationally known, Jarrett has a large footprint in Chicago, especially on the South Side.

Her mother’s family had migrated to Chicago from the South and figured out ways to send their children to the best prep schools and colleges. During the harshest of times, Jarrett’s relatives became elected officials, working professionals and accomplished leaders so respected that at least one has a street here named in her honor.

Her maternal grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, graduated from the University of Illinois and helped plan, build and manage what became known as Rosenwald Courts, a multiunit housing complex that still exists in Bronzeville. He was the first black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and for decades, a sprawling public housing complex called Robert Taylor Homes carried his name.

Jarrett’s father, Jim Bowman, a physician, moved to Chicago for a medical residency and married her mother, the former Barbara Taylor, in the 1950s. He got a job at Chicago’s Provident Hospital but found his prospects limited because he was black, so the couple decided to escape racial segregation and racist attitudes and move abroad. As a result, Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran. She spent her earlier years traveling the globe.

When she was about 5, the family moved back to South Kenwood, where she first had to confront racism herself.

“I couldn’t tell my story without addressing the issue of race,” she says. “I’m concerned about the resurgence of white supremacists that feel comfortable spewing hate. … We have to be honest and say this is still an issue we grapple with.”

Jarrett’s book also covers the oft-told story of her meeting and forging a close relationship with the Obamas.

Jarrett writes about how she was working as a prestigious Chicago law firm but was unfulfilled and unhappy. Against the advice of her relatives, she went to work for the city in Mayor Harold Washington’s administration.

It was at City Hall that she learned how to serve the public and navigate a politically charged environment. It was also at City Hall that she was mentored by a woman who pushed her to ask for a promotion and a raise. In that role, she learned the importance of work and family balance, how women have to pull each other up and also ask for what they need.

“Sometimes when we get a seat at the table, we are so busy protecting our seat we forget it’s better when there are more voices,” she said.

It was also at City Hall that she interviewed and offered a job to a young Michelle Robinson, who said she wanted Jarrett to meet her fiance before agreeing to take the position.

Jarrett would later move back to a private sector before she was catapulted to national prominence as Barack Obama’s fundraiser and close adviser.

Jarrett doesn’t reveal much about briefly seeking an appointment to Obama’s U.S. Senate seat in 2008 after he was elected president. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was later charged with trying to profit from selling the Senate appointment and ended up in prison.

She does, however, spend pages on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and how the religious leader’s words created controversy for Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

“It wasn’t so much writing about Jeremiah Wright, but how his actions touched upon the third rail of race and how we all coped with that in a presidential campaign and the tough decision President Obama had to make,” she said. “I thought it said a lot about Obama’s character and integrity that he felt he owed the American people an explanation.”

Throughout the book, Jarrett sprinkles in stories about figures who were a part of the Obama close circle: Michael Strautmanis and Martin Nesbitt who now both work with the Obama Foundation; Susan Sher, who is a high-level adviser at the University of Chicago; and David Axelrod, who oversees the University’s Institute of Politics. Others who get a mention include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whom Jarrett has endorsed for Chicago mayor; Kenwood-Oakland community organizer Shirley Newsome, physician Eric Whitaker and, of course, former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

She writes that in the White House, she and Rahm Emanuel had their spats, but she doesn’t dwell on it.

“His bombastic style of leadership was intimidating to many,” Jarrett writes of Emanuel. “He let off steam by screaming, which was unsettling not just for those to whom it was directed, but to anyone in earshot.”

Emanuel never screamed at her, Jarrett writes. And eventually the president had to talk with him about improving the work environment.

Of her time in the White House, Jarrett focuses on majestic moments that brought her face to face with world leaders and icons like Elie Wiesel and the Dalai Lama. She writes at length about the push for health care reform, fair pay for women and gay marriage. She writes about the administration’s feelings of helplessness after the Sandy Hook shooting and the frustration of trying to work with an oppositional Congress.

She called the election of Donald Trump “soul crushing,” and writes in detail what it was like to be one of the last people to leave the White House on Obama’s last day in office.

“I thought, if I were honest, people could see me as a real person … it would make the story more meaningful,” she said.

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