"[I had to] work twice as hard, be twice as good, and be three times as lucky [as my white peers]," Valerie Jarrett writes in her memoir

By Sam Gillette and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
April 05, 2019 10:21 AM
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Longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett is opening up about her life and time with the former first family, including the painful campaign moment when Michelle Obama broke down in tears over being portrayed in the media as an “angry black woman.”

According to Jarrett’s Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, out now, this is a stereotype that she has also faced — long before she was the target of a racist tweet by Roseanne Barr.

“[I had to] work twice as hard, be twice as good, and be three times as lucky [as my white peers],” writes Jarrett, 62, who followed President Barack Obama from the campaign trail to the White House.

In the book, the longtime advocate for gender and racial equality recounts her struggles as a black woman in America.

Jarrett was born in Iran — her parents moved there after her father, a doctor, couldn’t find a job practicing medicine in America’s racially segregated hospitals — but Jarrett grew up in Chicago and went on to practice law.

While raising her daughter, Laura, now 36 and a trained lawyer and CNN correspondent, the single mom became a successful business woman, chaired multiple boards and was deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

“Looking back on those years when I was a young working mom, I wish I had not defined success as achieving the mighty juggle with flawless perfection,” Jarrett writes. “I wish I had understood that hard work doesn’t always prevent failures, and that my failures do not define me. Rather my missteps often teach valuable lessons, and provide the resilience to bounce back stronger.”

Valerie Jarrett (left) with her daughter, Laura
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It was in the Chicago mayor’s office in 1991, that Jarrett interviewed Mrs. Obama (then Michelle Robinson) for a job, which led to her longtime friendship with the couple and her journey to the upper echelon of American politics.

“And I will tell you, [Michelle and Barack] are the same in terms of their core values, their commitment to public service,” Jarrett recalled in a 2016 interview on The Real.

Since the end of President Obama’s term, Jarrett has remained heavily involved in their work. She is now a senior adviser to the Obama Foundation and a senior distinguished fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.

Here are highlights from her memoir, which conspicuously does not discuss Barr’s racist attack last year that led to the canceling of Barr’s ABC series. (Last July, asked about Barr, Jarrett quipped: “Roseanne who?”)

The Day 5-Year-Old Jarrett Hit the Hired Help

The former White House official writes that, by the time she was almost 5 years old, she’d begun “to internalize the mores of Iran’s caste system.”

Upset at Saroya, a servant in her parents’ house, Jarrett writes that her mother was “horrified” to walk “into the house one afternoon to see me giving Saroya a swift kick, as hard as I could.”

Her parents had never accepted these customs and found Jarrett’s behavior “unacceptable,” especially because they’d come to Iran to escape segregation themselves, according to her book.

That night, Jarrett’s mother told her father: “I think it’s time for us to leave Iran.”

The First Time Jarrett Was Called the N-Word

Jarrett was 10 years old when she was first called the incendiary racial slur by a friend she’d made at an all-girls sleep-away camp in Michigan, she writes.

“You know, I thought you were a n—– when I first met you,” Jarrett recalls the girl saying. “I’m really sorry.”

Jarrett’s face turned bright red. She imagined saying, “Oh, but I am!” and being beaten up like she had been by another group of girls, she writes. Instead, she mumbled a response and never told anyone what happened.

Years later, after Bar compared her to an “ape” on Twitter, Jarrett had a different reaction.

“First of all, I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment. I’m fine,” Jarrett said during a town hall on MSNBC called “Everyday Racism in America.”

“I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense,” Jarrett said.

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President Obama ‘Doesn’t Sweat’

The “worst moment of the campaign,” Jarrett writes of Obama’s historic run for president in 2008, was when he arrived late for a television debate on an Illinois public television station, WTTW.

The cameras had already panned across the seat of candidates (with one empty chair) and the moderator, Phil Ponce, had announced a 60-second break when Obama finally walked in, according to Jarrett’s book. (“I could have killed him,” she writes.)

“If you were to ask Michelle or me what was the worst moment of the campaign, that would have been it,” Jarrett explains. “But the candidate himself was oblivious. He missed the mounting stress as the minutes counted down.

“He wasn’t in the room to watch his empty chair as the credits began to roll. When we fussed at him later, he shrugged and said if he had been late, he would have explained he had a good excuse: he was doing his job in Springfield for his constituents. And that was the difference between us: He simply doesn’t sweat. We do.”

The President Used to Tease Jarrett About Her Menopause

When Jarrett would experiences menopausal hot flashes while riding with the president, he would make sure to turn on the air conditioner and give her his handkerchief “without saying a word or even looking in my direction,” she writes.

Other times, he would tease her in “good-natured way that only a man who knows you well, like a brother, has permission to do.”

If anyone could tease Jarrett, it was Obama. Their friendship has been almost been almost 30 years in the making.

“The president has said she’s his best friend,” CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, who profiled Jarrett for 60 Minutes two years ago, has said.

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The Moment Mrs. Obama Broke Down in Tears

In the early days of the Obamas’ first presidential campaign, Jarrett writes that the soon-to-be first lady was filled with anxiety over a comment she’d made on stage (“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country”), which was taken out of context.

Though Mrs. Obama was an esteemed lawyer, Jarrett writes that she was not yet comfortable on the campaign trail and was quickly portrayed as an “angry black woman.”

Jarrett recalls that everything came to a head when Mrs. Obama and her team reviewed a taping of a speech she’d just given.

“When it was over, there was complete silence,” Jarrett writes. “The words in her speech weren’t angry, but her demeanor made them seem as if she was. She started to cry, while I held her hand; seeing her like that made me want to wrap her in a blanket and take her somewhere safe.”

The former aide continues: “Michelle turned to us and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ and she was right. We had done her a great disservice. We all knew what she was trying to say and what a message of hope and optimism she wanted to deliver, and we had simply counted on the audience seeing that as well.”

In November, while on the final episode of WNYC Studios’ podcast 2 Dope Queens, the former first lady addressed the “angry black woman stereotype” and how she was raising her daughters, Malia and Sasha, to advocate for themselves.

“What my parents did was that they saw that flame in me, and they kept it lit,” Mrs. Obama said. “So, right now, I think I want to fan their flames … I want to get them used to maybe overstepping a little bit ’cause sometimes with women you don’t step up enough. You don’t use your voice enough because you’re told you’re mouthy or you’re bossy or be quiet or that’s not cute.”

Mrs. Obama said she was ready to see her bold vision for her daughters and young women everywhere put into words and action.

“I want to practice boldness, and then we can bring it back, you know?”