During Barack Obama‘s eight years in the White House, there was one influential senior adviser above all others to whom the president turned—Valerie Jarrett.
Jarrett, 61, involved in nearly every decision that Obama made, was much more than a political adviser. “The president has said she’s his best friend,” said CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, who profiled Jarrett for 60 Minutes a year ago.
Jarrett, now a board member of the ride-sharing app Lyft, was thrust back into the national spotlight Tuesday after Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet likening Jarrett to an “ape.”
Barr, responding to a tweet that accused Jarrett of a conspiracy involving the Obama administration, wrote overnight—in a since-deleted tweet—that if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” (In her subsequent apology to Jarrett by name, Barr made clear that the “vj” had been a reference to Jarrett by her initials.)
Hours later and following a massive outcry on Twitter, ABC cancelled Barr’s hit show Roseanne.
Jarrett said Tuesday afternoon that ABC made the right call in cancelling the show and hoped for more dialogue on the reality of racism.
“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’s close friendship with Obama, who has not publicly commented on the controversy, goes back more than 25 years.
Barack Obama and Jarrett became close in 1991, soon after Michelle interviewed for a law job with Jarrett, a lawyer and deputy chief of staff for Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley. The interview went so well with Michelle, a recent Harvard law graduate, that a few days later Jarrett offered her a position.
“I called her up and I said, “Well, what do you think? We’d love to have you.” And she said, “Well, my fiancé doesn’t actually think it’s such a great idea,” Jarrett told 60 Minutes. “And I said, “What?” And so she said, “Yeah, that’s right.” So she said, “But I really am interested. So would you be willing to have dinner with us?”
Over dinner, Jarrett and Barack Obama created an instant bond due to their childhoods spent overseas—Obama in Indonesia and Jarrett in Iran where she was born and would spend her first five years. Her father, a doctor, had helped start a new hospital there.
“And I will tell you, they are the same in terms of their core values, their commitment to public service. That was before the president was even in the state Senate,” Jarrett recalled in an interivew with The Real.
Michelle Obama took the job with the city, and the Obamas even ended up buying a house a block from Jarrett in Chicago.
Family Legacy of Battling Racism
Jarrett’s family involves several generations making a mark in American history.
Her great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor is believed to be the first African-American graduate of MIT and the country’s first accredited African-American architect, according to 60 Minutes.
Jarrett’s grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, was a housing activist who became the first African-American chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority and built much of Chicago’s public housing.
Her mother, Barbara Taylor Bowman, is a distinguished early childhood education expert for whom a Chicago street is named. Her father, Dr. James Bowman, Jr., was a groundbreaking pathologist and geneticist.
Jarrett recalled to 60 Minutes how as a resident at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago, her father was not allowed to enter the front door due to the color of his skin.
“His attitude was, look, I’m going to be a physician here. I’m coming in the front door,” Jarrett told the CBS newsmagazine. “And so, the first day of work, he showed up and he walked in the front door. And everybody was aghast. And the next day, when he showed up for work, all of the black staff that worked in the hospital—from the nurses to the orderlies to the administrators—were waiting by the front door and they walked in with him. And so he, in a sense, integrated the front door of the hospital.”
The incident shaped Jarrett’s belief that “you have to stand up for yourself. And just because somebody says no doesn’t mean that you have to listen. You can do what you think is right. And I think both of my parents were trailblazers in that respect.”
Following her family’s time in Iran and then England, Jarrett returned to Chicago for public school “speaking Farsi, French and English with a British accent,” according to The New York Times.
Into Her Own
Jarrett did her undergraduate work at Stanford and received her law degree from the University of Michigan. In 1983, she married a childhood friend, William Robert Jarrett, a doctor and the son of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett.
The couple had a daughter, Laura, before divorcing in 1988. (Jarrett’s ex-husband died in 1993 from a heart attack. Laura, a Harvard law school grad, is now a CNN reporter.)
Following work in private law firms, and eventually specializing in commercial real estate, Jarrett opted a job in the city of Chicago’s Law Department under Mayor Harold Washington.
She then held a series of positions under Mayor Daley. Jarrett was also Commissioner of the Planning and Development sector of Chicago city. Before leaving Chicago for the White House, she was CEO of the Habitat Co., a real estate management and development firm in Chicago.
During Jarrett’s tenure in the Obama White House, she was described as Barack Obama’s greatest defender. She is also the only White House advisor known to have joined the president in his private residence following a day’s work.
“Her position is that during the day she is staff, and at night she is a friend, and she clearly delineates between those two roles,” Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, who remains a close Jarrett friend, told The Washington Post in 2014.
During her eight years in the administration, Jarrett championed equal rights for women and girls as chair of the White House Counsel on Women and Girls. She was also Obama’s assistant for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement.
In Obama’s second term, Jarrett helped write executive actions on gun control and immigration, championed the administration’s efforts to raise the minimum wage across the country and to expand paid parental leave. She also pushed for criminal justice reform — one of the few areas where the president found bipartisan support.
Since leaving the White House in 2017, Jarrett has continued her work promoting women and girls through the United State of Women (USOW) Summit. She is also a board member of the ride-sharing app, Lyft.