WASHINGTON – Since the election of Donald Trump, Valerie Jarrett, the big sister, confidante and adviser to Barack and Michelle Obama – a relationship spawned in Chicago’s City Hall – has been “going through the five stages of grief, sometimes all five in the same day.”
That’s at the end of Jarrett’s memoir, “Finding My Voice, My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” released on Tuesday. The book is a mix of policy, politics and the personal, from her privileged upbringing to her painful divorce.
Jarrett’s story is rich in African American and Chicago history even before a young Michelle Robinson, her fiancé Barack and Jarrett all clicked at a fateful first dinner years ago.
Jarrett, 62, was born in Iran. Her parents, Barbara Taylor Bowman and James Edward Bowman, a doctor, moved there because opportunities were limited in the U.S. for African American physicians.
The Bowmans moved to England when she was 5 and a year later to Chicago.
Her mother co-founded the Erikson Institute in Chicago and is a nationally known early childhood educator. Jarrett’s late father was the first tenured African American faculty member in medicine at the University of Chicago.
Jarrett’s maternal great grandfather, architect Robert Robinson Taylor, was the first black to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Her grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, worked with Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck executive, philanthropist and civil rights pioneer, and raised his family at what became known as the Rosenwald Courts Apartments at 46th and South Michigan Avenue, desperately needed housing for African Americans in segregated Chicago.
In 1941, Taylor became the first African American to chair the Chicago Housing Authority. His name, to the dismay of the family, was later slapped on the now demolished South Side CHA buildings that turned into high-rise segregated slums.
Jarrett, in the White House from Obama’s first day to his last, remains an adviser to the Obamas in their post presidency.
She kicked off her book tour this week, selling her memoir at events featuring a conversation with a friend. It’s a format successfully used by Michelle Obama with her best-selling memoir, “Becoming;” Jarrett on occasion has been one of her interviewers. Jarrett hits Chicago on Thursday.
On Thursday night, at KAM Isaiah Israel, 5039 S. Greenwood, Jarrett will discuss her life with her daughter, Laura, a CNN reporter, and Tina Tchen, Mrs. Obama’s White House chief of staff.
KAM is across the street from the Obama’s Chicago home and down the block from the Bowman house. On Friday she will be interviewed by longtime friend and neighbor John Rogers at the Union League Club, and later she talks with another first lady chief of staff, Susan Sher, at an event at 935 W. Wilson sponsored by Women & Children First bookstore.
Jarrett went to City Hall to work for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and decided to stay on with Mayor Richard Daley. That’s when, in 1991, Sher sent Jarrett the resume of one Michelle Robinson.
Before taking Jarrett’s job offer, Michelle wanted her fiancé to meet Jarrett. The rest is history.
In the book:
- When pressed to meet with Michelle’s fiancé, Jarrett blurted out “Who the hell is your fiancé, and why do we care what he thinks?” Michelle replied, “His name is Barack Obama and he thinks the mayor’s office could be a dangerous place to work.”
- “Possibly the strangest of my strange-bedfellow relationships was with Mark Holden, general counsel to Koch Industries,” with the Koch’s bankrolling GOP opposition to Obama. But they formed an alliance on criminal justice issues.
- Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, “let off steam by screaming … He never actually yelled at me, but I found it hard to watch him make so many others squirm.”
- While going through menopause, Jarrett writes how Obama adjusted the temperature in his car. “If I was riding with him and a hot flash exploded, he simply turned up the air conditioning and handed me his handkerchief, without saying a word or even looking in my direction. He just knew.”
- I make a cameo in the book, when Jarrett recounts Obama’s 2009 press conference where I asked about the arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. and what it said about race relations in America. In his reply, Obama said the police acted “stupidly.” “That one word drove the negative reaction. But the president had to answer Lynn Sweet’s question, and he gave his honest opinion, not some PR spin.”