Valerie Jarrett reflects on White House journey
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With the sun setting on her eight years as White House senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett is looking toward the future.
“It’s been extraordinary,” Jarrett, 59, said of her birds-eye view of history, in an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’ve had the most phenomenal privilege of serving our country that is way beyond my wildest dreams.”
Jarrett spoke on the eve of a Saturday visit for “An Evening With Valerie Jarrett,” at the Art Institute of Chicago; the event is a fundraiser for HistoryMakers, an oral history project.
President Barack Obama’s confidante was to be interviewed by radio journalist Michele Norris; the event will be recorded by the Public Broadcasting Service for future airing.
“When President Obama asked me to join his administration, I was not hesitant,” she said.
“I was the president/CEO of the Habitat Co. I was chairman of the University of Chicago Medical Center board. I was on a number of corporate and not-for-profit boards. My family was here in Chicago, so it was a huge change for me. But I never hesitated.”
Jarrett briefly considered seeking appointment to Obama’s U.S. Senate seat after his 2008 election — the same seat former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted of attempting to sell.
“There was a moment there where I considered whether I wanted to take his place in the Senate,” she said. “I quickly discarded that idea, in large part due to both the president and first lady’s persuasive ability.”
Her excitement grows about returning to Chicago after the November election — to her aging mother, to her daughter and son-in-law, to perhaps becoming a grandparent.
“I will stay through the transition,” said Jarrett, a lawyer and businesswoman who heads the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
“One of the extraordinary strengths of our country is how seamlessly we transition from one president to another. President Bush and his team were extraordinarily professional in their transition to us. We fully intend to afford the next president that same respect.
“Then I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep — more like three months’ sleep. I look forward to coming home to my family and friends. Without their love and support, I would not have been able to do what I’ve done. Now they’re due my undivided attention.”
Chicago-based HistoryMakers maintains a renowned archive of oral histories of prominent African-Americans, acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress in 2014. Founder Julieanna Richardson announced a new initiative with a dozen Ivy League and elite colleges granting students and scholars access to newly searchable archives.
Jarrett’s oral history was compiled in 2006, among more than 1,000. Born in Shiraz, Iran — where her physician father ran a hospital — Jarrett was coaxed from private practice to city government in 1987.
She served under two Chicago mayors — Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley — before rejoining the corporate world in 2005.
“Joining Harold Washington’s administration … changed my life completely,” said Jarrett. “When Mayor Daley promoted me to deputy chief of staff, I recruited Michele Robinson, now [Michele] Obama. She told me she and her fiancé were hesitant, and would I join them for dinner. I did. The rest is history.”
How does Jarrett believe history will judge Obama’s administration?
“Never in our lifetime was there an economic crisis of the magnitude we went through when this president took office,” she said of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“To see our unemployment rate go from 10 percent down to 5; 20 million people receive health care; the ending of two wars; the revitalization of an automobile industry that was on the brink of collapse. That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Jarrett insisted.
She declined to comment on some of the Congressional slights and roadblocks to this presidency that some have attributed to racism.
“I’ll say this. From day one, Senate [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell said his number-one objective was to ensure President Obama was not re-elected,” she said. “And each and every day since then, we have seen the Republicans put what they consider to be their short-term political interests ahead of what’s good for our country.”
Despite all that is wrong with Washington, Jarrett has no regrets.
“Some of the worst moments of my life happened during these eight years. I’ve experienced both good times and hard times,” she said.
“But there hasn’t been a single moment, a single day, that I regretted giving him my total support, not a single day that I regretted accepting his amazing offer to join him on this historic journey.”