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Obama Friend And Adviser Valerie Jarrett On Her Life Journey


The new memoir from Valerie Jarrett is no palace intrigue tell all. Jarrett is known as the longest-serving White House adviser in the Obama administration, and her longtime friendship with Barack and Michelle Obama is woven into their political journey. But in the book "Finding My Voice," she details her unusual biography as an African-American woman born in Iran. In 1954, her father, an Army veteran and doctor, moved there with his wife, determined not to live under Jim Crow in the U.S.

VALERIE JARRETT: There, he ceased being just a black physician. He really became an American physician. And in a sense, my parents took me over the color line because those first five years in Iran, I didn't really have any experience of discrimination or racism or anything like that. And so coming back to United States was a bit of a culture shock for me.

CORNISH: How old were you then?

JARRETT: I was 5 going on 6 and light skin, freckle-faced in a predominantly black school, public school, in Chicago in our neighborhood. And I had a British accent, and I was from a country nobody had ever heard of. It took an adjustment for me to get used to it.

CORNISH: When you talk about the idea of culture shock, is that something that kind of stuck with you after that? Because you were so young when you were abroad. I mean, did you still feel a kind of otherness when you were young in your teens and things like that?

JARRETT: I did insofar as I didn't like to talk about having been born in Iran. And if you think about it, until Carter was elected and we had the hostage crisis, most people had never heard of Iran. So it was just easier not to talk about it. And I think part of what struck me the first time I met President Obama and we had dinner, he started asking me, like, well, where are you from? I said Chicago. Where were you born? I was born in Shiraz, and I braced myself for kind of a banal conversation. And he said, well, that's interesting. And he leaned in, and he started to tell me about his life in Indonesia and what he learned from that experience. And then I opened up more about Iran. And I think the lesson I learned in that is that our stories are important. They reflect who we are. And I spent so much time trying to pretend like I was like everyone else when where I was different is my uniqueness, and it helped make me who I am.

CORNISH: You talk about the relationship that essentially blossomed with you and the Obamas as a couple, which you called admittedly unusual in some ways. And you say something to them at that dinner, which is, like, I will protect you. And have you, in a sense, become that person now for life, right? Like, you effectively have been in that job (laughter) so to speak...

JARRETT: For 28 years now.

CORNISH: ...For 28 years.

JARRETT: Well, you know what? It's also - it's mutual. I feel like they've also looked out for me. Joining his White House and having the privilege of serving all eight years, the longest senior adviser in history as far as we can tell, was such an incredible opportunity for me, and so I'm forever grateful. And I think as in all relationships, it may have started out where I was the mentor and the big sister, if you will, but in time as they grow and flourish and develop, you find that it's reciprocal. And so I have certainly gotten as much as I've given.

CORNISH: We have talked about you being the longest-running senior adviser, but it didn't come easy. You talk about Rahm Emanuel not wanting you to have a job with the White House. Later on, people talk about you being the Obama whisperer. There was this nickname floating around out there, the night stalker, like this idea that you had the ear of the Obamas in after hours and that gave you undue influence. How do you think about that now?

JARRETT: I think I came into the White House enjoying a very close relationship with both of the Obamas, and that probably made some people uncomfortable. I think there had never been a woman or an African-American in that role before. And I think it took a while for people to appreciate that what was most important to me was to be a part of the team.

CORNISH: Yeah, though, it's not the first time if you think about the idea of Bush's brain - right? - with Karl Rove or, you know, people talking about Steve Bannon for a time with this president. There is this narrative often that the adviser has more influence than they should.

JARRETT: I think that's historically quite true, and I think what President Obama did was to demonstrate through his actions that he was as interested in what the most junior staff person in the room had to say who had a good idea as he was in anything I had to say.

CORNISH: I want to move on to the issue of race. You write a lot about how it played out in the 2008 campaign for Barack Obama. He famously gave a speech on race, and you write about the idea that you didn't think the country would suddenly become post-racial but that his campaign helped us reckon with it in some way. Do you look around the current environment and feel like we have reckoned with some of the ideas he talked about?

JARRETT: We still have a long way to go. And I think, to be candid with you, there's been a lot of feeling of negative rhetoric that is not healthy and that we need to have more people who are leaders who, again, focus on what we have in common and not to...

CORNISH: But this touched on your life recently, right? I mean, you write about the Roseanne Barr incident, that you were the target of this racist tweet from her. When that touched you personally, how did you react?

JARRETT: Well, I said at the time that, look, I am - I'm fine. I'm not worried about Valerie Jarrett. I think that that was symptomatic of a much bigger problem. And I'm worried about the people who aren't able to defend themselves. And the question is when are we going to get to the point in our country - and maybe this gets at your question - where we're not talking at each other but we're taking the chance to actually listen and get to know one another? That's where the racial healing comes from. I remember when President Obama created the 21st Century Task Force on Policing.

CORNISH: Do you mind if I bring it back to you? Because I think that this is, like, this moment where we are getting to understand who you are outside of the Obamas. And in the book, you wrote about how even you and your mother had a heart-to-heart about this moment, and you had an area of disagreement. Can you talk about that?

JARRETT: My mother and I come from different generations, and we also are just temperamentally different. I always see the glass half full; she sees it half empty. And so the conversation we had from our perspectives was given everything that's going on in our country today, where do we come out? And I talked about the kids from Parkland and I talked about the #MeToo movement and I talked about the marches and the people who are fighting for civil rights. And she talked about some of the nasty rhetoric and many of the accomplishments of the Obama administration being reversed. And in the end of the conversation, she said to me - and this is, I suppose, your point - she said the difference between us is that you think we're almost at the mountaintop. And I think we're dangling over the precipice.

And I thought about that conversation a lot, and I thought about it after the midterm elections. And I went back to her, and I said, see? Look what happened. People actually came out, and their voices mattered. And then she pointed to some of the negative rhetoric that's happened even since then. And I closed the book with saying I think we're both right. Change takes time. It takes a lot of hard work. I remember when one of my best days in the administration was the day when the marriage equality decision came down. And yes, it felt like a thunderbolt of equality, but you can't forget that it took decades of people working really hard to make that day possible.

And I think sometimes we think it's easy and that change happens on the drop of a dime. And to those who are suffering under the existing situation, it seems so unfair that change doesn't happen faster. And I just would invite everybody to recognize that if we all do our part, it will happen faster. But it does take far longer than it should.

CORNISH: Well, Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JARRETT: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Valerie Jarrett's memoir is called "Finding My Voice." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.