How Valerie Jarrett went from wallflower to Obama whisperer

Obama's former senior advisor said women need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and take risks; that’s when progress and growth happen.
Former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett speaks to Mika Brzezinski at Temple Emanu-El's Streicker Center in New York City on Tuesday.
Former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett speaks to Mika Brzezinski at Temple Emanu-El's Streicker Center in New York City on Tuesday.Anthony Scutro

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By Julianne Pepitone

Dubbed the “ultimate Obama insider,” Valerie Jarrett made history as the longest-serving presidential senior advisor. And in her new memoir, she shares her journey not only as a public servant during those eight years — but also as a business leader, lawyer and single mother.

In “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” Jarrett traces her personal history from her childhood in Iran to the White House and beyond. The book also details her push for gender equality and civil rights, and recounts how she learned her value and was able to overcome her natural timidity.

In fact, Jarrett was a “painfully shy” child, she told “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski on Wednesday. She recalled blushing when a teacher would call on her in school and being terrified about public speaking when she got older.

“I overcame it by trial and error and keeping at it,” Jarrett said, adding that one of her first public speeches made her sweat so much she smeared her notes. “But I did it again and again and again, and I got over it. Sometimes we shy away from getting out of our comfort zone, and I got shoved out of my comfort zone.”

Women, she said, need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and take risks; that’s when progress and growth happen.

“Early in my life when I was shy, I was kind of clinging to the safety of a plan I made in college,” Jarrett said. But she got lessons in risk-taking at a young age: She spent the first four years of her life in Iran with her parents. They made the move in the mid-50s after Jarrett’s father, an African-American physician, couldn’t find a job in the U.S. that paid him a salary equal to his white counterparts.

Her father accepted a job at a new hospital opening in Shiraz, Iran (where Jarrett was born) as head of the pathology department.

Her family didn’t speak the language and had never previously traveled further than Europe, but they were excited to take the risk. It paid off: Jarrett’s father did groundbreaking work that ultimately attracted the University of Chicago, which recruited him to become the school’s first black tenured professor.

It goes to show that the safe plan isn’t always best, Jarrett said. “Sometimes the shortest distance you want to go is the longest one around” to your goal.

In Jarrett’s case, she planned to be a lawyer for her entire career. She started in a deputy counsel role in Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s office in 1987, and afterward went on to serve as chief of staff for Mayor Richard Daley.

That’s when she met and hired Michelle Robinson — the future Michelle Obama — who was looking to move away from a law firm into public service. Jarrett offered her a job on the spot, even though she didn’t have the authority to do so.

But Michelle demurred, saying her fiancé wasn’t sure about her jump.

“I said, ‘Well, who’s your fiancé, and why do we care what he thinks?’” Jarrett said. Michelle told her about Barack and “she explained that ‘He has some concerns; would you have dinner with us?’ And boy, am I glad I said yes!”

Jarrett became a close family confidante to the future Obamas, and nearly two decades later, on January 29, 2009, she became senior advisor to the president.

Besides discussing her book, Jarrett weighed in on the 2020 presidential race and allegations women have made against Vice President Joe Biden over unwanted physical contact.

“Morning Joe” co-anchor Willie Geist asked Jarrett if she thinks it’s important to have a woman on top of the Democratic ticket.

“I’m not prepared to say right now it has to be a woman,” Jarrett responded. “I want whoever wins to be someone who cares about gender equality and is prepared to fight for women, and I think so far everyone in the field has made that an important part of their agenda.” She added it’s “too soon” for her to have a favorite candidate, adding that Obama trailed Hillary Clinton by about 20 points when the 2008 election was this far out.

On the allegations against Biden, Jarrett said she has always known the former vice president to be respectful to and supportive of women but also that women who make allegations should be heard.