Former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett’s autobiography, “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward,” takes readers on her journey to the White House and beyond. She shared her story before a packed sanctuary at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in a conversation with former White House colleague and friend Anita Dunn.
Dunn, who was senior adviser to both of Barack Obama’s campaigns and his White House communications director, is now managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a D.C. public affairs agency where Jarrett also is a consultant. A sit-down between work colleagues, who are also close friends, meant there were not going to be any “gotcha” questions during the April 8 chat.
Jarrett recalled her daughter Laura interviewing her in September 2016 for a Story Corps oral history project, during which she asked her mother, “What would you tell a 30-year-old Valerie Jarrett?”
Jarrett thought that was an interesting question and felt she had a lot to say to her 30-year-old self. It wasn’t until after the 2016 election, however, when she had time on her hands, that she really focused on a book.
“Well, why not tell my story?” she told the Sixth & I audience. “It was a zig and a zag. It was not a straight line. I learned very early the advantages of enjoying the adventure.”
Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, to accomplished parents. Her father, James Bowman, was a specialist in pathology, hematology and genetics who managed a hospital in Shiraz while her mother, Barbara Taylor Bowman, is an American early childhood education expert, advocate, professor and author.
After graduating from law school and starting her career, Jarrett married and had a daughter, but later got divorced and found herself a single parent.
Bored in her law firm job, she took a leap of faith. She went to work for then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, her first government job. When escorted to her cubicle on that first day at work, Jarrett had a gut check.
“I thought, ‘what in the world are you doing?’” she remembers saying to herself while looking out a window from her cubicle, which offered a view of an alley and another building. “I thought about it for not more than a split-second and said, ‘this is where I belong.’”
Jarrett paid her political and business dues in Chicago. She moved out of the political arena to be CEO at the Habitat Company, a real estate development and management company. Her close friendship with then-Illinois Sen. Obama and his wife Michelle drew her back into politics to work on the Obama presidential campaign.
When Obama won his first term, Jarrett was appointed to be his White House senior adviser for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.
Dunn asked Jarrett what surprised her most about coming to Washington.
“Not a surprise, more like a disappointment,” Jarrett said. “When the country was going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, people were willing to put their short-term political interests ahead of what was best for the country.”
When asked what was the best moment during the eight years of the Obama administration, Jarrett replied the night in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act came to a vote. She was at home but was called back to the White House by the president, who wanted to celebrate with his staff that worked very hard on the legislation.
While at the White House on the Truman Balcony, Jarrett asked the president how he felt that night compared to winning the election in 2008.
“There’s no comparison,” Jarrett recounted Obama saying. “Election night was simply the means to get to this night. This was not about me. This is what we could do with that election for the American people.”
In that moment, Jarrett thought, “That’s why I work for you.”