Valerie Jarrett enjoys role as Obama confidant

Don’t expect a drawn-out conversation when someone mentions to Valerie Jarrett that she is the first African American woman to be intricately involved in a successful U.S. presidential race.

Don’t expect a drawn-out conversation when someone mentions to Valerie Jarrett that she is the first African American woman to be intricately involved in a successful U.S. presidential race.

The long-time friend of Michelle and President-Elect Barack Obama simply paused for a couple of seconds and said, “Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. My focus was on him (Obama). That is how I serve him best.”

Jarrett so believed in her friend’s bid for the presidency that she took a leave of absence from her job as chief executive officer of the Chicagobased Habitat (a real estate development and management company) to work with and travel with him on his campaign. She is often described as one of his closest advisers.

In that unique role of confidante and counsel, Jarrett was awed by some of the events that transpired during the campaign.

One of the more poignant moments occurred last February in the second day of a two-day stay in Austin, Texas, where Sen. Obama and the other contenders held a primary election debate.

She related that an “older Black gentleman” was the elevator operator at their hotel and when they were leaving he said, “Excuse me senator. I want to give you something.”

Jarrett said: “Of course we all looked over to see what it was, and it was his military patch. He said, ‘Sen. Obama I would like for you to have this. I have carried it with me everyday for 40 years. It has provided me great strength and inspiration, gave me faith and I want you to have it for your journey.’”

Jarrett recalled asking Obama: “How do you deal with that kind of extraordinary act of unselfishness and generosity and well-wishing from your supporters? And he pulled out of his pocket about 10-12 other trinkets people had given him along the campaign trail and told me the story behind each and everyone who had given it to him and what it meant to the person, the circumstances around it, why he kept it in his pocket. And he said, ‘These are the hopes and dreams of people I want to represent and we’re out here fighting for them, and these extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity are because people are so tired of the old way of doing things. We have shown them there is another way, and they are so hungry for that way, they’re willing to part with these lifelong treasured possessions.’”

She added, “Sen. Obama has touched way behind the surface. He has touched people all the way to their core, and he has an extraordinary ability to bring out the best in people – to make people lean toward the good in themselves.”

Jarrett, former chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Chicago Medical Center, is confident this kind of connection between the candidate and the public will be the hallmark of his presidency. She said it’s not just African Americans but people of all ethnic backgrounds who have been and will continue to be inspired by Obama’s messages.

“I think the tone of his presidency will be one that recognizes the value of diversity and we can learn from people who are not exactly like us. He just changes the paradigm completely, not just in politics, but in the media as well.

“Look at the cable shows. We’re seeing a lot more people of color as commentators on the cable shows since this began because they recognized there is a whole diverse audience out there with a keen interest in politics. It (the campaign) opens up all kinds of doors. It is about inclusion, and that is the bedrock of this campaign.”

Meanwhile, Obama opted to take on the issue of race and inclusion last March after a sermon on the United States by his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, was roundly criticized across the nation.

Some of the language, considered a condemnation of the country, was associated with Obama, although he was not at the church when the sermon was delivered. For days, political pundits, talk show hosts and newspaper columnists called upon Obama to disassociate himself from Wright, the sermon and Trinity.

Obama decided to use Convention Hall in Philadelphia as a backdrop to deliver a speech that many observers deemed the most significant speech on race in decades.

“That was probably the defining moment in the campaign that I will always treasure – was listening to Barack giving his speech in Philadelphia on race,” Jarrett said. “Because given the circumstances of the preceding few days, his campaign could have abruptly ended if he couldn’t have helped everybody understand, and not only just the role of race in his life, but the role of race in our society.

“That is a speech I will never forget. I remember sitting there listening to him deliver it and being so extraordinarily proud that he had the intellect and the ability and the extraordinary command of language that he could find the words to deliver such an important speech at that time – given everything that was going on at that time.”

The Philadelphia speech epitomized the grace-under-pressure attitude that has come to define Obama. His campaign scored an unexpected and monumental victory in the Iowa caucuses after the Philadelphia speech, but that was followed a week later by a trouncing in the New Hampshire primary.

Jarrett recalled that immediately after the New Hampshire primary that both Obamas told their inner circle, “No one said this would be easy. We knew it was a long shot. Iowa was terrific, and we just have to re-double our efforts in Nevada and South Carolina.”

The former deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley, Jarrett, is confident that the resiliency Obama has demonstrated will be inspirational during his presidency.

“Sen. Obama is not one to wallow in defeat, quite the contrary. He just shakes it off, learns from it and kicks it up a notch,” Jarrett said. “That’s the way he’s lived his life. His father abandoned him at the age of 2, his mom had him at 18 and there was a period of time where his mother was forced to accept food stamps. His mom called upon her parents to help raise him.

“There were many forks in the road where he could have accepted defeat, and he just didn’t. He has always been one to just persevere and accept personal responsibility for his life.

“This is not something that began with this campaign. He accepts personal responsibility, but he doesn’t accept defeat. That’s part of what defines him as a human being. When he lost to (U.S. Rep) Bobby Rush, he didn’t say he would steer clear of politics or be satisfied in the state senate. What did he do? He doubled down. I love that spirit."

“It is a wonderful role model for so many people around our country who need a positive role model and particularly for African American children who need a positive role model.

“Just the fact we haven’t had an African American president before. We haven’t had a role model of this extraordinary form of success. So many children grow up with a single mom raising them, struggling to make ends meet. And to see someone who did it is truly inspirational.”

Furthermore, Jarrett said, “He didn’t complain or didn’t make excuses. He just worked hard everyday to achieve and has achieved the highest office in the land. What kind of message will that send to so many children? And it will be cool to be in government again. He’s cool. People will look up to him and say ‘Oh you know what, maybe I should work in government, be in public service, and give something back to the community.’ Government may be appreciated and valued again as it was when John F. Kennedy was president.”

Jarrett said there are countless moments from the campaign that left indelible impressions besides the Philadelphia speech, including the speech Obama gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday observance.

“It was an extraordinary moment for me, the sense of history, and opportunity and hope–that legacy,” she said.

While the campaign understandably has focused on Obama the politician, Jarrett is quick to note that for Obama, being a husband and a father is what truly defines him.

She added his willingness to leave his campaign and visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii as a testament that “he has his priorities in the right place.

“Grandmas all over the country were cheering him on.”

______ Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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