During the eight tumultuous years of the Obama presidency, anyone would have killed to have a chair “in the room where it happens,” to quote one of the best numbers in the Broadway smash Hamilton. Among the very few people who can lay claim to that privilege is Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama.
Sitting in her office at the White House, a few months before the Administration would vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Jarrett spoke to The Advocate with undimmed pleasure of the moment she heard word of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage the law of the land. That morning, the president was preparing a eulogy to be delivered in Charleston for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney (a victim of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church), so, in many ways, the day would encapsulate three dominant themes of his time in office: LGBT rights, gun violence, and the well-being of black communities confronted with trigger-happy cops and homegrown terrorists like Dylann Roof.
“It was a Friday, and we were sitting in the chief of staff’s office in our morning meeting, and my assistant came in with a note that said, ‘Marriage equality came down today, five to four,’ ” Jarrett recalls. “We jump up and everyone’s screaming, and I go running down to the Oval Office to tell the president, and he’s not there, so I go wandering back to Denis’s [McDonough, chief of staff] office, and Denis goes, ‘Well, did you call him?’ So I call him, and I say, ‘Sir,’ and he says, ‘What?’ and I could tell from his voice that he was busy, and I said, ‘Sorry to interrupt you, but the marriage equality decision came down, five to four.’ And there was a pause, and he said, ‘Who won?’ And I said, ‘We did!’ and he said, ‘Well, then it’s a really good day—I’ll be right down.’ ”
As Jarrett is talking, the telltale whir of blades is slicing through the air outside as a helicopter takes off from the lawn. “Sorry, my boss is leaving,” Jarrett says, and we pause until the sound dies away again. Jarrett recalls the climax of the day on June 26, 2015, returning to the White House in that same helicopter after Obama’s historic speech in Charleston, as the sun set and the White House lit up in the colors of the rainbow flag. “It was an iconic image that will go down in history as symbolic of what this White House is all about,” she says. “To be able to have that rainbow on this White House sends a message—not just to the LGBT community but to all people around this country—about what’s possible.”
The Advocate: You’ve been at the White House for eight tumultuous years. Did you anticipate that much opposition from Congress?
Valerie Jarrett: No. I will say that change is always difficult. There are entrenched forces in maintaining the status quo, and in this town those sources are well-funded, so we knew that it would be challenging. Where I underestimated the opposition was how willing Republicans in Congress would be to put their short-term political interests ahead of what they knew was good for their country. That was extremely disappointing.
You’ve known the president for 25 years. Do you remember the first time you had a conversation about LGBT rights?
It’s something that, in a sense, I took for granted because we share values about our country—that everyone should be treated equally, and that “everyone” means everyone. His commitment coming into office was to ensure that we did everything within our power to provide that pressure toward justice and ensuring LGBT citizens were treated the same as everyone else. It’s reflected in one of the earliest pieces of legislation he signed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd hate-crimes bill. It’s stunning to me that we didn’t have that piece of legislation on the books already, but he was very proud to sign that right away.
On marriage equality, the president has talked about his evolution on the issue. Did you have to evolve in the same direction?
My view has always been that marriage means love, and an excellent way of describing your love for another person is to make that permanent commitment. So it’s something I always embraced. I think the president was very influenced not only by his friends but by his children as they described the parents of their friends and couldn’t understand why they would have been treated differently. What influenced me was growing up in a neighborhood like Hyde Park in Chicago, where my closest friends in elementary school and high school represented every income stratum, every sexual orientation, every faith and religion.
You grew up in Iran. What influence did that have on your perspective?
I had this conversation with the president the first time I met him—me having been born in Iran and living there until I was 5, and the president having spent some of his formative years in Indonesia. Both countries have cultures very different from our own. I think it taught us both a couple of things: one, that people are people and you can find something in common with people all over the world; and two, that the United States is the greatest country on Earth, but it’s not the only country on Earth, and you can still learn a great deal from other countries and cultures. So we both have a certain openness to learn and to be intellectually and emotionally curious, which comes from having lived outside the United States and seen it from afar.
Being part of such an inclusive administration, how have you felt about the upsurge in hateful rhetoric?
What technology has afforded us is an opportunity to see, very visually, some of the feelings and beliefs that were there all along. So consider, for example, that we’ve captured on video the tragic deaths of many African-American youths—that’s not actually surprising in the African-American community, but to the broader community, that’s quite stunning. Fortunately, we’ve seen an outpouring of support for change from a diverse racial body, and I think that’s very healthy and good. And the fact that African Americans are having the conversation they have to have with their children is something that was kept quite private before. So I think that’s a good education for people to understand—that African Americans are used to having to be much more cautious, particularly African-American men, in their interactions with the police. Even though the vast majority of people who are in law enforcement are doing their very best, you’re still afraid of that exception to the rule that could have devastating consequences. A good example of the president’s leadership is that remarkable speech he gave in Charleston, and being able to educate the public about the black church and what it stands for, and how its door is open, always, despite a history of attack. I think it reflects the progress that we’ve made as a country that he was elected not once but twice. Change is very messy and painful, but what he has taught so many of us is how to stay true to our values, take the long view, absorb a lot of pain along the way, and keep trying to move our country forward. And that we’re in this together.
You talked about the conversation that many African-American families have to have with their children. Is that a conversation your parents had to have with you?
They didn’t have the conversation with me because it’s normally directed at African-American men, but I did have an experience in my life when I was about 10 or 11. My mom and I were driving together through our neighborhood, and we observed a police car that had pulled over a couple of our neighbors, and my mom stopped the car, and she said, “I have to go over and talk to that policeman and let him know they live in this neighborhood.” And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I don’t know what might happen to them if I don’t.” I was stunned because I didn’t have any appreciation for why she felt that way, and she went over and introduced herself, and the police were harassing them for not having IDs. When she got back in the car, she said, “That’s my responsibility as a parent in this neighborhood—to ensure that all of our children are safe.” So she validated them, and they needed that. That was my awakening into this disparity that exists in communities of color.
You worked for Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago. What was your takeaway from that experience?
I joined city government from a big law firm when Harold Washington was mayor. He was the first African-American mayor of Chicago, who came in with a progressive and unifying agenda, and he was met with an enormous amount of resistance in his first term because he didn’t have a majority in the city council. I joined at the beginning of his second term because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself and to give back to the city I loved. Three months after I joined, he died, but I decided my life was far more rewarding in the public sector than it had been in the law firm. So I stayed through Mayor Sawyer and then Mayor Daley, and that’s actually where I met Michelle Obama.
One of the criticisms leveled at Daley has been excessive use of force by the police department.
That’s something that predates Mayor Daley, I can assure you—that’s a part of the challenging legacy of Chicago.
You’ve also been a strong advocate for greater gun control.
There’s a strong body of evidence that shows that the more diligent we are in ensuring that guns are in the appropriate hands, the safer our communities will be. One of our largest disappointments over the last eight years has been the inability to move the Republicans in Congress to take those very sensible steps, so it’s forced the president to do by executive order what he can do within his authority. Particularly in the face of Newtown, the fact that the Republicans simply failed to act and let the NRA continue that stranglehold is impossible to understand.
Let’s return to the day your mother got out of the car and walked over to the police. In what way are you your parents’ daughter?
Just about every way, I’m proud to say. I was very lucky—I grew up with two parents who loved each other and gave me unconditional love. They set high expectations for me, and they gave me an infinite amount of support. So I stand on their shoulders; I follow their example in every way. I take such pride in being part of this historic presidency, and I’m going through the painful stages of grief right now that it’s coming to an end. But what still motivates us all is knowing that tomorrow we still have the opportunity to be here, so we’re maximizing everything we do with the remaining time, and, as the president says, important things happen right before the buzzer rings in the fourth quarter. We’re looking forward to crossing the finishing line at 180 miles an hour.