For more conversations like this, subscribe to “Cape UP” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

Eleven years ago this week, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) pulled off what seemed impossible. He became the first African American elected president of the United States. Remember that night? Remember his inauguration and what his presidency would mean to our nation and the world? What a time. And right there with Obama and his family was Valerie Jarrett.

The latest episode of “Cape Up” is my sit-down with Jarrett at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June about her book “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.” One of the best vignettes in the book involves the first time she met a young woman named Michelle Robinson. Jarrett was so taken by her that she offered her a job in the Chicago mayor’s office right on the spot. But when Robinson told her days later that her fiance didn’t think it was a good idea to take the offered job in city government, Jarrett writes that she said, “Who the hell is your fiance and why do we care what he thinks?” Robinson’s fiance was a community organizer named Barack Obama.

“I’m not proud, but I did say it,” Jarrett said to laughter. “And I did wonder it, too.” Everything worked out beyond anyone’s imagination. Jarrett writes about her years in the White House, but the meat of her book and our conversation was about the years before she came to Washington.

“I was painfully shy,” she told me from the stage of Belly Up in Aspen, Colo. “Maybe it’s because we moved around so much when I was a kid, and I kind of played in my own little fantasy world, and I was insecure because each time I got plopped down somewhere, I had to adjust to it.” Jarrett was born in Iran, where her father, James Bowman, was a doctor.

AD
AD

“He could not find a job at a major teaching hospital in a position that would be comparable to his white counterparts,” Jarrett explained. “And so, after much due diligence and searching, he landed a job offer chairing the department of pathology, and helping to start a brand new hospital in Shiraz, Iran.” After they moved to England, research Bowman presented caught the attention of the dean of the University of Chicago Medical Center. A tenure-track position there brought Jarrett and her parents home to Chicago. Jarrett’s mother, Barbara Bowman, is a Chicago native who still teaches graduate school in early childhood development at age 91. The accomplishments of Jarrett’s mom and dad are not the beginning of her historic lineage, which I brought up during the interview.

Jarrett’s great-great-grandfather was one of the first black legislators voted into the Louisiana House of Representatives during Reconstruction. Her great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor, whose father had been a slave, was the first black student to attend MIT. Taylor went on to become the first African American accredited to be an architect. When I mentioned that Taylor was hired by Booker T. Washington to build some of the buildings at the Tuskegee Institute, there was an audible gasp from the audience. Jarrett’s grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, was a businessman who graduated from the University of Illinois and later became the chair of the Chicago Housing Authority. The infamous Robert Taylor Homes were named after him.

“Not our proudest moment as a family, I could say,” Jarrett told me.

AD
AD

Another difficult moment we talked about was Jarrett’s failed marriage, which she writes about with unflinching honesty. “I thought it was important to be open about it because when it didn’t work …, I felt like a failure. And I don’t want people to feel that way about marriages that don’t work. You’d give it your best and if it doesn’t work, then that’s okay and you learn from it,” she told me. “There is nothing lonelier than an unhappy marriage.”

But there was a bright side. “I realize my failed marriage was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Jarrett said. “Having my daughter was by far the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life. And having her and looking at this child made me really question everything.” Everything, including her career. She left a prestigious law firm to go into city government in Chicago. By the way, her child grew up to be CNN correspondent and anchor Laura Jarrett, also a fallen-away attorney.

Listen to the podcast to hear Jarrett talk more about her friendship with the Obamas, her struggles as a single mother, her advice to the next generation of women who are juggling career and family and what she thinks of the 2020 Democratic presidential field.

“Whoever emerges as the nominee for the Democratic Party, I’m gonna get behind and work 1,000 percent because they’re all better than what we have now, every one of them.” she said.

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

AD
AD