According to Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas, a new book on the First Couple, Chicagoan Valerie Jarrett (right) has “dedicated her entire life” to Michelle and Barack.
Last week, I posted a Q&A with Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas, a new book about the First Couple. In the interview, which was a continuation of the edited transcript that ran in the January issue of Chicago, the New York Times reporter told me about her encounters with the First Family and what Laura Bush said to Michelle Obama during her tour of the White House. Below is the final part of the conversation, in which Kantor discusses key Chicago figures such as Valerie Jarrett and Desirée Rogers, Barack’s time at Columbia University, and Michelle’s secret trips to Petco and Target.
CF: You were an undergraduate at Columbia University, as was the president. Do you ever compare notes?
JK: No. His undergraduate time at Columbia remains one of the great mysteries of his biography. Only a handful of people from Columbia remember him, and, those who do, remember him faintly. His time at Columbia seems to have been very monastic. This comes back to something that is a real theme in the book, which is that he’s a fairly solitary figure…. He generally has dinner with his family at 6:30. After dinner, he spends a little bit of time with his family, but then he works. He goes into the Treaty Room, which is his private office at the White House. It’s a real working office. The Oval Office is a little like a stage set. The Treaty Room has a computer and a printer, and it has a TV where he’ll put the basketball game on in the background. He makes a lot of really important presidential decisions there. It’s the opposite of Bill Clinton, who would pick up the phone at one in the morning and call somebody.
CF: Is Michelle eager to get out and campaign this time?
JK: Campaigning has not always been her favorite thing, but she feels really strongly about him being reelected, and she’s really competitive and…. she is ready to fight for his reelection.
CF: The stories of Michelle sneaking out to Target or Petco—does she do more of that than we know?
JK: Absolutely. Both Obamas are constantly looking for ways to escape the life that they worked so hard to attain. The First Lady has much more freedom than the president does. [He] is a virtual prisoner…. He holds the nation’s nuclear codes, but he can’t go get a cup of coffee…. In the book you will see that escape is a constant theme.
CF: I know the First Lady loves to shop. What does she do about that?
JK: I do know that she does shop online and that she uses a credit card registered in somebody else’s name and an off-site delivery address to prevent tampering.
CF: What’s the deal on Valerie Jarrett? The consensus seems to be that she’s not terribly effective.
JK: She is the only person who is integrated into every aspect of the First Lady and president’s lives. She’s a senior adviser in the West Wing. She is Michelle Obama’s closest adviser. She is a family friend. She goes on vacations with them…. [Her work for them ranges] from extremely high level to extremely everyday tasks. I have seen Valerie talk to potential Secretaries of State on the telephone, and I’ve also heard about her calling restaurant managers: “The First Lady is coming in tonight, and we expect no gossip items about it.”
CF: Will Valerie stay if there is a second term?
JK: Absolutely. I don’t think Valerie’s ever leaving. Valerie sold her apartment in Chicago, and she has really dedicated her entire life to the Obamas. There are some people in Washington who see her as a hanger-on, but I also think there is something very self-sacrificing about what Valerie has done for them. She has thrown her entire life into their cause, and she’s made it very clear that she would happily run in front of a speeding truck for them…. There is also something very maternal about her attitude toward them, and her willingness to do anything for them reminds me very much of a mother’s attitude. She has taken the president’s and First Lady’s success as the defining mission of her being.
CF: Jarrett has been roundly criticized for failing in her role as the president’s liaison to the business community. The speculation is that Bill Daley was brought in as Obama’s chief of staff to do that job. Is that fair to Jarrett?
JK: Sometimes, when you look at an adviser’s failings or perceived failings, I think the tough question you have to ask as a journalist is, “What does this say about the president?” On the one hand, there is the anger toward Wall Street and the feeling of unfairness that so many people have, and on the other hand, [the question of how to] maintain a healthy productive relationship with business leaders. How does he balance that task, and what does he think about some of the really difficult questions that people are asking these days? It’s almost too easy to blame Valerie or Bill Daley or anybody else.
CF: Desirée Rogers is back in Chicago. Why did her time as White House Social Secretary end so badly?
JK: Part of the Desiree story is really about Michelle Obama’s learning curve as First Lady. Back in November 2008, when she didn’t really know anything about what White House life is really like, she thought Desiree Rogers would be a fabulous choice to be the social secretary. And then it turns out, as I think Desiree herself would admit, that [Rogers] wasn’t always suited to that environment. In some ways one of the most interesting things about that story is the idea that Michelle Obama could ever have thought that Desiree Rogers would fit in in Washington. I don’t think Valerie had a clearer sense of the social secretary role than anybody else did. [The Social Secretary] must be extremely diplomatic, never tell anybody what [she] really thinks, blend in, not take chances. And that’s just not Desiree Rogers.
GO: Kantor will be in Chicago next week to promote the book, appearing in a conversation with WBEZ’s Steve Edwards at 6 p.m. on January 17 at the Harold Washington Library Center.
Photography: (Jarrett) Chicago Tribune