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Life in Obama’s Entourage

Footsie with David Axelrod on Air Force One. A Saudi briefcase full of gems. Helicopter fly-bys of the Washington Monument. Former presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett reveals what life was like in the White House.

Obama and Jarrett exit a charter plane in Chicago in 2008 after attending the National Governors Association meeting in Philadelphia,   Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

It was in 1991, while deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard Daley, that Valerie Jarrett hired a young lawyer named Michelle Robinson and became her mentor. Robinson would eventually marry Barack Obama, of course, and when he took office as U.S. president in 2009, Obama brought Jarrett in as a top adviser. In this excerpt from her new book, Jarrett talks about some of the perks and jaw-dropping experiences that came with traveling in the president’s inner circle.

 

The title of senior adviser to the president of the United States came with a host of responsibilities, but it also came with some incredible opportunities. Perhaps the most fascinating was that senior advisors, as well as the chief of staff, were able to travel with the president whenever we thought it appropriate.

And so, in the course of eight years, I attended state dinners at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth, and I luxuriated in the millions of flower petals covering the Rashtrapati Bhavan palace grounds in New Delhi, India; I devoured a “feast for a king” that King Abdullah of Jordan delivered to President Obama and his traveling party when we toured the ancient city of Petra, and I climbed the stairs to the Great Wall of China against a frigidly cold wind; I flew to Oslo, Sweden, for the failed attempt to secure the Olympic Games for the United States, and back again for the festivities when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; I rode with the Obama family late one night up the winding road in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that had been shut down in order for them to see the Christ the Redeemer statue emerge from a dense fog; I stood silently with the president in Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island; I toured Goree Island in Senegal, where we looked out to the ocean from the quarters where slaves had been held before being shipped off forever to faraway lands; I watched from a front row seat when President Obama and the First Lady were coaxed by professional dancers to do the tango in Argentina; and I partied with Tina Tchen late into the night in Cuba, celebrating the restoration of our diplomatic relations.

Early on, while we were all still getting our feet wet, several of the senior staff traveled with the president often so that he could be surrounded by a virtual White House, and we could keep him up to speed with briefs and timely guidance. So in June 2009, when the president traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany, and Normandy, I made my first trip with him, together with several other senior aides.

Our first stop was Saudi Arabia, where our party was met on the tarmac by King Abdullah and his entourage and immediately swept into lunch in an extravagant ballroom at the airport. The moment we walked in, Alyssa Mastromonaco, the president’s director of scheduling and advance, and I were keenly aware that the only women in the room had just come off of Air Force One, and when we sat to eat, it was clear there would be no welcoming conversation for us. In fact, no one from the Saudi delegation opted to sit next to Alyssa, so that seat remained empty throughout lunch.

We stayed at the 84-year-old Saudi king’s ranch at Jenadriyah, a complex in the suburbs of Riyadh where the royal stables of over a thousand Thoroughbreds and Arabian horses are kept. In keeping with the lavish theme, each of us had our own expansive villa. When I walked into mine, I noticed a very large gift box. Curious, of course, I opened it immediately. Inside was a huge, green leather briefcase made from some kind of reptile skin. It struck me as odd, since nobody uses large, cumbersome briefcases anymore, so I texted Alyssa, who was staying in the villa next door, to see if she had received a briefcase, too.

“No,” she texted. “I guess I was left out.” Then, a half hour later, she texted me again. “My briefcase just arrived. Open it.”

When I popped open the case, it was like a scene out of One Thousand and One Nights: Emeralds and diamonds — lots of them — were sparkling up at me. There was a stunning necklace, earrings, a ring, two watches, and a bejeweled pen. I took a photo of the contents because they were so incredible. And because I knew that I couldn’t keep any of it.

Before we left, we’d been prepped extensively on the protocols for each country on our itinerary, from the particulars of the arrival ceremony to social taboos to avoid. We’d even studied our dinner companions to make sure we could have useful conversations. Somehow, though, the gift issue had slipped through the cracks. No one had warned me this might happen, but I remembered the wise advice of my colleague Phil Schiliro, a former congressional staffer. “During your time here, people are going to offer you all kinds of things,” he said. “If someone offers you a gift, and you think you would enjoy it, just say no.” Phil, who had worked on Congressman Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under President George W. Bush, was keenly aware of what could trigger an investigation.

Alyssa, whose loot was in rubies and diamonds, reached out to the State Department, which has a whole official process to inventory foreign gifts; after being logged in, they’re either auctioned off or stored. As a government official, you do have the right to buy the gift for its market value (in the United States, not the country of origin), but none of us elected to buy a bag filled with expensive precious jewels. We couldn’t give them back, either, because that would have been an insult to the king. All we could do was hand them over to the State Department.

As Alyssa and I walked our briefcases over to the State Department villa for cataloging, we ran into Rahm Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff at the time and who had also received a briefcase full of jewels. “This is great,” he joked. “My wife’s birthday is next week.”

The next stop was Egypt. From Cairo we took a helicopter to the pyramids in Giza. “This is incredible,” I said to President Obama, gazing down at the enormous city below. I’d never seen it from that view before.

“Sure,” he said, looking out at the ground below with a serious expression. “As long as we don’t get shot by a surface-to-air missile.”
We were then given a private tour of my favorite of the Seven Wonders of the World. Rahm, Reggie Love — the president’s special assistant and personal aide — and I (though not the president) even rode on camels. Then we climbed up a ladder into the tomb in the largest of the three pyramids. We had to climb backward down the same ladder to exit. The president went first. I followed. Then it was David Axelrod and, last, Rahm. Rahm, being the competitive spirit he is, was moving really fast, causing David to panic. “Slow down!” David said. “Your ass is in my face!” Once we were all down, the president teased David, “Man, you sounded really worried back there.” We all laughed at David’s expense, but, as usual, he was a good sport.

We did all four countries in only five days by sleeping all but two nights on Air Force One. Despite its reputation, the aircraft wasn’t what I imagined it to be. It doesn’t have the plush, white-leather interior you saw in Independence Day, for starters. The president’s plane, while very big, is not fancy. It’s functional. Naturally, the president had his own suite with a bedroom, office, and bathroom whose shower I coveted. And there are essential amenities, such as a doctor’s cabin with an operating table. The compact senior staff cabin contained four chairs that could face one another or swivel around to their own fold-down desk spaces.

The first night on Air Force One, I chose a long leather couch along the wall in the conference room where I could lie flat, because I suffered from chronic lower back pain. Unfortunately, David Axelrod slept on the other end, and we kept accidentally playing footsie all night. The next night on board, I tried sleeping in my chair, but it was too slippery. Then the floor in our cabin, which was freezing cold. Finally I settled onto the couch in the main hallway. Covered in a soft cloth, it was so comfortable that I did not hesitate to sleep out in the open in front of everyone walking by. I felt like Goldi­locks finding that bed. It was just right. From then on, through both terms, when I slept on Air Force One I dared anyone to try to poach my couch.

Obama walks with Rahm Emanuel and Jarrett to Marine One at the White House on August 4, 2010.Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

One of the thrilling parts of flying on Air Force One is having the phone operator announce you as “calling from Air Force One” when she connects your call, which is why every staffer and guest calls their family the first time they’re on board.

I actually preferred flying on Marine One, the president’s helicopter, to flying on Air Force One. (It sounds absurd to even admit to a preference, right?) Air Force One is an amazing plane, but once you’re up in the air, the view outside isn’t so different from any other plane; it flies and lands like any other, just faster and smoother (thanks to the best pilots in the world). A helicopter, on the other hand, takes you places and shows you scenes from a vantage point very few people ever see.

Everyone has watched on television as presidents walk across the South Lawn, wave at the crowd, and climb on board Marine One. It’s very different to be there in real life. To watch President Obama’s first takeoff, I walked over to the Diplomatic Room, referred to as the Dip Room, which was the entrance to the residence used by the first family and often by visiting dignitaries and friends. An invited crowd often gathers along the walkway on either side of the Dip Room to watch takeoff and arrival.

Just as I was about to walk out of the Dip Room to join the other guests, one of the Secret Service agents warned me, “Ma’am, it’s pretty windy out there.” I smiled and kept walking. How windy could it be? It turned out to be one of those matter-of-fact understatements I grew to appreciate. It’s not just windy. It blew in a way that kicks up every loose piece of dirt and swirls it around with every rotation of the propeller. That day I was too proud to duck back inside, but from then on, if I wanted to watch, I did so from a much more comfortable distance.

I was so excited about my first Marine One trip a couple of weeks later. But I hadn’t anticipated the challenge of walking to the helicopter. In high heels it was treacherous. The president would always walk out first, with the staff following well behind so as to not obstruct the cameras’ view of him. “Staying out of the shot,” we called it. As I began to walk out, my heels sank into the grass, and I feared I would walk out of my shoe or stumble and fall. When I finally got to the handrail to climb the stairs to the helicopter, I said a little prayer in relief that I had made it.

It never became less scary. The staff tended to walk in clusters, with an unwritten commitment to catch one another if any of us stumbled. I mostly gave up on wearing high heels. I never stopped saying my little prayer upon reaching the stairs, but one day I exhaled in relief too soon. On the third step up, a large gust of wind came along and scooped up the back of my dress. Fortunately, in a moment of grace, Rahm, on the stair right behind me, grabbed my skirt as it sailed up and pulled it down, keeping me from flashing the entire press corps. President Obama, watching from his window inside, burst out laughing.

On that first flight, a few minutes after we were in the air, President Obama said, “Look out of the window.”

“Yes,” I said, “it is all very pretty.”

“No, no,” he said with a knowing expression, “wait a moment.”

And then, a few seconds later, the Washington Monument came into view. My God, it felt like it was only a few feet away, almost as if we could reach out and touch it. My stunned expression made the president smile.

I had two favorite places to fly on Marine One. The first was over D.C.’s Tidal Basin in the spring, with the blossoming cherry trees below looking like pink clouds hugging the ground. The second was around the Statue of Liberty at night, seeing it all lit up like a beacon of hope, when we’d take a shortcut to avoid creating a traffic jam from the airport to Manhattan. The pilots often circled around so we could catch a second look. I tried numerous times to capture her elegance in a photo but could never do her justice.

One of the greatest privileges of my job was notifying people when President Obama chose to award them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Some calls he made himself — the one to President George H. W. Bush, for example. Mostly, though, he delegated the honor to one of us on the review committee.

No matter how accomplished the recipients were, the call always came as a shock. Here’s how one of them went:

“Michael?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Hi, it’s Valerie Jarrett.”

“Hey, Valerie. What’s up?”

“President Obama asked me to give you a call to inform you that he is giving you the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Silence.

“You’re kidding right?”

“I hope you know I would never joke about this.”

That was my call to Michael Jordan, my favorite basketball player ever. Even he was left speechless.

When I called Meryl Streep from Air Force One, it took a full minute before I could convince her this was not a prank call. Then she cried. When I tracked down Tom Hanks in the middle of a street in Europe, he let out a scream that no doubt caused stares.

One day Harrison Ford came by the West Wing to lobby us against a tax on private planes. It wasn’t my first time meeting him. In 1995, while he was shooting The Fugitive in Chicago’s city hall, he knocked on the door of my office. It was the weekend, but I was there working. He said he was tired and asked if he could lie down on my couch and take a nap for about an hour. An odd request.

“Yup, you sure can,” I said, delighted to have him nap in my office. “Take as long as you want.”

Life in the public eye meant that security was never far from my mind, whether I was in the White House, on the road, or even at home. Men with guns quickly became part of my everyday routine.

That reality began to sink in the day Barack announced his run for president in Springfield. While we were all swept up in the moment, I looked up and saw the Capitol Police scattered strategically on the tops of the buildings that looked down on the crowd. I found their presence both reassuring and disconcerting. A sign of more to come.

The infrequent moments, usually aboard planes, when his agents would take off their jackets, exposing the guns, wires, and other equipment, were jarring reminders of how prepared they needed to be in the event of an attack. Walking through the White House, I frequently encountered clusters of counterassault teams moving into place as their shifts changed. I knew their sole purpose was to keep the first family and White House safe, but the sight of them always made me shudder a bit.

In this and other ways, our surroundings were extraordinary. From the M&Ms bearing the presidential seal given out in the White House mess to the uniformed military guards who stood at attention and opened the door as we entered and exited the West Wing; from the Rose Garden, replanted numerous times a year, to the Truman balcony (our refuge); and the precious works, including the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that was loaned to President Obama to hang in the Oval Office and the famous painting of Ruby Bridges walking to school, as well as the Monets, Cézannes, and modern art selected by the Obamas — there were reminders everywhere that we worked in the most coveted 18 acres in the world.

It’s easy to succumb to awe there, but we were there to work, not to gape. I do admit that on some mornings when I was facing a special challenge, I would go sit in one of the reception rooms on the first floor (known as the State floor) — the red, green, or blue room, depending on my mood — and have a quiet moment to read or collect my thoughts before my day (and the tours) began. The art on the walls showing our nation’s history helped motivate me.

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