■ Being bullied as a child made me shy and withdrawn, a little bit timid — all words which no longer describe me, but that shyness remained well into adulthood. It wasn’t just the bullying; it was feeling different anytime anybody asked, “Where were you born?” In my early years, nobody had ever heard of Iran. And during the summers, we would travel for my father’s medical work. You return to school and people ask, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” “Well, I went to Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Iran.” That doesn’t fit. I just wanted to go to camp like everybody else.
■ My parents wanted me to see the world. And not from luxury hotels. One lesson I learned from them was that when you’re in somebody else’s home, you play by their rules. I remember going to Damascus, Syria, when I graduated from high school and making sure we were well covered when we went into the mosque. There’s a certain level of respect for other cultures they taught me that not every American has.
■ I joined local government right after Harold Washington was reelected as mayor. I found my voice there. I also learned that public service is 24/7. People come up to you in the grocery store or at the dry cleaner’s. People would lobby my daughter when she was a little kid. You learn to listen, regardless of the decibel level.
■ Harold Washington had this delicious personality that made everybody feel like they had his undivided attention. I was a very junior person in the city’s law department, so I did not have meetings with him with any frequency. But one lesson he taught me by example was how to disagree without being disagreeable. I watched him during his first term, when he didn’t have control of the City Council, and the aldermen — the Vrdolyak 29 — were horrible to him, just dreadful. But he would joke with them behind the council chambers. He always had good humor and recognized that it wasn’t personal.
■ When Barack Obama offered me the job, I said, “Well, I’m kind of used to being the boss of you.” And he said, “Yeah, but I’m going to be president and leader of the free world.” And I was like, “I guess that’s a good point.” I joined his administration knowing that my close relationship with both him and Mrs. Obama was going to be threatening to some people. I’ve known them for almost 30 years. There’s something about the White House that often brings out people’s insecurities. But I felt that if I could earn the trust of my colleagues, they would appreciate that I wasn’t going to use my relationship with the president to their detriment.
■ The Obamas are very grounded people who don’t have the patience for sycophants. They just want someone who will be clear and true.
■ I became a better friend to Barack Obama by being his senior adviser and was a better senior adviser for being his friend. When we were at work, we compartmentalized with ease. I called him Mr. President, and I was extraordinarily judicious with using his time. But when he and I were watching a movie, I would talk his ear off.
■ The rigor and discipline that he applied to that job was extraordinary. I marveled at the fact that I never walked into a meeting with him when he was unprepared. He took it really seriously. And this is a guy who in law school would open the book the night before the final exam and still get in an A.
■ I miss the Truman Balcony. It’s one of my most favorite places on earth. You’re looking out over the South Lawn at the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. It’s a magnificent view. I also miss driving through the gates and walking along the colonnade. The day you’re not in awe of working in the White House is the day you should walk out the door.