What does Valerie Jarrett do? Robert Draper (of the scathing Donald Rumsfeld expose) spills 8,000 words of ink on Jarrett for this weekend's NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, in search of that very idea. He tells a lot of great stories about Jarrett's influence with president Barack Obama, stretching back to the glory days in Chicago's Hyde Park, before their close-knit group of friends and power brokers—including Marty Nesbitt and Anita Blanchard, John Rogers, Susan Sher and Mike Strautmanis could ever dream of running the country. And his thesis seems to be that Jarrett's intimacy with the president and his wife can, at times get in the way of normal White House protocol. “If you want him to do something,” he reports, “there are two people he’s not going to say no to: Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama.”
That's not a bad magic trick. Over at THE NEW REPUBLIC, Michelle Cottle, who profiled Jarrett during the presidential campaign, has also written a progress report on Obama's "White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement." She thinks Jarrett is playing the same role she has always played for Obama: the Stealth Diplomat.
The post is to some degree an extension of Jarrett's work during the presidential campaign, when she was forever taking on delicate diplomatic missions that, for whatever reason, Obama himself couldn't tackle. Post-primaries, when disappointed Hillary diehards were being coaxed into the fold, Jarrett spearheaded the drive. Even more critically, early in the race, she took the lead in making nice with old-school civil rights leaders. With proper tending by Jarrett, compulsive gadflies like Al Sharpton remained surprisingly wellbehaved. And, when the occasional storm did erupt—think Jesse Jackson's expressed desire to geld Obama—Jarrett moved swiftly to restore calm.
Cottle tells some memorable anecdotes as well, but generally seems a bit too enamored of Jarrett's (stylish) fashion and (impressive) personal cool. It's Draper who really starts to pull at the thread that links the "exotic" president to this stunningly accomplished black businesswoman from both Iran and from the south side of Chicago. Obama himself referenced their synergistic backgrounds: "She and I both are constantly looking for links and bridges between cultures and peoples. That’s central to who we are. And that probably has contributed to forging an even closer relationship than we might’ve otherwise had,” he said.
But is that a liability in the White House? Draper doesn't really prove this point. He seems to manufacture a bit of controversy between chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ("speed and brutal practicality") and Jarrett ("deliberateness and sensitivity"), ultimately concluding that they represent both sides of Obama. But for the most part, he paints a portrait of a woman who knows intuitively and emphatically just what she is doing at the seat of power—even if we don't.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.