Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, stands for a portrait at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington in 2014. (Joshua Yospyn for The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

“Oh, I totally disagree with that.”

“That” was the assertion in a 2012 New York Times profile of Valerie Jarrett that “if Karl Rove was known as George W. Bush’s political brain, Ms. Jarrett is [President] Obama’s spine.” Jarrett’s immediate pushback in the 20th episode of “Cape UP” explains why she is the longest-serving senior adviser to a president in a town famous for inflating egos and corrupting souls. She never forgot for whom she worked.

Make no mistake: Jarrett is very proud of her accomplishments. But she insists, as she has consistently for nearly eight years, that all of the credit goes to the boss in the Oval Office.“There isn’t an initiative that I’ve worked on since I’ve been here that he didn’t bless,” Jarrett said of the president. “If he didn’t care about the issues that I have put the shoulder to the metal behind, they wouldn’t have happened and they wouldn’t have been my priority.”

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Two years ago, I wrote about four straight African American men who led the way in our nation’s historic advancement on equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. But Jarrett was the black woman in the middle of it all. When I pressed during the podcast interview that she was indeed the person who kept Obama focused, for instance, on LGBT rights, Jarrett was having none of it.

“I doubt your underlying premise there that he gets off track and loses his focus; he just doesn’t,” insisted Jarrett at a table in her West Wing office. “His spine is perfectly strong. I think it’s a disservice to him to think that he needs somebody to keep him focused. He wakes up every morning reminding himself and all of us of why we’re here. That important quality in him is what has enabled all of us to do our jobs successfully.”


Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart during an interview in her West Wing office for the “Cape UP” podcast on Dec. 8. (Carol Alderman/The Washington Post)

Jarrett has served as the president’s link to communities and constituencies across the country and has loved every minute of her job through Obama’s two tumultuous terms. “It’s been a privilege each and every single day even on our worst days,” she told me. “I can’t imagine that I would trade what I’ve been able to do with anyone in the world.” And there is no question what one of those worst days was.

“The worst weekend, which began on a Friday through Sunday, was when those 20 amazing kids and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” she said of the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting on. Dec. 14, 2012. “And then two days later, just two days later, I accompanied the president to Newtown. … I walked around with him, family by family, and some of those families have become very close friends of mine to this day. But to see people on the worst day of their life, mourning a child, is just excruciating.”

[The one difference between Jarrett and others who wielded the same kind of power is that she’s a woman]

Jarrett talked about the president’s recurring role as mourner in chief, including his “Amazing Grace” moment in Charleston, S.C., during his eulogy for the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, who was murdered with eight of his parishioners on June 17, 2015. “It pulled us all together and unified us in a way that the words to that song are uniquely able to do,” she said.


Listen to the podcast to find out who Earl Smith is and why Jarrett thinks of him every morning. Learn what surprised the veteran of Chicago politics about Washington. And you must hear how a discussion about “The Crown” led Jarrett to reminisce about being a little girl in London who looked through the gates of Buckingham Palace with wonder and then returned decades later with the president of the United States to meet the Queen of England.

“Cape UP” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.