Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
Valerie Jarrett was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama during both his terms; is a close friend to Michelle Obama; directed an important real estate firm; and has served as chair of the Chicago Transit Authority Board, chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange and chair of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center. She chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls and co-chaired the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. She sits on the boards of directors of Ariel Investments and Lyft and is a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Jarrett is, in short, a big deal.
In “Finding My Voice,” she recounts her journey to the White House and beyond. She writes that her memoir stemmed from an interview for a Story Corps oral history conducted by her daughter, who asked her mom to advise a younger version of herself. “It turns out I had a lot to say,” Jarrett declares, “and not just to a thirty-year-old me, but to women and men of all ages.”
“Finding My Voice” can be divided into three sections. In the first, Jarrett describes her remarkable family and unusual childhood.
Her great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor, the first black student to attend MIT, graduating in the class of 1892, became the country’s first black architect. He designed many of the buildings that constitute the campus of Tuskegee Institute. Her grandfather Robert Rochon Taylor, a prominent business and civic leader, became the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Her father, James E. Bowman, distinguished himself as a pathologist and geneticist. Barred by racial prejudice from medical positions in the United States that would facilitate and reward his advanced research, he accepted a post abroad at a hospital in Shiraz, Iran, where Valerie Jarrett was born in 1956. She writes that all her parents knew about that “exotic place was that it was willing to give a black doctor an opportunity far better than any available to him in the country where he was born.”
Jarrett spent the first five years of her life in Iran, accompanying her parents on adventures around the world — Ghana, Egypt, the Soviet Union. Homesick, they returned to Chicago, where Jarrett’s accent, shyness and light complexion attracted unwanted attention from African American neighborhood bullies. For the most part, however, she seems to have had a healthy, fun, love-filled childhood. She had momentary scrapes with white racists. She recalls a white “friend” at a sleep-away camp saying to her: “You know, I thought you were a n----- when I first met you. I’m really sorry.” But she seems to have negotiated well a privileged upbringing in which she was exposed to and comfortable around a wide assortment of people. The daughter of college graduates, she too attained higher education, attending Stanford and the University of Michigan Law School.
The second section of her book focuses on Jarrett’s efforts to create a suitable career and household. Both fronts proved difficult. She was bored by corporate law practice. Worse, she married a surgeon who, in her telling, quickly showed himself to be selfish and unreliable. Notwithstanding her doubts, she had a child with him, only to find herself and her baby cruelly abandoned. Things turned around for her dramatically, however, when she left her private-sector job to work for the administration of Harold Washington, the Windy City’s first black mayor, and after she obtained a divorce. By dint of poise and perseverance, connections and luck, she climbed the municipal bureaucratic ladder, becoming a significant figure in Chicago civic affairs.
The third section of her book is dominated by the extraordinary events that have stemmed from her affiliation with the Obamas. When Jarrett was deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, she hired and befriended a young lawyer, Michelle Robinson, who introduced her to the man Michelle would soon marry, Barack Obama. Jarrett developed a close bond with the young couple, supported their ambitions, and moved upward with them as they conquered the Democratic Party and then captured the White House.
Jarrett seems to be, in many of the most important respects, a thoroughly admirable person. She appreciates her parents. She adores her daughter (an excellent television commentator on legal affairs). She boosts the careers of capable people who, absent her intervention, might have been overlooked because of their race or gender. She situates herself in a grand tradition of liberal, reformist politics in which “we fight as hard as we can to change the system, showing up to vote, marching in the streets, and pushing relentlessly in the courts.” There are times, she laments, when the status quo refuses to change. When that happens, she counsels, you carefully pick your battles, “you figure out a way to maneuver within the system as it exists in order to make progress. You find the cracks and the loopholes and you slip through them to get where you need to go.”
Jarrett abhors social misery and celebrates collective action aimed at alleviating avoidable suffering. She believes in using governmental authority to expand opportunities for those who have been shortchanged by misfortune or injustice. But she also respects democratic limits on governmental power, accepting with grace electoral outcomes she loathes, hopeful that, over time, the electorate will find its way to better choices.
Alas, “Finding My Voice” is keenly disappointing. It suffers from faintness of voice. Jarrett’s diffidence precludes the self-revelation that a reader rightly expects of a memoir. One will not find here candid, surprising, ruminative unveilings. She does describe the unraveling of her marriage, which she portrays as the single biggest pratfall in her otherwise blessed life. But even in that portrayal, she pictures herself guilty only of naivete; the husband was an apparently good catch who proved to be rotten. What about subsequent romantic companionship? Was she open to that? Or did she forswear such relationships? Did she seek but not find? Or did the demands of being a single parent in high-powered positions impede her efforts to create new romantic intimacies? “Finding My Voice” is mute on these questions, though the difficulty of creating an equitable, fun, fulfilling domestic life with another person is a compelling subject of major personal and political concern that has special layers of complication for women of color.
Jarrett’s account of her doings in the White House is similarly wan. A major reason some observers will be drawn to Jarrett’s memoir is her well-publicized closeness to the Obamas. She discloses nothing about them, however, that is remotely striking. She is monotonously flattering. She momentarily expresses regret about perceiving too slowly during her White House years that, with respect to certain projects, she should have attempted to work more intently with governors and mayors instead of the Republican-dominated obstructionist Congress. For the most part, though, she offers superficial accounts that avoid self-criticism or engagement with controversy. She says not one word about the politics of abortion. And she says little in response to criticism that the Obama administration was too easy on Wall Street, insufficiently attentive to homeowners facing foreclosure, evasive about racial conflict or insufficiently alarmist about Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016. Jarrett offers no opinion regarding the extent, if any, to which the administration bears responsibility for the ascendancy of Trumpism.
Jarrett depicts herself as a race woman, self-consciously concerned with advancing the fortunes of black Americans. But she largely overlooks the intra-racial debates that vex politically self-aware black Americans. She says nothing, for example, that discloses her thinking on the extent, if any, to which blacks of her station — i.e., those who have “made it” — should affirmatively support historically black institutions, particularly colleges and universities. Nor does she reveal whether the racial makeup of her child’s companions matters to her. Some affluent blacks who are situated in predominantly white settings go out of their way to make sure their children are exposed to other African Americans. Jarrett’s memoir offers not even a hint as to her thinking regarding this issue. One suspects that she might have interesting things to say; her determined quietude is perplexing.
Jarrett alone, of course, is ultimately responsible for her book. But perhaps a source of its flabbiness is the condition under which it was written. Finding a voice is a difficult enterprise that requires singularity of effort. In her acknowledgements, Jarrett thanks an entourage. She praises the “team” behind her at the publishing house and thanks as well “my collaborators Rebecca Paley and Tanner Colby [who] embraced my story and helped me ensure my memoir reflected my voice.” Colby, author of “Some of My Best Friends Are Black,” has also written biographies of the entertainers Chris Farley and John Belushi. Paley is a co-author of several memoirs, including “Troublemaker” by the actress Leah Remini and “I’ll Drink to That” by the Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich. There is reason to suspect that collaboration of this sort is inimical to originality, insight and authenticity.
By Valerie Jarrett
305 pp. $30