Jane Austen in the White House
Some people seem to be just discovering the odd position Valerie Jarrett has held in this administration. They also seem to be struggling to find a metaphor for her role. I have seen her compared to Rasputin, but that doesn't fit the dynamics of the relationship. Barack Obama may be as detached from the threats of his day as Tsar Nicholas II was 100 years ago, but Rasputin was very much his and the Tsarina's social inferior. I suspect Jarrett considers herself at least the Obamas’ equal if not their superior.
When I consider Valerie Jarrett's role in things, I imagine that Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse had gotten the idea in her head that she was a top-notch political adviser as well as matchmaker extraordinaire. For Valerie Jarrett is a Black American Princess version of Austen's spoiled heiress. She shares Emma's wildly misplaced confidence in her abilities, misreads what is going on under her own nose, and shares a penchant for encouraging those she sees as social inferiors to improve themselves. Unlike Emma, however, there doesn't seem to be any dawning self-awareness on the part of any of the characters.
To understand Valerie Jarrett's strange position with the Obamas one has to look at two spheres as insular and cliquish as those occupied by many of Austen's characters among the landed gentry of Regency England -- that of upper class Chicago blacks and that of the red diaper babies, the children of Americans on the radical left in mid 20th century America. Jarrett used her membership in one to get her hooks into Michelle and the other to make Barack feel she was indispensable.
Jarrett's father, James E. Bowman was a prominent physician whose own father had been a dentist. Her mother, Barbra Taylor Bowman, was a prominent early childhood education expert whose father was the architect the infamous Robert Taylor housing project was named after. Only child Valerie Bowman enhanced those connections by marrying the son of widely respected journalist Vernon Jarrett. He was a prominent fixture on local TV stations and newspapers for decades as the voice who explained events in the black community to whites across Chicagoland. That marriage gave her a last name widely recognized outside of the borders of Chicago's black upper crust.
Michelle Obama’s parents, Fraser C. and Marian S. Robinson III, weren't in the same heady stratosphere of Chicago’s black elite, likely creating stress on the young Michelle Robinson as she began her professional career following graduation from Harvard Law School. Moving from the middle class into the upper rungs of the professional class can cause personal anxiety in anyone of any race. I have seen new lawyers whose careers became limited because they struggled to adopt the deportment expected of associates of Chicago's large law firms.
Valerie Jarrett took young lawyer Michelle Robinson under her wing, helped introduce her to the people who mattered, and let her know that she, too, could belong in Valerie's elite world, much as Emma did with Harriet Smith. Jarrett's advice no doubt had some value to young lawyer Michelle Robinson as she made the transition.
Both the Bowmans and Vernon Jarrett were also part of the radical American left the Dunhams, Barack Obama's white grandparents all belonged to. When Barack Obama moved to Chicago, he needed a political “rabbi,” someone to introduce him to the right people. Such introductions are crucial for any outsider in a town where the working motto of all political operatives tends to be "We don't want nobody that nobody sent." Without people to vouch for you, a Chicago political operative might meet with you out of politeness, but no one will ever invite you to actually join their game.
In Jarrett, Obama had someone who opened a lot of doors. She had started out aligned with the radicals, but she also became the first member of Mayor Harold Washington's administration to make peace with the Daley administration in return for a job. While her heart may be on the left, she demonstrated that she could be bought by the machine. By implication, so could anyone she introduced. The one thing the Daley machine always feared was a black man who also appealed to white reform minded voters as Harold Washington had. If Valerie Jarrett was his political rabbi, Obama would not have been seen as a threat to the Daley power structure, no matter how much he might talk about reform. If Jarrett was his rabbi, the hard left also knew his long-term plan was radical change and would open up their wallets to finance his campaigns.
Valerie Jarrett then also acted as matchmaker, introducing Michelle to Barack. With a chronic shortage of young black men of comparable education, Barack Obama was a real catch for young lawyer Michelle Robinson. Indeed, his African roots would have made him seem especially desirable in many black social circles. Some members of the American black middle class go as gaga over anyone who is African in the same way some American whites go gaga over any Brit who speaks with a plummy Oxbridge accent. That is probably why Barack Obama's literary agent’s biography had him born in Kenya. Residents of the Hyde Park community he, Jarrett, and Bill Ayers all lived in tend to eat that stuff up with a spoon.
Years later, when her protégés probably did far better than she had ever expected them to do, Valerie Jarrett was there, flattering both of them into thinking they could have done none of it without her. If Emma Woodhouse had married off the ambitious Vicar Elton to the woman of her choice and he had later become Archbishop of Canterbury, you just know Emma would be at their side, telling both of them how it was all because of her and letting them talk her into moving to Lambeth Palace with them.
Since Austen's day the upper class woman who makes a reformation project of a young woman from a lower social class, with varying degrees of success, has become a stock character in fiction. Obama shares characteristics with a stock Jane Austen character, the charismatic marriage prospect who initially charms so many people, but who may have dark secrets in his past and who comes to be seen as rotten or hollow to the core. Michelle Obama could be any number of minor Austen characters who marry not because they were madly in love but because the man who asked was seen to be as good an offer as was likely to be available if she wanted the financial security marriage brought and children.
It would be funny if we were reading it in a novel rather than watching it happen in the White House.