November 9, 2008

Who's Valerie Jarrett?

A close friend and confidant of the US President-elect known as "Obama's big sister" is leading a new generation of affluent blacks preparing to ride to power in Washington on the back of his election victory.

In one of his first appointments, Mr Obama named Valerie Jarrett - an African American businesswoman, senior advisor and close family friend - as one of the leaders of his White House transition team.

Mrs Jarrett, 51, an Iranian-born lawyer, has for years been a leading player in the Chicago black community which Mr Obama belatedly entered.

The petite and always immaculately turned-out property investor, who is prone to becoming emotional when discussing the President-elect, has been a friend and mentor to Mr Obama for 17 years, and has been referred to as "the other side of Obama's brain".

She is close enough to him to be able say what he likes for dinner – salmon, broccoli and brown rice – and ate with him as recently as last Sunday.

Mrs Jarrett has no Washington experience but is regarded as a strong contender for a cabinet post, possibly in charge of housing or transport, or else as a senior White House advisor.

There are many other black power brokers with Obama connections waiting in the wings, encouraged by the sudden racial shift in Washington power politics and hoping to translate their ties with the President-elect into significant career advancement.

Their backgrounds are hardly those of the veteran black civil rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have been excluded from the Obama inner circle.

Most are wealthy and have developed personal ties with the Illinois senator through the close-knit community of affluent African-Americans. Connections include family ties, student organisations, dinner parties or even holidaying in the same places.

Like Mr Obama, most are aged in their 40s and 50s, and have Ivy League educations. Some are understood to be hoping for posts in the Obama administration, others simply hoping for less formal advancement.

The list is headed by Mrs Jarrett, a Chicago property investor, and John Rogers, the founder of Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based finance house and a prominent donor to the Obama campaign.

As an illustration of Mr Obama's closeness to Mr Rogers, the former spent most of the day on Wednesday working out of the businessman's Chicago office.

In a profile of the most prominent names in this African American power elite, the Wall Street Journal divided them into contacts that Mr Obama has made in the different stages of his career – namely his community work in Chicago, his time at Harvard Law School and his connections in Washington.

According to the newspaper, they are a close-knit group, "bound by an intricate social web that operates largely out of sight from whites: family connections, black law school alumni organisations, black fraternities and sororities as well as popular vacation spots for affluent African-Americans like Martha's Vineyard".

Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle, both went to Harvard Law School and its relatively few black alumni have provided many long-standing allies.

They include Artur Davis, a Democratic congressman for Alabama, and two Harvard Law School professors – David Wilkins and Charles Ogletree.

Mr Ogletree, who was part of the team that looked for Mr Obama's campaign running mate, has been tipped as a potential Attorney General in his administration.

When Mr Obama first ran for office in Chicago, he reportedly took out his copy of the law school's alumni book and began ringing around for donations.

During the Clinton presidency, a number of African Americans rose into senior positions. Some of them are also now close to Mr Obama and are in the running for promotion.

Among them are Eric Holder, Mr Clinton's deputy Attorney General; Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs; and Cassandra Butts, an ex-advisor to the congressman Richard Gephardt.

Mr Holder met Mr Obama at a dinner party two years ago hosted by a black former Clinton administration official.

He has since been part of the team that looked for Mr Obama's campaign running mate and has now been tipped as a potential Attorney General in his administration.

Peniel Joseph, a black political science professor at Brandeis University, told the Wall Street Journal: "These black executives see a window of opportunity for themselves." He added: "Obama being elected president shatters the glass ceiling".

Inevitably, some will be disappointed. The Obama team runs the risk of being accused of racial favouritism if it gives plum jobs to too many African-Americans.

However, the jobs that they do get will not be the "historically conventional" ones that blacks have been given, such as urban development or civil rights, said Mrs Jarrett.


Insomniac James Franco

James Franco "doesn't sleep".

The 'Pineapple Express' star - who shot to fame playing James Dean in a TV biopic in 2001 - hates going to bed because there are so many things he wants to do with his time.

He said: "I don't sleep. I have a lot of interests and a lot I want to get done so I have gotten into the habit of not getting into my bed.

"I sit on the couch with my laptop until I fall asleep. I have the computer in a protective case because it often ends up falling to the floor."

James - who is currently studying graduate-level writing and filmmaking programmes at both Columbia University and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts - also revealed why he decided to go back to school.

The 31-year-old actor added: "There has always been a part of me that felt I was letting something go when I left school at 18 or 19 to become an actor."