Speakers rarely get as warm a welcome as President Barack Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett received last Thursday at Harvard Kennedy School. But just weeks after Scott Brown assumed his US Senate seat — a victory that proved even the bluest of states could deliver a red-letter day to frustrated national conservatives — evidence of the contentious political environment was nowhere in sight.
Instead, Jarrett — who has been painted as a "slumlord" by some and called a left-wing extremist by teapartiers — was greeted with a standing ovation and, in keeping with the theme of amity surrounding her public conversation with former presidential advisor and current Harvard professor David Gergen, referred to as the president's "First Friend."
A long-time mentor to Obama who first introduced him and his wife to Chicago power players, Jarrett vacillated between her professional and personal roles, referring to the president by his first name when discussing the time they spend together outside of work. "Of course he's Barack then," she told Gergen, who appeared shocked by the informality.
Though she maintained her composure under the bright lights when talking about creating jobs and moving health-care reform forward, Jarrett's professionalism was superseded by a broad smile when talking about her decades-old companion. "I don't brag about him too much," Jarrett said, "but he is pretty terrific."
Stressing Obama's ability to listen and his even-keeled temperament, Jarrett explained that the president does not fight back against Republicans, teapartiers, and birthers in the way many of his supporters wish he would — though of all his critics, "the birthers really do annoy him."
The teapartiers have made Jarrett's life difficult, as well, marking her as one of their most high-profile targets in the administration. But Jarrett, it would seem, doesn't take them too seriously — and neither did the audience, who, apart from one question about the rumored continued use of rendition, lavished praise on her and the administration. Two students — including actress and current HKS student Ashley Judd — went so far as to open up their questions by calling Jarrett "brilliant."
"After I first met you," said Gergen, wrapping up the event, "it gave me great reassurance about Barack Obama to know you were there as counselor as first friend."
A town hall tea party it was not — just a love-fest for a political friend in this still very blue state.