Author Edward Klein has written an interesting column on Valerie Jarrett, the White House power broker who seems to be able to control access to the President. Klein, who just published a book about the Obama presidency, claims that the power Jarrett holds via her personal friendship with the Obamas is unprecedented in US history.
Klein is wrong about one thing. The amount of influence Jarrett seems to have with both the President and the First Lady is unusual, but it’s not unprecedented. As in so many other things, President Obama is channeling FDR.
I began to notice the parallels between the two Presidents back in early ’09, when President Obama was putting together his cabinet. When Hillary Clinton named as Secretary of State, it was reported that the ambassadors to a few of the most important nations were going to report directly to the President, rather than through the Secretary.
Obama’s disregard for the traditional White House chain of command was unusual, but, again, it was not unprecedented. In the 1930’s President Roosevelt often did the same thing. On one occasion in 1933 Secretary of State Cordell Hull actually had to beg a subordinate named Raymond Moley to use his influence with President Roosevelt to persuade the President to drop a policy that was damaging US relations with Britain and other allies.
That Valerie Jarrett has influence far exceeding the importance of her job title is unusual but not unique. In his article, Klein makes the point that Jarrett is “the only White House official who dines with the first family in their private quarters at night,” and that her power exceeds that of the official White House Chief of Staff.
Roosevelt staffer Harry Hopkins would not have been impressed with this. Hopkins, whose official job description was usually something innocuous like “Federal Emergency Relief Administrator,” actually lived in the White House with the Roosevelts. In real terms, his personal friendship with the President and First lady made him more powerful than any cabinet secretary.
FDR’s trust in Harry Hopkins was absolute. On one occasion he told someone who aspired to the job of President that “You’ll learn what a lonely this job is, and you’ll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you.”
Roosevelt even refused to form a wartime alliance with Winston Churchill and Britain until Hopkins had traveled to London and vetted Churchill for him.
In reality Hopkins was not as loyal to Roosevelt as the President imagined. As we now know, Hopkins demonstrated more real loyalty to Joseph Stalin than to the American President. Many of Hopkins communications with Stalin’s government went through an “illegal” Soviet spymaster named Iskhak Akhmerov, who had no official connection to the Soviet government, and who operated in the United States under the guise of a businessman.
In that sense President Obama’s short-circuiting of the chain of command is probably less dangeous than FDR’s. While Valerie Jarrett’s political background is leftist to the point of being radical, she obviously can’t be an agent of a rival superpower.