Obama’s Inner Circle: Left to right – Martin Nesbitt, Valerie Jarrett, Dr. Eric Whitaker
Last Sunday night, President-elect Barack Obama’s three closest friends — Valerie Jarrett, Martin Nesbitt and Dr. Eric Whitaker — sat down in the study of Mr. Nesbitt’s house in Chicago for one of their increasingly frequent heart-to-hearts.
They were puzzling over a new question: how the Obamas, who hope to remain close to their Chicago friends, will spend time with them while living in the isolation chamber of the White House. Over Diet Cokes, the three drafted the beginnings of an elaborate visiting schedule that will bring Hyde Park to Washington, so the nation’s new first family can have a little taste of home.
“O.K, Eric, you need to plan to be in D.C. the first six weekends of the presidency,” Ms. Jarrett, soon to be a senior White House adviser, instructed Dr. Whitaker, he recalled.
In the presidential campaign, the Obamas had a “no new friends” rule, surrounding themselves with a coterie of familiar faces. Even if the Obamas lift that rule in Washington, newcomers are unlikely to replicate the intensity of this group’s ties, formed over more than a decade by births and deaths, Scrabble games, barbecues and vacations, but also by shared beliefs about race, success and responsibility.
Back when the Obamas were hardly the most prominent members of the group, the doctors, lawyers and businessmen from Chicago became not just one another’s friends but also one another’s supporters, forming a network that eventually helped the politician among them on his way to a Senate seat and then the presidency. Their bonds grew only tighter in the long slog of the campaign.
“We knew Barack running for president would be hard on him and Michelle, but we didn’t realize the impact it would have on us,” said Dr. Whitaker, speaking of the frenetic travel schedule he and other friends maintained to keep Mr. Obama company, the scrutiny they endured and the sometimes disconcerting way that proximity to the Obamas affected their own relationships and careers.
“Marty and Eric and I will get together just to talk through experiences we’ve been through,” Ms. Jarrett said. “People are far more interested in us than any of us have ever experienced in our lives.”
And Mr. Obama is not even president yet. Soon they will no longer be the best friends of a newly successful politician but of the most powerful man in the world. Though Mr. Obama’s friends vow their friendships will not change, they all sound a bit worried: that others will try to take advantage, that they will no longer be regarded on their own terms but in relation to Mr. Obama, or that they will say something that will reflect badly on him. For all of their immense pride in the Obamas, for all the dazzle of the campaign and the White House, being a first friend “is not all fun and games,” Dr. Whitaker said.
The Obama social universe is large, multiracial and far-flung, spanning law school buddies, political allies and friends who kept Mrs. Obama company during her husband’s long absences. But the Obamas’ closest friends are the tight bunch from the South Side of Chicago, who never expected to find themselves in this situation.
Like Mrs. Obama, whose father worked for the city water department, most are from modest backgrounds. (When Mrs. Obama directed a student-volunteerism program at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s, she was employed by the same office for which her mother had once worked as a secretary.) Mr. Nesbitt, now a real estate executive, is the son of a steel mill worker and a nurse; Mr. Whitaker’s mother was also a nurse, his father a bus driver. Like Mr. Obama, they attended private schools on scholarship.
When they arrived at elite universities, they often found they were among the only blacks in their classrooms. In medical school in Chicago, Dr. Whitaker and Mr. Nesbitt’s wife were taken under the wing of Dr. James Bowman, Ms. Jarrett’s father and the first black tenured professor in his department. (Dr. Whitaker also earned a public health degree at Harvard, where he played basketball with a certain lanky law review president with a funny last name.)
“How many African-Americans are there going to be at the University of Chicago?” Mr. Nesbitt said, explaining how he and Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s brother, now a college basketball coach, became close at business school there, years after meeting on a basketball recruiting trip.