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.
Initially, the Obamas were nowhere near the most successful members of the group. “Michelle was always Craig’s little sister, and Barack was the little sister’s boyfriend,” said John W. Rogers Jr., founder of the first black-owned money management firm in the nation.
When Mr. Obama was a state senator and Mrs. Obama ran a leadership training nonprofit organization, they lived in a building full of academics, unlike the wealthier members of the group, who lived in sprawling apartments or large homes.
As years passed and babies arrived, the group meshed over barbecues, husbands-against-wives Scrabble games and tennis lessons. They vacationed together: in December, with the Obamas in Hawaii; in August, with Ms. Jarrett on Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Nesbitt’s wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, delivered nearly all the children, and the adults became their godparents.
Before they became involved in national politics, they became involved in school politics. Mrs. Obama, Mr. Nesbitt, Mr. Rogers, Ms. Jarrett and another close friend, Susan Sher, all sat on the board of the Laboratory Schools, private elementary and secondary schools at the University of Chicago, and lobbied for admitting more students from lower-income families.
“We were all too young to be in the civil rights movement,” Mr. Rogers said. Instead they grappled with the questions of first-generation success: how to ensure that others had the same opportunities they did, and more personally, how to give their children the best of everything and yet teach them what had come before.
Dr. Whitaker founded a South Side medical clinic with a barbershop that offered free haircuts to lure black men to get health care; Ms. Jarrett, as city planning commissioner and then a real estate executive, championed mixed-income development to replace housing projects; and Mr. Rogers founded a charter school that focuses on financial literacy.
They threw themselves into another cause, too: Mr. Obama’s political career. When Mr. Obama ran for Congress in 2000, the incumbent, Bobby L. Rush, derided him as an overeducated outsider — charges that appalled Mr. Obama’s Harvard- and Princeton-educated friends.
“Rush basically mocked Barack with the worst anti-intellectualism that flew in the face of everything that we as young African-Americans had been told to aspire to,” said Dr. Whitaker, who is married to Dr. Cheryl Rucker-Whitaker, a cardiologist.
By the time Mr. Obama ran for president, supporting him had become nearly a full-time endeavor. Mr. Nesbitt became campaign treasurer, Ms. Jarrett a senior adviser.
When it became clear that the Democratic nomination fight would go on and on, Mr. Nesbitt, Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Jarrett “made the commitment to have one of the three of us on the road as much as we could,” Dr. Whitaker said.
Others joined in as well. Desirée Rogers, the soon-to-be White House social secretary and Mr. Rogers’s former wife, accompanied Mrs. Obama as she campaigned in beauty salons in South Carolina. Ms. Sher sat in Mrs. Obama’s hotel suite in Denver, entertaining her with hometown gossip before convention appearances. Everyone’s children came along too, keeping Malia and Sasha Obama amused on their travels through various cities and states.
The ride could be painful at times. Dr. Whitaker, a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, had to watch a yearlong falling-out between his best friend and his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The doctor and Ms. Jarrett have become minor figures in two corruption scandals (Dr. Whitaker with the one involving the real-estate developer Antoin Rezko, Ms. Jarrett with the one involving the Illinois governor, Rod R. Blagojevich). There have been no suggestions of any wrongdoing by either of the friends or Mr. Obama.
Because Mr. Obama, among others, recommended him for the job of state public health director, Dr. Whitaker said, some drew the conclusion that he got the job based on friendship instead of merit. “People scarcely know I went to medical school,” he said. “Now I’m some creation of Barack Obama.”
Being Mr. Obama’s close friend has other effects: a sudden crush of new friends eager for inauguration tickets or other favors; uncertainty about when it is appropriate to phone the next leader of the free world simply to catch up.
The period between the election and inauguration has been a respite: once again, everyone is gathering again at the Nesbitt home to watch football games. Over the holidays, the Obamas, Nesbitts, Whitakers and Ms. Jarrett will board airplanes for one last pre-presidential hurrah in Hawaii.
After that, the group will split. Some members, like Ms. Jarrett and Ms. Rogers, will move to Washington and take up administration business, while most of the Obamas’ Chicago friends will stay behind. Dr. Whitaker works at the University of Chicago medical center, where he works on community-based health projects once handled by Mrs. Obama. (Mr. Nesbitt, who has five children, says he has no plans to move or take an official role, but some in the Obama social circles suggest he eventually might.)
“I’m just beginning to grapple with the idea that my extended family is leaving town,” Dr. Whitaker said.