As insider accounts of the West Wing proliferate—led by Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty—and a replica of the Oval Office even makes it to the London Book Fair, a memoir by a junior staffer in Barack Obama’s administration might just turn out to have the broadest appeal of all.
In 2011, 26-year-old former teacher Beck Dorey-Stein, unemployed in the networking shark pool that is Washington DC, answered a posting on Craigslist for a stenographer to work in a law firm and, lo and behold, found herself working in the White House as a part of the elite team which travelled with POTUS (the President of the United States) wherever he went. It sounds like an American Dream come true, but as Dorey-Stein relates in From the Corner of the Oval Office (Bantam Press), her funny, sassy and outrageously compelling memoir of that time, it also propelled her on a coming-of-age journey like no other. When I speak to Dorey-Stein on the phone—she talks from her home in Pennsylvania—I ask her if she was aware at the time of being a witness to history. "I definitely knew it was a special time. But really I was just trying to appreciate the moment I was in."
As one of a team of stenographers, Dorey-Stein’s job was to record and transcribe all official White House statements, speeches and conversations at home, and on trips abroad—everywhere from Panama to Phnom Penh. This frontline role wasn’t without its pitfalls, however. She had to negotiate the strict pecking order among her colleagues, figure out what the hell to wear, and remember not to mix work with hanky-panky. This last directive appeared a no-brainer as she was firmly in a relationship with Sam, her perfect boyfriend and the man she wanted to marry. Then before you can say "Joe Biden", Dorey-Stein falls foul of a snooty alpha female she nicknames "The Rattler" for her jangling bracelets, goes commando in the presence of POTUS when she forgets to pack enough knickers, and falls disastrously in love with Jason, one of Obama’s closest aides, whom everyone adores but who turns out to be . . . well, you’ll find out.
Unsurprisingly, names have been changed to protect the identity of some of the characters. Dorey-Stein also adds the amusing disclaimer "Readers who believe they recognise themselves should refer to the third track of Carly Simon’s ‘No Secrets’." However she is keen to emphasise that this is not a book designed to dish the dirt on anyone. "It’s much more about the universal characters in our lives, seeing them for what they are and taking lessons from them. Since people have started reading it, they’re like: ‘Oh, I totally had someone in my life like this.’" And as Dorey-Stein points out, From the Corner of the Oval Office is also a book about what women, from stenographers to secret service agents, can achieve when they believe that, "Yes, they can". "I saw impressive women behind the scenes being unsung heroes every day. So I thought it was also important for other young women not only to see that this is what you can do if you put in the work, but also that if you’re feeling like an idiot, it’s okay, because everyone at every level experiences embarrassing moments".
Hit for six
Though From the Corner of the Oval Office (amusingly, the UK title has been changed from the US From the Corner of the Oval to deter the impression that it’s about cricket) is her first book, Dorey-Stein tells me she has long dreamed of being published. "Since elementary school, I’ve always had the compulsion to write, and always kept journals. So it wasn’t like I got to the White House and suddenly decided I needed to write everything down. But few people can say they’ve worked there: it’s just such a unique experience. I had rarely travelled outside of the country before and then all of a sudden I was getting whisked away and seeing all these crazy things. Every step of the way was worth writing about, and it almost felt irresponsible not to." Frequently laugh-out-loud, the book also soberly charts the political aftermath of such terrible occurrences as ISIS’ brutal murder of journalist Jim Foley, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the killing of nine African-Americans by a white supremacist in a church in downtown Charleston.
At first, Dorey-Stein tried to maintain her journals on the job, but it caused suspicion. "You’re in this political hotbed, so people were constantly coming up to me and asking, ‘What are you writing down right now?’, like I was a spy on the road. So instead I’d wake up early, go for a run, and then try to write for an hour or two before work. And then at night I would write my more emotional stuff in my journals, as well as emails to my parents telling them everything that was happening. I’d be like, ‘You guys would not believe what Thailand is like—it’s 90 degrees out there’." Taking notes on her phone was also a safe bet, "because as long as you were staring at your BlackBerry, you were doing your job".
Some of the writing that resulted from her early morning sessions took the form of candid essays about people she encountered, including Barack Obama’s political strategist, David Ploufe, and White House director of communications Jennifer Palmieri as well as Obama himself. "The privilege I had was that while everyone else was getting stressed about foreign policy, I could just watch. So in meetings for example, you witness the eye contact, and the extra second pause the president takes before he speaks. My favourite times with POTUS were when the cameras went off, and then he’d say the most amazing thing. I loved getting to see all that".
The end of terms
As the end of Obama’s second term of office loomed, Dorey-Stein flirted with the idea of getting another job but stalled because she “just loved POTUS”, and quite fancied the idea of working for the first female president.
Then, when Donald Trump won the election, she decided all bets were off. "I thought, ‘This is nuts . . . life is short, and who knows what’s going to happen? So I’m going to try to actually do something with my writing.’" Despite getting herself an agent and receiving encouraging feedback from the likes of David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, Dorey-Stein was rejected by every graduate-school creative writing programme she applied to. "I got my final rejection during Trump’s inauguration week. It was my bottom of the barrel moment!" Happily, when the book proposal went out PRH snapped it up. "I had this amazing day at the Trump White House, when Penguin Random House said, ‘Yeah, we’re in.’ Which meant I got to get out of there!"
To date, rights to From the Corner of the Oval Office have been sold in 10 countries, and the book has also been optioned for film by Anonymous Productions and Universal Pictures. If this book were merely a marvellously addictive read about one woman finding her path—as she drinks too many Cape Codders, gets her heart broken, makes friends for life and ultimately becomes a brilliant writer—it would already be well worth the cover price. But it is also a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall portrait of the 44th president of the United States. Throughout our conversation, Dorey-Stein still insists on calling Obama "POTUS" ("I call Trump ‘Trump’"). I challenge her to sum the man up in a sentence. She barely pauses. "He is just the most even-keeled, poised, eloquent, compassionate person, and a true civil servant." Read that, and weep.
It’s just after seven in Colorado, and the rising sun filters through the blinds of the tiny hotel gym, painting the back wall neon pink and creating an impossible glare on my treadmill television screen. Not that I care about what’s on TV; I’ve got my running playlist blasting through my skull. David Ploufe, one of the president’s senior advisors is sipping coffee from a to-go cup behind me and eyeing the dusty weight machines incredulously. I watch him in the mirror and wonder what that jackrabbit of a man is thinking. Marvin Nicholson, the president’s super-tall, super-goofy trip director is cracking jokes with the Secret Service guys as they sweep the gym with the bomb-sniffing German shepherds.
After three miles, I up my speed. Four miles in, I increase it again. I’ll stop at five, I tell myself. Finally, after seven miles, I slow way down and take a look in the mirror. My face is bright red and I’m WWF-level sweaty. My shirt is soaked through, my hair is wet and matted, even my socks are squishy, as if I stepped in a puddle.
I slow to a stop, and out of the corner of my eye, I see someone step onto the treadmill to my right. I hardly take note. "I thought you’d be faster than that", he says. I look over to see who this joker is. It’s the president.