Chloe Blades finds joy in a memoir of the Obama Presidency by a millennial stenographer, who is instructed to ‘exude femininity in a strictly non-sexual way’.
Since The Donald was sworn in as leader of the free world, raucous exposés have made their way out of the White House and into the once resistible American Politics section of our bookshelves. Fire & Fury (along with a sequel and a TV show in the making), Trump Revealed, Insane Clown President, The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump… all tell-all revelations about his corrupt and narcissistic ways. Beck Dorey-Stein offers a different perspective on another occupant of the White House: From the Corner of the Oval is the memoir of a twenty-something stenographer who witnessed six years of the Obama Presidency.
Dorey-Stein’s 2011-2017 journals are masterfully crafted. She writes about Obama’s “non-essential” staffers such as the speechwriters, wranglers, advance associates, videographers and Secret Service agents. She also writes about her own role and expectations. As a White House stenographer, she’s told she must be “discreet and neat – like a librarian or a well-paid prostitute”, and “exude femininity in a strictly non-sexual way”. There is to be “no hanky-panky in the workplace – or anywhere, ever” and “above all else, keep the secrets to yourself”. But every rule is broken with minimal discretion, femininity exudes in waves, and hanky-panky comes in abundance.
Her storytelling is extraordinary. She never fails to evoke the texture and atmosphere of her White House relationships, and she has a unique talent for unveiling the real person behind the politics. Obama’s chief political strategiest David Plouffe is recast as an exhausted family man in need of a vacation after he overtakes her on a run through the Nevada Hills. As for Obama himself, I laughed louder than one might say is acceptable on the 18:10 Western Line when she wrote about the President initiating a game of catch-me-if-you-can with his Secret Service agents. Relishing in the absurdities of being POTUS, he announces, “‘The bear is loose!” before going on a spontaneous walk.
There have been other insights into Obama as a person who has a dry sense of humour on shows such as Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But unlike the preordained questions, the retakes, the scripts, and the prompts that come with TV productions, Dorey-Stein’s interactions with Obama are unscripted, natural and authentic, and the perspective we get is a breath of fresh air.
The book also has an antihero: Jason, senior staffer and practised philanderer. He weaves in and out of the crochet of relationships like a slippery, flirtatious snake. He holds a firm grip on Dorey-Stein’s affections even when he’s having sex with every other hot new “non-essential” and making promises to his fiancé. Dorey-Stein navigates us through the storm of their affair and although it sounds slightly schadenfreude on my part, it’s very entertaining. I looked forward to them stepping off Air Force One once again and hurtling straight into a scene of seduction, temptation, and passionate sex before an episode of hysterical heartbreak. Dorey-Stein grasps the essence of people so well that you can’t help but become addicted to it all, and with Jason she really manages to capture the true essence of an asshole.
Her fuck-ups and vulnerabilities make her a compelling narrator. It’s unsurprising that Universal Pictures have plans to turn her book into a motion picture.
The curtain falls on Obama’s final term as POTUS and the finale begins. We say goodbye to the games of Seat-O on board the Delta press plane, birthday rides on Marine One, and late nights dancing on the floors of Cabo clubs. Obama gives one last seminal speech over the deafening applause and encores from the crowd, and Dorey-Stein watches it all unfold from behind the stage curtain. She silently thanks her family of colleagues for being by her side. The death of Obama’s America presides over the narrative tone as the “non-essentials” prepare for Trump to take the stage.
If you’re after Obama’s politics or insights into the spats with Congress you’re better off sticking to Ben Rhodes’ memoir The World As It Is or James Comey’s Higher Loyalty. The closest you’ll get to politics here is finding out why “Congress are a bag of dicks”. This book, Peter Baker says in The New Yorker, is “essentially Bridget Jones goes to the White House”.
The quotidian encounters add up to a backstage pass for readers wanting to know the gossip, the parties, the overseas trips and nights on Air Force One. Dorey-Stein and her memoir made me feel something that many of the other post-Obama White House memoirs haven’t: joy.
From the Corner of the Oval, by Beck Dorey-Stein (Penguin Random House, $38) is available at Unity Books.