Lawrence Jackson

If you miss President Obama, From the Corner of the Oval is the tell-all memoir about working in the White House that you need to read

July 10, 2018 10:35 am

For five years, Beck Dorey-Stein worked as one of President Obama’s stenographers — a job that, improbably, she found on Craigslist. By day, she transcribed the president’s words. And by night (and morning, and whenever downtime allowed), she started writing. Beck diligently wrote down everything she saw, felt, and experienced. In the process of transcribing the president’s words, she also found another voice: her own. She left her position in March of 2017, two months after Donald Trump took office. And now, not even 18 months later, she’s celebrating the launch of her first book, From the Corner of the Oval.

The cover of Beck’s memoir alludes to her perspective during her time at the White House: standing quietly in the corner, making no noise, but taking everything in. From the Corner of the Oval takes readers behind the scenes of the Obama administration and tells the stories the American people didn’t get to see during his time in office: the quiet in-between moments when the president went out of his way to be caring, gracious, and thoughtful; the intelligent people who surrounded him and made his professional life possible; the amount of work it actually took to run his daily schedule.

Beck maintains that she was the least important person in the White House. But if there’s anything I learned from her memoir, it’s that simply being part of President Obama’s staff made her a crucial part of the team. And I think he would agree. Ahead, we discuss everything from traveling the world with the president to finding supportive female friends at work. Even though you’ve probably never flown on Air Force One or shared a hotel gym with POTUS, you’ll still relate to Beck’s stories of making friends, getting your heart broken, and finding your voice in your twenties.

HelloGiggles: What a crazy story to find a job working for the president on Craigslist.

Beck Dorey-Stein: Yeah. It’s wonderful, but it’s also harrowing. I don’t want anyone’s takeaway to be like, drop out of school! Apply to jobs on Craigslist! You’ll get to work in the White House! [laughs]

HG: You hint at just how much personal writing you did during your time at the White House, but I’d love to know more about your process.

BDS: Whenever I could, I had notes on my phone. I’d write emails to my parents, mostly to my mom. In the morning, I would try to write. I would go for a run and write. At night, I would try to write, but I’m more of a morning person. On the road, I was constantly keeping notes in my phone. If something really great happened, where I was like, I need to try to explore this, then I would write some form of essay, because I wanted to dig into it.

People would be like, Just write anything down. Especially my parents. I’d be like, Oh, I don’t have time or I’m tired or It’s going to come across really poorly, it’s not going to be good writing. Looking back, even just this morning, I came across this thing I’d written behind the scenes with Jimmy Kimmel. I totally forgot I’d written that! But that’s so fun to have.

HG: You must have so much written down that isn’t in the book.

BDS: The first draft was twice as long. [laughs] My editor was like, Beck, come on. I was like, What, it’s not supposed to be 600 pages? The stuff that didn’t get published, I’m like, man. Those are the TRUE X-files.

HG: While your work environment at the White House was not a typical work environment—

BDS: And yet it was!

HG: Yes — there are a lot of things about your former job that I think every young woman can relate to. Particularly learning the social breakdowns and protocols of a workplace, and what to do when nobody is eager to help you figure it out.

BDS: I was coming from this extreme other end of the spectrum: a teaching job where everyone DID want to help me. The government and the Obama White House is not even the craziest place to work. Even so, it was so different from a teaching community. Everyone, especially for first year teachers, are just like, Here’s what I did for this lesson plan, let me know how it goes. There’s a lot of hand-holding. And then you get to this place, the apex of power, where everyone’s worked really hard to get there, and you have to climb the ladder. And I just show up. I’m like, Oh, so we don’t have an orientation? [laughs]

HG: I also related to that feeling of working with women who don’t support other women and don’t care to help the next generation.

BDS: I’m shaking my head as you say it.

HG: There’s a woman in the book you call The Rattler — so named for her jangling bracelets — who shoots you down at every turn. It was so gutting to read parts about her, because we’ve all worked with this woman before.

BDS: That’s why I wanted to write about her. It would’ve been easy to exclude her, but I think it’s important to address that there’s this other roadblock in the way sometimes. I have a good friend, who when I was telling her I was writing this book, I said, I have this character The Rattler. She was like, Oh my god, I’ve had a Rattler. I’ve had SEVERAL Rattlers. Everyone has dealt with this problem. I’ve dealt with it in every workplace I’ve been, including in the hand-holding school where they were, for the most part, very helpful. I think it’s really important to address it.

Not only, here’s this roadblock of a person — a woman not helping another younger woman — but also, my own mental roadblock. I kind of let her dictate the overall environment. And the longer I was in the Obama White House, I was like, Wait a second. There are so many amazing women here. She had this outspoken presence, but there are so many cool women who are keeping a lower, chiller presence, because they don’t have something to prove. The vast majority of the women who worked at the Obama White House were amazing.

HG: And you did find an amazing group of women.

BDS: You can’t really survive without it. That whole first year in the White House, before I had even gotten involved with Jason, it was just me trying to figure out, do I have friends? Am I ever going to have friends here? Do people just not have friends at this place? Once I became friends with Hope and Shilpa and Pathahad, [I thought] I can do anything if I have these women backing me.

HG: In the book, you keep coming back to the concept of looking up — from your work so you don’t miss the incredible people and places you’re visiting, but also because there are real problems in the world.

BDS: Yeah. I just watched Cody Keenan, who was the head Obama speechwriter, give the commencement speech at Weinberg College. He said he saw this one sign at a protest that said, “If Hillary had won, I’d be at brunch right now.” And he said that sign makes him so mad, because it’s not just like, oh, if things are going well at the White House, everything’s fine. You need to be an active citizen. That was one of my big takeaways. When it was 2009 and I was teaching, I was not paying attention in the way I now think is so vital.

HG: You traveled the whole world on Air Force One. What was your favorite place to visit?

BDS: Each place is different and the context is different, but Burma, the first time, was wild. The streets were so flooded with people, and the motorcade was speeding so fast, I was actually really worried that we were going to hit someone. These people were so excited. A president had never come to Burma before; they’re waving flags. I turned behind me, and Doug Mills from The New York Times, who had been traveling since Reagan, was there. I was like, Have you ever seen a crowd like this? And he was like, No, I haven’t. What’s funny is, fast forward five years, we’re in Vietnam, and Doug Mills is behind me. I’m like, I think this is bigger than Burma. And he was like, It’s bigger than Burma!

When we traveled abroad, seeing reactions to the president was the coolest thing. Just seeing what he symbolized and how much people loved him and admired him. He did these young summit initiatives where he would talk to kids, teenagers, and young adults about their own entrepreneurial ideas. The way he would interact with these kids and inspire them and encourage them and be like, Yeah, let’s see what we can do. Let’s work together. There was one girl in Vietnam who was an entrepreneur starting her own business, but was also a freestyle rapper. She said it casually when she was introducing herself, but he was like, Wait wait wait. What? Well, let’s hear something. So then she was freestyling for this whole huge auditorium and the president of the United States. And it’s like, what a guy! He didn’t have to do that. The beauty of those sidetracks — that’s what he understood better than most anyone. That’s why you go abroad — to get these samplings of real human life.

HG: Your book is a nice period piece that remembers some of President Obama’s biggest milestones and some of the biggest things that happened during his presidency, both good and bad. One that comes up a lot, unfortunately, are shootings. What was it like to be so close to the people having conversations about gun control?

BDS: Well, as a stenographer, my number one job was to be first line of defense against the press. I wasn’t part of those conversations; I was not privy to gun reform legislation or anything like that. That said, when we went to visit these places, and the president spoke and met with families of victims and survivors, that sticks with you. So many people in this country have been traumatized — at the least — and have lost people. It’s wild and unbelievable, of the many travesties that go on right now, that there hasn’t been any legislation passed to make this better. All you have to do is meet one person who’s lost someone, and you’re like, We can do so much better than this. All you have to do is interact with a human being who’s been hurt in this way. You think, if this was avoidable, why wouldn’t we take steps to avoid it?

HG: Most of your White House friends knew that their job was ending with President Obama. But you had the option to stay on into the Trump administration, which you did for about two months.

BDS: It was like being a fifth year senior. Like, Aww, all my friends are graduating and they’re gonna go do cool things, and I’m gonna stay here. When it was Hillary, it was like, Ooh, that’ll be really interesting, to see what changes. But once it was Trump, it was like, I really should’ve tried even harder to save money, because I just can’t leave yet.

HG: You talk about it in the book, but what was it like working for him for those two months?

BDS: When Trump came to the White House in January, every day was such a challenge to get out of my bed. In a very real way. I was like, I can’t believe I have to go there, and be around all these people, and walk by these offices that once belonged to my friends. [My colleagues] were doing really good work, and everyone was excited about a speech or a trip, and President Obama was working on these different projects. All of a sudden, to go into a swamp of snakes, it was just too much. I couldn’t do it. Really, when Trump won was when I started figuring out my next step. It wasn’t really a question of sticking around and trying to reveal who he is, because we already knew who he was, is my opinion. I think the takeaway, especially for young women, is if you get to that point, you’ve gotta make a move. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you’re like, Okay, I have to take myself seriously. I have to be my own advocate. But it’s so important to do so.

At the same time, when I was thinking about leaving in 2014 or 2015, I was having the hardest time. I kept saying, I should leave. I should leave. There’s nothing else for me here. And I’m SO glad I didn’t leave. But it was really hard for me to be like, It’s okay to stay put. Because I think also, as much as we’re constantly trying to climb ladders and get promoted, it’s also sometimes important to be like, If I’m okay here, maybe I need to stay here. If there’s something pulling me here, what is that? And maybe that’s okay too. Especially in the White House and in D.C., where the culture is all about climbing these ladders and getting the next step. It was very strange that I was like, I think this is actually a pretty cool perspective, but it’s not important. That was always hard. I was like, If I’m not important, is it still okay to be kind of okay with where I am?

HG: Logically, I always knew how many people must be surrounding the president at all times. But your book really blew my mind as to just how many people are essential and have to go everywhere with him. What surprised you the most about working in the White House?

BDS: I think you nailed it. The spider web of people that has to go on forever and ever and ever. We went to Australia and I went to the beach in the morning before we started the day. It was like, 6 a.m. It was all Australians. And then I hear this guy with an American accent. And I’m like, He must be part of our group, but I’ve never seen him before. He was a pilot, but he didn’t fly on Air Force One; he flew on one of the protective jets that are always somewhere in the clouds around us. And I was like, WHAT?! That is insane! You’ve been traveling on every trip I’ve been on, and not only have I not met you, but I didn’t know you existed.

The advance team, on domestic trips, they would go a week out. For international trips, they had two weeks on the front end to figure everything out. There’s a hotel person, so they deal with booking hotel rooms not only for the 20 or so staff, but also all secret service. And then secret service has their own mandatory needs. They need a secure elevator, they need a secure stairway, they need all of these things. Everyone is pulling so much weight.

Then, on the flip side of that, there are mothers who are volunteer motorcade drivers, and they’re like, Oh yeah, this is my third time volunteering for the motorcade. So they have all of their own Obama stories and their own link into the world. It’s pretty unbelievable. And so expensive. It’s just mind-blowing.

HG: For President Obama to still make you feel like you matter must be so special.

BDS: Well, that’s the beauty of it. There’s this invisible web of unsung heroes that is probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are contributing and making trips work. One of my favorite stories that didn’t make it into the book is that President Obama was on an elevator with a handful of essential staff. There’s an advance girl there whose one job is to escort him upstairs. She pushes the button to get him from the ground floor — he has to take these freight elevators from the basement — to his hotel room. She had been told, Just look at the buttons, don’t bother him, he’s just traveled for 15 hours. So she pushes the button, the elevator doors close, and he’s like, Hey, how’s it going? And she just says, Hi, fine, but won’t look at him. She’s just staring at the buttons. He picks up on this, and he’s like, How’s your day been? And she’s like, Fine. Just keeps staring at the buttons. They’re slowly going upstairs, and he’s just like, What is going on with this girl that she won’t look at me? And he’s like, Well, did you do anything fun? And she’s like, Sir! They told me just to push the buttons! [laughs] She’s freaking out. And he starts laughing, like, You can’t just look at the buttons! C’mon! You’re part of this! You’re part of the team. You’re in this with us. Of course you’re gonna look up from the buttons. I love that story, because it’s just him being not even president, but this guy who is like, You’re part of this. Everyone is playing a role, and you have an important role.

HG: It was very emotional to relive President Obama leaving office.

BDS: Oh, man. Him leaving. I get goosebumps.

HG: When you see him on TV or think of him now, how do you remember him?

BDS: The beauty of Barack Obama is he’s this even keeled, calming, pragmatic presence. He’s just like, I’m going to work really hard to help where I can, but if it’s beyond my control, if it’s not within my control, I’m not going to spend time on it, because there’s not enough time. I’m just going to focus on what I can work on. So whenever I’m spazzing out and running around with my head cut off, I’m like, Okay. President Obama would say to focus on what I can actually control. [laughs]

The last time I got to see him in person, I went to his foundation opening in D.C. I was still working for Trump, and I was like, I just need to see him in real life. I just need to make sure he still exists. It’s so embarrassing, but I had just worked for him for five years, and I walk into his office, and I see him across the hallway, and my knees literally were weak. I was just like, Okay, he’s here. It’s fine. Everything is gonna be okay. And of all people, he would be like, That’s not the way this is supposed to go. We’re all in this together. We all need to be working toward the next step.

From the Corner of the Oval is now available wherever books are sold.