Friday 17 January 2020

From the Corner of the Oval Office - Glamour and illicit romance in White House tell-all

Memoir: From the Corner of the Oval Office, Beck Dorey-Stein, Bantam Press, hardback, 352 pages, €16

Dream job: Beck Dorey-Stein
Dream job: Beck Dorey-Stein
From the Corner of the Oval Office by Beck Dorey-Stein

Tanya Sweeney

After responding to an ad online, Beck Dorey-Stein was thrust into the frenetic world of the 44th US President, working as a stenographer. Her rip-roaring account of her time there charts a fascinating chapter of American history.

Somewhere in the last decade or so, US politics shrugged off its craggy greyness and crossed the Rubicon towards a world of sexy glamour and compelling entertainment. Pretty much anyone with a Twitter account keeps a keen eye on the comings and goings of the White House, once the seat of tradition and power for centuries. Even those with just a passing interest in politics haven't been able to tear their eyes away.

Publishers and authors have rightly pounced on the obsession, resulting in a bounty of political thrillers, memoirs and polemical reads. Many Obama White House staffers have published sepia-tinted memoirs, from David Litt to Ben Rhodes. Amid them all, it's safe to say that few are like Beck Dorey-Stein's account of the White House.

Pitched somewhere between Veep, Sex & the City and The Devil Wears Prada, From The Corner of the Oval Office sees Dorey-Stein enter the corridors of power as the official stenographer of the 44th POTUS (he is never referred to as 'Obama' by White House insiders - rather, it's 'POTUS' or 'the president'). Somewhat implausibly, the young Dorey-Stein - broke, desperate to work, up to that point a teacher - answers a Craigslist job advert in 2012. Despite crying off on the second interview to work at Lululemon, she soon finds herself travelling on Air Force One to Mexico, Asia, Cuba and all over the US. The pace is frenetic, but she tells herself over and over she is the luckiest girl in the country.

As a stenographer, it's Dorey-Stein's job to record every speech and presentation that the president makes, meaning that she needs to be on hand no matter where he is in the world. To say that she's had a ringside seat for some of history's bigger moments is no exaggeration.

Dorey-Stein is evidently smart and hungry, but learning the ropes, the jargon and the dynamics of the White House's inner sanctum isn't an easy task. There are catty, patronising senior aides, but she soon finds her feet with a coterie of friends.

Add in an ex working on Obama's re-election trail and a fling with a colleague who is about to become a father, and soon the dream job starts to get somewhat tangled.

But it's the catty terrain of Washington DC that Dorey-Stein truly can't get a handle on. It's a town punch-drunk on power, where even the busboys asks what your job is and everyone wears black (but not cool 'New York' black, more "boring, uninspired, ill-fitting Men's Warehouse-meets-Ann Taylor black"). It's a boilerplate 'fish-out-of-water' scenario, where the neophyte has to think quickly to survive. But it has all the makings of a rip-roaring read: illicit romance, glamour, bitchy colleagues, and a boss who was among one of the most famous men in the world.

Told in an astute, yet highly conversational style, Dorey-Stein unveils the delicious inner workings of the Obama administration. There are even instances where she runs on the hotel gym treadmill alongside POTUS, who cracks jokes and snaps gum under his baseball hat (another man, desperate to impress him, wipes out on the treadmill, certainly getting his attention). Recalling her experiences as a dewy-eyed ingénue, there's a lightness and frivolity to Dorey-Stein's memoir. Yet there are moments of genuine gravitas as she recalls moments from Obama's presidency, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook school massacre.

"On my way home, I see wagons full of preschoolers at day care in Lafayette Park," she writes. "I see the ashen-faced Sandy Hook parents who, months from now, will find themselves at Chinese restaurants, in the frozen foods sections of a supermarket… and inevitably overhear other families laughing together because the world will have moved on."

Dorey-Stein's affection for the Obama administration is evident, and there's something gratifying about her enthusiasm for Obama's White House as a workplace. It lends a bittersweet tone to her memoir, not least as the final months of his presidency loom round the corner. Dorey-Stein herself is contemplating her next career move as Obama's tenure nears its conclusion, though she is enthusiastic about the hardworking Hillary Clinton's chances of picking up the reins. Even she could barely fathom what happened next.

The Obama administration is a particularly fascinating and glamorous chapter of American history, and Dorey-Stein's lightness of touch and keen sense of narrative has turned this from a predictable political tome into something much more digestible.

In fact, she has achieved the most impressive trick of all - delivering something that's at once a smart beach read and a perfect, poignant tribute to a point in political history that can often feel like it was many centuries ago.

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