Since The Donald was sworn in as leader of the free world, rather raucous exposés have made their way out of the White House and into the once resistible American Politics section of our bookshelves. We’ve seen them all: Fire & Fury (along with a sequel and a TV show in the making), Trump Revealed, Insane Clown President, and The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, to name a few. All delivered to us by ‘award-winning’ journalists capitalising on the back of Trump’s presidency with tell-all revelations that, low and behold, he’s a deluded narcissist and the Russian government interfered with the U.S. election. Gasp.
So just when we thought our digestion for American politics could use some respite, Beck Dorey-Stein, Obama’s twenty-something stenographer, brings us From the Corner of the Oval; a refreshing autobiographical distraction that stemmed from a job search on Craigslist and resulted in a whopping seven figure two book deal and a contract with Universal Pictures. Who knew that in 2018 the greatest perspective of Obama’s White House would come from the “lowliest of staffers with a totally archaic, a monkey-or-machine-could-do-it job”?
Dorey-Stein’s 2011-2017 journals are masterfully crafted. They unravel a rarely documented performance of “The Circus”, an apt sub-heading for the evident sub-reality of the White House, and under the spotlight are Obama’s “non-essential” staffers: the speechwriters, wranglers, advance associates, videographers, and Secret Service agents, to name a few. They’re the “invisible hands backstage”, conductors of the “one-man band”, and they’re working behind the red curtain in preparation for “the ringleader himself – the president of the United States” to take the stage. The intricate details of Dorey-Stein’s relationships with the “non-essentials” and the 44th president of the U.S. are divulged in this memoir, and we’ve got ring side tickets to the show.
Dorey-Stein presents us with the rules, or stage directions if you will, for the aspiring stenographer. You 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”. Fortunately, for our entertainment, she admits that she “should not be a stenographer” and every rule is broken with minimal discretion, femininity exudes in waves, and hanky-panky comes in abundance.
With every broken rule there comes a story and 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. David Plouffe, for example, is Obama’s political strategist who, like Dorey-Stein, is a runner. He overtakes her in the Nevada hills and “blunts her competitive edge in midstride” – twenty years her senior and embarrassingly faster. Impressed, she transforms him into an essay titled “The Scampering Strategist”.
I soon realised this steno had hooked me like a salmon caught swimming upstream. This isn’t just another post-Obama White House memoir like I’d initially thought. Rather, Dorey-Stein has a unique aptitude for bringing out the magic in the mundane and making it interesting and extraordinary. Within her narrative she hones in on traits such as movement, expression, and energy; traits that are usually replaced with personal achievements within the political arena following a job description. Dorey-Stein however sees people’s authenticity and removes their political costumes, and so David Plouffe the political strategist becomes David Plouffe the competitive runner and, we later discover, the exhausted family man in need of a vacation.
This is especially true of her relationship with Obama. I laughed aloud louder than one might say is acceptable on the 18:10 Western Line when Obama initiates 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”. Dorey-Stein shows us the ways in which Obama was more than just the leader of the free world and a man who had a staunch control of America. He’s actually quite funny, too. But maybe you’re thinking that we’ve had insights into a personal Obama and his 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 never before inhaled fresh air.
As with every great theatrical performance there is an antihero. Jason, senior staffer and philandering narcissist, is just that. He weaves in and out of the crochet of relationships like a slippery, flirtatious snake. He holds a firm grip on the reigns of Dorey-Stein’s affection 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 infidelity and although it sounds slightly schadenfreude on my part it was very entertaining. I looked forward to them stepping off Air Force One once again and plundering straight into a scene of seduction, temptation, and passionate sex before an episode of hysterical heartbreak. Dorey-Stein just grasps the essence of people so unbelievably well and you can’t help but become addicted to it all, and with Jason she really manages to capture the true essence of an ass hole. It’s unsurprising that Universal Pictures have plans to turn her riveting steno days into a motion picture.
She’s just different to the others. It’s her fuckups and vulnerabilities that make her the exception to the charade of other performers. She’s not dressed up for the masquerade. Beck Dorey-Stein is the real deal. From Act I to Act V we get a sense of her confidence building, a laissez-faire attitude encroaching upon her once insecure sensibilities, and a whole new woman in our midst. 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 with barely an audience or an applaud, but the show must go on.
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”. This is the backstage pass for the young men and women who have a thirst for the parties, the gossip, 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 and that’s joy. Her quotidian encounters with an administration the majority of the world adored are a blissful interlude from the performance that we’re forced to currently sit through that sees an orange twat prancing around on a broken stage as he offends our ears with his noise.