I’ve seen Beck Dorey Stein’s splendid White House memoir, From the Corner of the Oval described in a couple of places as C-SPAN crossed with Sex and the City, and I would say that’s fairly apt. The memoir chronicles Stein’s work as a stenographer for six years in the Obama administration, where she was able to essentially be a fly on the wall, recording Obama interactions with the press, as well as other politicians and world leaders. She was able to travel around with the President, fly around on Air Force One, and roam the halls of the West Wing.
That said, it is not a book heavy on substantive policy issues or White House gossip. Stein basically tracks her romantic relationships throughout that six-year period, pegging many of the events in her personal life to major moments during the Obama presidency. She was absolutely lousy in her love life, too. She spends much of those six years cheating on her boyfriend with a charming but sleazy White House cad (the real names are changed, although it’s a guy who was clearly relatively close to the President). Basically, she is repeatedly dicked around by this guy, while she dicks around her own boyfriend, a 20-something guy with a burgeoning career as a campaign advisor.
Those interactions with the men with whom she is involved, as well as her friendships with other White House staffers — and the occasional run-in with the President (usually at the gym) — range from irritating to sweet to frustrating to heartbreaking, but it’s always an easy and entertaining read. Personally, I found her perspective on Obama and the White House from inside the West Wing to be more compelling, and her impressions track everything that we want to believe about the Obama White House: They were amazing, lovely, hopeful, optimistic, profoundly caring folks, who got into politics for all the right reasons. She offers a lot of first-hand accounts of those major moments in the Obama presidency, and for a few hours while reading From the Corner of the Oval, it’s like being transported back into a better, more hopeful time. There were a number of highlights, but it’s the way she got into Obama’s speech after the Charleston church shooting that probably hit me the hardest, if only because it reminded me that the United States was once led by this man:
Imagine the current occupant of the White House lifting the spirits of churchgoers who are there to grieve the brutal murders of nine Black people by a white supremacist. It’s unfathomable. And time and time again, Stein reminds us of the goodness that Obama brought into this country.
There’s one other section in the book — the epilogue — that’s also worth mentioning, because Stein was not a political appointee. She was a staff member, who was held over from one administration to the next, and imagine what it must have felt like to roam the halls with Obama, Susan Rice, Joe Biden, David Plouffe, Jennifer Palmieri, etc., one day and to come into work the next day to have Stephen Bannnon, Stephen Miller, and Donald Trump hovering over you. “Remember that pit of snakes in Indiana Jones,” Stein writes. “I work in that pit now … I watch Stephen Miller smirk like a demonic Pee Wee Herman as he cracks jokes about gender equality and a van full of women who are active duty members of the military.”
Imagine witnessing first-hand a crowd of “Napoleonic clowns” moving into the White House and undoing all the amazing work that had been put into our country over the previous eight years. It’s a kick in the gut, but it’s the only down note in an otherwise enjoyable, light-hearted and fun romp through the Obama White House written by one of the many cogs who made that place run so smoothly.