By accident, Beck Dorey-Stein landed a job in 2012 as a stenographer in the Obama Administration. Stenography wasn't her dream occupation, and politics wasn't her life's ambition. In fact, Dorey-Stein was an aimless twentysomething who skipped out on one of the job interviews before she realized it involved working at the White House.
Today, Dorey-Stein publishes her memoir about working in close proximity to President Obama, From the Corner of the Oval. It joins a flood of newish Obama memoirs by young White House staffers, including The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes and Alyssa Mastromonaco's Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?
Unlike the other memoirs in this rarified category, Corner doesn't claim to offer any new insights into the Obama White House. Dorey-Stein's job as stenographer involved staying as far out of the way as possible — she often hid behind shrubs with a recorder so as not to wind up in a photograph of some historic speech or another — and not bringing attention to herself.
So there aren't many all-new revelations in Corner. It's not a White House tell-all. She does occasionally make small talk with Obama, and she does accidentally witness speechwriter (and future Pod Save America host) Jon Favreau's glistening abs in a brief hotel hallway encounter. But it's a memoir about unwittingly landing a dream job, and sitting about six feet away from history, and working with people you hugely admire.
Part of the charm of Corner is that Dorey-Stein takes her small role seriously: "...we serve at the pleasure of the president," she writes, "and even if most of us are young and unimportant, devoid of a fancy title or a famous face, it all counts." Her earnestness and her excitement is contagious — and who doesn't love a good workplace drama?
The central conflict of Corner is Dorey-Stein's quest for love — particularly as it relates to a coworker who repeatedly alternates between tender and aloof. At nearly 340 pages, Corner is at least 50 pages too long, but Beck-Stein is a talented writer who knows how to keep a reader turning pages long past bedtime.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Corner is its (unwitting?) revelation of the Obama White House's elitist bro culture. Aside from the manipulative hyperintelligent charmer who she falls for, Dorey-Stein notes that Obama displays a weakness for a certain brand of tall, athletic, confident young man. That muscular competitiveness defines the work culture in his administration.
Dorey-Stein reports on a cultural arrogance to the Obama White House in Corner. Progressive critics like Thomas Frank argue that Obama's elitism was his fatal flaw, and Corner provides plenty of supporting evidence toward those claims. The White House in this book is staffed by a cadre of good-looking, able-bodied young (mostly) men from good schools and strong backgrounds who believe they know more than anyone else. Their intentions are good, but their arrogance is thick, and their willingness to pierce the bubble and step outside themselves seems nearly nonexistent.
It's not clear from the text if Dorey-Stein even personally disapproves of the alpha-male culture of Obama's White House. But history will not be kind to the male staffer who immediately nicknames her "Kiddo" and continually talks down to her (albeit with an affable tone) throughout her four years on staff. There's a fine line between "protective older brother" and "condescending douche," and several of the men in this book trample over the line thoughtlessly.
I'd happily read a dozen workplace-style White House memoirs like Dorey-Stein's before I bothered to read one more journalist's attempt to uncover "the real person" behind a president or a presidential contender. Recently, I've been listening to the audiobook version of Amy Chozick's memoir of covering Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, Chasing Hillary. And while Chozick is a smart and funny narrator, her incessant worry about whether she'll ever uncover "the real Hillary Clinton" is absolutely maddening.
Chasing has been lauded in the press for its damning analysis of how the media handled the 2016 presidential election. And it's true that Chozick talks frankly about the way she and the New York Times fell for the Russian data breach. She admits that she chased the wrong story at various points during the campaign, and she freely discusses the way Donald Trump manipulated the media into doing his bidding.
But Chozick's introspection only goes so far. She fails to really address her weird obsession with finding the "real Clinton," or acknowledge that her desire for Clinton to personally like her is unhealthy and beside the point.
Don't get me wrong: like Corner, Chasing is a hard book to put down. (And Chozick's narration of the audio book is fantastic — her sense of humor and exasperation really come through in subtle ways that text alone cannot convey.) But it's also lousy with blind spots and undefined goals.
What, for example, does it even mean to find the "real" person at the heart of a political campaign? Chozick is intimately familiar with Clinton's biography and the people in her orbit. Counting speeches and travel time, she's likely spent more time with Clinton than she has with just about anyone but close family and best friends. She can accurately predict what Clinton will do in many situations. But still she wallows in angst over not being able to access the "real" human being at the heart of her story.
What the hell difference does it make who the "real" Hillary Clinton is? Who can really determine how real a human being is, or what percentage of a person's reality they're sharing with the public?
It's true that Clinton ran a campaign that was actively aggressive toward the media, and that was a fatal error. But it's also true that Clinton is one of the most public figures of the last 50 years. Most of her life was lived in public. She has said many hundreds of thousands — millions — of words on the record, and countless books have been written about her. What unique attribute did Chozick expect to uncover? What would have satisfied her quest for something real?
In the end, Chozick makes a great case for why Clinton lost, and why the media was implicit in that loss, but she can't really articulate more than a vague dissatisfaction with Clinton on a personal level. Though she wrote tens of thousands of words about Clinton and her campaigns for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, Chozick seems bothered by the fact that she can't pierce Clinton's very soul.
But even if she had — even if Chozick could have seen the world through Clinton's eyes and walked a mile in her proverbial pantsuit — what would have changed? We don't elect presidents because we know them on an intimate level. We elect presidents because we believe they're going to do something that we want them to do.
If any book should inspire a death sentence for the personality-obsessed psychobabble school of presidential journalism, it's Amy Siskind's The List: A Week-By-Week Reckoning of Trump's First Year. Siskind isn't interested in Trump's relationship with his father. She's not concerned with what Trump believes at his core, or who the real Donald Trump is.
Instead, Siskind lists what Trump has done as president, nothing more and nothing less. One action is one item on the list, arranged in chronological order, with a chapter for each week in the first year of Trump's term.
The remarkable thing about The List is how huge it is — how many actions the Trump Administration has taken since taking office. It's impossible to remember all this stuff without Siskind's help: all the allies Trump has offended, all the policies he's rolled back, all the outrageous lies he's spread.
The List capably reminds us of the cost of the 2016 elections. While reporters were whining about access to Hillary Clinton and publishing piece after piece about how she can't connect with voters on a personal level, they were ignoring all the warning signs of what Trump would actually do in office. The List lays out the price we must pay for allowing this to happen.
But of course, reporters are people, and people can't help but make the same mistake over and over again. Undoubtedly in 2020, reporters will fall into the same dumb personality traps that they fell into in 2016. But hopefully enough people like Siskind will be there to remind us that when it comes to the presidency, words are cheap and intentions are meaningless. It's only actions that matter.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant