Eye of the typist: The view from the corner of the Oval Office
Stenographer Beck Dorey-Stein on working for Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the Oval Office
Beck Dorey-Stein: Obama 'can put everyone at ease by cracking a joke, but then of course you feel really dumb because he’s always funnier than you'. Photograph: Lawrence Jackson
You wait and wait and wait, and then not one but a dozen memoirs by staff in the Obama administration flood the market at the one time. Each is more wistfully nostalgic than the last, but it’s probably safe to say that few are as compelling, nor as glamorous, as the one written by Beck Dorey-Stein.
As part of a seven-figure book deal, the 31-year-old has written From the Corner of the Oval Office, an account of her five years as a White House stenographer. Dorey-Stein, then 25 in 2012, is unemployed and broke, a stint as a teacher at an elite Washington DC boarding school the most notable thing on her CV. Bordering on desperation, she answers a Craigslist ad and, somewhat improbably, winds up working as Barack Obama’s stenographer, tracking his every move and recording his every utterance.
It’s a whirlwind five years as Dorey-Stein finds her sea legs in the White House, travelling to 60 countries, from Cuba to Cambodia, on the palatial Air Force One. Needless to say, it all makes for a compulsive read: think The Devil Wears Prada meets Veep.
But first . . . Craigslist?
“It’s true, but it’s different to what you might think,” Dorey-Stein says, laughing. “The people I got the job from were a third-party contractor, so it’s not like it was the Obama administration who were having to resort to Craigslist.”
He’s a very funny guy. He can put everyone at ease by cracking a joke, but then of course you feel really dumb because he’s always funnier than you
Online messageboard or not, Dorey-Stein reiterates throughout the book how lucky she was to have such a stroke of good fortune (especially as she cried off on the second interview for the job to work a shift at Lululemon).
“It was incredible and insane and chaotic, but I wasn’t sitting in these meets or press briefings waiting to be called on,” she says. “My whole job was to blend in. People said I gamed the system – I got to go everywhere but didn’t have that pressure on my shoulders the whole time.”
This blending in makes up much of the early book, and it’s here where comparisons with Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller The Devil Wears Prada make sense.
“There are a lot of overlaps,” Dorey-Stein says. “It’s like getting this fish out of water shoved into a shark tank of power and influence, and seeing the different characters that it attracts. I wasn’t a political person in 2012, but I had that moment like Anne Hathaway has in the movie where she’s, like, Oh, I didn’t even appreciate all the ways this affects my life every day.”
Though there were “maybe a dozen” bosses between her and the president – he is never referred to as Obama by his staff, only as the president or Potus – she had some interactions with the 44th president. Often, they would meet in hotel gyms while on the road, with the president wearing a black cap and snapping Nicorette gum, goading her to run faster. (The men working out beside him, incidentally, would often be attempting to impress him, resulting in one man wiping out on a treadmill.)
“It was very cool, as he had so much going on at any given moment, and yet he was never too busy or important to have this little side moment,” recalls Dorey-Stein. “He’s a very funny guy. He can put everyone at ease by cracking a joke, but then of course you feel really dumb because he’s always funnier than you.”
Occasionally, Dorey-Stein would attend interviews that Obama and his wife, Michelle, would take part in together. “They were just so much fun together,” Dorey-Stein says. “They would just rib each other, which is all I want in a future relationship. They can laugh at each other and tease each other, and he always defers to her, which I sort of love.
“I was so worried when I took that job that he wasn’t going to measure up to everything I had thought about him, and within days I was like, Oh my God, he’s so much better than I even thought.”
Job done on learning the ways of the White House, Dorey-Stein recalls how the White House and Air Force One were like “summer camps on steroids”, with many staffers taking Xanax or Ambien on long flights. Obama’s many women staffers would call themselves “the Vagiants”. More seasoned staffers and journalists, many of them grizzled party animals, would recall stories from times past, like when President Reagan fell asleep in front of the pope.
“A week on the road is like a year at home,” she writes.
It doesn’t take long for Dorey-Stein to catch the eye of a more senior staffer, referred to in the book as Jason Wolf. Bucking protocol, the two start a secret affair that plays out in $500-a-night suites on the road. She has an on-off boyfriend, Sam, yet only later does she realise that Jason has a girlfriend, Brooke (the daughter of a famed Los Angeles producer), at home. The affair is an added spice in an already calorie-heavy book, leading one online publication to describe the book with the canny headline “Sex, Drugs and Barack’n’Roll”.
It was like the whole room was starting to sink into the ground. It felt like a blindsiding break-up, where everything’s fine and then it’s like, Oh my God, nothing is what it seems
Was she worried about uncovering her relationship with Jason, albeit under an alias?
“It was very easy to write about Jason because I was writing about it all the time anyway as a sort of cheap therapy for myself,” she says. “I kept being flung across the world with this guy who I found irresistible, and then was put in a hotel room three doors down from him. It’s not a great way to get space from the guy you’re trying to get space from.
“I felt it was this terrible secret for so long, but it’s been reassuring, and also a little devastating, to know that most people have had a Jason in their lives.”
By 2015 Dorey-Stein was preparing for the inevitable: the end of Obama’s second term as president. She had been working on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, fully intending to continue work as a White House stenographer for the 45th president. She describes the week of the presidential election, in November 2016, as one of the worst of her life. Adding insult to injury, Jason married his long-term partner the same week.
Of the moment she realised that the 45th president of the United States would be Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton, she says: “I came home to Pennsylvania to vote, as it was one of the swing states, and I was with my parents. It was like the whole room was starting to sink into the ground. It felt like a blindsiding break-up, where everything’s fine and then it’s like, Oh my God, nothing is what it seems.”
What followed quickly was the realisation that she would have to work with what she calls the “insane clown posse” of the Trump administration.
“I had no money and couldn’t just quit,” she says. “That said, it gave me great incentive to finish this book that I’d been writing the whole time. I needed to just go for it. I was, like, Who knows how long this world will even be in existence if Trump is president?”
Obama’s farewell address felt “somewhere between a frenetic wedding and a funeral”. In the wake of Trump’s inauguration, Dorey-Stein went into the White House that Sunday to record senior staff getting sworn in. Immediately, she noticed changes: the staff cars parked on West Executive Avenue, at the side of the White House, were now filled not with Priuses and Chevys but with Porsches and Maseratis. The black frames in the West Wing that normally displayed photos of Obama with world leaders and children were empty.
Even more unsettling was the moment when the deputy communications director in Trump’s administration initially told staff that they don’t need stenographers or interview transcripts because “there’s video”.
Within the first week of working in the new administration, Dorey-Stein had met Trump on Air Force One, almost by accident.
“I learned from President Obama to always take a step back or two steps back [in his presence] because you want to give the president as much space as possible because he’s around people all the time,” she explains. “We were flying on Air Force One down to Mar-a-Lago and he got lost on the plane – I still don’t know how because it’s like any other, with one big aisle. Anyway, he somehow deviated from the path and came over to my seat.
I can’t help but think that Trump himself is loving all this, because it’s turned into a reality show and he’s really pleased with his ratings
“I stood up out of respect for the office and took a step back to give him space, and then he just took a big step right in my personal space, so suddenly we were having a close-talker conversation. I looked past him to [his wife] Melania and she just looked at the ground. It was a real freeze-frame moment: what’s going to happen now? Luckily, a staffer came and brought him out.”
In the two months that she worked for the White House under Trump, Dorey-Stein attended Sean Spicer’s press briefings.
“It was crazy, because the press secretary during the Obama administration will try to give the most accurate information and keep things as democratic as possible, but it was just wild to be working and thinking, they’re all just lying. If the lying wasn’t good enough, they’d just start name-calling the press,” she says.
“I can’t help but think that Trump himself is loving all this, because it’s turned into a reality show and he’s really pleased with his ratings.”
Dorey-Stein and I speak in the week that the Trump administration has separated immigrant families at the US-Mexico border: “It’s all so devastating and horrifically embarrassing,” she says.
Two months into the job, she was typing up a press briefing for Spicer when her agent called her with news of the book deal.
“She was like, ‘Can you talk for a second? You need to step outside because this might be the last thing you have to type for these people,’ ” she says. “It’s a real Cinderella story. Going from unemployed to working at the White House and then getting to write – my mind was thoroughly blown out by that point.”
Now based in her home state of Pennsylviana, Dorey-Stein plans to write a second book “that doesn’t have to be about my love life”. The movie rights to From the Corner of the Oval Office have, predictably, been snapped up – by Universal Studios and Anonymous Productions, maker of Spotlight and True Detective – and a comedy is reportedly in the works.
As to who might play her, or even Obama, in this new project, Dorey-Stein shrugs. “I think everyone likes bandying names around,” she says. “I’m, like, maybe we could just get a girl from Craigslist and see how that goes.”
From the Corner of the Oval Office is published on Thursday, July 12th, by Bantam Press