FROM THE CORNER OF THE OVAL:
By Beck Dorey-Stein
338 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $28.
The first time I walked into the Oval Office, my knees buckled. My boss, Bill Clinton, had just been inaugurated, and he’d invited me over. It was a bit overwhelming for a 31-year-old guy from Sugar Land, Tex. Sensing my awe, the president threw his arm around me and said: “Don’t let it get to you, Paulie. It’s the crown jewel of the federal penal system.”
There is a tension you feel when the most famous building on earth is also your workplace — or, at least, you ought to feel it. You can’t let the grandeur and the history get to you, or you’ll freeze and accomplish nothing. But if you ever completely lose that sense of wonder, if you ever think that a Marine snapping to attention to open the door of the West Wing for you is just another day at the office, you no longer deserve to be there.
In truth, no one who works at the White House really deserves to. It is an honor and a privilege, and if you don’t have a little impostor syndrome, you think too highly of yourself.
Beck Dorey-Stein’s addictively readable memoir, “From the Corner of the Oval,” carries the reader on a ride that is improbable even by White House standards. At 26, while working an array of jobs — waitressing, working the cash register at Lululemon and tutoring at the elite Quaker school Sidwell Friends, where she literally runs into Malia Obama one day — Dorey-Stein answers an ad on Craigslist for a stenographer. In the blink of an eye she finds that she is now one of President Barack Obama’s stenographers.
White House stenographers are as indispensable as they are invisible. The president is, as the former Reagan and Bush chief of staff James Baker used to say, “news incarnate.” His every public utterance — whether launching a war or welcoming the American Sugarbeet Growers Association to the White House — is recorded and transcribed by the White House steno office, which provides the very first rough draft of history.
But the real action is on the road. When a president travels, the presidency travels with him. Cargo planes haul the presidential limo; secure communications are installed everywhere the president will be. Advance teams and Secret Service agents arrive ahead of time, scouring travel routes and sweeping rooms for explosives. While the particulars are surreal (who else travels with a surgical suite on their plane?), even the most unusual systems, in time, become routine. Dorey-Stein absorbs it all with a fine eye for detail and conveys it with freshness, candor and humor. She takes her readers with her on a vertiginous tour of the world, from hurling her guts out with a raging fever in South Africa to celebrating Christmas with the Obamas in Hawaii to chasing the leader of the free world through the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Here’s how she describes her morning run: “Hours before sunrise, before automatic coffee makers switch on, before Paul Ryan begins toning his delts and figuring out how to screw over poor children and the elderly, my feet hit the pavement, unclear whether I’m the chaser or the chased.” She may be a stenographer, but this is not typing; this is writing.
Dorey-Stein was, as she says, a cog in the American presidency machine. But who knew cogs had such complicated private lives? It’s not a tell-all so much as a tell-waaaay-too-much. We learn that she has a boyfriend, Sam, but she cheats on him with “Jason” (the names have been changed to protect the guilty), a midlevel West Wing staffer. This is where “From the Corner of the Oval” shatters the genre of the Washington memoir. Nowhere in George F. Kennan’s “Memoirs” does he recount how many times he drunkenly shagged someone named Jennifer. But that was then, this is now. Apparently T.M.I. now stands for Totes More Intimacy.
The Sam-Jason-Beck triangle (well, a quadrilateral once we learn of Jason’s bride-to-be) dominates the tale, as Dorey-Stein recounts the innumerable times she fell into the arms of the stupendously obnoxious Jason. Throughout, though, she is unflinchingly critical of her own shortcomings. If we still had the presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Sequoia, it would float in the amount of alcohol consumed on these road trips. One wants to buy her a drink — coffee, not whiskey — and tell her she is a much better person than she thinks she is; that your 20s are all about making mistakes; that there are decent guys out there, guys who don’t buy you a sex toy for your birthday when you asked for a book. It’s as if she is compensating for the Powerball-winning luck in her professional life by committing arson in her personal life.
It is a testament to Dorey-Stein’s charm and her writing chops that we root for her throughout. As I read the book, I had to invent explanations for why I had a palm-shaped welt on my forehead, so often did she fall for Jason’s lame charms. “From the Corner of the Oval” has been aptly dubbed “‘The West Wing’ meets ‘Devil Wears Prada.’” I see it more as C-Span meets “Sex and the City” — but with more drinking and even more sex. Lots more. As a middle-aged man who’s still married to the woman he met when he was 19, I am likely not the target audience for this book. Yet Dorey-Stein’s spunk and her sparkling, crackling prose had me cheering for her through each adventure.
In addition to Jason the Cad, there are other pseudonymous characters: a mean-girl staffer whose array of jangly bracelets and acid tongue earn her the nickname Rattler; Teddy, the bear-hugging mensch of an advance guy; and the obligatory posse. They buck her up, forgive her trespasses, urge her to take the leap of faith and become a writer. They are the Sisterhood of the Traveling Presidency.
Obama himself makes a few cameos, always gracious to the star-struck young steno. He even lets her know she’s one of the cool kids because she can outpace him on the treadmill. Hillary Clinton, Dorey-Stein notes, spent an hour thanking the hotel kitchen staff in Phnom Penh — despite the utter lack of electoral votes in Cambodia. Senior staffers like Jennifer Palmieri, Jay Carney and David Plouffe descend from Olympus and treat Dorey-Stein with kindness and offer her encouragement. They show the reader that, even in Washington, nice gals and guys can finish first.
Of course, President Clinton never actually felt like a prisoner in the White House. He loved every minute of being president. When I was having a bad day — and I had a few — he would say, “There are no bad days in the White House.” Dorey-Stein had a few bad days as well — and a few more bad nights. But she never loses her starry-eyed optimism, her pinch-me wonderment, her “Working Girl” pluck. Which makes “From the Corner of the Oval” somehow, against the odds, a story of hope.