Paperback Release: For five years, Beck Dorey-Stein was a stenographer in the White House, allowing her a front-row seat as political history was made. Now her memoir – extracted below – is being turned into a film.
A job at the White House. Perhaps it doesn’t sound the most appealing of prospects under the current occupant. But Barack Obama’s White House? For most go-getting graduates heading to Washington DC during the Obama presidency, landing a position at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would have been the stuff of dreams. Not for Beck Dorey-Stein, who arrived there in 2011 nursing an innate suspicion of the US capital and its “DC creatures”, and with no desire whatsoever to work in politics.
She intended to stay just a few months: “The city seemed too buttoned up for me, too obsessed with politics.” Yet within a year, aged just 25, she found herself at its epicentre, working as an aide to President Obama. As one of five stenographers responsible for recording and transcribing his speeches, briefings and official statements, both for the press office and the presidential archives, Dorey-Stein joined the elite team who accompanied the president wherever he went. Travelling the world at his side, she visited 45 countries, becoming “a front-row witness to history”.
Now 32, she has written a memoir about her five years at the White House called From the Corner of the Oval Office, which earned her a seven-figure advance. Universal Pictures has optioned the film rights, and Michael Sugar, who won an Oscar for Spotlight in 2016, is in line to produce. “It feels kind of insane,” she says, speaking on the phone from her home in Philadelphia.
Despite having little interest in politics and even less in joining the DC “ego-swamp”, Dorey-Stein had quietly admired Obama since her teens. He influenced her original career choice when he gave the commencement speech to her graduating class at Wesleyan University in 2008. Having listened to him encouraging them to “give back”, she decided to go into teaching instead of advertising and worked for two years as an English teacher in New Jersey, and then Seoul. Returning from South Korea, she was offered a maternity-cover job at Sidwell Friends, an exclusive Quaker private school in Washington, whose alumni include Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Richard Nixon’s daughter, Al Gore’s son and Chelsea Clinton. Sasha and Malia Obama were pupils there when Dorey-Stein joined.
She had planned to stay in the city only for the duration of the job – “to build my résumé” – but fell in love with a young political speechwriter who worked for a public relations firm. As the months went by, she found herself doing five part-time jobs, from waitressing to tutoring, which kept her busy but barely out of debt. Despite applying for full-time posts every day, she got nowhere until she saw an advert on Craigslist for a stenographer at a law firm. After completing some initial tests for the recruiting agency, Dorey-Stein failed to turn up for a follow-up interview because she was kept late at one of her shifts. “I texted the woman who’d asked me for the interview and told her I already had too many jobs and I was withdrawing my application,” she says. “She replied: ‘Hi Rebecca, I understand you’re busy. This is actually a job at the White House and you would be travelling with the president on his domestic and international trips. Let me know if this changes things’.”
No prizes for guessing that it did. Dorey-Stein turned up on time for the rescheduled interview and got the job, partly because her position at Sidwell Friends meant she had already been background-checked by the FBI and cleared to be around the Obama girls.
She found her first time in the Oval Office overwhelming. “My hands start to shake uncontrollably,” she writes. “President Obama is sitting not even four feet away and gives me a quick nod and tight-lipped smile before beginning his remarks to reporters.” However, she quickly got used to quietly taking her appointed place “behind the big lamp on the side table, between the president’s chair and the tan sofa”.
In the Oval Office and at official briefings, Dorey-Stein was expected to say nothing and be as inconspicuous as possible. The place where she got to talk the most to Potus – as White House staff referred to him (it stands for president of the United States) – was in the gym. “We had this mutual respect for early morning workouts,” she says. “The first time he ever spoke to me was in a hotel gym in Colorado, at 7.30 in the morning. I had just run seven miles and was feeling pleased with myself, when he stepped on to the treadmill next to mine and said: ‘I thought you’d be faster than that.’ It kind of set the tone for our whole relationship going forward. I loved this playful, trash-talking side to him.”
Before long, Dorey-Stein was working out regularly alongside Obama. “It’s weird how normal it is to say hi to the president in the gym now,” she writes. Even so, she remained starstruck by him till the end. Her memoir is in many ways a love letter to him and what he stands for. On her way to the White House on her first day, she worried he might be “a politician who comes across great on TV yet is quite greasy in person. But actually he is so much better in real life. He is warmer, even more kind, even funnier. He has this reputation that he is aloof and it just isn’t true at all.”
The job was all-consuming. “I basically had to sign my life over to it, 100%,” she says. While senior staffers were older, the junior aides were mainly in their 20s, “because who else can afford to give up their whole life and drop everything at a moment’s notice?” She describes life at the White House and on the road as “like college but on steroids, because the people you are working with are the same people you have dinner with on a Saturday night and the same people you hang out with on a Sunday morning, and when you have to check your phone every 30 seconds they are the only people who understand why”.
She was on the road almost continuously, both around America and internationally, on diplomatic visits to Burma, Peru, Greece, France, Vietnam, China, Japan and Cuba, where she watched Obama make history as the first sitting US president to visit the country in almost a century. Sometimes she flew on Air Force One with the president, at others she was on the press charter, dubbed the “party plane”. She was there for the first family’s summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard and their Christmas holiday in Hawaii.
“I never thought I’d find myself casually chit-chatting with the president of the United States on the North Shore of Oahu, while his daughters read in a nearby hammock and Flotus [Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States] holds court with her friends, cracking jokes and sipping fun drinks through straws,” she writes.
On a flight to Seattle for a Democratic party fundraiser, Dorey-Stein met one of her heroes: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. He told her: “You have an interesting perspective here. Keep notes.” Did she take his advice? “I was already taking a ton of notes in my journal, all the time. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was six years old,” she says.
As well as state visits and family holidays, she was by necessity present at some of the darkest moments in Obama’s presidency, typing up his quietly furious responses to tragedies such as the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school, Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, and Isis’s beheading of the journalist Jim Foley. On that occasion, the president made his statement the following morning, after allowing the family time to grieve. “No one in that room can deny the power and sincerity of the president’s address,” Dorey-Stein writes. “But even more remarkable than the president’s palpable anger is the sound that follows his words: unprecedented silence. Only the clicks of a dozen camera shutters break through the thick, deliberate quiet.”
Not surprisingly, the pace of life took its toll on everyone in Obama’s entourage. “The people who make the president look good on these trips often look terrible and feel even worse,” she writes. Exhausted by the constant travel, late nights and lack of sleep, she and her colleagues survived mostly on junk food, sleeping pills and copious amounts of alcohol.
Perhaps inevitably, in such a hothouse atmosphere, Dorey-Stein fell in love with a fellow staffer – an older, more senior aide close to the president whom she calls Jason (not his real name) – and embarked on an on-off affair that lasted for much of her time at the White House, despite both having partners at home. Does she think this element of the story might have helped pique Hollywood’s interest? “Probably,” she admits.
Jason eventually broke Dorey-Stein’s heart by deciding to marry his long-term girlfriend shortly after Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat in the 2016 presidential election. She found it hard to know which piece of news was the more devastating. “It felt like the world was officially turning upside down,” she says now. “It was surreal. Everyone was walking around fighting back tears all the time.” Since most of her friends were political appointees, they left the White House straight away. The stenographers were not, so her job continued. Having been excited at the prospect of working for the first female president, she says, “it became this feeling of, I’ve got to get out of here”. She stayed on “in part just to witness it, and in part because I hadn’t figured out my next step yet. I couldn’t just quit.”
After swapping duties with a colleague to avoid recording Donald Trump’s first meeting with Obama at the Oval Office – “I could not stomach the reality of what was happening” – it took just one day working in the new president’s White House to convince her she needed an exit strategy. “The day after the inauguration there was this palpable arrogance walking into the East Wing,” she says. “It was very disturbing. They had no idea what they were doing, yet they were the victors and now occupied the throne. It felt like Game of Thrones, in one of the darker episodes.”
Dorey-Stein began conversations with the book world and got herself a literary agent. “I was in the middle of typing up a Sean Spicer press briefing when my agent called to say I had a book deal.” She walked out straight away.
Having entered the White House with an aversion for “political creatures”, she is now very much one herself – “in the sense that we all owe it to each other to be political. As upsetting as so much of the news is now, I think it is really cool how much activism it has inspired and it is really important to exercise our right as citizens to know what’s going on, to be active and to fight for what we believe in.”
Her DC days are behind her now, though. She has moved back to Philadelphia, where she lives close to her family and plans to write full-time. What’s next? More notes from the White House? “Goodness no! It will be fiction. Writing the memoir was therapeutic in lots of ways, but I don’t want to write about my personal life again. I’m going to be making up stories from now on.”
In the first of two extracts, Dorey-Stein gets to fly in the presidential helicopter on her 28th birthday
On a staffer’s last day at the White House, they may get to fly on the president’s helicopter as the ultimate parting gift, but no one in my office has ever flown on Marine One.
Josh Earnest, the press secretary, pats the empty seat next to him, and my heart stops as I see I’ll be sitting across from Potus, who is looking out the window. As the helicopter lifts off I notice how quiet Marine One is compared with the press charter, and how if I straightened my arm I could touch the sleeve of the leader of the free world. Jason leans forward from his seat in the back, and tells Potus: “Sir, we’ve got a birthday girl with us today. It’s Beck’s birthday.”
Potus turns to me and cocks his head. “Is that so? Well, happy birthday! This isn’t too bad, right?”
“No, sir, this is pretty magical.” I’m aware of Pete Souza taking photos from the back of the helicopter. I sit on my shaking hands to conceal how nervous I am. My insides are tangled as the president asks me how old I am.
“I think 28 is a good age,” he says when I tell him. The president gazes out of Marine One’s large square window that is probably six inches thick, bombproof and bulletproof. I assume we won’t speak for the rest of the flight.
But just a few seconds later, Potus is thinking aloud. “28, 28… I was just starting law school in the fall,” he says, “which means it was this summer that I met Michelle.” He nods to himself. “It might have been this week, or even today, that we met for the first time 24 years ago.”
He looks at me, and I feel compelled to say something. “24 years ago! We should have champagne!”
“Well, you sure got comfortable quick,” Potus teases, his eyes glimmering with mischief. “You sit down all nervous and now you’re already trying to drink champagne on Marine One!”
Potus then goes on to tell me the story of the day he met Michelle, how he didn’t own a suit but had an internship at a corporate law firm, and how the day before he’d bought two suits, feeling like a complete sellout. It was raining on his first day, and en route his umbrella broke, and he had already got mixed up on the subway so he was running behind schedule. When he walked in the door, the receptionist scowled at him, and sent him back to the office of Michelle Robinson, who was going to be his supervisor for the summer.
“She was taller than I expected, long legs, and I thought…” He says nothing here, but instead shrugs and gives a sly grin. “The first thing she said to me was: ‘You’re late.’ I responded with ‘…and wet’.”
Potus continues, telling us how he asked her out multiple times before she finally said yes. After Michelle tried to pawn him off on her friends, he finally got her to just go get ice-cream with him. “Very low-key, very casual – she didn’t even see it coming,” he says, grinning. “Like shooting fish in a barrel.”
Dorey-Stein recalls her first days working for the Trump administration
I’m now a stenographer in the Trump administration. Remember that pit of snakes in Indiana Jones? I work in that pit now. At a pool spray [photo call] in the East Room, I feel a cold draught behind me and turn to see Steve Bannon lurking in the corner. The parking lot is no longer filled with Priuses but with Porsches and Maseratis. The black frames that line the West Wing no longer display photographs of Potus shaking hands with world leaders, little kids, and wounded warriors; instead, it’s a pathetic display of inauguration day crowd shots, cropped tight in order to establish yet another “alternative fact”.
The deputy communications director tells us they don’t need stenographers or transcripts of interviews because “there’s video”. They don’t realise that print and radio interviews will not have video. After a few weeks they decide they do want us, “But, like, only some of the time.”
In the Oval Office during the first pool spray I attend with Trump, I notice that the table behind the Resolute desk, once crowded with Obama family photographs, is now empty except for one framed picture of Trump’s father. There isn’t a single photo of Barron, or Melania, or even Ivanka. If only Fred Trump had told his son he loved him – maybe none of this would have happened.
When I fly to Mar-a-Lago with the new president, I hear Fox News blasting from every cabin so loudly I can’t hear the whoosh of the wings. After takeoff, Trump gets lost while giving Melania a tour of the plane. I don’t know how he gets lost. Air Force One is a beautiful bird, but it’s no different from any other commercial 747 in that there’s one narrow hallway that takes you from the front to the back. Nevertheless, Trump ends up standing over my seat. I stand up because he is, after all, the president.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hi, sir,” I say, taking a step back, just as I’ve learned to do with President Obama. Give the most powerful man in the world room to breathe. But when I take a step back, Trump takes a step forward, into my personal space.
“Hello,” he says again, with a smile he must consider charming pasted on his face. It looks like he’s spent the last decade staring into the light of a tanning bed. I look to Melania behind him but she stares at the ground. On the TV screen is footage of Michael Flynn and the new allegations against him. In front of the screen is Flynn himself, talking with Trump’s body guy as he retrieves documents from his briefcase.
Trump is still in my face when a staffer touches his arm.
“Right this way, sir,” she says, directing him back toward the aisle.