Monday, July 9, 2018

Book Review: From the Corner of the Oval

By Jami Deise

As the two terms of the Obama Administration disappear into the country’s rear view mirror, sometimes I wonder whether Obama really was as amazing as I remember, or whether, as the song goes, “What’s too painful to remember/we simply chose to forget.”* And then I read Beck Dorey-Stein’s From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir, about working in the Obama White House from 2012 to 2017, and I learned he was even more amazing than I thought.

A graduate of Wesleyan, Dorey-Stein came to D.C. not to get involved in politics, but to teach. However, as a part-time substitute at Sidwell Friends, she had trouble making ends meet, patching together a living that included folding pants at Lululemon. After answering a Craigslist ad for a stenographer, she stumbles into a front seat to history. Not a political junkie like most people in D.C., (but an Obama fan nonetheless) Dorey-Stein brings a reverent eye to her new job, which entails recording every official Obama utterance—speeches, meetings, press briefings, etc. She flies on Air Force One, attends summits in Asia and Cuba, covers Obama’s re-election campaign, and works with some of his most well-known staffers. As she becomes more entrenched in the day-to-day workings of the White House, Dorey-Stein grows even more appreciative of the intelligence, compassion, and determination that the 44th president brought to his job, and in reading these chapters, so did I. Sadly, many of her recollections deal with mass shootings and Obama’s response to them. Unfortunately, after Newtown, they became rote in their horror.

Dorey-Stein’s memoir isn’t only about Obama. In her mid-twenties when she began the job, Dorey-Stein is anxious for on-the-job female friendships, and for her relationship with her boyfriend Sam to continue. But she develops a crush on a senior-level Obama staffer, Jason, whose engagement doesn’t stop him from moving in on a woman ten years younger than he is. It destroys the author’s relationship with her boyfriend, and her inability to disentangle herself from Jason makes her miserable for years. At the same time, though, she’s able to develop a female posse at work that helps her get through it.

Because of the Jason drama and lots of drinking and all-nighters, Dorey-Stein seems more like a college student than an adult professional. She often refers to the final year of Obama’s presidency as “senior year.” As her colleagues pursue their dreams, Dorey-Stein seems stagnant. She is a smart, big-hearted woman who could easily be working at a more intellectually demanding job. Perhaps her feelings for Jason distracted her from reaching for the next rung on the ladder.

Despite the author’s immaturity, readers will root for her because her heart is in the right place and she tries to do the right thing. Her story emphasizes the point that when the country lost Obama, it also lost thousands of young, idealistic staffers who believe they are making the world a better place. I hope she uses her intelligence and skills in service to our country. Perhaps Obama has a position for Dorey-Stein at his Netflix production company.

As the country waits with baited breath for Trump’s next tweet, a look back at Obama through the rose-colored glasses of stenographer Beck Dorey-Stein is a good way to pass the time. But it will leave you crying at the end, just like Obama’s presidency did.

*Barbra Streisand, "The Way We Were"

Thanks to Random House for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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