Beck Dorey-Stein was 26, unemployed, and seeking a ladder rung in a city of social climbers when she applied to Craigslist job posting that would eventually have her traveling on Air Force One with President Obama and his staff for the next five years. As it turns out, the vaguely worded Craigslist job posting was actually a listing for the role of a White House stenographer, part of a team that records and transcribes the president's speeches and press interactions. She took the job, because of course she did.
In her captivating memoir From the Corner of the Oval, Dorey-Stein writes with the sense of wonder that comes from a Craigslist job leading to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She captures each event — from Air Force One sleepovers to international relations snafus — with incredible detail. Essentially, From the Corner of the Oval is the White House like you've never seen it before. It's a political book for people who don't keep up with politics. And honestly? It's exactly the nostalgic, yet hopeful, book we need to soothe our news-ravaged souls. We spoke to Dorey-Stein about love affairs with high-ranking staffers, her favorite Obama stories, and how her stenographer job changed when Trump came into office.
Refinery29: There are so many great stories about your time in the White House in this memoir. But of them all, which is the one you’re going to tell your grandchildren — should you have any?
Beck Dorey-Stein: “It’s not in the book. When people meet President Obama, they tend to get star struck and say really idiotic things. I was certainly that way, and I saw him a lot. If he spoke to me directly, I either forgot the English language or I said the most asinine thing and then spent the next week kicking myself. When he met my parents, my mom promised me she would be cool. But she gives him this hug and goes, ‘Oh, you’re such a little guy.’ This is to the President of the United States! She meant it in an, ‘I love you and you’re not eating enough’ kind of way. He very much got defensive and said, ‘I’m not little, I’m just skinny.’"
You do such a beautiful job of capturing President Obama in action. As you mention in the book, stenographers are supposed to blend in, be seen and not heard. How did you develop a relationship with him?
"The first time he talked to me was on a treadmill. I look over and realized it’s not a Secret Service agent; it’s the president saying, ‘I thought you’d be faster than that.’ He has this great sense of humor and he loves to catch people on their heels. Oftentimes, it would just be me and him in the gym. I think he had some respect for me — 'This girl is always in here, and it’s not because I’m in here.' A lot of people would come in to steal a selfie or get a picture with him and leave. He’s an athlete, so we had that bond. The last time I was on a treadmill next to him, he gave me a wave but he wiggled his fingers, which is usually how he waves to his daughters. I was like, 'Holy shit, I have made it. He likes me for sure.'"
How were you able to observe the moment, but also stay in the moment?
"The best thing that I did was write everything down. I have a goldfish memory. I wouldn't be able to write this book now. Being in the moment, for me, is breaking it down into what I see. For my 28th birthday I got to fly on Marine 1. I remember being like, 'Oh my god, how do I swallow this moment whole? How do I be present? Let me break it down. There’s a Kind bar on his armrest. The reading light hits his shoes perfectly. They’re so perfectly shined.' I ingest the world around me through narrating it for myself. Writing it down is the next natural step. If I’m going to be in the moment, I need to write it down, otherwise I’ll get swallowed up in the chaos and the swirl."
You were there for the transition from Obama to Trump. How did your job as a stenographer change?
"It’s really important to have a record. When the Trump administration came in, they were extremely wary of us. They didn’t include us on everything. We always knew Obama's schedule the day before. With Trump, we were finding out from news breaks and television. ‘Oh, he’s in a press conference with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. We should be there.’"
There just simply were not stenographers in the room?
"They didn’t alert us to it. We’d try to get in; sometimes they’d ask us to leave. When I was there, they said, ‘We don't need you. We have a video recording of it.’ But video is not the same thing — the audio is not nearly as good, and the video can be manipulated. It’s really important we have our own recorders and stay in the room to know exactly what’s happening and to make sure no one is tampering with them. We have to wonder why he’s not keeping a stenographer in the room if he feels like there’s all this fake news. The fastest way to refute fake news is by providing transcript, and he goes out of his way to make sure there’s no stenographer for that."
Is there a relationship between fake news and his literally erasing the record?
"Yeah. He gives himself a lot of latitude by not giving himself a stenographer."
Why did you choose to leave two months into the Trump administration?
"I had been interested in staying for Hillary [Clinton]. I’d been writing since I was a little kid, and thought maybe I’d write a book of essays about the first female president. When Trump won, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t think this will bode well.’ On Inauguration Day, when I had to type up his speech, the contrast in language was so noticeable. It was a divisive and scary call to arms. At the same time, all of my friends who I just worked with were going to the tarmac to say goodbye to President Obama. I couldn’t go. I had to stay and type this really horrifying transcript.
"The first day back at the White House felt like a funeral. Everyone was walking around without an idea of how they were doing — and not concerned about it either. There was chaos. President Trump not using stenographers contributes to this sense of chaos. [My boss] had been there since Reagan's administration, and she resigned shortly after I did. She felt the way I did: We have a role and a responsibility, and they’re not utilizing us."
The book was optioned for a movie. Who would you want to play you?
"I think it would be really fun to get someone from Craigslist. I think it’d be fun to put, ‘Part Time Work for an Extra. One, two days max.’ Then have all these awesome people come in and say, ‘You’re hired. You’re the best now.’"
Speaking of getting swallowed up in the chaos and swirl, can you speak about the experience of reliving a toxic love affair within the pages of the memoir?
"Nice transition there. It was swirling chaos. It was really wonderful to write about it, only because it was so therapeutic. I had been really hard on myself in that relationship. I was making a lot of mistakes and allowing someone to not treat me well over and over again. But it was really nice to write about it, because I saw of course it was going to happen. I was constantly trapped with [Jason] in these romantic places that lend themselves to bad decisions. The more I talked about it with people, the more I realized everyone has a Jason. It’s more a stand-in for that guy you shouldn’t fall in love with what you do. Oftentimes it’s when you’re younger, but I think it’s important to remember you can be 27 or 57. At some point, you're going to fall prey. How do you get yourself out of it?"
What’s next for you?
"I'm working on a novel, which is super exciting. It will not be about my love life, so there are a lot of fun liberties on the horizon for me."