This really happened. I was getting coffee at a shop near the White House one morning in early 2009. Barack Obama had taken office a couple months before, having been elected—you might have heard about this—on a platform of “hope” and “change.”
Several acquaintances of mine, mostly from the journalism racket, had taken jobs in the administration. Among them was a fellow I had known over the previous decade from several campaigns we had both covered. He was good company on the campaign trail, funny in an understated way and usually willing to wrap up a long day with a pop at a local watering hole in Derry, New Hampshire, or Newton, Iowa. I liked him. And here he was, getting coffee, with the telltale lanyard and his new White House credential swinging from his neck.
I greeted him chummily, made some predictable joke about his exalted station in life, and noted at once, with sinking heart, a glum earnestness I had never seen before.
“So how are you liking it?” I asked.
He gave me a soulful gaze.
“Just tryin’ to change the world, man, one day at a time.”
I waited for the ironic, irreverent smile. It didn’t come. He wasn’t kidding. I didn’t know what to say, and was filled with gratitude toward the barista when she handed him his double mocha skim latte and he could hurry back to work. I felt a small pang of loss for my old acquaintance, and a slightly larger twinge of worry for the world he and all his colleagues were gonna be tryin’ to change.
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That’s the way young Democrats talked in those salad days—and the way they will talk again when they retake the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House and set its hallways buzzing with the same grandiose designs for human advancement. An excellent guide to how such idealists think, in and out of power, is West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House, which brings together brief essays and reminiscences from 18 Obama staffers. Most of them are well-written, several are charming and funny. The overall impression they leave on the reader is greater than the sum of its parts.
The title, of course, is an allusion to The West Wing, the TV drama created by Aaron Sorkin in 1999. The show’s plots unfolded in the suite of offices that surround the Oval Office, though for television the cramped space of the real West Wing had to be stretched into a vast set that allowed for endless tracking shots of the actors walking and talking very fast—in a Sorkin production, every decision is made on the run. The actors were lovely women who wore sensible pumps and no-nonsense hairdos and granite-jawed men who loosened their Windsor knots at the collar and pragmatically rolled their shirtsleeves to the elbow. They answered not only to their consciences but also to a gruff yet compassionate president with a shock of hair that seemed always to be tossed Kennedily by a mysterious breeze. (I kept wondering why the Secret Service left the window open.) Played by Martin Sheen, POTUS was young enough to be vaguely sexy but too old to be a catch. And he was wise.
* * *
With its portrait of brave idealists serving an unblemished president and striding undeterred toward the world’s betterment, Sorkin’s show was an act of Freudian displacement in reaction to the presidency of Bill Clinton. The early days of the Clinton Administration, coming as they did after 12 years of the Reagan-Bush terror, shone with the same exuberance, the same expectations of hope and change that the Obama people brought to the executive branch 16 years later. It didn’t take long for those 1990s idealists to see why the folks back home in Arkansas called Bill “Slick Willie.” By the end of his first term, among other betrayals of liberalism, Clinton was cutting deals with congressional Republicans to reform welfare and reduce entitlements. Two years later those same Republicans impeached him for all the Clintonian habits Arkansans had warned us about: lying, suborning others to lie on his behalf, an imperial disregard for the law, and failing to keep his hands off the help.
It looked to be a sad end. But then here came Sorkin, months before Clinton’s last toothless year in office began, to show America and his fellow liberals what might have been, if only…if only…. For the next six seasons, as Clinton limped away and the W. Bush darkness enveloped the land, disappointed Democrats could turn to The West Wing for weekly stokings of the progressive fantasy. The essayists in West Wingers can be counted among them. “My impossible dream was coming true,” writes the book’s editor, Gautam Raghavan, of the moment when he first got offered a job in Obama’s White House as a liaison to both the LGBT and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. “I imagined myself as Sam Seaborn [Rob Lowe’s devilishly handsome character] from Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, walking the halls of the White House with purpose and passion, changing hearts and minds with monologues about idealism and patriotism.”
The only people the wingers admired more than themselves were the men they served. The old adage that no man is a hero to his valet seldom holds true for the young people who manage to bluff or wrangle their way into a White House job. The Obama love on display in these pages approaches the mystical. “As I watched [Obama],” writes Leah Katz-Hernandez, who worked her way up from a campaign functionary to the position of West Wing receptionist, “a strange stillness entered my mind. I had a feeling that was deeper than hope.” (I think the only thing deeper than hope is change.) Another essayist, Hope Hall, credits the president with teaching her “the moment-to-moment mindfulness” she had long been seeking. Without speaking he somehow conveyed to her “the primary importance of the care and feeding of my own inner life.”
Not everything was stillness and mindfulness at the White House, however. Unlikely as it seems, while the president was modeling mindfulness and self-care to the staff, Joe Biden proved to be Mr. Excitement—“a ray of sunshine,” as one winger describes him, “sent down from heaven itself.” It is astonishing the effect the trademark Biden look of hairplugs and bleached teeth can have on a vulnerable staffer: “He smiled and looked directly into my eyes and—poof! just like magic fairy dust—his presence made my silly worries fade away.”
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Discounting for the youthful self-righteousness and naïveté, several of these essays are excellent in capturing the feel of life working in the White House. “I was often doing two things at the same time,” one writes. “I was in the room, in the moment, working and engaging and making decisions. But at the same time, I was also listening to the part of me saying, Can you believe this? We’re in the Oval Office!” Anyone who has had a brush with presidential power will tell you the same. The sense of urgency and importance that a White House functionary feels is usually bogus and unearned but it never lets up, which is why the workforce tends to be young and the turnover rate high. The urgency can only intensify when all one’s co-workers are statists, committed to the belief that what they are doing is indispensable to restoring the country to its highest ideals by expanding the federal government. Indeed, conflation of the country with the government is common among these west wingers; one lucky essayist describes his reaction to being designated “essential personnel” during a government shut down: “so I went to work to keep the country running.” We are grateful.
Coming into office in hopes of recreating a television fantasy might be a recipe for disappointment, but no one here sounds terribly disappointed. Two years after Obama left the White House, the cockiness of his followers remains intact. “Here’s what Barack Obama taught me,” writes one winger at the close of his essay. “[I]n America, change—even the most improbable and audacious change—is possible.” Of course we’ve known since Heraclitus that change is not only possible but pretty much unavoidable. It’s an especially odd point to make now that so many of Obama’s signature achievements have been undone, from the trivial (insisting on transsexuals in the military) to the most ambitiously destructive (the mass of subsidies and regulations known as the Clean Power Plan). One obvious reason for his crumbling legacy is that Obama’s goals were often achieved, in his famous formulation, by a phone and a pen—by unilateral executive action. They could always be reversed by any unprincipled successor willing to assert the same kind of unconstitutional overreach. And sure enough: live by the phone and the pen, die by the phone and the pen.
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Another reason is that Obama’s true interest wasn’t in action but in palaver. Perhaps the most poignant essay in West Wingers is by one of Obama’s fellow Chicagoans, a lawyer named Michael Strautmanis, who wound up in the White House working as chief of staff for Valerie Jarrett. Strautmanis was especially distressed over the slaughter of young black men on Chicago’s South and West Sides, the vast majority of them at the hands of other young black men. It is fashionable among Democrats then and now to attribute this bloodshed through an uncertain causal chain to the War on Drugs. “[I]t was time to see,” Strautmanis writes, “if another approach would create safer communities and better lives for our children.”
But as Strautmanis tells his story, it becomes plain to see that Obama’s alternative to the War on Drugs consisted almost entirely of…talk, followed up with more talk. Obama could “spark a conversation.” He might “flip that narrative.” “Barack Obama has never been silent,” he writes in the book’s prize-winning understatement. “His approach has always been: …‘we need to talk about it.’” From all the talk came many things: An interagency task force bloomed, also a “mentoring initiative.” These in turn led to the “National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.” Obama devoted an entire speech to the bloodbath, dazzling in its eloquence. He went to a church and held a meeting. His own Domestic Policy Council, too, formed a team.
At last, in 2014, the summit of governmental problem-solving was reached: “an administration task force that focused and leveraged the work of federal agencies…working with a group of philanthropic partners to create…a nonprofit organization to bring together the private sector with community-based organizations to move the needle on issues facing boys and young men of color.” Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. Two years later, as Obama left office, the murder rate in Chicago was the highest it had been in 20 years.
Strautmanis fails to mention this unhappy outcome. For the Obamaite, the talk is an end in itself, so long as task forces and partnerships generating further talk are called into existence. The fruit of human and social perfection for which progressives strive is forever just out of reach, requiring still more talk, still more narrative flipping. For some progressives this creates a sense of constant unhappiness and agitation. The blissful future is the itch they just can’t scratch. Most of the West Wingers had been activists before they came to the White House, and once inside the fence they discover that even the most left-leaning administration in history would find it hard to please their former colleagues.
Cecilia Muñoz was the president’s chief advisor on immigration. “Immigration isn’t just what I do,” she explains. “It’s who I am.” She brings her pro-amnesty allies to meet with the president in the Roosevelt Room and they start shouting at him for his refusal to open U.S. borders. “The immigration advocates were speaking from a place of emotion rather than reason” is the harshest thing she can say about behavior that would strike a non-activist non-progressive as appalling rudeness and ingratitude. Deesha Dyer, the White House social secretary, is similarly mild when she describes a gay pride celebration the president hosted in the East Room. Dyer “purposefully included a significant number of trans women of color” among the invited to make sure her bases were covered. Big mistake. At least one of the guests interrupted Obama’s remarks and heckled him mercilessly for allowing the deportation of trans illegal immigrants. “My activist friends in the LGBTQ community,” a still shaken Dyer writes, “blamed me for silencing [the heckler] and not letting her talk—although she was yelling, not talking.” The disruption—this insult to her generosity and to the president she served—“haunts me.” And why? Because, she says, “I truly felt I let the LGBTQ community down.”
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This is not a book about Barack Obama, says Raghavan, and it isn’t. It’s about the people who were drawn to him and saw in him a kind of secular savior. In the book Obama is mostly a spectral presence, glimpsed across a room at a photo op, delivering a speech to a rapturous crowd, offering an encouraging compliment to a besotted staffer in a stolen moment of intimacy. It tells us a lot about him nonetheless. The wingers remain loyal, and here and there you are reminded how the bond was forged. His videographer Hope Hall was with him on the frequent occasions when Obama would fill the East Room with friendly celebrities and bestow upon a select few one of the many national honors at his disposal.
In their private banter after the events, Hall recalls, Obama would say something like,
Can you believe Toni Morrison was here, right here, in the Blue Room? Then, invariably, he’d add a variant on the same sentence, just between us: These are our people, Hope, the scientists, the artists. Then I’d add my variant to the sentence: The thoughtful, reflective people, the critical thinkers, the generous ones. We’d tap our temples, we’d nod and grin, eyebrows up.
Thus are the bands of loyalty secured between president and wingers, in a mutual recognition of what kind of people “our people” are. It is left to the rest of us to admire how hard they worked to change the world, one day at a time, for our sake.