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Book Review: The rare art of sincerity in Washington politics

Alyssa Mastromonaco

How can you become one of the youngest women working as a deputy chief of staff for the president of the United States? How can you make it to the White House when you have no connections, and you have not even attended an Ivy League university?
In this fun-loving book, “Who Thought This Was a Good Idea,” a White House Official reveals a side of politics we never see.
She has written a sincere and gripping memoir of her years in Washington, which is also the inspiring story of someone very ordinary who managed to live an extraordinary life.
Mastromonaco also wrote this book to encourage women to work in the government because most of the people who work in politics are men and most political memoirs written are in turn by men.
Mastromonaco was an ordinary girl living an ordinary life. “I grew up in a town where you didn’t know who had money and who didn’t. The wealthiest families were probably the Equine Veterinarians, and they drove beat-up Suburbans and Wagoneers,” Alyssa wrote.
While studying for a French major, she became interested in politics and decided to apply for a summer internship with Bernie Sanders. She landed the internship and it gave her the first taste of politics and a valuable experience. Mastromonaco was quick to notice that Sanders met with constituents more than any other politician she’d known. He also showed her how to see the people whose problems he could immediately impact and solve. Sanders was also helped by staff who genuinely shared his desire and will to help the constituents.
This says Alyssa “is not necessarily true of other senators; many politicians have staff made up of climbers, who move from one senator to another to get up the ladder, with the ultimate goal of becoming a legislative director or chief of staff.”
Although she didn’t get to interact very much with Bernie, she knew now that she wanted to work in the government. After her graduation, she did a brief stint at Merrill Lynch and in the spring of 2000, she was finally offered the position of assistant to the press department and scheduler thanks to a convincing and passionate plea for a job addressed to John Kerry’s intern coordinator. She worked on and off for four years and, connections are always useful. Robert Gibbs, who had quit the Kerry campaign to work on Obama’s US Senate race, came at the right time with a job proposal, as director of scheduling. Alyssa thought Obama, who was practically unknown at the time, would be thrilled that someone with experience, charm and talent would want to work for him. Mastromonaco was wrong: “Barack Obama is tougher than that. He cared less about my credentials and more about the fact that I wasn’t from Illinois,” she said. After some persuading, Obama offered her the job.
Four years after she started working for Obama, and just days before the general election, Obama was due to appear in an event in Chester, Pennsylvania. The weather forecast was bleak and Republican Sen. John McCain had canceled all his events. Obama is not fond of the cold but according to Mastromonaco, “how better to show contrast with an old and tired Senator McCain than with a spry and virile Barack Obama, so dedicated to the American public that he would endure a snowstorm to tell them about his vision for the country?”
So, the Chester event was kept on the schedule. The weather as predicted was awful. The meeting was televised, and it showed a charismatic and courageous Obama with his face smacked by sleet. At the end of his speech, Obama made a phone call: “Alyssa, it’s Obama. The event looked AWESOME! You heard John McCain canceled all of his events, right? He looked like a total old man.
“Alyssa, where are you right now?”
“My desk”
“Must be nice.”
A week later, Obama had won the general elections, carrying the District of Columbia, and 28 states, including Pennsylvania. Damon Winter, a photographer from the New York Times, received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the presidential campaign and the winning work included a photo of the Chester event.
“I first walked through the gates of the White House about a month before Obama took office and I would officially start working there. I was going to be the assistant to the president for scheduling and advance... Assistant to the president is the most coveted position in the White House; there are only about 20 to 25 of them at any one time. I was one of the youngest women to ever hold that title, if not the youngest,” wrote Mastromonaco.
This behind-the-scenes memoir shows us that high-level meetings are not always as organized as they should be. A UN Climate Change Conference was due to take place in Copenhagen and it was not clear whether the negotiations would be ready for heads of state to participate. The decision to attend was made just a week before the convention. It was a tight schedule with an early morning arrival in Copenhagen and a departure immediately after the end of the conference.
President Obama had requested to meet Chinese Premier Wen as well as Brazilian president Lula da Silva, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, and South African President Jacob Zuma. By the afternoon, nobody had responded and to make matters worse, nobody knew where the delegations were except for the Indian delegation, which had apparently already left for the airport. At that point, Hillary Clinton who was heading the negotiations wanted to know if the Indian delegation had really left. Soon after, the news broke out that the Indians and all the missing delegations were attending a secret meeting organized by Chinese Premier Wen. President Obama and Secretary Clinton walked immediately to the conference room. Obama passed in front of shocked Chinese officials and entered the room, exclaiming “Premier Wen! Are you ready for me?” Secretary Clinton recounts in her memoir that she “ducked under” the Chinese guards to make it inside. All the people attending were flabbergasted, but Obama finally held his meeting and even clinched an agreement after an hour and a half. In the meantime, a snowstorm was threatening Washington; if there was too much delay, Andrews Air Force Base would close down.
“Even though pretty much everyone disagreed with me, I made them wait. The situation was tense and the stakes were so high that I knew we had to give the president as much time as he needed… we took off out of Copenhagen two and a half minutes before we would have been held up there because of weather. Persistence will get you far and leaders have to champion the push,” explained Mastromonaco.
Traveling with the president is not what we imagine. It certainly is not a holiday.
The schedule is so hectic that it is not even clear when one will eat.
Sometimes, a whole day goes by without food. In 2012, there was so much traveling that meetings would be held from AF1 or by phone in the motorcade.
When Mastromonaco was promoted to deputy chief in January 2011, her personal life changed. She was at work at 6:45 in the morning and back home at 8 p.m.. She stopped going out and making plans because something could come up at any moment of any day. When Mastromonaco was not in the office, she was at home waiting beside two secure phones and a secure computer.
For almost a decade Mastromonaco, who is now president of global communications strategy and talent at A+E Networks, worked hard. Most people leave the White House after three years because it drains you.
“Working in the White House is incredible, but it is also completely, totally exhausting and exhausting isn’t even descriptive enough,” wrote Mastromonaco.
“I loved being part of an administration that I thought was making the country better…Plus when I traveled for work, I took Air Force One…and instead of wasting time at boring conference centers, I was doing things like eating goat in the courtyard of Hamid Karzai’s palace.”
But there comes a time when even beautiful memories cannot prevent even the most dedicated aides from becoming irritable and angry. The stress was taking its toll. For Alyssa Mastromonaco, who was listed in 2011 as amog Washington’s most powerful, least famous people, it was time to leave.
On her last day at the White House, she gave in her security badge, promised not to talk about anything classified, packed all her boxes in her car including a painting of a landscape in Iowa, a present from Obama, and drove away.
Mastromonaco had finally quit a high-power job but could she ever forget the feeling and satisfaction it gave her? “I can do a lot, and I know that I have to. Besides, if I’m being completely, totally honest, there are a couple of (female) politicians out there whose work I really, really believe in. If any of these women ever decided to make a big run, and if they thought I could serve them well, I would have a very hard time saying no.”

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