Book Review: The rare art of sincerity in Washington politics

Alyssa Mastromonaco
Updated 19 May 2017

Book Review: The rare art of sincerity in Washington politics

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.”

Email: [email protected]

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

The best TV shows of 2018. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 December 2018

Screen Savers: The best TV shows of 2018

  • Lineup of some of the best shows of 2018
  • From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs

DUBAI: From psycho killers to stellar spin-offs via dark comedy and romantic drama, here are the programs that we wasted the most work hours discussing this year. Warning: There will be spoilers.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Season Two)
After a first season that stayed fairly true to Margaret Atwood’s source novel, the dystopian drama took the theocratic Republic of Gilead into uncharted — and even bleaker, harder-to-watch — territory in its second season. Not everyone was on board (“The attempts to add more color and detail … ultimately register as brief pauses from the main event rather than necessary, interconnected sidebars,” wrote Vulture’s Jen Chaney), but, for us, season two more than justified its existence with its knuckle-whitening tension and of-the-moment examination of social issues.

Killing Eve
An unexpected, and hard-to-categorize, hit, “Killing Eve” mixed smart storytelling, thrilling action set-pieces and comedy (both dark and silly) to great effect, further boosting the reputation of showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Jodie Comer was a revelation as the paradoxically deadly-but-vulnerable assassin Villanelle, and Sandra Oh portrayed MI5 officer Eve Polanski’s confused love-hate obsession with her brilliantly.

Al Hayba (Season Two)
Director Samer Al-Barkawi’s drama about the arms-smuggling Sheikh El Jabal clan in a village on the Lebanon-Syria border was one of the big hits of Ramadan 2017, so expectations were high for this year’s follow-up (a prequel to the first season). The complex plot kept audiences gripped; Syrian actor Taim Hassan drew plaudits for his reprisal as the head of the clan; and Nicole Saba proved a solid replacement for season one star Nadine Njeim. A bit of social-media controversy (in which — shocker! — people online seemed to confuse fiction and fact) only made this more of a must-see.

Better Call Saul (Season Four)
Remarkably, this spinoff from what is widely regarded as one of the peaks of “peak TV” — “Breaking Bad” — looks like it may actually come close to eclipsing the dizzy heights reached by its parent show. Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman continues to dazzle, and the emotional back-and-forth between Jimmy and his girlfriend Kim (the excellent Rhea Seehorn) is the show’s dark heart. This season, too, had a payoff as brutal as anything “Breaking Bad” produced.

Atlanta (Season Two)
With his alter-ego Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and the sophomore season of this hip-hop comedy, Donald Glover proved himself one of 2018’s most powerful social commentators. Funny, frightening and thought-provoking, “Atlanta” built on its surprising, weird debut season to tackle heavy topics with surreal and subtle humor.

Show creator Jed Mercurio had already proven with “Line of Duty” that he has a knack for gripping, jeopardy-heavy thrillers with jaw-dropping cliffhangers (and a penchant for killing off lead characters), so the success of “Bodyguard” — described by The Guardian as “a modern take on a hero’s fable” — wasn’t a huge surprise. Keeley Hawes was superb as ambitious home secretary Julia Montague and Richard Madden played her police protection officer David Budd with a compelling blend of hard-edged heroism and morally compromised frustration.

Nadine Njeim switched from “Al Hayba” to another Ramadan hit, this romantic drama also starring Syrian actor Abed Fahd as lovers Ameera and Jaber respectively. The moving story saw Jaber struggling to come to terms with the loss of his family in a car crash and unexpectedly falling for Ameera, a poor young law student. More than just a simple love story, “Tareeq” tackled themes of loss, class prejudice, and sacrifice.

The Americans (Season Six)
It’s pretty rare for a well-loved TV show to wrap up with a satisfactory climax (remember “Lost”?), but “The Americans” — a downbeat, tense tale of Russian deep-cover agents in Reagan-era America — did it brilliantly, continuing the hugely engaging spy-thriller plot while equally successfully presenting an intense examination of a couple caught between loyalties to their homeland, their kids, their new home, and each other. All topped off with a powerful, slow-burn of a tragedy as parents and kids are separated, not always by choice.

Another show based around the life of an assassin that, like “Killing Eve,” covers comedy and drama by keeping the best bits of both genres to the fore. Bill Hader once again proved his acting chops (often by pretending to be unable to act) as the titular hitman trying to escape his violent life and begin anew. Henry Winkler was typically superb as his acting coach, and each episode had belly laughs and gut-wrenching violence aplenty.

Sacred Games
This tense, dense Indian thriller won critical acclaim for its thoughtful storyline and stellar performances from the whole cast. Saif Ali Khan was superb as cynical police officer Sartaj Singh, promised (via an anonymous tip-off) the opportunity to finally capture the powerful underworld boss Ganesh Gaitonde (the outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui), only to find himself caught up in a wide-ranging conspiracy that goes way beyond Mumbai’s gangland.

Julia Roberts made her small-screen debut in this compelling psychological thriller, adapted from the popular podcast about social worker Heidi Bergman helping a soldier adapt to life after deployment, and directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail. The time-hopping story was shot unusually (but successfully) by Esmail, with Bergman’s future life as a waitress presented in vertical frame. This apparent gimmick paid off beautifully in a scene where she suddenly regains her memory of her time as a social worker, and the screen expands to full-width.

The talented quartet of Levantine actors Bassel Khayyat, Bassem Moughnieh, Daniella Rahme and Dana Mardini, directed by Rami Hanna, made this one of 2018’s must-see Arabic dramas. Married couples Sami and Farah and Omar and Lina are long-term friends, sharing a passion for tango dancing. When Farah is killed in a car accident that leaves Omar in a coma, it becomes clear the two were having an affair. What follows is an emotionally fraught depiction of how their spouses deal with the fallout.

Babylon Berlin
Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, this German crime drama, set in 1929 Berlin, was hugely ambitious, but successfully so. Volker Bruch excelled as Inspector Gereon Rath — the emotionally and mentally damaged self-medicating war veteran sent to Berlin to investigate an extortion racket and stumbling on a bigger conspiracy — but was regularly overshadowed by scene-stealing Peter Kurth as the morally ambiguous, often revolting Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter.