In 2012, Beck Dorey-Stein answered a cryptic Craigslist ad for a job in Washington. It turned out that the White House was looking to hire a stenographer. After landing the job, Dorey-Stein spent five years traveling the world with President Obama, transcribing his every word. She logged countless hours on Air Force One, peeked behind the curtain of power in the West Wing and got her heart smashed by a ne’er-do-well fellow staffer–all of which she details in her memoir, From the Corner of the Oval.
What was the best thing about working for President Obama?
My first day walking to the White House, I was so nervous. I stopped dead in my tracks and thought, Oh my God, what if he’s not that great? And then within a week of when I first got to see him, I was like, “He’s so much better than I expected.” And that went on for five years. I used to joke that I was like his professional creeper or his stalker, because I was always around. It was sort of like being a freshman in high school, and he was the ultra-cool senior, so of course I knew everything about him.
The worst thing?
Your whole life becomes about his life. Even though I was a stenographer, I wasn’t going to my friends’ birthday parties or able to plan anything the whole time I was there.
Why do you call D.C. happy hours “the eighth circle of hell”?
Don’t tell me you love D.C. happy hours. When I first decided to move there permanently, I was unemployed. Happy hours are such a contest of who’s important, who’s not important and measuring up. And I had nothing to measure. No one wanted to talk to me.
You blast President Trump and call it a “waking nightmare” to work for his Administration. What made you finally decide to leave?
The moment happened when he was elected in November. I thought, I’ve been writing this whole time, and Trump just won, so if I’m not going to take myself seriously as a writer now, when am I going to do it? Anything can happen. I got a call from my agent in the middle of a Sean Spicer briefing that I was typing, and she was like, “Go outside. You have a book deal. You can leave now.”
Any words for the career folks still working there?
Godspeed and best of luck, and thank you for what you’re doing.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned in the White House?
Be kind to people. It’s funny, because it’s the epicenter of power, but it’s the same lesson you learn when you’re in preschool.
Correction July 16
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect credit for the photograph of Beck Dorey-Stein. The photographer is Lawrence Jackson, not Lawrence Johnson.
This appears in the July 23, 2018 issue of TIME.
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