‘I saw the real Obama’

Work­ing in Obama’s White House was a dream come true for Pat Cun­nane, whose book West Wing­ing It is out this week. He tells Polly Dun­bar how it feels now to watch the Oval Of­fice’s new in­hab­i­tant

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Over the past 14 months

since Trump be­came Pres­i­dent, many of us have wished we could turn back the clock to the calmer, more com­pas­sion­ate Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. For Pat Cun­nane, watch­ing the daily slew of scan­dals erupt­ing from Trump’s White House has been par­tic­u­larly ex­cru­ci­at­ing.

For six years, Pat worked for Obama, first as a press wran­gler, shep­herd­ing jour­nal­ists around the US and abroad with the Pres­i­dent, and even­tu­ally as his se­nior writer and deputy di­rec­tor of mes­sag­ing. He had a front-row seat for ev­ery mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion, from Obama’s swear­ing-in at the start of his sec­ond term to Nel­son Mandela’s fu­neral, and got to know the Pres­i­dent well enough to be the butt of Obama’s jokes about his golf swing.

The con­trast be­tween his old boss and Trump could hardly be more stark: ‘Re­gard­less of your politics, if you met Obama, you’d like him,’ says Pat. ‘He’s a fun­da­men­tally car­ing per­son and the depth of his knowl­edge is mind-blow­ing. Now we have some­one who is his op­po­site.’

He’s writ­ten a book about his ex­pe­ri­ences, to of­fer a coun­ter­point to the nar­ra­tive that Amer­i­can politics was a swamp that needed to be drained. ‘In­stead of what’s wrong with Wash­ing­ton DC, I thought it was im­por­tant to say what can be right about it,’ he says.

Pat was 22 when he first be­gan work­ing as a ju­nior mem­ber of the White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, in 2010. Such was his naivety that, on his first day, he asked what POTUS meant (Pres­i­dent of the United States, to those who haven’t watched The West Wing). ‘I felt like this kid who had just joined the cir­cus.’ The

fol­low­ing year, he was moved into the West Wing, to a small suite of desks close to the Oval Of­fice. The first time he saw Obama in per­son was when he stormed in to com­plain about some­thing. ‘He was very frus­trated. It wasn’t the Obama every­one else saw – it was the hu­man side. He was try­ing to get stuff done. I felt hon­oured to see him that way.’

Pat was one of many Mil­len­ni­als em­ployed at the White House. ‘ We were young, en­er­getic, ex­cited – we gen­uinely wanted to make Amer­ica a bet­ter place.’ On a day-to-day ba­sis, he says work­ing in the West Wing was ‘75% Veep’, the satire about a fic­tional vice pres­i­dent deal­ing with sur­real sit­u­a­tions. There were plenty of those, such as the time he found him­self wrestling with the First Dog, Bo, to stop him eat­ing a po­ten­tially lethal choco­late cake out of the bin by his desk.

There were ‘pinch me mo­ments’, too, in­clud­ing trav­el­ling on Air Force One, where he wit­nessed a very dif­fer­ent Obama – one who’d change into ‘un­usu­ally tight sweat­pants’ and ‘san­dals, with white socks’. He says, ‘ We’re used to see­ing the cool, chic Obama, but this was kind of nerdy.’ Once, Pat was in­vited to play golf with him. ‘I was play­ing pretty well, but then he started trash-talk­ing me and I crum­bled.’

His job meant he lis­tened to hun­dreds of Obama’s speeches, ab­sorb­ing their rhythm. He dis­cov­ered that when he slapped the side of the lectern, it meant he was fired up. Grad­u­ally, he learned to write state­ments and jokes in Obama’s voice; to chan­nel the op­ti­mism he al­ways con­veyed.

The night of the 2016 elec­tion, Pat was in the West Wing to watch the re­sults roll in. As it dawned on him that Hil­lary Clin­ton, who Pat called ‘PIW’ – Pres­i­dent-in-wait­ing – was go­ing to lose to Trump, he says, ‘I got drunk, wan­dered around the Rose Gar­den and cried my eyes out.’ The fol­low­ing day, Obama called his staff to the Oval Of­fice and talked about the need to hold on to hope. ‘ This is not the apoc­a­lypse,’ he said.

‘His pep talk was won­der­ful,’ says Pat. ‘He takes a long view of his­tory. But it re­ally has been an apoc­a­lypse. It’s been much worse than any of us could have imag­ined. It seems as though the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is op­er­at­ing out of fear and mis­in­for­ma­tion and stab­bing each other in the back. It’s hard to imag­ine what’s go­ing on there now, in the place where I worked.’ He’s watched in dis­may as Trump has tar­geted the me­dia, brand­ing most out­lets the en­emy. ‘It’s dam­ag­ing to democ­racy,’ he says.

The day be­fore Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, Pat left Wash­ing­ton to be­gin a new ca­reer writ­ing for Net­flix show Des­ig­nated Sur­vivor (star­ring Kiefer Suther­land as a politi­cian pro­pelled into the pres­i­dency). He’s also work­ing on his own show. De­spite it all, he’s man­aged to hold on to the fa­mous Obama hope. ‘ The tide seems to be turn­ing – elec­tions are swing­ing back and peo­ple are or­gan­is­ing and march­ing. I be­lieve we’ll get back to a more op­ti­mistic form of politics soon.’ ‘ West Wing­ing It’ (£12.99, 535)

Far left: Pat at the White House in 2013. Left: Obama in the Oval Of­fice in 2015 and, above, at a meet­ing with se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in 2015

Above: the cast of Veep. Left: Pres­i­dent Trump. Right: Obama with First Dog Bo in 2012

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