‘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
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