Ca­reer ad­vice from a check­out clerk turned Obama sta≠er

Book re­view by Caitlin Flana­gan

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Caitlin Flana­gan is the au­thor of “Girl Land” and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor to the Atlantic.

We’re two months out from the peace­ful tran­si­tion of power, and right on sched­ule, here come the staffer mem­oirs from the Obama White House. Alyssa Mas­tromonaco — who worked for the pres­i­dent for more than a decade, in­clud­ing as his deputy chief of staff — has writ­ten one for a par­tic­u­lar au­di­ence and with an ap­peal­ing slant. “Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?” is in­tended for young peo­ple start­ing their pro­fes­sional lives, and it is a com­bi­na­tion mem­oir and com­pen­dium of very good sug­ges­tions about how to get ahead — very far ahead — at an early age.

A self-de­scribed “townie” from pre­posh Rhinebeck, N.Y., Mas­tromonaco worked as a gro­cery checker in a su­per­mar­ket, one of many jobs at which she ex­celled at ex­celling — lov­ing dou­ble-coupon day as well as the Wed­nes­day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing be­cause it “put my bag­pack­ing skills to the ul­ti­mate test.” A “good (-ish)” stu­dent, she grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin at Madi­son and then found work as a para­le­gal at a Man­hat­tan law firm, a job known for

WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? By Alyssa Mas­tromonaco with Lau­ren Oyler Twelve. 248 pp. $27

nei­ther ex­cite­ment nor glam­our. Yet she vowed to give it her all, lead­ing her room­mate to call her the “Su­per Para,” which she thought at the time was a com­pli­ment. Af­ter that, she went to work as the as­sis­tant to a high-end real es­tate bro­ker at Sotheby’s. “In­stead of mock­ing his love of lux­ury prop­erty I went with it,” she re­ports. “I liked mak­ing brochures and talking to clients; I had my fa­vorite prop­er­ties. It was re­ally pretty fun.”

The Sotheby’s ex­pe­ri­ence, to many young, left-lean­ing job-seek­ers (in par­tic­u­lar those who had in­terned for Bernie San­ders, as Mas­tromonaco had), might have seemed so im­pos­si­bly un­hip and 1 per­cent-ish as to make an­other year in the child­hood bed­room seem prefer­able. But as Mas­tromonaco ex­plains, it proved in­valu­able to her later suc­cess. When she de­cided she wanted to work in pol­i­tics and in­ter­viewed for a staff po­si­tion on John Kerry’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, she didn’t think she had much hope. But af­ter her in­ter­view, she over­heard some­one talking about her: “She worked at Sotheby’s — she must be good,” which leads her to im­part an im­por­tant piece of ad­vice about work: “For­ward mo­tion is al­ways bet­ter than no mo­tion.”

So it is that our hero­ine goes from the check­out aisle of a Rhinebeck su­per­mar­ket to the in­de­scrib­ably mis­man­aged Kerry cam­paign, then to Obama’s finely tuned Se­nate of­fice, then to his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and then to the White House — and to what our au­thor might de­scribe as a “s--- ton” of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

And now: a word about the tone and style of the book. Among the many celebri­ties she met dur­ing her White House years, one who be­came a close friend was Mindy Kal­ing, whose two very ap­peal­ing books — “Is Ev­ery­one Hang­ing Out With­out Me?” and “Why Not Me?” — seem to have been ma­jor stylis­tic in­flu­ences. While there is a strong, fem­i­nist “own your own power” through-line, there is also a clear in­ten­tion to present her­self as a cheer­ful, chubby ev­ery­girl. She is part Moneypenny (her chaste, con­sum­ing ar­dor for her dreamy boss), part un­em­bar­rassed over­sharer (split­ting a skirt with her “fat cam­paign ass”), part al­ways-the-brides­maid (her live-in boyfriend has three life rules: rent, don’t own; no pets; and never get mar­ried). There is also a good bit of in­for­ma­tion about her mishaps with ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome. We are not in the hands of Jane Austen; but Jane Austen never wrote a book ad­vis­ing young peo­ple to treat all in­for­ma­tional in­ter­views “as the real deal, be­cause you never know,” which is why I pre-or­dered a copy of this book — and not “Northanger Abbey” — to give to my teenage sons. (It’s in­tended for young women, but any­one who wants to tell young peo­ple that “hard work and a good at­ti­tude can take you fur­ther than you could ever dream” is get­ting my 27 bucks.)

Mas­tromonaco (who wrote the book with the help of Lau­ren Oyler, who of­fered “a mil­len­nial POV”) is a woman of great achieve­ments, and al­though she is com­mit­ted to the car­toon ver­sion of her­self, she makes no pre­tense of hid­ing her ac­com­plish­ment. Dur­ing her White House years, she had two se­cure phone lines in her apart­ment; the White House re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Sandy re­quired her to “be­come a quasi ex­pert on trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture and re­fined fuel in a hand­ful of days”; and her as­sess­ment that she was “help­ing run the coun­try, in a small way” is patently true. She was in­cluded on a list of “Washington’s most pow­er­ful, least fa­mous peo­ple.” Through­out her ten­ure, she had to wres­tle with some­thing most peo­ple at the start of their ca­reers do not: the par­tic­u­lar com­plex­i­ties of hold­ing “such a weighty job when you’re re­ally young.”

This may be a story of ca­reer suc­cess and em­pow­er­ment, but like more con­ven­tional girl books of yore, it has a mar­riage plot. Her re­luc­tant boyfriend fi­nally surprises her with a pro­posal, and the next day, in true rom-com fash­ion, she is shar­ing a cham­pagne toast with Michelle Obama on Air Force One. Not long af­ter, she re­signed from the high-stress job, and her teary farewell — to the pres­i­dent and to the White House it­self — is mov­ing.

I read the book on the day the world was treated to photographs of Kellyanne Conway kneel­ing on a couch in the Oval Of­fice, knees partly splayed and spiked heels dig­ging deeply into the bro­caded fab­ric, her eyes on her ever-present iPhone and not on the group of pres­i­dents of his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and univer­si­ties who had been in­vited to meet Pres­i­dent Trump. Mas­tromonaco’s guide­book/ mem­oir has a pow­er­ful if un­planned sec­ondary theme: the pro­found re­spect that the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion held for the of­fice of the pres­i­dency and for the White House it­self. On her first day’s ori­en­ta­tion in the build­ing, Mas­tromonaco and a co-worker are taken to see the Oval Of­fice: “The door was open, but we were so ner­vous we just stood there at the thresh­old. We were be­ing such tools, but we knew no other way to be. Fi­nally, they coaxed us in,” she says. “The wall­pa­per is the best wall­pa­per you’ve ever seen; the art­work would be in a mu­seum if it weren’t in the White House; the desk is the pres­i­dent’s desk.”

No one was jab­bing heels into the fur­ni­ture, no one was send­ing out a press sec­re­tary to lie about crowd size, no one was park­ing Har­leyDavid­son mo­tor­cy­cles on the front yard. “He never yelled or de­meaned peo­ple,” she writes of Obama; his most com­mon way of ex­press­ing dis­plea­sure with a staffer was a raised eye­brow. Good­bye to all that.


Alyssa Mas­tromonaco, sec­ond from left, served as deputy chief of staff to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. The first time she saw the Oval Of­fice, she writes, she was too ner­vous to go in.

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