I don’t consider myself a political person, in fact I generally don’t enjoy discussing politics. Somehow, this has translated into reading three political books this year with one more on #20BooksOfSummer. That said, if you’re looking for a discussion of the 2016 election cycle, or an in-depth look at the Obama presidency, this book isn’t either of those.
I first spotted Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? at the physical Amazon Books store on E. 34th Street last summer. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover as it seemed funny and intriguing, but I didn’t buy it at the time. I was headed somewhere and didn’t have room to carry a book with me, but I added it to my wishlist. I was happy when it came up on a Kindle Deal of the day in November and jumped on it, after which it sat on my digital Mt. TBR for six months.
It’s not that I suddenly thought I wouldn’t enjoy it; I was just utterly burnt out on anything related to US politics. Then I read Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep and absolutely loved it. His second book, and the book I intended to read, Promise Me Dad, is the fourth one still to come. I followed that up some months later with Beck Dorey-Stein’s From the Corner of the Oval from NetGalley. That was a fun memoir, and I found myself mostly surprised by a woman younger than me working as a stenographer during the years of the Obama administration. I truly thought that was a dead profession. Spurred on by my enjoyment of those two, I put this on #20Books figuring that was as good an incentive as any to push it to the top of Mt. TBR. When I finished Rise Up! I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood for, and this finally seemed as intriguing as when I first saw it. I proceeded to finish it in four days, and would have been less given more reading time. ETA September 8: followed this up with Dan Pfeiffer’s book, which his a wonderful complement to this book.
While on the surface this is the memoirs of a woman working on the Kerry and Obama campaigns, as well as in Obama’s administration, and attaining high level positions in both while under 35, it’s much more than that. There are a lot of life lessons here for professional women working in any field. Among my favorites:
- you can’t completely sacrifice yourself for your job, you have to find a way to prioritize yourself. While going prematurely gray can be treated easily with hair dye; Mastromonaco suffered from IBS and at one point was so sleep deprived she feared she was suffering from a brain tumor due to the side effects. It is possible to excel professionally, and rise to the level of being the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff while still taking care of yourself.
- Fear of raising an opinion, despite being qualified. While working to be re-elected, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast. In a senior staff meeting, she wondered whether anyone had considered recording a PSA to offer advice on how to contact FEMA. After (over) thinking it, she raised the question and it was unanimously agreed that it was a great idea and they did it.
- “There is no bigger compliment than being intellectually curious about what someone else spends his or her days doing” YES. So many people fear it will be perceived as nosy or threatening, but it isn’t. And by the same token, you shouldn’t feel offended if someone asks about your job.
What wasn’t as prevalent in Dorey-Stein’s book that I enjoyed reading about in Mastromonaco’s was the “softer” side of Obama and the administration:
- The lack of tampons in the West Wing bathrooms due to the relative lack of women of child-bearing age working in the White House
- Obama arranging for the author to join him at Buckingham Palace before they flew out because he knew how much she admired the royals; and the important lesson to always carry a pair of dress pants on you.
- Jack Lew, the White House Chief of Staff, arranging a hello from Bruce Springsteen because she’d been unable to attend the performance.
- Obama calling from Air Force One after she’d left the White House to express his condolences on the loss of her beloved cat.
And of course where the book itself drew its title from, Obama asking this of his staff when they had a plan he wasn’t sure he was on board with.
There’s also the side you don’t know; such as:
- if you’re an administration staffer looking to get married but without time or inclination to plan a wedding due to the stress of your jobs, you can get married by a Supreme Court Justice.
- When traveling to a war zone, all is synchronized including when cell phones can be turned on so as not to create the opportunity for someone to interfere with POTUS’ travels or sabotage them in some way.
- When traveling for a state function or other meeting with foreign dignitaries, the guests aren’t just a who’s who of American glitterati. In the case of the 2011 trip for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, they wanted “ a group of dynamic Americans the queen might enjoy meeting”, which came to include Kristin Chenoweth once they learned she enjoyed Broadway musicals.
All in all a really enjoying book that read more like a novel than a non-fiction book of the self-help/memoir variety. This was way less of a political book than I expected, and I’d actually say it’s of interest to most professional women regardless of your political leanings unless you’re someone who just cannot tolerate Obama at all. In the early chapters I didn’t care for Mastromonaco as much and found her an underwhelming narrator, until I better realized the purpose of this book: it wasn’t a memoir of working in the White House, it was a memoir of personal and professional growth while working there. And then I really began to click with her.
My only real struggle with the book was the author’s choice to use a lot of nicknames, which didn’t appear to be out of a need for anonymization. She mentioned a lot of friends, colleagues and others she met in the course of her job, and it was sometimes hard to remember whether Moose, Shrummie and Possum were family members, pets or colleagues.