Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House

By Alyssa Mastromonaco

Little, Brown

Now, this is not your average White House memoir. Nor your average book title. But Alyssa Mastromonaco is not your average White House deputy chief of staff either.

At aged just 32 she was working as President Obama’s right-hand woman in the White House. It was she who Obama turned to in the toughest crises – the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy to name but two. Her lofty position in Obama’s orbit, her experiences, and the lessons she accumulated along the way form the basis of this rip-roaring pageturner. And there is no small amount of humour – much of it self-deprecating – to speed the reader along their way.

Mastromonaco started working for Obama when he was a Senator from Chicago, long before he made his historic run for the White House. Although she had previously worked for Bernie Sanders and John Kerry, it was Obama to whom she hitched her wagon, rising up his ranks over a 10-year period. So how did she do it? How did she prosper in such a daunting environment at such a young age?

Her answers to these questions come in the form of a variety of stories – much of them no holds barred. A good example is the one when she was part of the small party supporting Obama’s visit to meet the Pope, when she learned the hard way that The Vatican is not blessed with an abundance of bathrooms: “The paintings, the architecture – you don’t have to be Catholic to think it’s incredible. It’s an overwhelming place to have an IBS attack…This was the moment when I had to do some reckoning. What are my priorities? Am I going to tell someone I’m about to have diarrhea in the hopes of getting help?”

But for every story of embarrassment or moments of genuine hardship – her hair turned white from stress – she peppers her narrative with incisive life lessons: “I have always liked the feeling of being prepared… “Part of knowing how to be prepared comes from being self-aware – being able to anticipate what you’ll need (or screw up) and planning accordingly. I know I am rarely, if ever, the smartest person in the room. And that’s totally OK. What’s not OK is (1) not recognising that and (2) not coming ready to participate in a meaningful way.”

Mastromonaco’s writing style  candid, chatty, personal – makes this a breezy, entertaining read. My only gripe is that perhaps too many pages were spent on the advice front. She freely admits that this is supposed to be an “advice book/memoir geared towards women between the ages of about 15-25” but this means that Obama, for example, drifts in and out of the narrative. While he is portrayed in almost heroic light, details about what he is really like as a human being and boss come there few. Perhaps we will have to wait for his own memoir for that.

Nonetheless, Mastromonaco deserves huge credit for coming up with and writing an original White House memoir. Few – if any – of her readers will be asking if it was a Good Idea to write this book. It absolutely was.