'I Basically Ran On Adrenaline': A Staffer Remembers Obama's White House

Mar 30, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 12:36 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest today was part of President Obama's inner circle at the White House, but she isn't famous. In fact, in 2011, she was included on the New Republic's list of "Washington's Most Powerful, Least Famous People." But now her name is becoming better known because of her best-selling memoir about working in the White House. Her name is Alyssa Mastromonaco, and her book, which is now out in paperback, is called, "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" It's not an expose.

It's about what it takes to make things work at the White House and how stressful the process is. Mastromonaco was assistant to the president and director of scheduling and advance at the White House from 2009 to 2011, and then served for three more years at the White House as assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for operations. She's now an executive at A&E Networks. Terry spoke with her last year.

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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Alyssa Mastromonaco, welcome to FRESH AIR. So when President Obama came to the White House and you came with him, you were working on events. And you said - you know, and you had to, like, create and schedule events - that the Secret Service was especially unwilling to do anything remotely risky because President Obama was the first African-American president. Can you talk about some of the things surrounding that, surrounding what I imagine is all the threats against him?

Because in addition to it being, like, an incredibly divisive atmosphere, as the first African-American president, there was so much racism that was being directed at him overtly or covertly. So how did that affect his ability to events and what it took to schedule, you know, events for him?

ALYSSA MASTROMONACO: So a couple of things. A lot of people, of course, compared us to President Clinton and how President Clinton got out more and he did these sort of sweeping, beautiful events on the, like, at the Grand Canyon when he would sign bills. And what people didn't realize is not only, you know, was Barack Obama the first African-American president, he was a post-9/11 president, which is a totally different beast. And also, it was the first presidency that was completely within the age of social media.

So when people talk about the uptick of threats that the Secret Service would report, so much of that was because of the advent of Facebook and Twitter. It was easier to make the threats for people to count, right? And so when we were first getting started, none of us wanted to ever put anyone, you know, at unnecessary risk. I don't think anybody would want to do that. But for us, there were a lot of grand ideas that people had. One of them was having him do an event on the Triborough Bridge. And I knew that there was no way on earth that the Secret Service was going to allow that.

But I think even now with President Trump, they wouldn't allow that because it's just such a different world. Technology is so different. You can detonate a bomb with a cell phone. We know that now. Even on the rope line with President Obama, when people would hold up their iPads or their iPhones to take a picture, Secret Service always asked them to put it down because they can be, you know, a device.

GROSS: So another thing that you had to do as deputy chief of staff is work with agencies like the Department of Defense to run classified construction projects and maintain the continuity of government exercises, exercises so that if there's a nuclear attack or if Washington floods or the president is incapacitated, everyone knows what to do.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly.

GROSS: Just mentally, emotionally, what was it like for you to be in charge of planning for the absolute worst?

MASTROMONACO: Oddly, it was actually very reassuring when you sit down with the folks who, again, from administration to administration keep this process alive and have this information. You know, you sit down, and they brief you. And you're like, oh, wow, if something happens, actually everybody does know what to do. And so I found it - on the one hand, it's very heady. You're like, I can't believe that I'm seeing what would happen if a nuclear missile was launched from X and how long it would take to get here and what happens.

But it is comforting to see that these processes are pretty well socialized. Everybody knows them. You know, the 25th Amendment has been one of the funnier things that happens is you obviously notify the speaker of the House and the majority leader, minority leaders in Congress. And we realized that the - when we actually ran the exercise that all of the fax numbers were wrong because people didn't really use faxes anymore. So that was - we're like, oh, we should get new fax numbers.

GROSS: Can you tell us what your role was supposed to be in case of the worst, like, where you would be and what your job would be?

MASTROMONACO: If - I can't really talk about what my job would be - but in both - in a scenario of the president being incapacitated, say, he needed to have surgery, I sort of ran the process, the many steps of the 25th Amendment and sort of bringing that to life. And then the - in, like, worst case scenario, if the president had to go some place, I would have been part of the crew that was evacuated with him.

GROSS: What was the closest you got to having to enact one of those plans?

MASTROMONACO: Goodness. Oh, I would say it was when the president had his colonoscopy.

GROSS: Wow. If that was the worst (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: Knock wood - yes, that is the worst I remember.

GROSS: So you were preparing for, like, say it really doesn't go well...

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: ...Or just for that period when he's incapacitated...

MASTROMONACO: Just that period when he's...

GROSS: ...Because he's under a light sedative.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly. And we figured this is a great time for us to, you know, go through all of the steps, and it was an interesting exercise.

GROSS: Right. OK.

MASTROMONACO: You feel very - you feel like you're in the, you know, "The West Wing" television show in those kind of - in those scenarios.

GROSS: So what did you have to do to get the president in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan which were, you know, war zones? And what is the secret service and weaponry like when you fly with the president into a war zone?

MASTROMONACO: You know, it's - there's a lot of it. You know, you have the counterassault team, of course. And usually when you're working with, you know, President Karzai's team, they're pretty - I mean, nobody wants anything to happen to the president when he's coming to take a visit because that reflects so poorly. I mean, President Karzai wants people to believe that, you know, Afghanistan is not that dangerous. And so, you know, having anything bad happen to the president of the United States when he's there would be quite bad.

So they were usually pretty helpful. I mean, not always as helpful to me because I was a woman, and so sometimes they would make me sit out in the courtyard when all the guys went inside. But the Secret Service - and they were always quite protective of me. Like, they understood that in a lot of these places, people were a bit hostile towards me.

But no, I mean, Secret Service acted - of course it's heightened, you know, when you're going someplace that is - that can be that volatile. But for the most part, they were always at a 10 out of 10 on the preparedness scale.

GROSS: Is this the kind of thing that happened to you a lot when you were traveling abroad to Muslim countries where you were shut out in some way?

MASTROMONACO: You know, not really, to be honest. When we went to - I'm trying to think. Most places were quite open. They know that you are an American and that you're a diplomat in this capacity. And so they're quite generous and sort of fluid, I guess, in these situations. And one person had told us when we went to - it was customary for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to not shake women's hands. And that when you got off the plane and went through the receiving line that you basically should keep your hands down by your sides and just say nice to meet you and keep going.

And so you line up in precedence order, right? So it's like, you know, the chief of staff would be first, you know, followed by the senior advisers and then me and the national security adviser. So when we were getting off the plane in Saudi Arabia, Valerie Jarrett and I, who traveled together a lot, she and I knew, like, keep your hands down and just keep going. But King Abdullah put his hand out to us. And I was petrified. It's like, I didn't want to cause an international incident and shake his hand when I wasn't supposed to. But he had his hand out, and President Obama was standing there and he's like, shake his hand.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: So we did. And so for that - you know, mostly it was just that there weren't a lot of women in general around, not that they didn't really let us be there. Like, we were always welcome. We were just usually - Valerie and I were among the only two women sometimes in lunches of 30 people.

BIANCULLI: Alyssa Mastromonaco, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2017 interview with Alyssa Mastromonaco. Her memoir about working in the inner circle at the White House titled "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" is now out in paperback.

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GROSS: So tell us about Air Force One.

MASTROMONACO: Air Force One and the White House medical office are the two things that you miss the most when you leave. People talk about, you know, oh, Alyssa, like, uptown problems, you always flew on Air Force One. I said, yeah, but now I have no frequent flyer miles anywhere so I don't get upgraded.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: So it's doubly hard. But no, it is - I will tell you that - and it's one of these things that when I watch the Trump folks, I just don't know if they feel the same way that we did. But getting on Air Force One for the first time was the most humbling, awe-inspiring - you know, you are trying to be an adult - right? - but you're literally a kid in a candy shop. You're like, can I take a tour? Can I go up and see where all the equipment is? It is a lot like you see on TV.

And what people don't totally know, we would fly - President Obama liked to be very efficient with his time. So many, many trips, we would leave Washington at night, fly overnight and then land in country the next morning around 8 o'clock and start our day. And people wouldn't understand there aren't, like, beds for us on Air Force One. We had those, like, Snuggies that you buy on QVC. And we would sleep on the floor. And the best part of becoming deputy chief, especially when Valerie Jarrett didn't travel, is that I could claim the couch. There was one couch that you could sleep on. And then you'd get up. And then you get ready and you have your breakfast. And you go down and you start your day.

And there is nothing like walking off the steps of Air Force One. Every single time, you always feel so proud. And the reception too of other people in countries when they see that beautiful, like, blue and white plane, it's just - it always gives you goose bumps.

GROSS: You had to sleep on the floor?

MASTROMONACO: Yeah. We would sleep on the floor. The seats didn't recline all the way, so they could be really uncomfortable. And so we would - a lot of us would sleep on the floor.

GROSS: Wow.

MASTROMONACO: See, it's not that glamorous.

GROSS: No, really. So - and now you have to fly coach? (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) What a comedown.

MASTROMONACO: It's a real bummer when you're in, like, boarding group D.

GROSS: (Laughter) So what was the worst fiasco that you were involved with? This is assuming there was a fiasco.

MASTROMONACO: Well, this one's sort of funny. It wasn't quite a fiasco but there was this period of time, I think it was in 2011, when that Icelandic volcano erupted and caused that plume that sort of circled the globe and was quite dangerous for planes because if you flew through the plume, it would melt the engines and the plane would crash. And so we had several trips at that time that were scheduled, foreign trips.

One was - you'll recall I think it was the president of Poland was killed in a plane crash. And the funeral was happening, and we couldn't go because of the plume. But then a couple of weeks later, we had to go to Asia. And we were in - I think we were in Indonesia. And we were at a summit. And I got a report from the military aid that the plume was coming dangerously close, and that if we didn't take off in, like, the next two hours, we were going to be stuck in Jakarta.

And so I got on the phone with the millaid (ph) and the captain for Air Force One. And the first time President Obama met Colonel Turner, he said, that's exactly what I want my pilot to look like 'cause he looked like a total bad ass with his buzzed hair and he was really tough. But I found Colonel Turner. I said, you know, what are we going to do? We have to get out of here. We can't be stuck in Jakarta. And he said, well, the best thing for us to do is be number one in line for takeoff. And he said, but the Chinese are pulling their plane - they're taxing the plane out.

And so I sort of had to make this decision. And I told him to cut the Chinese off and pull out Air Force One and get us first in line for takeoff. And we had to hurry to the plane. And the president was like - and all of the military folks on the plane were like, oh, this is great, we're taking off. You know, we could have been stuck here for three days. And the president's like, well, what do you mean?

They're like, well, if we hadn't been the first in line to take off, we would probably be stuck. We couldn't get back to the U.S. And he said, well, how did we get first in line for takeoff? And they said Alyssa told us to cut off the Chinese. And he looked at me like I could potentially have done something very bad but at the same time was very glad because we all wanted to go home.

GROSS: This could have started a conflict with the Chinese (laughter) because of American arrogance.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly. But it worked out OK. We got home plume-free. But that plume wreaked havoc for months.

GROSS: Well, it's a huge responsibility to, you know...

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: You can't be flying with the president if it's dangerous and the plane might go down, right? I mean, that...

MASTROMONACO: That would really be bad.

GROSS: ...Would be bad. (Laughter) Yeah, that would be bad.

MASTROMONACO: That would really be bad because as he would remind us, if that ever happened, it would be President Barack Obama and several unnamed staffers.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: We were like, we know, we know.

GROSS: So one of your legacies - I underscore the importance of this, you know where I'm going (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: I know. Go there.

GROSS: I'm going. You had a tampon machine installed in one of the ladies' rooms. And apparently there aren't many of them in the White House.

MASTROMONACO: Yes. The White House, the West Wing, does not have as many bathrooms as I think any of us would have hoped. And the women's bathroom downstairs, which was near my first office, I think it was three stalls. And all you ever wanted was a tampon. And there just weren't any. And so we would all have - all of the ladies sort of had a code that was like, you know, the tampons are in the upper right drawer of my desk, help yourself. But sometimes everybody would be out. And then inevitably, it was on someone's assistant - usually mine, both of them were men - to go to CVS, which is sort of a pain to go to in the middle of the day, and pick something up.

And so when I became deputy chief, I was in the bathroom one day in desperate need and didn't have one. And one of the people who reported to me, Katie Keel (ph), was the assistant to the president for office and administration. She oversaw all of the White House personnel and the campus. And I said Katie, is there any reason we can't have a tampon machine in the West, you know, ground floor bathroom? And she said, I don't think so.

And so she went. Two weeks later, we had one. And one, it's great that we were able to do that. But the real point of the story is that you should always ask for - I think for years and years, people assumed there was some reason it couldn't be there and it just took me asking to make it happen. It's not like - I wasn't really breaking ground there. I think I just asked a question.

GROSS: Is there, like, an engraved placard next to it?

MASTROMONACO: No, there isn't, which is why I felt a need to write about it so I could hog all the credit in my book.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. So I thought this was really interesting. You had to get national security clearance for your job.

MASTROMONACO: Yeah.

GROSS: One of the questions you had to answer was a kind of detailed list of your drug use. And you'd smoked marijuana.

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: You had to say how many times (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: Yes. That was...

GROSS: Yeah. So you handled it by saying unknown. How did you come to the conclusion that that would be your answer, an unknown number of times?

MASTROMONACO: Because - well, because I really feel strongly about not lying. And so when the FBI agent asked me for a number of times and she said, you know, 20? And I was like, no. She said, a hundred? I said, no. And then when she got up to 500, I was like, I'm not saying - I'm not giving you a number because who knows if they're going to go try and prove the number? So I just said, unknown. And apparently from her reaction, nobody had ever said that before.

GROSS: You write that you had to get randomly drug tested almost every month. Is that because you'd said unknown or does everybody have to do that?

MASTROMONACO: No. Most people get drug tested, like, once or twice that first year. But I was drug tested quite often because I was very forward-leaning about my drug use, very open-kimono, as we would say. And so, yeah, every - just about every month, you'd get an email that said, you know, you have 24 hours to show up for your test. And I would. And it was fine because I wasn't. So I had nothing to hide (laughter).

GROSS: OK. It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MASTROMONACO: Thank you so much. I loved it.

BIANCULLI: Alyssa Mastromonaco speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her memoir about working in the inner circle at the White House titled, "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews Steven Spielberg's latest film "Ready Player One." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS' SONG, "MEMPHIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.